Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Impelled by the recent masterpiece theater showings of everything Jane Austen, I decided that I should finally give in and read Northanger Abbey. I hate to say bad things about Ms. Austen. I really am one of her greatest fans. So I'll get my negative criticism over with right away, and then offer up my praises to her for everything else. There are far too many run-on sentences in this story. You would almost mistake her for Faulkner. Then again, it is her first novel, and she wrote it when she was only 23. So I can forgive her for almost any mistakes I notice in this story. Especially when you consider that she had to write the whole darn thing out, instead of using a handy computer--like people in our day.

There, now that that is over with: the story line is charming, Ms. Moreland's innocence is refreshing, and I think that I like Mr. Henry Tilney the most out of all Austen's male characters. A girl likes to be teased a little bit every once in a while, and Tilney seems to know the perfect balance between teasing and being serious and sincere.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Smallest Book in the World, by Joshua Reichert

Today I took five of the kids that I work with to the San Diego Central Library to visit their Special Collections room, where they have rare dictionaries on display. The three ladies that work there seemed so excited that we had come in, they all surrounded us and led us carefully around the small room to each of the glass cases. Old books really do fascinate me. It fascinates me that you have to keep them in secure cases with the light and humidity regulated, and that when you pull the books out to look at them the librarians give you special gloves and hover over you, ready to risk their lives for the book you are inspecting. It was incredible to me, the number of items they had on display in such a small space: A replica of the Rosetta Stone, the first dictionaries by Johnson and Webster, examples of writings on papyrus, reeds, copper, wood, and even little soft circular clay pieces that children held in the palm of their hands to practice writing, which they could then wipe off and start over again on--similar to a slate. Of particular interest to me were the books with intricate calligraphy on vellum, since I've been practicing calligraphy so much lately.

The crowning jewel of the whole trip, however, was when we saw the Smallest Book in the World. The ladies led us up to a glass case with many different miniature books inside, and told us how it was very fashionable back in the 1600s-1800s for people to carry around miniature books. They would carry the books in their pockets or next to their heart. Anne Boleyn supposedly even carried a little miniature copy of the Bible with her as she made her way to her death by beheading. In the middle of the glass case was a small box that looked something like a jewelry box. And there it was, the Smallest Book in the World. I capitalize it because I think it is so fun to say. The book is so tiny that there is a little magnifying glass hovering over it, in order for you to see it, and still it doesn't appear any bigger than a pin-head. Here is the description given by Die Gestalten Verlag, a visual design company:

"With its economical measurements of 2.4 x 2.6 mm, the Smallest Book in the World is indeed what it claims to be. A treasure for all bibliophiles, the tiny leather-bound volume is a glorious example of loving obsessive precision, an exhaustive exploration of the medium's potential. Manufactured in the traditional book city Leipzig, no other published edition comes close in size and execution. Replete with an exclusive alphabet by renowned German typographer Joshua Reichert the delicate but by no means fragile collector's item also contains a magnifying glass - for those brave enough to turn the pages, that is!"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1899. She wrote it in response to her own nervous condition, and the suffering she felt when following a doctor’s orders to basically do nothing (including write) in order to cure her symptoms. This story fascinated me the first time I read it because it seemed to me that it was one of the very first clearly written expressions from someone with a mental health illness of what it was like to be inside her mind. The obsession that the main character has with the wallpaper in her room, the old decomposing house, and the way the young mother is shut off from her family and friends, including her own child, leaves you with a dark impression. Even more deranged is the way she writes of the same things over and over, as though she has forgotten what she has written previously, and has been driven into such a state of mind that she is no longer able to comprehend what is really going on around her. Worse yet is the very end of the story, with the image of the now completely escalated young woman crawling eerily around the room, hugging so tightly to the wall that she leaves a mark on it as she continues ‘round and ‘round and ‘round. I think it's important to realize that the wallpaper in the room isn't really the main idea of the story, as one might think. I believe that Gilman was hoping for us to focus on the characters' complete loss of rational thought, and how being locked up in a room has heightened her symptoms. The wallpaper is not what is making her sick. The wallpaper is a victim of her mind; a mind which has been kept depleted by doctor's orders, left to run rampant and feed on the only other thing available to it.

To read The Yellow Wallpaper, follow this link:
The Yellow Wallpaper

To read an explanation by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, click here:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People is the story of a middle aged doctor in a small town. The doctor works with the town leadership to establish a local Bath (basically, a hot springs, where sickly people come to get better). After some suspicious illnesses and conclusive tests the doctor realizes that the baths are actually poisoned by chemicals from a local tannery. The towns financial stability has come to depend on the baths, and the money they would need to spend in order to correct the problem would be a very large sum. The rest of the play consists of the reactions of each of the different social structures to the news, and the different ways each group tries to either spin the story, cover it up, or benefit from it. The social structures are represented in different characters: There is the media, the leadership, the armed services, the home-owners, the educators, the family, and even the local drunk. Each of the characters has many different layers, as is evidenced by the main character, Dr. Stockmann. You both love Dr. Stockmann for his passion and devotion to change and hate him because of his obvious prejudices against others, especially those who are uneducated or "beneath" him.

One of the most provocative things about the play is the way that Ibsen takes each of the individuals' negative and positive characteristics and drives them to the extreme. In this way you are able to see both the positive influence that they have and the negative. The only character who seems to be protected from this tactic is Captain Horster, which gives an interesting insight on what Ibsen's opinion of the armed services must have been.

Probably one of the most chilling phrases Ibsen uses is when Dr. Stockmann says "What does the destruction of a community matter, if it lives on lies!" Doesn't that make you cringe in fear for our own community and country, with so many allegations of fraud and deception? What would the destruction of our society matter, if all we stand for are lies?

Night, by Elie Wiesel

I feel almost ashamed to admit the real reasons that I absolutely loved Night. However, if we are going to be brutally honest, I read this book at a time in my life when I was struggling with the most deadening depression that I have ever felt. I felt abandoned by everything and everyone, even the God that I put all my trust and love in. I was so devoid of feeling. Like someone once said to me "I couldn't even cry in Little Women when Beth received her piano." In fact, there was a time when I thought I'd lost the ability to cry.

I'm not saying that Night cured me of my depression. However, when I read this book I felt for the first time that there was someone on the planet that could express what I had not been able to. I immediately felt guilt-stricken for trying to compare my comparably perfect life with that of a Holocaust survivor. Nonetheless, I can't deny the connection that was made in my heart. My emptiness mimicked his own.

Whether you are looking to learn more about the Holocaust, more about the very basest of human nature, or to simply learn more about yourself, I would suggest "Night."

Here is a little excerpt from Wiesel's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: "I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. And then I explain to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must--at that moment--become the center of the universe."