Friday, August 21, 2009

Faust, Part Two: The Official Haiku Review

Because Goethe wrote his masterpiece Faust in two parts, that's how I decided to read and review it. The first part was a little confusing—at least, it wasn't what I expected at all. Goethe took over twenty years to write the second part, about ten years fewer than the first. Was it any clearer? Here's my official review:

Gretchen fails? Helen
May tempt the cranky old fart.
Never mind. God wins.

As you may recall from my review of part one, I was a bit perplexed that the Devil would tempt Faust—a scientist seeking ultimate truth—with nothing more than a tasty young morsel of German maidenhood. It didn't work, although we did see the poor girl rescued by angels after Faust abandoned her, accidentally killed her family, and left her pregnant. Faust went on, and Mephistopheles had to come up with a new approach to claim the scientist's soul. I eagerly anticipated a new strategy ... and instead saw the devil playing around with an emperor (presumably that of Germany) by advising him to sell shares in the treasures that lie buried on his lands. While these passages were amusing, reminding me of recent shady Wall Street shenanigans, Faust doesn't even appear until scene four, after a bunch of strange, mythological appearances. Then, challenged by the emperor to do something amazing, he conjures Helen of Troy, and of course falls promptly in love with her.

At this point, Satan is not striking me as a very creative character. In Act Two he uses Faust's dusty old study to create a homunculus, or artificial person, who eventually leads Faust to another crazy Walpurgis Night, this one inhabited by all sorts of figures from Greek mythology. Act Three, Faust finally wins Helen, by defending her castle from intruders. They reside happily in Arcadia until their son Euphorion appears, fully grown, only to fall to his death after trying to reach the sun, like Icarus. (It really helps to have read your Greek mythology before reading Faust.) Faust returns to the emperor and helps him achieve military victory in Act Four. Good for the emperor, but Faust doesn't seem to think it a big deal.

That leaves Act Five for Satan to try to claim Faust's soul. Does he offer understanding of the universe? No, we just see Faust as a cranky old man, ignoring the hospitality of Philemon and Baucis (another Greek story about hospitality) and pooh-poohing the military/political power he has gained from the emperor:

I merely raced across the earth,
Seized by the hair each passing joy,
Discarding all that did not satisfy;
What slipped my grasp, I let it go again
I have merely desire, achieved, and then
Desired some other thing. Thus I have stormed
Through life; at first with pride and violence,
But now less rashly, with more sober sense.
I've seen enough of this terrestrial sphere.
There is no view to the Beyond from here.

After that Faust glimpses a moment of bliss and dies, thwarting Satan's bet because he technically did not achieve perfect satisfaction. Since choruses of angels come down to argue the point and collect Faust's soul, Heaven triumphs, winning a wager that framed Satan's interactions with Faust. So never mind that Faust committed adultery and murder, God wins the bet so he goes to heaven!

If you're confused, join the club. It was evident that Faust is a work that was written over a lifetime, because it can't seem to make up its mind on anything. What's the plot? There doesn't seem to be much to the story beyond re-creating classic myths. Who's the hero? Faust the character is missing from half the story; Mephistopheles has the best part (if you were actually going to perform it as a play), but he loses in the end. I'm not sure why Faust is considered a classic; it may not successfully explored modern issues, but at least it made a very grand attempt. And it's hard to argue with Faust's conclusion, that modern man is never satisfied but is always striving for something.

As far as judging Faust as a work of poetry, there I'm in the dark. The library couldn't be bothered to purchase translations by the same person, so this time I had an Oxford University
Press translation by David Luke. While the Peter Salm translation of part one eschewed poetic scheme for keeping meaning, this translation goes all out in trying to reproduce the poetic effects. Rhyming couplets, varying rhythms, it's all there—and often to distracting effect. With great poetry (like the Dante translation I read last month), the rhyme sneaks in, enhancing the words and playing with sound. With mediocre poetry, you get distracted by the rhyme and the sing-songy rhythm as you overlook the rest of the words to get to the couplet. So I found it a lot harder to get into this translation than the other one, which had music and meaning to it even though it didn't rhyme.

There, I've spent almost as much brain power writing this entry and trying to figure out Faust as I did actually reading the stupid thing. But next time I'm going Russian: Anna Karenina is up, and hopefully it won't take me the rest of the summer to read it. All 50,000 pages of it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

15 books in more than 15 minutes (Part Three)

In the first two installments I covered books from my youth and young adulthood. In this last installment I'll cover some of the more memorable books from my more "grownup" (I don't dare say "mature") years.

11. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: I've confessed before that I wasn't one of those girls who read the covers off the complete works of Austen by the age of sixteen. So when I really got down to reading all of Austen, sometime in my early thirties, I fell hard. Although it's hard to pick a favorite—the quiet desperation of Persuasion? the outrageously funny literary satire of Northanger Abbey?—Pride and Prejudice is the quintessential Austen. The witty heroine, the handsome and brooding hero, the pursuit of love and marriage and happiness; all the things I love about Austen are overflowing in this novel. Plus, I get the added bonus of picturing Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy every time I read it. :)

12. Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold is my favorite sci fi author, maybe my favorite author bar none. Although she has written several very enjoyable fantasy novels, I absolutely adore her Vorkosigan Universe series, currently at 14 volumes (but soon to be 15, a new novel coming out next year, woohoo!). The main character is a hyperactive, hyperintelligent scion of a military family who happens to be less than five feet tall. The way Bujold puts him in horrible scrapes, makes them more complicated, and then resolves them, puts her books at the pinnacle of space adventure. Add in memorable, complicated characters, witty writing, and deep and human themes, and you have a series that I re-read every year as a special treat. I can't remember when I first discovered Bujold's work—probably sometime in my late twenties or early thirties—but I always enjoy revisiting it, especially Barrayar, a novel that involves a civil war, a daring escape, and an even more daring rescue, but at the end is about the cost of becoming a parent. It won a Hugo for best novel, one of several Bujold has garnered.

13. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman: I read other fantasy writers and enjoy their work; I read this trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) and I get jealous. The underlying conceit is brilliant: in an alternate Oxford, human souls take the form of animals, called daemons. While children are young, their daemons can change shape; when they become adults, daemons settle on a permanent form that reflects their person's personality. This change, and the science behind it, sparks a plot that involves extreme travel—not just to the Arctic, but to alternate universes and even the land of the dead. To those who might scoff at a grownup for reading "children's books," I'll just point out that the final volume in the series, The Amber Spyglass, won Britain's Whitbread Book of the Year award—a kind of super-Pulitzer, in which they choose the best book from the top books in each category. I've always thought that Pullman is categorized as a "children's writer" because his protagonists are children, even though his work is as rich and rewarding as any "adult" writer's. This series, a reworking of Milton's Paradise Lost, is very enjoyable proof of that.

14. Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel: This was the last book I put on my list; I wanted to choose a work of nonfiction, because I do enjoy it and I read a fairly wide variety. Maybe I should have picked Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks (the British radio/tv comedian, not the skateboarder), because it would have represented my years living in England, but I decided on this work by the author of Longitude instead. It combines a lot of the things that interest me: science (especially astronomy), medieval times, history, and the role of women. The book details the relationship between pioneering Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei and the eldest of his three illegitmate children, a daughter named Maria Celeste who became a nun. It's wonderfully written and endlessly fascinating, but I think the main reason I put it on the list is the memorable ending. Any nonfiction work that can leave me with tears in my eyes ... well, that's a book that deserves a spot on my list.

15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling: I remember when I first heard about the Harry Potter series, back in 1998 when it had first been acquired for publication in the U.S. They were predicting great things, and I saw it get more and more popular, but I didn't pick it up until around the time the fourth volume was published. By the time volume 5 came out in 2003, Boy and I were attending midnight parties to pick up the latest volume and hitting the theaters on opening day for each of the movies. Besides being the defining pop-culture phenomenon of the past decade, the Harry Potter books are a textbook example of fantasy world-building. From the slightest detail—especially the wonderful attention to names of all kinds—Rowling creates a completely believable magical version of our world. While I think the third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the most perfectly plotted of the series, the final book, Hallows, is an epic culmination of the thousands of pages that came before. While the resolution of the battle against Voldemort is exactly what you'd expect (without being predictable), it's Harry's emotional journey that makes this finale so satisfying. I can't wait to see what Alan Rickman does with Snape's character in the last film.

So there you have it: fifteen books in considerably more than fifteen minutes. It's pretty clear that I have an affinity for sci fi and fantasy, and that I really enjoy works that are targeted towards children. (Since I spend a lot of time writing for that audience, that's a good thing.) There are so many other works I could have listed for my fifteen—heck, I could've done 15 books from my childhood alone, I devoured so many. But I think these are a pretty good representation of what I like to read and what stays with me the most. Now, what are some of your most memorable books?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Photo of the Week--8/17/09

So why would we leave Michigan in December, fly hours and hours and hours, and endure choppy waters on the two-day journey across the Drake Passage, just to travel to the southernmost continent and endure more winter? For shots like this one. It was a clear, beautiful morning, and with the sun shining you can see just how pure the snow falls in Antarctica. It was worth all the trouble and penguin poop, just for scenes like this one.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

15 books in more than 15 minutes (Part Two)

I'm in the midst of revealing the thinking behind the selection of fifteen books that shaped my life. In my first installment, I covered five memorable books from my childhood. This time I'll be looking at five books (or multi-book series) that were a big part of my teenaged and young adult years.

6. Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball, by Paul Zindel: I don't want people to get the idea—perfectly reasonable, from looking at my prior list—that I read nothing but fantasy when I was growing up. I read everything, from historicals to school stories, and spent much of the ages of 13 to 15 going through a stage where I read all the horror I could get my hands on. I also read a lot of "young adult," which was a relatively new field when I was a kid. Paul Zindel, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, was a pioneer in this field. His most famous work in the genre was The Pigman, which is now often taught in high school English classes. (Much to my horror; I think a book that should be read for fun should never become a required subject for dissection.) My personal Zindel favorite, however, was this book. Not only did it have the wacky title, it had the wacky characters: "Marsh" Mellow and Edna Shinglebox, two teen outsiders who find better therapy in friendship than from school-sponsored efforts pushed on them by their overbearing mothers. Since I haven't read this since I was in high school, a lot of the plot details are fuzzy; what I do remember is the feeling of deep satisfaction every time I read it and saw the weirdos (even weirder than me!) finding friendship. I'm thinking I should re-read this and see what I think of it twenty years later.

7. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson: This is the first truly adult fantasy series I read, back when I was in high school. This three volume series, consisting of Lord Foul's Bane, The Illearth War, and The Power That Preserves, stretched both my vocabulary and my concept of "heroic" fantasy. The title character is a writer who suffers from leprosy who finds himself transported to a fantastic land. He finds he is no longer afflicted with nerve damage, and one of his first acts after arriving is to rape a young woman who befriends him. He then spends the next three books saving the Land from evil despite his insistence that it is not real and his power is all an illusion. This is Epic fantasy with a capital E, with complicated characters, beautiful (and complex) language, and fully realized world building. There is an equally fine Second Chronicles, finished in 1983, and Donaldson is in the middle of a four-volume Last Chronicles, which I refuse to start until the last volume is out, sometime around 2013. In the meantime, I've fallen more in love with Donaldson's twisty political fantasy set of The Mirror of Her Dreams/A Man Rides Through, but the Covenant series is the one that marks my teen years the most. (Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series is a very very close second.)

8. Legends of Camber of Culdi, by Katherine Kurtz: This is another trilogy (Camber of Culdi, Saint Camber, Camber the Heretic), the second that author Kurtz set in her world of the Deryni, a fictional version of the British Isles in the middle ages. The Deryni are very like humans except they have magical abilities that very much resemble certain psychic powers, including telekinesis, healing, and mind-reading, among others. The first of Kurtz's trilogies is set in the twelfth century, as the Deryni begin to come back from two centuries of brutal repression by church and state. For my money, this second series, which recounts how the Deryni Camber went from praised saint to excoriated heretic in the tenth century, is a much more interesting read. What I love about all the Deryni books is how the magic isn't the be-all and end-all; it doesn't serve as a deus ex machina to provide characters with a magical solution to their problems. Instead, we see how politics, both temporal and religious, can overcome all the magical talent in the world. The endings can be a bit dark—indeed, it's almost a joke when reading later Kurtz series that your favorite characters are destined to die horribly—but it just makes the plots feel even more real. To give you an idea of how much I loved these books when I was a teen, I seriously considered looking into a medieval studies major while I was in college, as a means of preparing myself to write something similar.

9. The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford: Oh, right, I read lot of "literature" while I was getting that English degree. This book grabbed me the most; although it was one of many books I read during a near-throwaway "Modern Novel" summer class, it stuck with me so much that I made it the subject of my senior thesis. On the surface, this 1915 novel doesn't seem like that captivating: an expatriate American couple meets a British couple in pre-WWI Germany, where the British husband (the title upstanding soldier) and American wife conduct an affair over the course of several summers. Oh, infidelity among the upper classes, how trite, you might think. And sure, the story itself isn't particularly compelling, but what fascinates me about the novel is the way in which it's told. The American husband, John Dowell, tells the story in retrospect, and his re-interpretation of events to make himself look better after the fact is quite delusional—and quite entertaining. Here's an example: "If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did." Of course, it's quite obvious that Dowell is fooling himself. I love reading books with delusional narrators (Wuthering Heights is another favorite), and I didn't mind burying myself in this book for months to analyze it to death.

10. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card: I picked up this book to take a little break from studying for my GREs (graduate school entrance exams, and no, I didn't go to graduate school, I was just considering my options), thinking I could read a couple of chapters and go back to studying. Big mistake. I started into this story of a six-year-old genius who is sent to a space military school and couldn't put it down. Oh, another loner in school story, big whoop, you may think, I've read that tons of times. Well, succeeding in this school may be the difference between humanity being wiped out by insectoid aliens or not, and Ender, while able to solve problems of tactics and strategy, is less confident when it comes to dealing with people and emotions. The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did its sequel, Speaker for the Dead. Speaker may be the better, deeper novel, but Ender's straightforward story and fast pace make it more compelling. Perhaps. In any case, reading this novel set me on a course of reading tons of hard sci fi, rather than just fantasy, a habit I still maintain today.

So that's it for this installment, which takes me to my mid- to late-twenties. In my next one I'll cover some of my more "grown-up" favorites.