Samstag, 25. Februar 2012

Revolution and Turmoil, Uproar and War

Peace is onle the time between two wars. This German proverb seems very appropriate to me considering that I currently seem to be haunted by riots and rebellion, literary at least.
Coincidentally everything I have been reading recently deals with these themes in all variations, from the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities and Les Misérables over World War II and a nameless uproar in The Caucasian Chalk Circle to the American Civil War in Little Women.
War and violent conflicts are of course something horrible, but it is very interesting to observe how different authors use them differently in their works.

Dickens for example is a clear pacifist and describes the terror of the French Revolution so vividly that I cried not only for Sydney Carton but for all the other innocent and nameless people who were murdered in reality.
He uses the novel to warn his readers of what can happen if anger wins over reason and self-administered justice rules over pity.
Victor Hugo in contrast seems not to fully share Dickens's view of the revolution as a series of inhuman crimes, from what I have read until now he apparently regards it as a necessary evil. In my opinion he thinks the revolution was essential for creating a better society, but perhaps I am mistaken because Les Misérables starts after Napoleon's reign, when the terror is long over.
Later in the book Hugo will also focus on the June rebellion, so maybe my impression of his political position changes completely once I have read that.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle the motive of the uprising is mainly character development. Brecht follows the rule that we only show our true selves in extreme conditions, so the riots are simply his device of putting his characters under pressure. His noblemen act mostly cowardish as soon as they are threatened whereas some of his poor, oppressed people prove their courage and their wits.

The portrayal of the Civil War was in fact the only thing about Little Women I didn't like because it rather unsettled me. All the characters seem to regard the war as something thoroughly positive although Mr March is severly wounded and thousands of other soldiers die. I don't know if that was simply the spirit of that time, but for a modern reader this tolerant representation is pretty shocking, especially visible in the following excerpt:
“I think you would if you had Laurie for a pupil. I shall be very sorry to lose him next year,” said Mr. Brooke, busily punching holes in the turf.
“Going to college, I suppose?” Meg’s lips asked the question, but her eyes added, “And what becomes of you?”
“Yes, it’s high time he went, for he is ready, and as soon as he is off, I shall turn soldier. I am needed.”
“I am glad of that!” exclaimed Meg. “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters who stay at home,” she added sorrowfully.
Perhaps this truly was the general opinion, but I would find it very upsetting (and rude) if someone told me they were glad I went to war!

On the whole, reading so much about killing and rebellion I am indeed thankful to live in a country which doesn't even have a real army and hasn't needed one in half a century. Oh, and I am looking forward to reading something more peaceful soon, a really kitschy romance would be fine!


Mittwoch, 22. Februar 2012

Little Women and the Quintessence of Childhood

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is unquestionably one of the most popular and appreciated classics of all times, but what exactly is it that you love about it? Is it that flicking through the pages stirs memories of the ease and happiness of your own childhood? Is it the light yet captivating story or the amiable characters? Is it the whole atmosphere of blissful days at home with your family? For me it is neither of these.

I picked the novel up for the first time last weekend, and I could not have chosen a better book during my Readathon since I found it almost impossible to put it aside. It's not that the plot was so thrilling, but I was turning the pages feverishly because I was so interested in the development of the "little women".
While I didn't find any of the girls to fully identify with, I share certain personality traits with all of them (Jo's love for books, Beth's shyness towards strangers and Meg and Amy's social ambitions namely) and cared deeply for every single one of the young ladies, to the point of crying when I thought Beth would die.
For me, the most fascinating thing about this book is that the March girls are all children in the beginning; children who are slowly growing into independent young women.
They are children because in their little world everything is possible, anything can happen and the future holds all possibilities for them.
The true magic of childhood is freedom, the freedom to have a whole life with hundreds of chances before you. As a child you have all your future before you and you have not yet had to choose one path in life, letting go of all other possibilities. The quintessence of childhood is that a child's most difficult decision is between strawberry and vanilla ice cream.

Perhaps I am especially sensitive to the girls' process of growing up because I am in the middle of it myself, but I found it extremely intriguing to watch them overcome their little flaws and vanities and at times I caught myself thinking "The whole world is open for them, why shouldn't it be for me?"
Those were the times when I grew rather sad because I noticed that I am already thinking a lot like an adult.
In my opinion Little Women is one of those books all of us should read every now and then just so that we do not forget what it was like to be a child.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean we should dwell on nostalgic thoughts of the good old times, no, I mean something entirely different. Call me childish, but I think the world would be a better place if we all remembered this feeling of our youth sometimes.
The feeling that we can do and become whatever we want as long as we try hard enough.

Samstag, 18. Februar 2012


Term's over, grades are good; time to celebrate!
After seemingly infinite days it is finally here: I announce my Readathon for opened!
Again a huge Thank you to all participants, I hope you'll have a great weekend and I'm eager to read your updates during the Readathon (I am afraid I'll spend a little too much time reading them instead of my books).

I have pondered the question what I would read this weekend for two weeks and have not been able to come up with a decided list, so when I say I am going to read the following books it is just a rough outline and perhaps I'll end up reading something totally different.

Les Misérables
I really want to read the first 200 pages of this, because I should already have read them according to my Readalong timetable. January was such a busy month...

Little Women and Peter Pan
I know, both of them are children's books but I haven't read them yet and I feel like that's a huge gap in education.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht
This is a play I have to read for my German literature class (yeah, holidays and I still work for school) and in fact I find the idea of reading something German for a change quite nice.

This is where my planning ends, but possible candidates are King Oedipus by Sophocles, The Metamorphosis by Kafka, The unbearable lightness of being by Milan Kundera or Oliver Twist by my beloved Dickens.

We'll see what I choose in the end! I will report my progress in updates at the end of this post. For now, have fun and off to Les Misérables!

1.30 pm
Whoa. As promised I've read the first 200 pages of Les Misérables and on the whole I liked it a lot. The start was a little slow (the first 70 pages are only devoted to describing a bishop's everyday life...), although I surprisingly enjoy Hugo's wordy writing style and a lot of his picturesque metaphors are astonishingly beautiful. I am really interested how all of the loose threads in this looong novel will fit together in the end, but for now I'd like to read something shorter, with less references to French history. Oh, before I forget it, during the chapter "The Year 1817" I came close to throwing my copy against a wall. There are at least two names of people who were famous in France two hundred years ago and whom nobody knows anymore today in every single sentence, for 6 pages. I am not joking. That was excruciating.

Finished The Caucasian Chalk Circle and didn't expect it to be so thrilling. It was also really clever, Bertolt Brecht is an author I'll have to investigate in further. More about this later, for now I'm going to watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother with my little bro to have a short break from reading.

Okay, this "short" break became somewhat extended because my grandmother came over for luch surprisingly and stayed for what seemed an eternity (her TV's broken).
Nonetheless I've just started reading Little Women and although I haven't found a character to identify with yet I am really enjoying the setting and the atmosphere.
I am going to delve into this one for the next few hours and see how far I come.
I hope everyone is progressing well!

Day Two: 9am
The second day of my lovely Readathon and I'm already sad because it will be over soon!
Last night I read Little Women until my mama took it away from me, complaining that I was staying up too late. I still can't identify with any of the girls which is unusual I think, but I am really eager to see how they will develop into grown-up women.
Since I am a very slow reader Little Women will probably keep me occupied the whole day, so bye bye my beautiful plans of reading so much more.

The morning spun away reading, I can hardly believe it's already noon.
Of course I am the thousandth girl to say this, but I have to do so nonetheless: Little Women is an absolutely wonderful book! I didn't imagine it to be so amazing, everyone seems to love it, yes, but in general I tend to dislike books which are so popular. I have read half of it and can't wait to finish it, especially since I am feeling that the second half is getting a little more serious. Unfortunately I have to give it a little break now to prepare lunch, and after just reading about Jo's disastrous attempt to cook dinner it's only fair to admit that I'm a little nervous. Be strong, my heart!

I am still reading Little Women (told you I was reading at a tortoise's pace) and don't have anything to report, except that I just cried out of relief that Beth doesn't die.
What is it just with this book that it is so moving?

I have finished Louisa M. Alcott's masterpiece just in time, for, sad as it is, the Readathon is over now! The whole next week I will be busy writing more detailed posts about the absolutely wonderful books I read, but for now a quick overview:

Books read:
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (first 200 pages)
The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht
Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott

Estimated number of pages read: 540

The only thing to add for now is that I hope you've enjoyed my little Readathon as much as I have! Again, thank you for taking part and celebrating my holidays with me (which I shall spend asleep after totally neglecting sleep this weekend)!

Samstag, 11. Februar 2012

Drum roll, please: My Readathon!

So here it is, after long days of anxious waiting: I finally and officially announce my Readathon!
Okay, I know, term is only over here in Austria, which is a tiny and relatively insignificant country, but February 18 is the first day of my holidays and I feel like clebrating that (besides, I needed a fancy name for my first Readathon).

Please participate even if you aren't in school or university anymore; for everyone who can't acclaim a break: it's still a weekend, and that's always reason to celebrate!

The Readathon runs all Saturday and Sunday, it ends at midnight on February 19. I'm sure we'll have a fantastic time reading as much as humanly possible, but do not hesitate to take part even if you can only join us on one of the two days, see it as a casual Readathon.

Finally, please leave a comment with the link to your sign up post if you want to participate (I'm looking forward to lots of comments!), spread word and feel free to grab my lovely badge (which was a lot of work even if it isn't visible...).
Let's have a great weekend in the written world!

Montag, 6. Februar 2012

Sydney Carton, my hero - February Prompt

This is my entry for the February Prompt of November's Autumn's Classic Challenge and since I have just finished Dickens's amazing A Tale of Two Cities and have tons to say about a certain drunkard, I'll devote this post to one of the most impressing characters ever: Sydney Carton.

Those are the questions, but I am only going to follow them roughly:
Level 1
What phrases has the author used to introduce this character? What are your first impressions of them? Find a portrait or photograph that closely embodies how you imagine them.

Level 2
How has the character changed? Has your opinion of them altered? Are there aspects of their character you aspire to? or hope never to be? What are their strengths and faults? Do you find them believable? If not, how could they have been molded so? Would you want to meet them?

Level 3
Try writing a short (four sentences +) note or letter as the character, addressed to you, another character, the author, anyone.
Sydney Carton is first introduced during the trial of (innocent) Charles Darnay, he is his attorney, together with Mr. Stryver. While Mr. Stryver does most of the talking and Sydney appears to not even pay attention, he is the one who ultimately turns the case around and saves the accused.
Mr. Carton, who had so long sat looking at the ceiling of the court, changed neither his place nor his attitude, even in this excitement. While his teamed friend, Mr. Stryver, massing his papers before him, whispered with those who sat near, and from time to time glanced anxiously at the jury; while all the spectators moved more or less, and grouped themselves anew; while even my Lord himself arose from his seat, and slowly paced up and down his platform, not unattended by a suspicion in the minds of the audience that his state was feverish; this one man sat leaning back, with his torn gown half off him, his untidy wig put on just as it had happened to fight on his head after its removal, his hands in his pockets, and his eyes on the ceiling as they had been all day. Something especially reckless in his demeanour, not only gave him a disreputable look, but so diminished the strong resemblance he undoubtedly bore to the prisoner (which his momentary earnestness, when they were compared together, had strengthened), that many of the lookers-on, taking note of him now, said to one another they would hardly have thought the two were so alike. Mr. Cruncher made the observation to his next neighbour, and added, "I'd hold half a guinea that he don't get no law-work to do. Don't look like the sort of one to get any, do he?"
Yet, this Mr. Carton took in more of the details of the scene than he appeared to take in; for now, when Miss Manette's head dropped upon her father's breast, he was the first to see it, and to say audibly: "Officer! look to that young lady. Help the gentleman to take her out. Don't you see she will fall!"
So, although he appears to be simply a good-for-nothing, we are quickly shown that there is much more behind his reckless manner than visible at first.

Mr. Carton, lonely to the right

Mr. Carton initially hates Charles Darnay because he sees in him everything he could have been. He sees his life as irredeemably wasted and although he drinks to forget what a miserable life he is leading, he insists that he cannot change it. Sydney Carton is convinced that there is nothing good or honourable in him and therefore he does not interfere when Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay marry, even though he is madly in love with her. He is convinced that he as a melancholy, wasted drunkard would only bring her down and he loves her too much to burden her with him. So when he finally breaks down and confesses her his love, he does not expect (not even hope) that Lucie returns his affection, he says:  "I have known myself to be quite undeserving. And yet I have had the weakness, and have still the weakness, to wish you to know with what a sudden mastery you kindled me, heap of ashes that I am, into fire--a fire, however, inseparable in its nature from myself, quickening nothing, lighting nothing, doing no service, idly burning away."
If you find no other reason to read this book, do it for Sydney's confession. It is one of the most beautiful and saddest declarations of love in the whole of literature at the same time.
At the end of the book Sydney willingly sacrifices his own life through switching places with Charles Darnay and going to the guillotine instead of him. He does it out of his love for Lucie, but what impressed me the most is that he does it without telling anyone. His beloved Lucie doesn't learn of his heroic deed until after his death, she cannot even thank him or tell him good bye. In the last days of his life the hero he has been at his heart all the time finally shows, because through sacrificing himself he proves his own conviction of being worthless wrong.
This is a letter Sydney Carton could have written before being executed, I know it won't be as good as Dickens's style of writing, but don't judge me too harshly.
My beloved Lucie,
I wish you to know that these last breaths I take are the happiest I have taken since I grew to manhood. I am walking to the doom of my body knowing that my soul will live on in your life, and in the lives of all those who are dear to your heart and for whom I shall cease to breathe joyously.
I hold a desire in my heart which burns even though my mind knows it to burn needlessly; the desire to ask you to never forget me. It is needless because I know you, most graceful creature whose feet have ever touched this impure ground, to be a loyal and unwavering soul and I foresee that you will weep more for my soon uncaged spirit than I could ever have the honour to deserve.
One last thought, my dear: Even though I lay down my life for yours and your husband's and your children's (for who knows if little Lucie shall not be blessed with an infant brother soon?), it is really you who is my saviour.
For your sake I have perhaps not lived my life in vain despite all my wandering and it is only through my love for you that I will find resurrection. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

For ever your devoted servant,
Sydney Carton

Sonntag, 5. Februar 2012

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
This. Everyone knows these words, or at least the beginning of them and yet I have to point them out, because firstly they are obviously heartbreakingly beautiful and secondly: Did you notice what Dickens is doing here? After finishing A Tale of Two Cities, my second one of his novels, I feel already surprisingly familiar with his writing and have come to notice a certain pattern in it.
In this specific passage Mr Dickens does what he can best: he creates an atmosphere which is so tense that you are immediately sucked into the
While reading Dickens's tale of love and hate, of uproar and peace, I felt as if I was standing in the bloodstained streets of Paris myself. I smelled the smoke and watched dizzily the silhouettes of the loathed nobility's burning palaces against the dark night sky. I wept for the tragedy of a hero whom no one would recognise as one until the very end and I am not afraid to say that I had to pause reading to get a handkerchief before I read the final scenes.

So, did I like A Tale of Two Cities? I think it is enough to say that my adoration of it even surpasses my love for Great Expectations. I cannot remember when I last looked forward to re-reading a book so much; but, to get my thoughts in order, why did I love it so much?

A huge part of the answer to this question is a name: Sydney Carton.
To be honest, I already knew roughly how the novel would end, so my perception of him was perhaps altered from the beginning, but I think he would have impressed me anyway. I cannot do my love for this constantly drunk, lazy, discourteous, honourable and lion-hearted man justice in a post about the book in general (or else I would have to neglect all other amazing aspects of it and this would become mere swooning), so I intend to do the February Prompt of November's Autumn's Classic Challenge about him.
Until then, let's focus a little on the historical side of Dickens's story.

Of course I had known before how horrible the French Revolution was, but not until now did I realise that it was in fact the most senseless, cruel, indescribable, stupid, incomprehensible bloodshed one can possibly imagine. It is beyond words how the long oppressed people reacted to their new freedom; yes, they had been treated like mangy dogs for decades, but why didn't they use their recaintly gained power to truly build up a state of liberty, equality and fraternity instead of introducing a new form of terror? Through the horrible Madame Defarge, Dickens, the great judge of human nature, has made me understand these people better, although I am still convinced I would act differently (but probably even Madame Defarge was before her family was destroyed by the ancien régime).
Perhaps the most shocking thing in the whole parade of cruelties called the Revolution, is how normal citizens, peasants, tradesmen and mothers transform into inhuman monsters, incapable of pity or sympathy.
The following conversation takes place after the arrest of Charles Darnay, Lucie's innocent husband.
"As a wife and mother," cried Lucie, most earnestly, "I implore you to have pity on me and not to exercise any power that you possess, against my innocent husband, but to use it in his behalf. O sister-woman, think of me. As a wife and mother!"
Madame Defarge looked, coldly as ever, at the suppliant, and said, turning to her friend The Vengeance:
"The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child, and much less, have not been greatly considered? We have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough? All our lives, we have seen our sister-women suffer, in themselves and in their children, poverty, nakedness, hunger, thirst, sickness, misery, oppression and neglect of all kinds?"
"We have seen nothing else," returned The Vengeance.
"We have borne this a long time," said Madame Defarge, turning her eyes again upon Lucie. "Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?"
Does this make anyone else shiver? I have to admit that I was relieved when Madame Defarge was killed, for her revengefulness and dangerous patriotism knew no limits. It almost physically hurts to imagine the hundreds and thousands of citizens like her who really lived and all the innocent people they slaughtered.

But, Dickens offers a counterweight to all the terror and as corny as it may sound; this counterweight is love. And while the word "liberty" will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth fom now on, even though I am not religious, there are some other words I will never be able to forget:
"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die."

Freitag, 3. Februar 2012

Dickens, The Rocky Horror Show and a ridiculously busy month

January has been insane. This is no exaggeration, I mean it. Looking back I don't even know how I managed to squeeze in four or five hours of sleep every night, let alone write the few blog posts I did.
I am really sorry for neglecting my dearly loved blog so much, and I am more than sorry that I have hardly had a free minute to check out your updates and leave comments. I promise that will change again from now on!

Now the embarrassing part of this post: the look back on my January reading. I have not managed to read a single book more than three, and one of these three books is A Tale of Two Cities which I haven't even finished yet, but I will count it for January nonetheless to make my list look a little less pathetic because I read the majority of it in the last month. I plan on finishing this one today (I can't even tell you how good it is!) and since I have nothing more interesting to write about at the moment I am going to explain to you why January has been such an exhausting month, apart from the finals, which are finally luckily over.

The reason for me aging years in one month...

My music teacher had the ambitious idea of performing a whole, real musical, The Rocky Horror Show, with my class, a bunch of ordinary 16-year-olds. The word "stressful" is a huge understatement for this project.
Not only did we have to play all the roles and sing, but we also had to organise everything, from the posters (see above) to technical equipment to buffet to costumes. I didn't play a role (since there weren't enough roles for all of us we decided to split the singing and the acting), but I sang four solos and was responsible for all textual changes.
The musical premiered yesterday, and to be honest I went on stage with chattering teeth, but it was amazing.
All of us were really motivated and as if by a miracle the show was better than in any rehearsal. Although the preparations were really exhausting, being actually on stage and performing in front of 200 people was simply amazing, and I have to admit that I have gained a whole new look on transvestites.

Anyway, term is almost over and for the next two weeks I will be participating in the so-called "Compassion Project", which means that I will be volunteering in a kindergarten with disabled children instead of going to school. I am already looking forward to it very much, and since I am only allowed to work for 6 hours every day I will have lots of time for reading and blogging! Oh, and one last thing: would anyone be interested in joining me in a Readathon on February 18, 19 or 20?
I have some plans (actually I have already designed a logo...), so please say if you're interested in taking part!