The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (audio)

I am having some trouble writing up my experience with this book. Please bear with me if I ramble.

I struggled with this book, which frankly surprised me a bit. I tend to enjoy The Classics; I expect to enjoy them. I’ve had relatively few failures (ahem, Faulkner and Henry Miller, I’m looking at you). But I fear that Oscar Wilde may not be for me. I listened to this book on audio. Is that the wrong way to do it? It may be my first attempt at a classic in this format. You’d think it would be more accessible this way.

We open with a scene in which Lord Henry is visiting his friend Basil, a painter. They admire Basil’s masterpiece to date, a portrait of a beautiful young man. Basil expresses a deep infatuation with the young man, whom he does not want to share with Lord Henry in any way, not even to tell him his name; but shortly, Dorian Gray appears. His new friend Lord Henry makes him a speech about the glorious and fleeting nature of his (Dorian’s) youth and beauty, which leads Dorian to make a speech (there’s a lot of speech-making, more so than dialog, if you ask me) in which he wishes that he could always be young and beautiful, and his portrait grow old and ugly in his place.

Well. In case you haven’t heard of this famous story, he gets his wish.

Dorian follows other advice of Lord Henry’s, which is not advised. A large part of his new life philosophy involves taking every pleasure one can without considering consequences, seeking beauty. Dorian courts a young woman from the lower classes and then dumps her, resulting in her suicide; this is when he first notices that the portrait has begun to change. It shows marks of sin; there was a “touch of cruelty round the warped lips.” After some agonizing, he decides to go on living an evil and dissolute life, and letting the portrait shoulder the results.

I found my interest fading in and out. Wilde has these moments of brilliant, shining beauty: his descriptions of people can be remarkably fancifully, finely painted. For example, the people Lord Henry finds when he comes in to dinner at his aunt’s:

Dorian bowed to him shyly from the end of the table, a flush of pleasure stealing into his cheek. Opposite was the Duchess of Harley, a lady of admirable good-nature and good temper, much liked by everyone who knew her, and of those ample architectural proportions that in women who are not duchesses are described by contemporary historians as stoutness. Next to her sat, on her right, Sir Thomas Burdon, a Radical member of Parliament, who followed his leader in public life and in private life followed the best cooks, dining with the Tories and thinking with the Liberals, in accordance with a wise and well-known rule. The post on her left was occupied by Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerable charm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence, having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything that he had to say before he was thirty. His own neighbor was Mrs. Vandeleur, one of his aunt’s oldest friends, a perfect saint amongst women, but so dreadfully dowdy that she reminded one of a badly bound hymn-book.

But I found Lord Henry to be entirely intolerable, and Dorian and Basil only slightly less so. When any combination of these three self-centered gentlemen of leisure shares dialog, I want to throw things.

“Harry, you are dreadful! I don’t know why I like you so much.”

“You will always like me, Dorian,” he replied.

I can’t stomach the tone of self-satisfaction. (I wonder if if the voice of the narrator is part of my aversion.) Lord Henry, especially, philosophizes endlessly and meaninglessly. I can’t pay attention to him, no matter how hard I try. He is forever telling his young, impressionable friend Dorian that things will “always” be one way or the other. It irritates me. Perhaps this is Wilde’s point? Maybe I am responding just as he intended me to. I don’t care; I don’t enjoy it.

So to carry on. Dorian hides his portrait and lives a life of sin and pleasure. The storytelling speeds up; we see many years go by while the (anti)hero pursues one indulgence, then another. There are more gems of beautiful, poetic writing in the description of the items Dorian collects, like jewels, tapestries, and music. Here, discussing the lore of the gemstones he collects:

In Alphonso’s Clericalis Disciplina a serpent was mentioned with eyes of real jacinth, and in the romantic history of Alexander, the Conqueror of Emathia was said to have found in the vale of Jordan snakes “with collars of real emeralds growing on their backs.” There was a gem in the brain of the dragon, Philostratus told us, and “by the exhibition of golden letters and a scarlet robe” the monster could be thrown into a magical sleep and slain. According to the great alchemist, Pierre de Boniface, the diamond rendered a man invisible, and the agate of India made him eloquent. The cornelian appeased anger, and the hyacinth provoked sleep, and the amethyst drove away the fumes of wine. The garnet cast out demons, and the hydropicus deprived the moon of her colour. The selenite waxed and waned with the moon, and the meloceus, that discovers thieves, could be affected only by the blood of kids. Leonardus Camillus had seen a white stone taken from the brain of a newly killed toad, that was a certain antidote against poison. The bezoar, that was found in the heart of the Arabian deer, was a charm that could cure the plague. In the nests of Arabian birds was the aspilates, that, according to Democritus, kept the wearer from any danger by fire.

There’s a lilt, a rhythm to that passage, that makes it almost musical, itself.

And through it all, the portrait bears the ugliness of his actions. I guess this is where I say, I had some trouble with all the discussion of the physical manifestation of sin and of goodness; Dorian’s society takes for granted that beautiful people are good and evil people become ugly, so no argument against Dorian’s virtue can be entertained, since he’s so youthful and beautiful even 18 years after the story begins in Basil’s painting studio. This may be one of those fancies one should just accept in fiction, and maybe I was just too grumpy at my other complaints to accept it, but it didn’t work for me. Or, more to the point: perhaps Wilde is actually attacking this very concept, and I’m missing his point. The whole thing grated on me, though, instead of making me think, if that was indeed his intention.

My gripes are numerous, aren’t they? Am I being unfair? There were definitely a few moments of glistening gorgeous writing; but the philosophizing was intolerable, and the dialog was more like a series of monologues, and I just couldn’t buy into the gravity of the ideological arguments. It was all fluffy talk, and I fear Wilde meant for it to be taken seriously.

I spent the bulk of this book waiting for it to be over so I could go on to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which by the way is so far really wonderful. (Timely bonus link: 10 Writers Who Moonlighted as Dandies lists both Wilde and Capote, naturally.) I feel sorry I couldn’t appreciate more of this classic work, but I couldn’t. On the other hand, because of those beautiful bits, and Wilde’s reputation, I sort of wish I could take on this book as a subject of study with an expert – maybe in a college course – and have its quality explained to me. I’m really baffled.

Do you love this book? Can you please explain its redeeming qualities?

Gone with the Wind part 2 (ch. 8-16)

Follow the Great Gone with the Wind Readalong at The Heroine’s Bookshelf. Today we discuss part 2.

I continue to be very impressed. Mitchell is positively painterly in her descriptions of people and places. I love the people, and the clothing, the best. I’m not usually all that interested in clothes but the finery of Atlanta’s Civil War era society scene is awfully colorful, elaborate, and foreign to me. This second part of the book has closed in a little bit, I feel, to relatively few characters: Scarlett, Melanie, Miss Pittypat, and Rhett Butler being the features. Scarlett continues to be a character who is not likeable, exactly (I wouldn’t want to be her friend; not that she’d want to be mine!), but is fascinating and I have to say sympathetic – in the sense that I sympathize with her frustrations, even her desire for simplicity, joy, pleasure, attention. She’s human; I understand her. Melanie is less human because she’s so innocent and trusting; it almost stretches one’s credulity, although I guess Southern ladies were trained to be just that, so maybe it’s historically accurate. Miss Pittypat is definitely a caricature, but a well-formed one.

Captain Rhett Butler I find intriguing. I never did understand Scarlett’s passion for Ashley; he seems to be a pretty face and a romantic ideal, and little else. Pardon me for parroting Gerald, but they’re certainly not suited for one another. Rhett, though, should be just up Scarlett’s alley. He’s got spunk and attitude, not to mention he’s also handsome (several mentions of how BIG he is, too) and has plenty of money. Maybe they’re too much alike, with too much irreverence. Certainly he’s not ready to pay her the kind of attention, flattery, compliments, and silliness that she wants. But I find the prospect of Rhett for Scarlett to be much more exciting than the prospect of Ashley.

We’ve moved a little bit away from the slave characters, too, although we did get a brief sketch of “Uncle” Peter and his control over the household. My memory of Mammy dims, but I’m still bothered by a feeling that she (and many of the slaves depicted as loyal and content in their lot) are painted with a political perspective we no longer find appropriate.

Gone with the Wind continues to be a feat: of beautiful, evocative, fine writing and literary descriptions; of character sketches; of historical fiction with all the details; and of suspenseful drama that keeps me turning the pages. I have lots of other reading to do, so I’m putting this one down til the next readalong date (we discuss part 3 on Sept. 5), but with great difficulty! I am grateful that this readalong finally got me reading this classic. Its fine reputation is deserving.

As usual, don’t forget to stop by The Heroine’s Bookshelf for discussion of part 2, and please do join us if you can!

book beginnings on Friday: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (audio)

Thanks to Katy at A Few More Pages for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Ooh, I’m very excited about this one. For some reason, I’ve been hearing a lot lately about this (not new) book and am anxious to get started. We begin:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.

Okay, well, it’s not a GASPworthy start, but I still feel the pull. For one thing, the idea of “hard” blue skies and “desert-clear” air, and a Far West atmosphere, feels both familiar and alluring to me. I’m all in.

What are you reading?

Don Quixote by Cervantes, trans. by J.M. Cohen: The First Part

Thank goodness Cervantes gives us a “First Part” division right at the halfway mark of this big book, because I need it. I have a huge number of galleys to read for review, and the Gone with the Wind readalong going on as well. So Don Quixote is getting a break. But, I am enjoying it and will be picking it back up! So, eventually, expect a Second Part.

For a chunkster, this is surprisingly easy reading. Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho are just goofily traversing the Spanish countryside, having haphazard and silly adventures which they view in different terms. At the beginning, Sancho’s perspective is that of reality, more or less, with an ongoing desire to please his master and see things his master’s way, and Don Quixote’s perspective is entirely fantastical, based on the novels of chivalry he has read until his brain became mush. (The perils of novel-reading, children!) As they continue their adventures, though, Sancho buys into the fantasy – mostly. He retains a more cynical view that his master, who is completely off his rocker where errantry is concerned.

I was definitely intimidated by its bulk, but these 900+ pages of story are split into little episodes only 2-3 pages long in some cases. What I’m saying is, if you’re intimidated by the bulk of Don Quixote, don’t be! It’s remarkably easy, and entertaining, reading.

Don Quixote is a gentleman of leisure living in the countryside of La Mancha. (This is Spain in, erm, the 1600’s or 1500’s? Published in early 1600’s. I’m not too clear on the precise setting in time, 16th vs. 17th century Spain, and the niceties thereof, not being a strong point in my education to date.) He becomes so obsessed with his novels of chivalry and the knights errant and their lady loves and great deeds, etc., that his mind becomes confused. He outfits himself in a comical assortment of bits and pieces and substitute parts, thinking he is an elegant knight. He roams the countryside on his tired old horse, with a squire named Sancho on a mule, imagining that he achieves feats of gallant and courageous battle and strength, when in fact he (famously) does battle with windmills, releases dangerous criminals from the King’s custody, gets himself and Sancho beaten repeatedly, makes promises he clearly will not be able to keep, and generally makes a fool of himself.

The book, which was originally published in two volumes (thus, two parts!), follows a meandering story line; it is more a series of small adventures, the kind that might be published serially. Some of these adventures leave Don Quixote and Sancho sidelined while we meet other temporary protagonists. These are a welcome respite when Don Quixote’s ridiculous behavior becomes tiresome. I get most excited and engrossed in his adventures when there are plenty of other characters milling about; just Don Quixote and Sancho together can get a little bit repetitive. It is easy to get annoyed with Don Quixote because he is exasperating; but this is intended. He is a ridiculous character.

I am surprised at what an easy and quick read this is turning out to be, and at how often I giggled aloud. Don’t fear the chunky Classic of Literature, friends. Although setting the book aside for now, I look forward to returning to it. Part the Second to come.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

I am tackling another classic, this time via audiobook in the car. Unabridged, of course! Here is your teaser. Happy Tuesday.

I remember her bringing me up to a truculent and red-faced old gentleman covered all over with orders and ribbons, and hissing into my ear, in a tragic whisper which must have been perfectly audible to everybody in the room, the most astounding details. I simply fled.

Gone with the Wind part 1 (ch. 1-7)

Oh my. Am I ever glad that I have finally begun to read this book! I shouldn’t have waited so long. It IS a chunkster, and I AM busy right now. But what a book.

How did I get here?

The Great Gone with the Wind Readalong is hosted by The Heroine’s Bookshelf blog. This is what finally prompted me to read a book that’s been on my list for years. Thank you so much, Heroine.

Where am I coming from?

I feel like this is weird, but I have never read this book, never seen the movie, and had only the slightest and vaguest idea what it was about. All this, and I am a Southerner (to the extent that a Houstonian is a Southerner… that’s a different post). In my mind, this book is a little bit crossed with The Glass Menagerie. I don’t know why. I read the latter, in high school, although I do not seem to have a lasting impression of it. I think I did admire it; I remember the glass menagerie itself; I remember the suitors and my frustration with the mother. But there are some blurry lines between the one masterpiece of Southern-set fiction which I have never read, and the one I have. By the end of this readalong I certainly expect to have that cleared up!

What’s the drill?

Erin of The Heroine’s Bookshelf is hosting this readalong that involves 5 discussion dates, by which we will all have read 5 sections of the book. I am doing my best to pace myself so that the section in question is still fresh when the discussion comes along. So, we can all hop over there to join in a discussion, which I certainly will. But! I have my thoughts to share with you here, too.

What do I think so far?

This is an extraordinary work, just in the sense of evocative description, Mitchell’s ability to place me firmly in the time-and-place. At the end of the first page, I was hooked and admiring. She chooses very unique adverbs that draw my attention and let me see what she sees. The twins’ “long legs, booted to the knee and thick with saddle muscles, [were] crossed negligently.” Crossed negligently? She could have spent a paragraph trying to tell me what she has shown with that one adverb. “They were as much alike as two bolls of cotton.” Or earlier, Scarlett’s “green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor,” because “her true self was poorly concealed.” I already feel like I know a great deal about all 3 of these characters – with no dialogue – and all this on page one! I’m all the way in.

As promised (threatened?) by Erin, I was indeed tempted to just rush past this first section and keep going. I’ve decided to stick with the schedule, though, which allows me to read other books in between. Part one was delightful, and able to stand alone, at least for a bit. I got to know Scarlett, appreciated her odd and not completely likeable personality and traits. This is a good stopping point, as a chapter of her life ends; part two will clearly begin the next. I look forward to it.

Please be sure to stop by the hosted readalong discussion, too.

Othello by William Shakespeare

Wow, what a work. There’s a reason we still read, admire, study, and act this play today, what, 4 centuries after its creation. I read this, like The Taming of the Shrew, years ago, but I needed the refresher for the performance I’m going to see tonight.

What can I say about Othello? Othello is “the Moor,” a general in the Venetian army. He has happily married the beautiful Desdemona, and they have set out together to Cyprus where Othello has been posted. They are a happy and loving couple, but Shakespeare gives them a tragic fate. There are men about who do not wish them well. Iago is the main villain; he is jealous of Cassio, who Othello chooses as a second in command. He uses Rodrigo, who wanted to marry Desdemona, as a pawn. Iago tricks Othello, who believes him to be a faithful friend, into thinking that Desdemona and Cassio are lovers. He convinces Rodrigo that Desdemona will be his if he will just kill Cassio; really, Iago wants them both dead, and also encourages Othello to kill his wife. His intention is to gain himself political power. He also uses his wife, Emilia, servant to Desdemona. The handkerchief is the fateful detail: Othello gave it to Desdemona; Iago obtains it and plants it on Cassio; and it seals the innocent, saintly Desdemona’s fate. The final tragic scene ends with Othello’s murder of Desdemona, his discovery of Iago’s treachery, and his suicide.

It is classic Shakespearean tragedy, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet in that final scene as Othello laments over his beloved wife’s body. The important difference, of course, is that there was no murder in Romeo and Juliet; Othello cannot be an entirely sympathetic character. It is especially frustrating to hear the faithful Emilia argue Desdemona’s innocence and have Othello reject it. But Iago, as I said, is the real villain; Othello is victim to his machinations.

I enjoyed this play all over again and always recommend it, as I do all of Shakespeare’s work. I’ve always been a big fan. I tend to think that I prefer the comedies, but in rereading his tragedies I find the same genius and the same ability to wrench my emotions in the desired direction. He was truly a great artist. I do have a fondness for the comedies, though; I forget, until I see or read them again, how accessible and universal the humor is. Last summer I went to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as produced by the Houston Shakespeare Festival, and marveled, once more, at how appealing, funny, and fun it is. Please! If you’re in Houston, don’t miss this annual summer event. Again, this year they’re producing Othello and The Taming of the Shrew, and it’s FREE, and you can sit on the hill with your dog and/or your picnic dinner and/or your beer, wine, whatever. Couldn’t be better. Check out the Miller Outdoor Theatre schedule for details.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

I am sure I have read this play before, because I have some vague memory of it; but I don’t know when. My reread is inspired by the Houston Shakespeare Festival: I’m going to go see both this, and Othello, in the next week. Fellow Houstonians, don’t miss this event! These two plays are both showing 4-5 times, in the next 8 days or so, at Miller Outdoor Theatre. For FREE. It’s an awesome summer tradition; I’ve been attending the Shakespeare Fest every summer since I was small. Don’t think I’m going to find time to reread Othello, sadly.

So. The Taming of the Shrew is not one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays (and was rather hard to find at Half Price Books. Lots of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thus my very sweet, but visually unstimulating, little Yale Shakespeare blue cloth-bound hardback, pictured), but I think it’s a nice little romp. It’s a comedy involving two sisters: Bianca, the younger, has several suitors; she is attractive and admired. Her older sister Katherina, however, is very difficult, sharp-tongued, scolding, and generally unattractive to prospective suitors. Their father Baptista forbids any suitors to Bianca until such time as Katherina is married. I’m not entirely clear on whether it was his express intention or not, but the result of this is that Bianca’s suitors set out looking for a husband for Katherina, aka the shrew. They find a willing suitor, Petruchio, who feels that Kate’s wealth is worth the fight, and he has a plan. Thus the title: Petruchio sets out to tame the shrew, using such ugly, abusive, domineering, insane behavior that she gives up being “shrewish” and submits to his every desire, agreeing with any crazy thing he says. (The sun is the moon. An old man is a beautiful young maiden. Yes, husband, anything you say.) Petruchio weds, and tames, Kate; sundry other characters wed too. Lucentio marries Bianca, and Hortensio marries a widow (also for her money). The three new husbands make a bet on their wives, as to who can be shown to be most obedient. Petruchio’s reformed shrew wins him the bet, and she ends the play with a speech arguing that a woman should serve and obey her “lord” (husband).

There has been much controversy over this play, pretty much since it was born, regarding gender/marital roles, misogyny, feminism. I’m a bit inclined to agree with the camp that says Shakespeare was actually on the women’s side and was being instructively tongue-in-cheek, but mostly I’m willing to sit back and hear what you think; I don’t find it entirely clear what Shakespeare had in mind, from this distance. (I never did finish Fraser’s Young Shakespeare and thus have not started his Shakespeare: The Later Years. I found the writing awfully dry. If I ever finish these, or find a more palatable biography, perhaps I’ll take a stab at pretending I know what he had in mind. Until then, I am agnostic on this point.) At any rate, it’s an interesting study. Yes, Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is offensive; yes, her final speech makes me shiver. But she wasn’t a respectably independent woman early on; she was just kind of bitchy. Neither of them is sympathetic. So, it’s not as clear-cut as, Petruchio destroys Kate’s fine and virtous strong-woman spirit, or anything.

At any rate, I’m almost certain the upcoming performance will be the first time I’ve seen this play onstage, and I look forward to seeing how the Festival handles the political problems of The Taming of the Shrew. You can expect to see my write-up of the show soon.

Anybody read this play? How do you react to the chauvinism?

Teaser Tuesdays: Don Quixote by Cervantes, trans. by J.M. Cohen

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

Here ’tis! The Classics Challenge continues.

My teaser today comes from Don Quixote by Cervantes, translated by J.M. Cohen. From page 158:

When Don Quixote realized that Sancho was making fun of him, he got so furiously angry that he lifted his lance and dealt him two blows which would have relieved the master of the duty of paying his squire’s wages, unless perhaps to his heirs, had they caught him on the head instead of on the shoulders. But when Sancho found himself so poorly rewarded for his joke, he was afraid that his master might carry the matter farther, and said to him with great humility: ‘Gently, your worship; I was only joking, I swear.’

I am just beginning this book (am not even to page 158 yet, and my edition runs over 900 pages!), but I already believe that this is a representative passage. There have been several instances of Don Quixote losing his temper and dealing blows; and this passage was chosen at random. I think the dealing of blows may be a theme.

I’m excited to be into such a formidable classic text. What are you reading these days?

Challenge Update

Well here we are in June. It would be nice if I were on the ball and posting these challenge updates every month, but that does not appear to be at all realistic. My last update was at the beginning of April. Let’s check in again.

Where Are You Reading? is hosted by Sheila at One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books. The idea is to read one book from each of the 50 states within the 2011 year. (Bonus points are awarded for foreign locations.) Take a look at my map to see where I’ve been. So far, I’ve read in 17 states:
New York
South Dakota
New Jersey
New Mexico
….and 9 foreign locations:
Canada: Toronto and BC
St. Mark’s

This is a fun challenge because, so far, I’m not hunting down locations at all, just keeping track; and it’s interesting to see where I’m reading.

The Classics Challenge is hosted by Courtney at Stiletto Storytime, and I signed up for the bachelor’s degree level, meaning 10 classics in 2011. I’m catching up a bit, having now read — classics, and it’s been a great motivator for me, too. I still aspire to a few long ones this year; on my list are Gone with the Wind, Don Quixote and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, among others. But so far, I’ve read:

  1. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

What’s In a Name? is hosted by Beth Fish Reads. The goal is to read books with certain title attributes.

Well hopefully this one will come along all by itself.

I have found challenges in general to be great fun. I’ve only had this blog, oh, 8 months or so now; but it’s really expanded my world in ways that are satisfying both in my job and in my personal life. It’s a bit like having a book club that I can meet with whenever it’s convenient for me, lol. I get book recommendations (both for me, personally, and for purchase for the library where I work). I find out about book trends. I even got a gig writing book reviews for Shelf Awareness. The best parts are the parts that involve being part of a community. Memes like Teaser Tuesdays and Book Beginnings on Fridays call for participation; and challenges are another important way in which I get to interact. So thank you, challengers!

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