The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen

The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen

Genre: Classic / Regency Romance

Reason for Reading: I’m rereading all of Austen’s novels. I’ve seen these Annotated versions and been tempted to try them out for a while, and this is the one I ended up picking up. 

Synopsis: Emma is young, rich, beautiful, and the most important gentleman’s daughter in her neighborhood. When her governess marries and moves away, Emma must find another friend to entertain herself. She chooses Harriet Smith, the love-child of nobody-knows-whom, and boarder at a local country school for girls. Emma, well-meaning but naively self-important, makes a mess by foisting potential suitors upon poor Harriet, while Emma’s old friend Mr. Knightly tries in vain to check Emma’s eager naivete. 

My thoughts: I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen. This is the third time I’ve read this novel, and I’ve seen all the movie renditions multiple times. I love watching Emma grow in wisdom throughout the story. And her romance is, in my opinion, the sweetest of those written by Austen. But I recognize that this is a difficult book for many people to get into because of Emma’s painful flaws and poor choices. Another reason that Emma is less appealing to some readers is because the narrator’s perspective is so unique. The POV focuses almost entirely on Emma’s perception of the world, to the point where it is easy to be mislead about what is really occurring since we are only seeing what Emma sees. Emma, especially at the beginning of the novel, tends to be very self-centered and aloof, and so is the narration of the novel. However, even though this POV makes the story harder to get into than the other Austen novels, this is Austen’s most appealing work for character study.  

The annotations of this book are lengthy and detailed. Many interesting images and comments are included so that we can visualize antique customs, fashions, and furniture that Austen’s readers would take for granted. That aspect of the annotations was fantastic. The annotations also included a lot of character analysis commentary, such as “Emma thinks such-and-such is happening, which shows you how much she lacks self-awareness at this stage.” These annotations included a lot of spoilers (the reader is warned which annotations include spoilers, but sometimes these warnings were dropped out of the ebook version – so caution should  be practiced if you’re reading the book for the first time and you have ebook format). These character analysis annotations were sometimes interesting, but mostly they told me things I’d already knew – either because I was familiar with the story or because I am sensitive to Austen’s nuances. Therefore, I think this annotated version is for you if 1)You are interested in having some historical perspective, 2)You are reading the book for the first time and don’t mind spoilers, 3)You’re re-reading the book, but don’t remember the details and nuances, and/or 4)You just love reading annotations. In other words, I am glad that I read this one book from The Annotated Austen series, because I enjoyed the historical perspective notes, but I probably will not pick up any of the others because I think I got the main idea now. 


Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Reason for Reading: Well, actually, it was an accident. I watched the BBC movie with my mom and she asked me how similar it was to the book. I said that it was very close to the book, but that there were a few things in the movie that I didn’t really believe happened that way in the book. So I picked up the book and started reading. Got sucked in. 🙂 I was wrong, though, all three incidents happened in the book. 

Review
This is the story of two very different sisters: Elinor is a sensible (yet secretly passionate) young woman who must continuously reign in the wild passions of her mother and sisters – especially Marianne whose head is filled with romantic notions of one-true-love and tragedy. When their father suddenly dies with their newly-acquired estate entailed away to their half-brother John, the sisters are left destitute. John and his wife Fanny descend upon the mourning family within a fortnight and make the sisters and mother feel like unwelcome guests in their beloved home. Elinor soon forms an attachment with Fanny’s brother Edward, but Fanny doesn’t approve of Elinor’s lack-of-fortune-or-name. So the family moves away to a cottage, leaving Edward behind. Poor Elinor must struggle with her own worries about Edward while at the same time monitoring the expensive of the house and trying to reign in the wild, all-consuming attachment of Marianne to the dashing young Willoughby. The romantic hopes of both girls spiral downwards as more and more obstacles appear. 

I love this story because I’ve always admired Elinor for both her passion and her ability to handle all problems that come her way. I also admire Colonel Brandon for his devotion to Marianne despite her ecstatic preference for the younger, handsomer, and less reserved Willoughby. This time around, I also really appreciated Marianne’s character. Her youthful ideas about love were cute – and realistic for many girls of 16. 🙂 Her development throughout the story was extraordinary. I loved the way she slowly, cluelessly, began to understand the world around her. I don’t admire her, but I think she’s cute and very funny. And, frankly, a more interesting character than Elinor (due to her development-of-character).

To be honest, this book is just as much a favorite as Pride and Prejudice. Yes. That is right. I ADMIT that I like this book just as much (possibly a little more) than the beloved P&P.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

2012 Book 172: A Christmas Carol

Written by Charles Dickens, Narrated by Tim Curry

Reason for Reading: I read this for a Dickens in December readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia. Unfortunately, I’m a day behind on my post! This is also one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (sign-up for Team 1001 here).

Review (contains spoilers :p)
When grumpy and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his long-deceased business partner, he gets the shock of his life. Apparently, a person’s job on earth is to walk among his fellow men and help them. For those who were too selfish to help during life, they are doomed to an eternity of walking among men while desiring to help, but not being able to. Scrooge is about to be given a chance at redemption. He will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past will remind him that although he’d had a rather dreary childhood, he’d had plenty of chances to make people (rather than wealth) his passion. The Ghost of Christmas Present will show him how happy people can be when they are surrounded by the people they love at Christmas. And the Ghost of Christmas Future will reveal a dreary future which may come to pass if Scrooge continues on his miserly path. On Christmas morning, Scrooge will awaken a new man – someone who knows how important it is to love one’s neighbors and to rejoice in their friendship. This is such a great story because it reminds us that wealth does not necessarily make us happy. It reminds us to look at the world through a different perspective. And, it’s pretty darned funny. 🙂 

This well-known story was excellently narrated by Tim Curry…and I’m SO glad I decided to pay the extra couple of dollars for the Curry narration! His voice is soothing yet engaging at the same time. His voices for each character are spot on. And his delivery of the humor was so well-timed! 

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

2012 Book 161: Pale Fire

Written by Vladimir Nabokov, Narrated by Marc Vietor

Reason for Reading: November was Russian Reading Month, hosted by Tuesday in Silhouette

Review

In this complex piece of literature, we explore the psyche of Charles Kinbote, an eccentric and obsessive man who is writing the introduction and notes to a 999-line poem entitled Pale Fire by a recently deceased poet with whom Kinbote has become enamored. Nabokov’s novel isn’t written in novel-form, though. It has four major parts: Kinbote’s introduction to Pale Fire, the poem itself, Kinbote’s prolific footnotes, and his index. This doesn’t really sound like an engrossing story, I know, but descriptions can be misleading. Kinbote’s notes are hilarious, sad, and frightening. As the book proceeds, we readers become more aware of the depth of Kinbote’s obsessions – we learn more about who he is (arguably, who he thinks he is) and, through the unreliable testimonies of Kinbote, we learn about the passions of the poet John Shade. This is the type of book that has so many layers, you’ll never find the core…but you’ll be fascinated and laughing in turns while you look. This was my first reading of the book, and I’d have to read it again to decide on my own interpretation. I was really impressed by the audiobook production…this isn’t the type of story that lends itself well to audio, but they did an admirable job. There were two readers, one for Kinbote’s thoughts and one for the poem of John Shade. Both readers did a fantastic job…especially Vietor with Kinbote. He put JUST the right emphasis on words so that I would catch the humor in the complex word-play. However, if I read it again, I’ll probably do it using the written-word so I can flip back and forth. This book is definitely worth a read if you like unique stories and complex psyches.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

2012 Book 137: Kafka on the Shore

Written by Haruki Murakami; Narrated by Sean Barrett and Oliver Le Sueur

Reason for Reading: In order to increase awareness of speculative fiction authors-of-color for A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I have read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, which is Japanese magical realism / surrealism. This is one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and it won “best novel” for the World Fantasy Award in 2006.

My Review

Kafka on the Shore follows two seemingly unrelated characters whose stories collide in surreality. The first character is a 15-year-old runaway boy who has renamed himself Kafka Tamura. Kafka runs away from his father for reasons that slowly reveal themselves as the plot thickens. He ends up in an obscure library, where he must overcome a dark curse. The second character is Nakata, an old man who suffered an injury as a child and lives as on a stipend for the mentally disabled. Nakata may not be very smart, but he can talk to cats, and he has an uncanny ability to accept surreal events at face value, thus providing a unique perspective to the strange plot twists. Kafka on the Shore highlights the extreme effects alienation can have on a person’s psyche. It had some VERY dark undercurrents (and even one scene of brutality that was quite shocking). It was a fascinating story, but after thinking about it for several days, I’m still unable to figure out quite what it meant. Perhaps it was only an expression of dark loneliness and nothing more? Whether I’m missing the deeper meaning or not, I greatly enjoyed reading my first Murakami book, and look forward to reading many more of these fascinating works. 


About the Author

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1949 to parents who taught Japanese literature. Murakami was greatly influenced by Western culture. His “modernist” books invoke an interesting mixture of classical music, Western literature, and Japanese culture. Like many surreal / modernist writers, his novels depict alienation, loneliness, and trauma.






Final Comments

It’s interesting that I followed up The Blind Owl with Kafka on the Shore. Both are Asian surrealism (which I haven’t read too very much of) and both have explicit use of the Oedipus complex. Is the Oedipus complex a common characteristic of surreal literature? Or a common characteristic of Asian modernist fiction? Or maybe the Oedipus complex is a defining characteristic of alienated characters? Maybe it was just a coincidence. I guess I’ll see as I read more of these types of books. 🙂 I have decided to include Kafka on the Shore in the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII challenge because of the unexpected dark undercurrents. 




The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

2012 Book 136: The Blind Owl  

Written by Sadegh Hedayat; Translated by D.P. Costello; Introduction by Porochista Khakpour

Reason for Reading: 
In order to increase awareness of speculative fiction authors-of-color for A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I have read and reviewed The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat. Although The Blind Owl may not be considered speculative fiction by critics, I felt that the surreal nature of this book fit with the spirit of speculative fiction. 

My Review
In this surreal novella, an unnamed protagonist unburdens the deadly weight on his chest by confessing to his own grotesquely owl-shaped shadow on the wall. 


“in order to explain my life to my stooping shadow, I am obliged to tell a story. Ugh! How many stories about love, copulation, marriage and death already exist, not one of which tells the truth! How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing!”

In his mind-spinning narration, it is difficult to tell when the events described are cloaked with opium, veiled with madness, or are simple truth. This novel is deeply disturbing in many ways. It narrates horrific events, certainly, but it is the manner that they are conveyed that is frightening. His imagery is surreal. His repetition is hypnotic. His words are oppressive. 

“Only death does not lie. The presence of death annihilates all superstitions. We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

The imagery and symbolism used by Hedayat portrays his personal marriage between Western and Eastern culture. Although this book is considered the essence of Persian literature, there are signs of Poe and Kafka. The Blind Owl bled, vomited, and wept Freudian symbolism. 

This was an amazing book, and highly recommended to people interested in Persian fiction or in modernist fiction. 

About the Author and Book: 

Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951) was one of the two fathers of Persian fiction, and sole father of modernist Persian literature. He was born to an aristocratic family in Tehran, and grew up during a turbulent time in the history of Iran. After WWI, the country underwent “modernization” and “Westernization.” As always happens with modernization, many people felt oppressed by the loss of culture and ceremony…by the loss of what makes them THEM and by the adoption of foreign values. Hedayat was apparently not one of these people. In 1925 he left Iran for studies in Europe. After short-lived attempts at studying engineering, architecture, and dentistry, he dedicated his life to studying Western literature and to learning Iranian folklore and history. From 1937 to 1939, Hedayat lived in India. The Blind Owl was first published in 1937 in Bombay, India with the label: “Not for publication in Iran.” At the time of publication Iran was suffering from the oppressive later years of the reign of Reza Shah. Free press was limited, the middle class was ruled with an “Iron Fist,” and the bureaucracy was falling apart under corruption. 

In Hadayat’s later years, his writings attacked the monarchy and the clergy of Iran, which he felt were leading to its downfall. However, he felt alienated by everyone around him in Iran, and moved to Paris. In 1951, he gassed himself in his apartment by plugging all the windows and doors with cotton. He left money for his burial in plain view. 

The introduction to The Blind Owl, written by Porochista Khakpour in the Costello translation is well worth reading. She tells about her history with the novel…how her father wouldn’t let her read it when she was a child because it had lead to so many suicides among Iranian youths. I get the impression that Khakpour’s family was of a melancholic nature and was strongly affected by books of this nature. I found The Blind Owl disturbing, but I didn’t experience any inconvenient urge to off myself after reading it. 

Personal interpretation that will contain middle-of-story SPOILERS:

I generally roll my eyes whenever the phrase “Oedipus complex” is introduced into an interpretation. However, in this case, I think “Oedipus complex” is exactly what Hedayat was aiming for. The ONLY character named in the entire book was his mother. He described his mother’s dancing in sensual detail. He obsessed sexually about all maternal figures in his life, including his aunt and his nanny. He admits to marrying “that bitch” his wife because she reminded him of his aunt (whom he worshiped with an almost sensual passion). He viewed his mother, nanny, and aunt as sexually unattainable…but that view was extended to his wife. He insisted that he had never slept with her. That he had gone mad from her denial of him and her promiscuity with flea-ridden brutes off the streets. I interpreted these obsessive delusions as false. I assumed that he had, indeed, coupled with his wife, but in his madness repressed those memories and created new delusional memories about other men. (On a side note, I’m not even certain his wife was his aunt’s child…she may have been the daughter of his nanny…but I don’t know why that would matter?)

The Oedipus complex extended towards his feelings for his father, his father’s brother, and his father-in-law. He seemed to fear and loathe the very idea of any of these men–they had, in fact, merged with each other in his own mind. Worse, they had merged with his own self-image so that he feared and loathed himself–probably for his unsatisfied sexual desires towards maternal figures. 

Of course, I don’t think the entire story was about an Oedipus complex…that was just the theme that jumped out at me on my first perusal. The story was about a man who was isolated from the rest of the world. A man who would never belong. A man who had no one to unburden himself to as the world around him crumbled into surreal chaos. The isolation was likely a reflection of Hedayat’s own feelings of alienation. The world crumbling around him was likely how he viewed the socio-economic failure of Iran. 

I’m sure this is the type of book that you find something new each and every time you read it…even if you meticulously study it for years.




The Yellow Wall Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I decided that since I’m reading Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I would read Gilman’s best-known piece of fiction, the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This is one of the few short stories included in the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (the others mostly being by Edgar Allan Poe). 


The main character is a young wife and mother who is taken by her affectionate husband to a summer home so that she could rest from her “nervous” behavior for a while. Her husband wanted her to rest as much as possible–not to exert herself by writing, reading, taking care of her baby, or doing any other sort of wifely work. She was kept in a room with viciously ugly yellow wallpaper. At first, she wanted to be free of the wallpaper, but her husband affectionately refused to move her to another room. As the story continues, she (in the boredom of “rest”) becomes more and more fascinated by the wall-paper and is eventually driven to madness. Her descent into madness is so eerie that this work was classified as “horror” before it was brandished as a feminist gem. 

Gilman describes the descent into madness with the naked honesty that can only come from a semi-autobiographical story. In fact, this story was a dire warning to herself, and to the world. Gilman became deeply depressed after giving birth to her own daughter. Her affectionate husband sent her to the well-known neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who was a specialist in “women’s disorders.” Mitchell’s famous cure involved a regimen of rest–the woman would give up all work and simply gain back her health by bed-rest and isolation. Gilman was forbidden to write or paint, and was only allowed to read for 2 hours a day. Such treatment is enough to drive anyone crazy in my opinion! As Gilman got worse and worse, she made the difficult decision to leave her affectionate husband and find her health by other means. She never fully recovered, and she suffered from the world’s censure for leaving an affectionate husband–this was in the late 1800’s when such a divorce was a scandal. She wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a warning to herself that she would have gone mad had she stayed with her husband. She wrote it as a warning to the doctors who supported Mitchell’s cure–she even sent a copy of the story to Mitchell himself. And she wrote it as a warning to young women who might be suffering from similar “cures.” Gilman never suffered from hallucinations herself, but the description of the descent into madness clearly bore her soul, making the story frighteningly realistic.