The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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How to Find Your Life’s Passion

pathJust do things. That’s my answer to that question.

Just do things. That’s my answer to that question. Most advice about finding your passion tends to be either ‘follow your heart,’ or, ‘don’t follow your heart, they’re lying to you.’ What neither of these pieces of advice take into account is—how does your heart know what it loves? How do you know you’ll love being an astronaut if you’ve never done it? And how do you know a career as an archaeologist won’t surprise you?

We all know people who from birth knew what their passion was, achieved it, and love what they do. But we may also know people who achieved their dream and hate it. Lawyering bores them to tears. Charity work stresses them out more than they realized it would. Etc. And both of these types of people had to experience their passion in order to find this out. Your heart’s inclinations in and of themselves do not guarantee joy in what you do.

So if life is in fact rather capricious, leading you on to think your love of numbers would make you a great accountant when it really doesn’t, how do you find a passion at all?

First, let’s clear away the issue of whether we should have passions. We can argue all day about whether we should be searching for a passion in life. It is fair to say you should be practical and support yourself. It is fair to say you shouldn’t think of yourself only, but also of other people (as someone has to do the dirty work). It’s fair to tear down the myth of ‘following your heart.’ However, it is also undeniable that passion motivates us in a way nothing else does. We can’t ignore it completely, and force people to slot themselves into open careers like some kind of dictatorial sci-fi society.

But keep in mind that you can be passionate about more than what rises up in your dreams. You can be surprised about what enjoy (and what you don’t enjoy). And by having an open mind and trying all sorts of things you can feel out your way.

I thought I’d hate being a salesperson because I thought I’d hate being measured by sales targets. Then I discovered I really loved knowing exactly how well I was performing at any given moment, just by looking at my sales numbers. I also far exceeded my wildest sales expectations (which, admittedly, weren’t very high at first).

I thought I’d enjoy learning about computers, but I didn’t want to spend the thousands on education needed to work in the field. But an agency recruited me to work in a computer store, an opportunity that I definitely wasn’t sure about. After all, agency work can be unreliable, and my education had nothing to do with retail. But doing something is better than nothing, and it was something I’d always wanted to learn about. Several positions later I am still constantly using tech troubleshooting skills that I picked up, because I confirmed I really do have a passion for that kind of thing.

I thought I’d love having a worthwhile career that contributed to society and was indispensable, so I went to nursing school. I learned all of the abstract reasoning of selflessness did not translate into me being a good nurse.

And presently I have made another major life decision—to go back to school to study theology. I know I have a passion for the subject, but I don’t know that that passion will translate into academic study on a daily basis. It may not. I’ll find out.

If you already have a passion and a reasonable opportunity to pursue, go for it. If you have a passion and there’s no open opportunities at the moment, you have an opportunity to try something else. Experience something new. Don’t go and try something you know you’ll hate, but if you can’t do something you know you’ll love, do something you don’t know if you’ll love or hate. Experience allows you to find out.

And if you’re really groping in the dark, as I’ve been for periods of my life, you can’t sit back and wait till you’re one-hundred-percent sure you’ve found your passion before you do anything. Granted, life usually doesn’t let you sit back and do nothing (bills to pay and all that), but ESPECIALLY if nothing sounds appealing you’ve just got to try things. Try to pick things that might lead to other things to try.

Because after all you don’t find your passion by looking deep inside and thinking as hard as you can about what your heart is telling you. Your heart doesn’t know what’s out there in the world. Your heart is ruling out a thousand careers you didn’t even know existed, simply because you haven’t heart of them. Go out and discover what you didn’t know before.

Passion springs from being busy, not from sitting still.

 

What do you think?

 

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Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

‘Neglectful’ was the word tossed around by one reviewer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Apparently the Professor was neglectful of the children he’d taken into his house during the bombings of WWII, letting them run through his house on their own and not over-scheduling every minute of their day with dance class, extra tutoring, or athletics.

Let’s leave aside the fact that a bachelor professor who appears to be entirely unused to children decides, out of the kindness of his heart, to shelter a group of four children seeking refuge from the bombing of London. Such a man might not be exactly up-to-date on the recent recommendations of the mommy blogs, nor might he think it harmful for children to just take care of themselves for some hours of the day (as children used to do in decades past). Let’s leave all that aside and look at how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are actually allowed to grow up in this book.

Now that our society has invented the idea of childhood (and this is not a bad thing), we have created a very specific, protected idea of what childhood should be. However, in order to grow up children have to eventually step outside of this safe, protected bubble. You might even let them blunder through your house and through a half-forgotten wardrobe that sometimes is a portal to another very dangerous and magical world.

In other words, they become independent and make their own decisions.

It’s very interesting that one well-known criticism of Narnia is that the children don’t grow up–or at least, not in the right way.

“The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” the famously outspoken critic of Narnia, Philip Pullman said once in an interview in The New Yorker. His own series, His Dark Materials, attempts to rectify this by having his protagonist grow up and awaken to her own sexuality at the end. Now, as far as I can tell, the children don’t embark on any sexual relationships in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I don’t think this is the only valid marker of growing up. They do grow up.

And this is why I loved this book. At the end, they actually get to live out their whole lives in Narnia–become kings and queens and put into practice everything the story taught them up to then. So often as a child I’d read fiction where the characters went back in time, or went to another world, and learned something, but they never got to use it in that world. They always had to come back. They always remained children. The reader never fully saw the consequences of the story’s ideas.

And besides the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which so satisfyingly lets the children have a life in the world they helped to save, they have to ‘do’ things throughout the book.

I, who was raised in the safe, coddled confines of ‘be careful!’ ‘safety first!’ and ‘accidents are always preventable!’ was astonished to read about Peter picking up his sword when Susan is attacked by the wolf, and to read Aslan saying, “Back! Let the prince win his spurs!”–just after Aslan finished telling Peter about how he must become king one day. My heart was in my mouth–they weren’t actually going to let Peter do something, were they? Of course he would want to rescue his sister, but there must be some more experienced, more adult character around that should save her.

But no, if Peter is to be a king one day he must shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood himself.

Here we come to another controversial aspect–the children fight in the story. Now, we could point to the times, and argue that children in history had very different lives than they have today, and nobody at the time thought it at all odd. We could point out that Lewis lived through WWI, when very young teenagers died by the thousands in the trenches. We could point to the fact the story is set in WWII, when ‘fighting the enemy’–physically fighting, and not with economic sanctions or making a show of army exercises on a country’s borders–was viewed positively. But really what it comes down to is allowing the children to learn that not everything in life comes easily, or without a struggle. The villain won’t helpfully toss himself off the cliff for them. They must act.

This is not to say violence is glorified here–the children don’t especially like fighting. But they certainly have to back up their beliefs with their deeds.

Now, there may be books where children must grow up even more than the children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They may have to, say, face a thousand more deaths of close friends, and watch graphically described gore pass in front of them. You could certainly imagine a ‘grittier’ children’s book than Narnia, even if you’d hesitate to actually give such a book to a child. I’m just arguing this was the first time I read a children’s book that showed me how to go beyond childhood. It showed me the good and bad in the challenge of growing up.

Millennials, a group of which I am a member, are frequently derided as a group that doesn’t know how to grow up. And I obviously can’t point to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a guide that taught me how to grow up–of the typical markers of adulthood (marriage, children, house, career), I can only possibly point to career as an objective marker of the level of adulthood I’ve achieved. Reading literature in this vein is not a cure-all for the ‘millennial problem’ (and I’ve read His Dark Materials too, lest you argue that series would’ve helped me more). However, children need a vision of adulthood to aspire to. They need to read different ways of shouldering the responsibility of living. And if we only present fiction where parents and guardians are not ‘neglectful,’ and hover over children just as much as parents and guardians actually do nowadays in real life, we’d hold back the whole process.

Give the kids some space. Let them grow up.

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You Might Relate to Mary Bennett, but You’re Not Supposed to Imitate Her

The novels and letters of Jane Austen (1906) (14596328597)Mary Bennett gets a lot of good press. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s one of heroine Elizabeth Bennett’s three younger sisters, and she’s described as the bookish one. Maybe because readers of Pride and Prejudice tend to be bookish as well, we tend to feel the story overlooks her, and write multiple blog posts and articles and sequel novels bemoaning this. This is in spite of the plentiful evidence Jane Austen herself did not like her. Despite her being bookish, Austen did not mean to point to her as a character that we should imitate.

This is astonishing, as the bookish girl is a pretty strong stereotype for female heroines by now—just think of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Hermione in Harry Potter, and Jane Eyre. All of them readers, some a bit know-it-all, but all with a heart of gold. The character of Mary Bennett is swimming directly against the current in this matter.

And readers relate to Mary Bennett—we know what it feels like to be ‘plainer’ than those around us, to feel less intelligent even though we’re desperately trying to appear smart, to be more than just a background character in someone else’s story. Who can’t relate to wanting some distinction of your own, even if it’s not beauty? We like books about bookish characters proving themselves because we’re reassured that our bookishness will not be our undoing, and that someday those that laugh at us in real life will agree our bookishness has value. But Jane Austen does not give us that satisfaction with Mary.

Evidence of dissatisfaction with Mary’s story can easily be found. Both The Guardian and The Atlantic wrote articles last summer about the proliferation of sequels about Miss Mary Bennett (including The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet, The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet’s Pride and Prejudice, The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride and Prejudice Novel, and of course, one called There’s Something About Mary, Bennett.) Many, many authors have seen potential in her character, and clearly many readers want to read about that potential.

So what are Mary Bennett’s faults, according to Jane Austen?

It’s not that she’s bookish and plain. It’s that she appears to read only in order to lecture others about what she’s read. She appears to practice music only in order to draw attention to herself with it. As a result, neither her speeches on the books she reads nor her performances on the piano avoid sounding ‘affected.’

“Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.”

And despite in other places defending the reading of books and applying oneself to improving oneself, Austen never vindicates these aspects of Mary. She really doesn’t do much with her character plot-wise, and appears to argue her way of being is just as ‘silly’ as Kitty and Lydia’s way of living. Mary does not get a character arc or much development at all. She has no romantic events come her way either.

I don’t think Jane Austen was against bookish girls. I don’t think she was subtly fighting against education for women, or against women having an opinion. I think she had a more complex idea here.

In reality, what Jane Austen is trying to show is how one trait, overemphasized and over-developed, can be ridiculous. You can’t have a personality that relies on only one characteristic—you need to develop your whole personality.

It’s kind of amazing how, despite all of Mary’s deficiencies in beauty and intelligence, her self-absorption is still derided as vanity by Austen. This is an important point! We like to think if we haven’t been given all the advantages other people have, we’re protected from vanity. We’re given a free pass to focus on ourselves, because after all, we aren’t as advantaged as everyone else. People should recognize and encourage us in what we do have.

However, this very lack of humility can prevent improvement in the areas we might have relative strength in! It’s Mary’s air of condescension and pedantry that makes her sisters dislike her speeches more—no one likes to be talked down to. Her piano-playing, while better than some, is less pleasant to listen to because of how conceited she makes it sound—she all-too-aware she is more skilled than Elizabeth. Her vanity in these things prevents her from using her gifts in a way that would actually give pleasure to other people (as Elizabeth proves you can give some pleasure to a listener even without being the best piano-player ever). And her vanity likely prevents her from even seeing the ways her gifts fall short of what she thinks they are. She doesn’t improve in the areas of attitude and mannerisms because she doesn’t think she needs to.

Does this mean she deserves to be laughed at by her sisters, or shamed by Mr. Bennett at the Netherfield ball? Of course not. I think Mr. Bennett’s treatment of her, in particular, is meant to short his shortcomings as a father and his insensitivity to what might improve his daughters’ characters. As he has with his wife, he’s basically given up on them, and endures their silliness instead. Now, if Mary actually is meant to have a character arc, perhaps one of Elizabeth’s or Jane’s attempts to rein in their younger sister’s vanities would sink in. As it is, we as readers as only left with the impression her vanity leaves on us, with the implication it is a warning—do not get so consumed in creating your own space for your own gifts that you blind yourself to how useless they are to anyone outside yourself. This is basically the opposite of every ‘find yourself’ novel released today.

So perhaps for us bookish types, we can take the message that there’s nothing wrong with being bookish, but it’s our attitude to others as a result of that can be the problem. Even if others don’t understand us, it doesn’t give us justification to feel superior to them. Even if we are actually better in one area than someone else we know, rubbing that in everyone’s faces will not help anyone else, and can even be destructive to ourselves. And I don’t mean this to lecture everyone else–I know I am prone to rely on my own intelligence and knowledge as my number one characteristics when relating to other people.

But then again, this is not meant to be the main message of the novel—Mary is merely one of dozens of Austen side-characters that demonstrate how one over-developed characteristic renders one ridiculous. It’s Darcy and Elizabeth who get character arcs, and who change throughout the novel. Austen uses their story to tell her message. Though if you look at how Austen takes down her main character’s characteristics of ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice,’ maybe Mary Bennett’s characterization does support the overall theme of the novel after all.

What about you? Do you find yourself with a lot of sympathy for Mary Bennett, or do you find her tiresome (as her sisters did)? Was Jane Austen too harsh on her?

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Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I’ve been meaning to read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis for a long time, ever since I discovered Lewis really did write fiction besides the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that I have I can’t resist blogging about it, because it excited me so much to find out how good it was. I rarely review books here, but some books are worth it, and if you’ve been looking for a worthwhile book I’ll write down some things to consider with this one.

Out of the Silent Planet always sounded like such an intriguing title, but I probably haven’t touched it till now because it’s sci-fi. Also, you hear so much less about it than the Chronicles, so you assume it can’t be quite as highly regarded. And after a brief survey of the internet writings on it, I think opinion on this book is a little more divided. But those who love it really love it, and now I’m one of them.

Basically, in this book a professor, Elwin Ransom, gets kidnapped and taken to another planet, Malacandra. The book actually has many reasons to inspire dislike, or a more tepid reception, including its out-of-date science and scientific errors, its theological ideas sprinkled throughout, and some weaknesses in story construction. I’ll first list all the irritations and dislikes I had while reading (skipping over any scientific discussion, as I know very little about scientific beliefs at the time), and then I’ll explain what blew me away.

I shall attempt to talk about it without spoiling too much of it, and obviously will not bring in any of the rest of the trilogy, since I haven’t read them yet.

The Bad:

It was incredibly difficult to get into the story. There is nothing especially compelling about Ransom as a character—you don’t start chapter one and immediately get excited you get to follow this character for the rest of the story. I picked it up several times without making it through the first chapter. I ended it without a real strong idea of what the guy was like. You don’t get any sense of his life outside the events of the story. Is he motivated to escape Malacandra and get back to his life as a professor on earth? Does he have any human relationships he’s missing? What brought him to the point where he decided to take a walking tour? He doesn’t seem to have any internal struggles, other than the small character arc of overcoming his fear-based response to everything.

The rest of the characters are somewhat caricatures too. There’s a scientist whose sole focus is human progress, and whose speeches mainly consist of his ideas of human progress. There’s another bad guy who’s solely driven by greed. There’s a lot of ‘good’ characters who don’t change throughout the novel, because they’re good already.

Yes, there were a few points where I was reading it that I thought to myself—can this really be C.S. Lewis? This is a very poorly constructed novel! People must just read it out of loyalty to him!

On top of the rest of these flaws take the very limited and slow amount of action this novel contains. There’s certainly conflict—why was Ransom kidnapped? Can he escape? Can he find food and drink on this new planet? Etc., etc. But most issues just sort of resolve themselves without Ransom having to fight too much for them. The climax, in the worst light, could be seen as everything in the story just easily resolving themselves.

 

The Good:

The first part where I suddenly found myself being drawn into the story was during Ransom’s philosophizing on the spaceship during the journey to Malacandra. And I HATE philosophy, so it’s shocking for me to say the philosophy in this book are some of the best parts of the story. But it’s true.

These parts are written very beautifully, which is no surprise considering Lewis was a very adept writer. They confront our stereotypical ideas of space travel and ever so subtly turn them inside-out. Is space empty? Are aliens inferior to humans? Are aliens hostile to humans? What do you think?

About halfway through I would have described it as an excellent philosophical treatise with a story tacked on. But the plot kept turning, and despite the characters being somewhat motivation-less and wooden, there were several emotional moments that absolutely hit home. I was surprised to discover I really did care about what happened to them.

There’s some incredible descriptions in here as well. Lewis does what many authors forget to do (in the books I’ve read, anyway), and grounds his perspective in his character so deeply that the reader sees what the character sees. For example, when getting off the spaceship Ransom is initially unsure which colours are ground, which as water, which are trees, etc. Which is absolutely true—if you don’t have any context for figuring out a new location, you are confused at first! Just think about getting out of a different subway station and being completely unsure which street is which. Lewis also does not immediately have Ransom realize the spaceship he travels to Malacandra in is shaped like a sphere–he first describes the odd shape of the room from Ransom’s perspective, and the slow realization that the shape is due to the spaceship’s overall spherical shape. Few authors do this–they immediately have the characters perceive they’re on another planet and describe it, or on a spaceship and describe it, without exploring the process of realization that occurs in a character’s head. There’s more than one passage like this, and these ground the story in reality in a strong way.

So, after good philosophy and unique descriptions, this book also hinges on languages in a way that excites me as a person who loves words. Ransom does not have a ‘universal translator,’ but actually has to learn the alien language. Then he has to translate some ‘Earth’ ideas into this alien language, which is an ever-so-subtle device to explore some of the ideas we take for granted. It’s lovely, lovely. You’d never see this in a blockbuster movie, but it drives the action in such a different way than you’d expect.

Lastly, this book made me realize how long it’s been since I read a book that really thrilled my imagination. I didn’t think C.S. Lewis could pull it off and really bring the story together in a satisfying way, because I’ve gotten so good at predicting with the first few chapters of a novel how bad the novel is going to be. I’ve also had far too many promising novels fade away into gibberish and frustration. It’s so wonderful to discover you’re actually in the hand of an author you can trust–an author who writes well and plots well and will not disappoint you even in a story with weaknesses. My imagination was so fired up this week, and it was a shock to discover I’d forgotten what that felt like.

In Conclusion:

What is really interesting about super-good books, and the one thing I love about them, is how so many of them do not follow the advice writers are constantly being given today. I can’t imagine any publisher publishing this book nowadays. It starts off soooooooooooo slow—just a guy walking through the back lanes of England. It has such wooden characters, characters without real character arcs. It takes sooooooooo long for any sort of action to occur, and the action that does occur fails to create much suspense. Why would a publisher take it on?

But yet—you care about these wooden characters! Somehow by the middle the shocking thing that happens affects you emotionally. You even feel pity and some sympathy for the bad guys at the end. And the climax and ending is somehow satisfying, even though a reader could so easily feel cheated if these events were not well-written.

I think, despite the good behind teaching writers how to better their craft, we sometimes risk making all writing exactly the same. We could be overlooking the next C.S. Lewis by insisting on being dropped into the middle of the action. And I do not say this under any delusions that I am the next C.S. Lewis who should not be ignored, because I know there’s so much about character and plot that I need to keep on learning about until the end of the my writing days. But stories can somehow, some way, work without these things. Our confidence in our knowledge about what is ‘good’ storytelling may be far too similar to our confidence in the progress of history and the idea we’re superior to civilizations that have come before us. We’re missing the context. We unknowingly blind ourselves to what they can teach us.

However, to conclude this review–Out of the Silent Planet will likely not change anyone’s mind about C.S. Lewis. If you dislike his philosophizing and general outlook on life, you won’t find this book any different. If you dislike his neat and logical prose, you’ll find that here as well. Even if you love C.S. Lewis because of the Chronicles of Narnia, you may find this one a little ‘weirder.’ But if you love inventive settings that inspire you to think about the world in new ways, give this one a shot. It’s worth it.

 

 

Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, and if so, what did you think?

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Misc. Books, Randoms & My Life, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A Few Classics That Are Not Hard to Read

Classics are usually heavy reading. Even if they’re short, the language is unfamiliar enough that they take a long time to get through. But every once in a while you find one that surprises you, and here are three that surprised me.

Note: I’m not including any classics described as ‘children’s literature’ in this list.

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Neuville and Benett 22
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I just really enjoyed the very punctual and methodical Phileas Fogg racing around the world with his comic French servant, Passepartout. They get into preposterous adventures of all sorts, some of which strain believability but are incredibly fun to read. It gives a wonderful picture of travel before airplanes were invented, with railroads and steamboats. Verne is known as a science fiction author, but this was a contemporary novel for him—and so for us it’s a nice view in on the past. Also, I loved the sudden revelation of Fogg’s tender side in the end.

As a side note, Jules Verne’s novels have historically received poor English translations, which led him to have a higher reputation in his native France than in the English-speaking world. This is the only sample of his work I’ve read, but I quite enjoyed him. In addition, I’ve noticed publishers give this novel nonsensical cover pages – one edition had a hot air balloon, but hot air balloons failed to appear in the story. Another recent edition has a daredevil racing in an old-fashioned car, but this does not happen in the novel either.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This remains the only Dickens novel I’ve read cover to cover. It’s short, so Dickens’ verbosity won’t put you off. The plot is easy enough to follow. I actually read it because I knew nothing about the plot and wanted to find out what this Christmas carol business everyone always went on about at Christmastime was all about, but I’ve reread it since without boredom. I’ve heard complaints about the opening paragraphs, where Dickens goes on about different types of nails and why the doornail should not be considered the ‘deadest’ type of nail out there, but personally I found it humorous. If you find it tedious, it’s a short novel, so it’s soon over and the rest of the plot begins!

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This was my introduction to Jane Austen, and I still believe it’s the easiest one to start with (though none of her novels are too difficult for the modern reader, aside from the formality of the language). This novel gets right into the action and humor, with Mr. Bingley arriving in town and Mrs. Bennett nagging her husband to go meet him. It does not start with family history, like Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. The heroine is lively enough that it’s not a chore to follow her through the story, and the story is shorter than Emma. There’s a few lulls in action, but overall it’s a very satisfying romance and shows off Austen’s talent very well.

 

 

These are my recommendations—your mileage may vary! After all, I thought Lord of the Rings and The Iliad were surprisingly easy to get into, and I know many people who didn’t. And I just struggle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, while others just love them. But if you’re meaning to read a few novels that have stood the test of time, these are a few places to start!

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Misc. Books

More White Male Protagonists in Scorsese’s Silence

I went to see Martin Scorsese’s Silence the other day and was curious about others’ reactions to it, especially considering the way it discusses Christian faith (and I am a Christian). Reactions to the movie were not hard to find, but scattered among these were many who pointed out Scorsese had made another movie about white male protagonists. And honestly, the movie is about Japan from the point of view of two Jesuit priests–this cannot be denied. However, I think to reduce it to that would overlook some of the value of the movie.

Very often other cultures are only shown in movies through the eyes of someone ‘western,’ and it’s an issue when cultures are portrayed as helpless until some ‘white saviour’ comes along. You can argue Silence avoids this issue by having its protagonists fail in the saviour role they attempt to take on, but let’s leave aside that for the moment. Let’s consider that this was originally a Japanese novel, written by a Japanese man with something to say about how white male protagonists appear from a Japanese point of view.

We should be open to stories from the perspectives of other cultures, but we should also be open to hearing what other cultures tell us about how we comes across to them. What they’re telling us about ourselves.

And I really think Silence is trying to show us ourselves from the perspective of another culture (and yes, I’m including myself in the group addressed because I come from North America and am a Christian, even though I’m female).

You might say, well, this was distorted by the fact it’s Scorsese who does the retelling. And I am sure Scorsese does not tell the story in exactly the same way the author, Shūsaku Endō, would have. However, I personally would have never heard of this story or Endo’s novel without this film. And while watching it I was confronted with the Japanese perspective on these Jesuits who’d come to Japan. And this movie has something to say to people like me, who live comfortably in North America and don’t always realize own our pride. It asks me to re-evaluate myself.

In other words, I’m not entirely sure Scorsese’s direction completely erases or cancels out the novel the movie was based on.

We should listen to what other cultures tell us about themselves, but if we close our ears to what they’re telling us about us, we’re missing the point. We might have very good words to wave the message aside with (‘just another story about white men’), and never hear the message it’s assaulting us with.

So yes, make more stories from the perspective of other cultures about themselves. But at the same time, consider some stories about us ‘North Americans’ are attempting to open our eyes to how we appear to others. Allow ourselves to think about it.

 

Side note(s):

There’s much more to say even about the Japanese perspective represented, as one person never speaks for everyone anyway.

When it comes to Silence‘s deeper messages, especially when it comes to faith, I appreciate some of it with reservations on the rest. I certainly appreciate it as a thought experiment, and the portrayal of one potential personal journey (which glosses over some aspects of reality).

Also, yes, I do go home and research everything I can find about a movie I just saw, or a book I just read, or a speaker I just heard. I hoard information like a miser hoards money. Who doesn’t? 😀

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Filed under Creativity and Art, Randoms & My Life

On Following Your Dreams in 2017

2017We’re told we should either pursue our dreams at all costs, or quit dreaming and face reality. It’s a new year now–what should we actually do?

Open your eyes and take a look around. The truth is, many people do make a living doing what they love, and yes, this even includes the arts. Somehow they support themselves in painting, or writing, or pontificating on architectural theories—how, no one knows, but they don’t look like they’re starving. Many would tell you they knew this was what they were meant to do with their life. They couldn’t be happy doing anything else. They had to follow their dream.

‘You can do anything you want to.’ This is what many of us have been told since childhood—if you can dream it, you can do it. After a good dose of reality, most of us laugh at that (especially those of us who dreamed of being an astronaut but struggle with our multiplication tables). However, in our cynicism we do overlook the people that somehow, crazily enough, do follow their dreams at any cost and do make it work.

So yes, following your dreams is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. However, a very important piece needs to be added to the glib ‘follow your dreams’ phrase—figure out how to make your dreams work for you. You have to think about the practical side of things, and by practical I do mean money and survival. This is the piece that often gets lost when talking to kids (and no surprise, since we mostly assume kids don’t get practical stuff till they’re grown up).

Sure, you want be an actor—does this mean your love of acting is enough to do a million indie films which barely give a paycheque, while teaching classes on the side? Does this fit in to ‘do what you love,’ or by ‘do what you love’ do you really mean you want to magically become a Hollywood actor who can choose to make a couple films whenever you feel like it? Because that’s not being practical, that’s expecting the world to fall into your lap.

Or maybe doing what you love means using the creativity to do what you love any way possible. A few decades ago no one could imagine you could make a living acting in free videos people watch on the internet, but nowadays some people do. Someone was willing to use their creativity to try whatever was necessary, to keep doing what they enjoyed while at the same time not starving doing it. And, more importantly, not considering themselves entitled to a glittering career without throwing their all into it.

The funny thing is, when you start to think about practicalities you realize whether the things you ‘love’ doing are actually things you love doing. If making it work somehow excites you because you get to keep doing this wonderful thing, maybe you should be doing it. If you don’t want to think about practicalities, and only about being ‘there’ already, you may have a problem. If you can only see the end result of being celebrated by others for what you do, but could never do the same work without recognition but just get by and die happy, you may have a problem.

For myself, I realized quite early on that while I loved writing it was not a career I wanted to pursue. To have my every mouthful of food hinge on producing outstanding prose regularly just drained the joy out of writing. This is not the case for everyone, and there’s no shame in living by your pen as long as you don’t expect the world to worship every word you put out there. There’s also no shame in deciding this thing that you love—whether writing, or acting, or singing, or painting, or even athletics—is more enjoyable if your survival doesn’t depend on it. There’s no shame in deciding something is not a dream, but instead a hobby.

After all, we’ll always need accountants, and garbage-collectors, and people to do all the paperwork in our offices. Very few people would say this is their ‘dream,’ but society needs someone to do it to function. You’re not betraying your passion for music or whatever if your passion for music does not drive you to rely on it alone to eat

I think the people who have the drive to follow their dream wherever it leads already know they feel this way. I hope you do find a way to keep pursuing what you love, and that it keeps bringing you joy. Don’t forget about the many people who were told what they were doing was impractical but did it anyway and did make it work—there’s more of them than you think. But it might also take you in surprising directions, and cost you in sacrifices of other things.

Now for the rest of us—those of us that aren’t sure, and those that feel guilty for not putting everything they have into one passion. We’re not all the same, and we can’t all follow the same advice. We can love something without being driven to sacrifice everything for it, or we can love and enjoy multiple hobbies without feeling like we need to pick one to be an all in all. Instead, pursue excellence in what you do while you are doing it. And don’t worry so much about figuring out what exactly and precisely should be your dream.

 

Happy 2017!

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First Draft Depression

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this month–National November Writing Months–that thing where you try to write a 50 000-word novel in a month. It’s good to write a full novel again. But it also reminds me how excruciating the process of creation actually is.

 

The minute you try put that thing in your head down on paper, it just sits there dry and lifeless and so, so far from what it was meant to be. The idea you had was good. That’s why you started writing it. But the reality of your ability to communicate this idea with others destroys all your joy in the idea.

 

The excellent thing about NaNoWriMo, and things like it, is that it forces you to keep writing despite your despair over your writing. If you’re going to churn out fifty thousand words, you can’t stop and mope. I think more than once in my past I’ve given up because my new project’s writing was objectively horrible, without continuing to work through to the reality that this horribleness only lessens if you keep creating. You can’t always think rationally about what will make your idea come to life. You’ve got to live with your idea and work it out, and somehow that breathes life into it.

 

As creators and artists, we’ve got to live with the reality there will always be a gap between the ideal in our heads and what we produce. This is usually good–it’s this awareness of that gap that drives us to keep improving our skill. To keep getting better. Until maybe one day we do produce something good.

 

In the meantime we do have to face the dragons of depression that come with creation. And it often is real, dark depression-y feelings, not a mild approximation of depression. A few thousand words in to this novel this month and I was absolutely miserable. I was only destroying what I had in my head, poisoning even the original idea I’d loved so much.

 

Then I wrote a few words that were maybe a little bit good.

 

And so I know it’s worth it to keep fighting to get that idea out. Failing at getting what’s in your head out in the world feels worse than never trying, but it’s only though grappling with your own thoughts, painfully facing your own limitations, that your idea develops. After all, not working with your ideas leads to depression too.

 

I’m getting close to the end of NaNoWriMo now, and close to the end of the fifty thousand word goal I’d set for myself. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near the actual end of my story. So it looks like I’ll have to force myself to stay in my writing habit after all!

 

Have a great November, guys! If you’re doing NaNoWriMo too–may you have the strength to finish! Comment below on whether you’ve enjoyed creation–or just comment on what you think about the process of creation in general.

 

 

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Filed under On Writing, Randoms & My Life

No, Let’s Talk About Being a Millennial

“Rhiannon’s life, compared with mine, seems very wobbly. She can never feel quite safe in her home or work; she is generally anxious and suffers from what her mum calls “impending doom scenarios”. … I’m not surprised. I’m only surprised by her and her friends’ general determination and resilience, and their lack of animosity towards people of my age. They confirm my belief that much of the “antagonism” between our generations has been whipped up by whoever labels us and lumps us all together as baby boomers or millennials in the first place. Those ridiculous terms are not helpful, and I can only wish Rhiannon and her friends luck. They’re going to need it.”

 

– Michele Hanson, ‘Baby Boomer,’ in “A millennial and a baby boomer trade places,” The Guardian

I read this stuff and I feel like people don’t believe it. In fact, I know people don’t believe it. I know even fellow millennials think anyone who is not getting ahead is just entitled and lazy. (Just go read the Urban Dictionary definitions of millennial.) But I do believe it, because I’ve seen this sort of anxiety and misery–my fellows just scraping by–and I know I myself am lucky to be where I am.

I also know people think I am ridiculous for reading so much about my generation, but in reality my heart aches so much. I feel so helpless because I cannot fix it, or even do much to alleviate even a moment of anxiety for anyone else. I want to shout, “Let’s pull together–let’s encourage each other and share our resources and our free time and our homes and our food–let’s comfort each other for the life goals that seems so beyond our reach.” But it’s not that easy. Shame hangs over it all. Shame for wanting these things, shame for not being able to achieve them, and shame for not being able to deal with the emotions that come with the absence of these things.

The reason people long for things like homes and marriage and steady jobs/income is because these things scream stability. And no matter how much stability is ridiculed, you don’t know how terrifying it is not to have it until you don’t have it. No one is there for you when you’re down. Your car breaks and you’re afraid your mechanic is cheating you and you don’t have the money anyway, but you need your car. You’re at the end of a temporary contract at work and no new positions are coming up. Your rent skyrockets. And over it all hangs this impenetrable darkness of anxiety.

“She makes me look at the chaos and instability of my own existence and feel suddenly tired. Not to mention far, far too old for it,” Rhiannon, the millennial, writes of Michele in The Guardian article above.

Cue grinding anxiety, exhaustion, and no sense of what comes next.

Because the question is, if the normal markers of adulthood seem so out of reach, what should we be doing with ourselves instead? The usual markers may not be inherently meaningful in and of themselves, but the little checkmarks of success they bring to your life feels like progress at the very least. What sort of goals, or signposts, should be substituted? How do you know you’ve got somewhere, and what can you use to bolster yourself while fighting the general opinion of society that you’re not succeeding and you’re not doing anything meaningful?

It’s clear why people–millennials even–just dismiss this experience. Once you achieve something (Yes! A job!), you really do feel as if it’s you who did it all by yourself. You made it through the struggle, despite the anxiety (or without it, even), and you don’t want to think about it. And in one sense you did do something–and yet there’s always a bit of random circumstance involved that you have to acknowledge. Something fell into place for you somewhere. So why disdain those who can’t get a break? Because to do otherwise is threatening to your own sense of achievement?

For me, I spent two years doing temp work and several months before that job-hunting after I finished my degree, before I landed a stable part-time position doing something related to my education (which I love). And don’t get me started on how long it took me to find what sort of ‘higher education’ I should even pursue. So I know I’m lucky. I know most people don’t even get here. So many people I went to university with work in areas completely unrelated to their education, or their interest. So many go back for more and more education (and debt) because they can’t get a foothold in the working world… and the working world increasing overlooks education for work experience.

So many work below their skill level. So many who haven’t done higher education struggle to find something that pays enough to live on, even without the debt that comes from school.

And yet I still believe the solution is to come together. To face down our shame, and declare our anxiety, and not hide it. It’s not each one of us singly facing the darkness alone. We understand each others’ experience. And people from every generation understand it… things haven’t always been easy for everyone. We can’t let those who’d scoff at the idea that things are hard get us down, or make us believe what we feel isn’t real or worth listening to. It is worth listening to. And we won’t get by on our own.

 

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