Bram Stoker’s Dracula

DraculaHalloween is hands-down my favorite holiday. I’m still in mourning for the fact that I have to wait a whole year for it to occur again, so I decided it was about time I read the granddaddy of the vampire trend, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And not going to lie – without even opening the book, I thought about draping garlic wreaths around the house. This cover is too freaky! It perfectly captures the creeping terror of the text.

To begin, solicitor Jonathan Harker voyages deep into the forests of Transylvania to meet with his firm’s client, one Count Dracula. Despite spooky and mysterious incidents along the way, Jonathan isn’t daunted and continues to the castle to assist the Count with the purchase of a London house. Soon though, he realizes he’s trapped there with no hope of escaping alive as Dracula’s undead brides vie for his blood.

Meanwhile, in England, three men via for the heart of Lucy Westenra, whose childhood sleepwalking begins anew inspite of the watchful eye of her best friend Mina, who frets about her fiance Jonathan’s absence. By the time Jonathan, deranged from his experiences, reunites with Mina, a series of troubling instances brew – a ship manned by corpses arrives at Whitby, puncture marks are found on the necks of women and youths, wolves escape from the zoo, and a mental patient raves about his Master’s imminent arrival as he murders and eats animals. Psychologist John Seward calls in his mentor Abraham van Helsing to cure Lucy’s affliction and find out the truth about Dracula.

I loved this book! Told in alternating perspectives by the diaries of Jonathan, Mina, and Seward primarily, Stoker conjures an atmosphere of fear by way of lack of information. Slowly the reader can put all the pieces together with the interspersed newspaper articles and letters, but our protagonists’ struggle to understand their circumstances (e.x. the wolves or the empty vessel or Lucy’s bloodlust) enhances the terror. It’s a technique not all authors pull off well since it’s difficult to make each voice distinct, but Stoker’s dexterity showed why Dracula is a classic.

Moreover, all of the characters are appealing, including the renowned Professor van Helsing, who here is intelligent and passionate but still occasionally outwitted by his ancient rival. Too many amazing of these amazing characters are cut or condensed from film adaptations, among them my favorite adorably chivalrous Texan Quincey P. Morris and the mysterious asylum inmate Renfield. But don’t even get me started on the character assassination in film of Lucy and Mina! They were both such respectable women in the novel, with such a deep, strong friendship that I wanted to be friends with them. However, in the movies, one or both of them is/are turned into a whore. They do spend a lot of time talking about their men and Lucy does have numerous suitors, so I’m unsure if it would pass the Bechdel test, but they are also impressively intelligent and determined even in the face of evil.

Stoker almost helped me overcome my vampire-fatigue…and then I heard Anne Rice was releasing a new book. (Shaking fist) Darn you, Anne Rice, for making vampires the new hot thing! Not that I’ve read it, but I whole-heartedly recommended going back to the original vampire and reading Dracula if you haven’t already or re-reading it if you have.

5 Stars

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesForgive me, y’all. I’ve been struggling through Robert M. Pirsig’s seminal philosophical “inquiry into values” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but this is going to be a crappy review because it was quite the endeavor.

One of my managers has been commending this book to me for the two years we’ve worked together so I thought it might be time to give it a shot. The basic premise is that a man is taking a cross-country road trip with his adolescent son and a married couple that he is friends with. Along the way, he philosophizes about life, often through analogies about motorcycles as he rides one and argues with his friend about its upkeep, seeing attitudes about self- versus external hired maintenance as parallels to personal mindsets.

This is a looooong trip in someone else’s brain. Think of the most painfully boring and meandering car ride you’ve taken, say on your way to a dreaded family occasion, when you have a pounding headache and need to pee but are trapped in traffic – this book is arguably more difficult. Hands down one of the hardest things I’ve had to plow through, maybe in my entire life.

It’s not that the philosophy doesn’t make some intelligent points. Pirsig discusses the disconnect between artistry and technology in relevant and meaningful ways for today’s societal experience. And I can see how Quality is a key concern for both that may bind them together from their current positions at opposite ends of the spectrum. But the conceit of an unreliable, questionably insane narrator almost drove me nuts myself, even before I realized that it’s semi-autobiographical and Pirsig wrote it after enduring electroshock therapy and being released from an asylum himself.

Um what?! Now I’m definitely toeing the line between genius (not to go that far) and insanity and it only proves my point that philosophy is the reserve of raving lunatics and rambling self-aggrandizers (I may be somewhat biased here based on Saturdays of my unfortunate youth wasted in philosophy classes and the jerks I knew who were philosophy majors in college).

There were a few quotes I liked (apologies for lack of page number citations but I forgot to bookmark them as I read):

“Is it hard?’
‘Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes thats hard.”

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

Nevertheless, in spite of these grains among the chaff, I barely got through this one. I freely admit to skimming parts just to finish this century. Those readers who enjoy philosophical discussions or spiritual examinations may enjoy this, but it was even less for me than I anticipated.

2 Stars

Weekend Update: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451Wayyy belatedly for Banned Books week, I decided that I should reread Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I hadn’t read it since high school and, although I loved it then, I’ve found that I sometimes have a different perception of books as an adult than I did as a kid. For example, I was not a huge fan of George Orwell’s 1984 when it was assigned in 8th grade but the years since have made it more compelling as I’ve learned more about the world and the antics of the NSA.

If you don’t know the plot, it centers around fireman Guy Montag, whose job in the near future is not to stop fires, but to start them. Particularly to burn books, and even sometimes the owners of books. Because the people have decided that books are a source of disharmony and have instead turned to pleasures like drag-racing and watching the parlour walls, a form of television. Over the course of the story, Montag begins to question the life that he’s living as discord arises in his job and marriage.

Since I was reading the 50th anniversary edition, a special foreword from Bradbury was included that explained the origins of the story. Written in 1953, Bradbury was influenced by the rise of McCarthyism and the newly imposed censorship of thought as well as Nazi book burnings. Additionally, he had listened to radio reports of the atomic bombings at the end of WWII and experienced  a negative encounter with the police, both situations that contributed to the final plot.

Said plot is all meat and no filler, fortunately for me as I’ve complained frequently recently about the verbosity of authors these days. Bradbury goes the opposite route – Fahrenheit 451 is incredibly short, barely over 100 pages, yet there is so much condensed into it for the reader to contemplate. More authors should follow in his footsteps, not just in length but also in innovation.

Because the most fascinating part for me, which I didn’t recall from my initial introduction to the text, was Bradbury’s uncanny predictions about technology, inventions that seemed peculiar in the ’50s but are essentials of today’s life. Certainly, our culture has become increasingly obsessed with TV, decreasing our attention span and moving sidewalks can be found in public areas, though they haven’t yet eradicated the conscious desire to exercise. His “seashells” and “thimble radios” are basically earbuds, now dangling from the ears of everyone on my morning commute. Thankfully, books are still mostly safe…for now!

This is a classic book for many very good reasons, without even mentioning the slightly-sadistic glee I get out of sticking it to book banning advocates (individuals who clearly paid no attention when their English class learned about irony, because it is the height of to ban a book that’s satirizing censorship). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do (before the Hound finds you!).

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

MeditationsConfession time: I’m a huge Latin nerd. I studied the language for 6 years in middle and high school, have worn a toga on multiple occasion (and not even for frat parties!) often while quoting from The Aeneid or Catullus, and wrote a 25 page capstone paper in college on “Roman Women’s Economic Rights under the Empire.”

So it’s really about time I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) ruled during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire and exemplified the Greek ideal of a philosopher-king. He served as emperor from AD 161 until his death, leaving behind an impressive legacy even with the lack of clarity of his biographies. His most unwise choice perhaps was the appointment of son Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator, as his successor, which most historians point to as the start of the decline of the Roman empire.

Before reading, I thought that he had compiled this work for publication in his lifetime. The kind folks at Penguin disabused me of that notion in their foreword – apparently, these were his personal meditations to himself so that he could improve as a person and as a ruler. He wrestles with both spiritual and material issues, and his words proved to be inspiring and impactful to me as they have been to countless other intellectuals throughout history.

He’s an ancient and eloquent Emperor, so rather than paraphrasing his wisdom for y’all, I’ll just let him speak for himself:

“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.” (Book 3, #4)

“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.” (Book 4, #3i)

“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. – Then where is hard to be found? In your capacity to see it.” (Book 4, #39)

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work-as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for- the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” (Book 5, #1)

“Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone-those that are now, and those to come…Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinitiy of past and future gapes before us- a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.” (Book 5, #23)

“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” (Book 7, #71)

“‘And your profession?’ “Goodness.'” (Book 11, #5)

“Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: Not to do or say anything despicable.” (Book 11, #13)

“Throw out your misperceptions and you’ll be fine.” (Book 12, #25)

5 Stars

Weekend Update: Jane Austen cont.

Northanger AbbeyQuick weekend update: I spent much of it lounging around with two of Austen’s underrated
novels, Northanger Abbey and PersuasionPersuasion grew on me with this re-read, but I still rate it among the weaker of Austen’s books, probably because I can’t condone Capt. Wentworth’s attitude towards Anne. Northanger Abbey is much more to my taste, perhaps because I have more than a fair Persuasionshare of Catherine’s tendency towards gothic melodrama. Regardless, both were relaxing reads through the last few days of rain and shine. For those readers who haven’t gotten beyond Pride and Prejudice, I encourage you to read the rest of Austen’s works. And, if you live in the DC area, the gorgeous historic Dumbarton Oaks mansion is doing outdoor summer showings of Austen in film. More information here.

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter Here I am, still on my Jane Austen kick (and in my last few days of silence, I have indeed been re-reading this literary genius). And you can basically blame this book.

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter is written by William Deresiewicz, who (no surprise from the long-winded title) studied English literature as a graduate student and finally overcame his manly, rebellious loathing of Austen.

As a self-proclaimed literary snob, Deresiewicz experiences both pride and prejudice when forced to read Austen in his Ph.D. classes. Hating the world and railing against the man (in this case, his father), he snobbishly sneers that Austen holds no value for a young man in today’s world, especially in comparison to great wordsmiths like Joyce.

Slowly, he warms up to her as he finds that Austen’s lessons are extremely transferable to his everyday life as he struggles to adulthood, through friendships and romances, and of himself and the world around him. Particularly apt are his parallels between society in Austen novels and New York City high-flying young adult society – maybe more  shallow, grasping, and materialistic than Mrs. Bennet or the Elliots.

Deresiewicz drew my attention to specific passages that exemplified Austen’s intricate storytelling that I had glossed over as a casual reader, so my choice to return to her novels at the conclusion of this text has definitely lead me to a richer re-reading. However, Deresiewicz does sometimes struggle with balancing between memoir and analysis so some parts of the book are a struggle.

I did enjoy reading this though and feel like A Jane Austen Education added to my own education about literature and about life.

3 Stars