Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Literary Blog Hop Asks: Are You Predisposed to Like the Classics? Yes. Next Question.

Literary Blog HopI'm beginning to look forward to every other Thursday and the Literary Blog Hop hosted by the lovely ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.  Not only have they introduced me to some wonderful literary book blogs, which have turned me on to some great books, but they always ask the most interesting questions.  This week's question is as follows:

Do you find yourself predisposed to like (or dislike) books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon?

Yes (like).  Next question.

Discuss the effect you believe a book’s “status” has on your opinion of it.

Aha!  I thought we were getting off easy this week.  Ok.  Well, I'd like to say that I remain objective in my reviews, regardless of the reputation of the author or work under consideration, but that's simply not true.  In fact, I would argue that it's not human.  We're all subject to social pressures and preconceived opinions, though some do a better job than others of maintaining a relative objectivity.  For myself, I think that a book's status or reputation creates a kind of synergistic effect on my own appreciation of it.  If it enjoys a reputation as a classic, I am predisposed to like it, and I tend to be more effusive in my praise of it.  On the other hand, if I do not like it, my dislike tends to be exaggerated as well.

A case in point is our recent review of The Man Who Loved Children.  Though not widely known, the book enjoys a reputation as a modern classic and, in fact, is included in Time Magazine's list of the Top 100 Novels in the English language from 1923 to the present.  I was predisposed to like it.  I did like it.  And I was probably more effusive in my praise because the book (twice) met and even exceeded my expectations.

What about you?  Do you love to love the classics or do you love to hate them?   

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (TLM's New Number Eight)

The Man Who Loved Children: A NovelI've always found it unpredictable to re-read a work that I loved once upon a time.  At different points, I've come away both more certain than ever of my respect (Sometimes A Great Notion) and questioning what I could have so appreciated on the first reading (Moby Dick).  But when Jonathan Franzen wrote a piece in the New York Times championing The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, I decided that this was one favorite worth revisiting.  

I first read The Man Who Loved Children in college some twenty years ago as part of a course on Australian Literature.  That course, by the way, revealed to me some of the best work that I had read to that point (including The Man Who Loved Children), and I took away from it an abiding appreciation of Australian Literature thta survives to this day.  Upon my first reading, I was convinced that The Man Who Loved Children was among the three greatest works of literature that I had read to that point.  Twenty years later, I had only vague recollections of the Pollit family in a constant state of agitation with themselves and one another, along with a healthy respect for Christina Stead's powers of both characterization and creativity based on the relationship between Sam Pollit and his daughter, Louisa. 

My more recent second reading has convinced me that The Man Who Loved Children is one of the greatest tragedies ever written and it deserves a place among TLM's top novels for men.  Not that it is a book for or about men in particular, despite its title.  Rather, The Man Who Loved Children is a book for and about anyone that has ever felt manipulated, repressed, limited, or emotionally dominated by those individuals that are closest to them.  In other words, it is a book for and about everyone.  It reportedly draws heavily from Christina Stead's own life and her relationship with her father, which is undoubtedly part of its genius.

As for the plot, the blind and dysfunctional Sam is the patriarch of the Pollit family, which resides outside of Washington, DC.  At once a dictator and a narcissist, Sam has so alienated his wife, Henny, that they are no longer on speaking terms, communicating only through their children or in written form.  This, of course, leads to constant emotional hostage taking in a house comprised of six (and eventually seven) children.  Toward those children, Sam believes himself a god, demanding their awe and respect for his various projects and achievements, while also digging so deeply into their lives and their brains as to crowd out any notion of privacy or individuality.  Stead does a masterful job of showing each child's reaction to this dominating treatment, as they each struggle to support one another.  And it is largely this sense of mutual support in the face of overwhelming and sinister domination (and I am not being melodramatic here) that gives the book's conclusion its tragic force. 

Christina Stead creates a world--set wholly within the confines of the Pollit home--that is so emotionally deep and complex that the reader has the distinct feeling of having lived among its characters as a passive (though alternately incredulous and furious) observer throughout the time period covered by the book.  I suspect that it is that same gut wrenching emotional journey that has kept The Man Who Loved Children from obtaining the popular acceptance and acclaim that it most certainly deserves.  In any case, I have no problem whatsoever making The Man Who Loved Children TLM's new number eight.

Has anyone out there read The Man Who Loved Children?  More importantly, is there anyone out there that read it and did not absolutely marvel at Stead's skill at characterization?       

Friday, March 25, 2011

Aaarrrgghh ... Is Piracy Really a Problem for the Publishing Industry?

As a general matter, I like to keep my work life separate from my blog life, and I find that there is rarely any substantial overlap between the two.  That said, as I've mentioned in passing on a couple of occassions, by day I'm an intellectual property attorney dealing primarily in issues of copyright and trademark law.  Recently, our firm's publicist asked me to give an opinion on the scope of the problem of e-book piracy in the publishing industry.

My reaction to this question has always been skeptical.  I just don't see e-book piracy as a significant potential problem given the fact that people don't consume books in the same way that they consume music and film.  First, though e-book sales are increasing rapidly (as recently reported in a study by the Association of American Publishers), hardcover and paperback book sales still constitute a majority of the market.  Second, book purchases tend to be carefully considered decisions in my experience, as opposed to impulse purchases of music and movies.  Third, and perhaps most important, e-book distributors are ahead of the curve in terms of distribution (and far, far ahead of both the music and film industries when piracy first became a serious problem for them).  Simply stated, it is easier to pay $10 for an electronic copy of The Lost Symbol from the Kindle Store, the iBooks Store, the Sony eReader Store, etc., than is it so find a quality copy through Bit Torrent, download it, and upload it onto your particular device.

But not everyone agrees, as evidenced by a recent article by David Carnoy over at CNET entitled, "Kindle e-book piracy accelarates."  Evidently, there is a group of e-book enthusiasts that like to shop in bulk (as in 2500 books at a time).

So, what do you think?  Is this really as much of a problem for the publishing industry as it has been for the music and film industries?  Have you ever looked for a pirated copy of a particular book or known anyone that has?  Thanks for any (anonymous) insight that you may be able to provide.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Literary Blog Hop Wants You to Consider Your Own Mortality

UlyssesDebbie Nance over at Readerbuzz apparently had quite the St. Patrick's Day because she's thinking about death.  And as a green-blooded Irish-American, I can tell you that a Jameson-soaked contemplation of The End is often the unwanted byproduct of the hours of Guinness-swilling jubilation that precede it.  But I give her credit--what could be more Irish than to tie a contemplation of one's own mortality to a work of great literature?  Here's to you, Debbie.  Slainte! 

The question Debbie posed over at the Literary Blog Hop is the following: What one literary work must you read before you die?  Like everyone else that's weighed in on this topic, I'm pulled in ten different directions at once. 

The Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireIf I'm recommending to others from the books that I've read over the course of my life, I think I'd have to go with Ulysses by James Joyce.  The fact that Joyce was Irish is merely a happy coincidence, but I'll toast him just the same.  Slainte!  Though it was a struggle to get through, I think I've never been as intimate with the characters of a literary work nor have I ever seen such mastery in Joyce's playful manipulation of the English language.  Ultimately, it is hands down the most rewarding work of literature that I've ever read.   

Now, if we're talking about the one literary work that I feel that I must read before I die, I'm going with Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  There's something about the decline of an entire civilization that makes your own mortality just a little bit easier to contemplate.

Thanks to Debbie and the girls at the Blue Bookcase for a great topic.

Literary Blog Hop

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Aubrey/Maturin Series, Books I through V (Reading Challenge Installment 1)

This is the first installment of four in TLM's First Reading Challenge: The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian.  We will cover each of the first five novels in the 21-novel series, including Master and Commander,Post Captain, HMS Surprise, The Mauritius Command, and Desolation Island.  Since simply outlining the action in each book would defeat the purpose of the challenge, I will breakdown each book by most memorable scene, dominant theme, and most interesting character.  Of course, I encourage every one of you to share your thoughts by posting your comments below.   

Most memorable scene: The taking of the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate, by Captain Aubrey and his brig, the Sophie.  This is O'Brian's first extended description of a battle at sea, wherein he proves that he is a master.  Jack Aubrey follows Lord Nelson's advice to "Never mind maneuvers, always go at them!"   

Dominant theme: Divided loyalties.  Both Stephen Maturin and James Dillon, the Sophie's first lieutenant, have dark histories fighting the British as members of the United Irishmen.  Maturin is both practical and philosophical in his outlook, while Dillon's raw internal struggles lead him to seek his own demise.

Most interesting character: Jack Aubrey.  An unapologetic rogue on land, Aubrey is an experienced sea officer and brilliant naval tactician just coming into his own during the action of M&C.

Post Captain:

Most memorable scene: Stephen Maturin leading Jack Aubrey across the French/Spanish border dressed in a bear costume.  The ruse was necessary when Stephen and Jack are caught in France at the time that the Peace of Amiens fails and war resumes with Britain. 

Dominant theme: The vagaries of life at sea.  Jack Aubrey spends half of the book running from creditors, who seek to have him thrown in debtors' prison after shifting political alliances rob him of prize money that he is due.  His fortunes revive when Stephen Maturin is able to use his own political influence to involve Jack in the capture of a Spanish convoy carrying treasure.

Most interesting character: Stephen Maturin.  It is in Post Captain that Stephen Maturin's role as a British intelligence agent becomes a prominent part of the series.  Maturin is half Irish and half Catalan, and it is his Catalan heritage that leads him to fight tooth and nail against Napoleon, even overriding his Irish republican distaste for British hegemony.

HMS Surprise:

Most memorable scene: Stephen Maturin operating on himself to remove a bullet lodged between his ribs during a duel.  The duel is precipitated by Stephen's love for Diana Villiers, who has become Richard Canning's mistress in India.

Dominant theme: Affairs of the heart.  Both Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin suffer from problems of the heart in HMS Surprise.  Aubrey is cheated out of his share of the captured Spanish treasure and this complicates his pending marriage to Sophie Williams.  Stephen, meanwhile, ineffectually declares his love to Diana Villiers, who will continue to torment him over the course of the series.

Most memorable character: Diana Villiers.  At once fickle and practical, Diana wraps both Aubrey and Maturin around her finger, though it is the learned and philosophical Maturin that receives the most deep and lasting wounds from their relationship.  The reader is never quite sure whether to consider her Maturin's proper mate or a sly female villain of the heart.

The Mauritius Command:

Most memorable scene: After Maturin returns to report to Commodore Aubrey the failure of an effort to take Mauritius from the French, Aubrey returns to the scene of the routing and methodically, captured ship by captured ship, turns the tide back in favor of the British, who eventually take the island, though Aubrey is robbed of credit for the enterprise.

Dominant theme: Measuring up.  Lord Clonfert was, at one time, superior in rank and reputation to Jack Aubrey; however, he finds himself under Commodore Aubrey's command at Mauritius.  Clonfert had demonstrated cowardice during an earlier campaign with Aubrey, and it is evident that Aubrey's continued success has him feeling both cowardly and unworthy so that he overcompensates in his command and becomes gravely injured.  Rather than suffer the success of Jack Aubrey at Mauritius, Clonfert commits suicide by removing his bandages.

Most memorable character:  Lord Clonfert, for all the reasons noted above.

Desolation Island:

Most memorable scene: The sinking of the Waakzaamheid, a 74-gun Dutch ship-of-the-line, in the extreme South Atlantic.  Aubrey's new ship, the Leopard, having been chased nearly to Anterctica by the much larger Waakzaamheid  over the course of many days, the ships exchange fire, and a lucky shot takes down the Dutch ship's foremast, causing her to sink with all hands.

Dominant Theme: Intelligence (and counter-intelligence).  For the first time in the series, the United States takes a prominent role as Aubrey is charged with hauling the American intelligence agent, Luisa Wogan, along with other convicts to Australia.  Maturin makes good use of Ms. Wogan, using her lover to feed her counter-intelligence and helping them both to escape aboard an American whaler while the Leopard is fitting for repairs.

Most memorable character: Stephen Maturin.  O'Brian deals directly and honestly with the evils of addiction by afflicting one of his two main characters with an addiction to laudanum.  His disappointments with Diana Villiers feed the beast that torments him and it is, in part, his deplorable state that leads Jack Aubrey to take to sea once again.

And so concludes the first installment of TLM's four-part series on the Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian.  Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments, suggestions, complaints, etc.  I'm personally in the middle of book seven, The Surgeon's Mate, so it may be a few weeks before we have another installment.  In the meantime, happy reading.