Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

By: Mark Twain
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Great Quotes:

“Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world. It transmits itself like physical form and feature.”

“You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is one of Mark Twain’s less known classics.  That said, A Connecticut Yankee is still worth your time.
The book is an examination of how a person thinks.  The main character, Hank Morgan, attempts to deconstruct Camelot and built 19th century America.  He struggles because of how deeply the status quo is ingrained in the society.  The people of Camelot, from King Arthur to the lowest slave, have been taught and trained that this is the ideal society.  Hank Morgan struggles to make a lasting influence because of these convictions.
A Connecticut Yankee argues that we cannot simultaneously improve society and maintain the status quo.  We must select one or the other.  If we choose progress, we must be willing to think new thoughts, do new things, and embrace the unknown.  We must discover our unperceived shortcomings and overcome them.  A Connecticut Yankee is a classic because it will be forever timely.  We study history because it is easier for us to see the errors of the past than it is our own.  Do we have less errors of thought than King Arthur?  Perhaps.  But maybe Arthur’s errors are just easier for us to see.  Maybe our errors are just as numerous and just as appalling.  Maybe we have grown comfortable with our errors.

Things to take note of:

1.      I loved the pure silliness of several of the scenes described.  For example, the knights of the round table begin to ride bicycles.



Tuesday, September 4, 2012


By: Joseph Conrad

Great Quotes:
“A man betrayed is a man destroyed.”
“A transgression, a crime, entering a man’s existence, eats it up like a malignant growth, consumes it like a fever.”

            Nostromo is a phenomenal book.  But, be warned, you must be patient and persistent to get to the good parts of the book.  Observing how the silver corrupts Nostromo is fascinating.  We can relate to the book because we all face temptations.  This book is about self-mastery.  Nostromo expounds on Christ's piercing question, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"  Matt. 16:26.  Here, Nostromo’s integrity failed him and he became the silver’s slave.  By stealing the silver from the Gould's mine, Nostromo betrays and destroys his "incorruptible" self-image.  In time, the silver betrays and leads to Nostromo's destruction. 
            I also loved Conrad’s case study of a flawed character.  Nostromo has so many good qualities; he is brave and generous.  But he also becomes a thief.  The tension between Nostromo’s selfish and selfless attributes is enthralling.  And it makes Nostromo infinitely more human.  Joseph Conrad has written one of the most interesting and thought-provoking characters that I have ever read. 
            Suffice it to say, that the book is deeply thought-provoking and worthy of its high praise.  Conrad develops his characters and the country of Costaguana wonderfully.  I highly recommend this book.
 Things to take note of:
1.      Joseph Conrad is an inspiration for aspiring writers everywhere.  He is one of the greatest novelists of the English language, but did not learn the language until he was an adult.
2.      In one of the most intriguing parts of the book, Nostromo has his girlfriend cut the silver buttons off of his coat.  Comparing this to the end of the book demonstrates how the silver has corrupted Nostromo.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

By: Mark Twain

Great Quote:
“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

            Mark Twain begins Tom Sawyer with a brief introduction.  “Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”  This quotation begs the question, “Why would Mark Twain want adults to remember their childhood?”  Tom Sawyer has several qualities that adults should attempt to maintain or recapture.  I will discuss only three of the many that stood out to me.
            First, Tom Sawyer is creative.  Remember how vivid your imagination was as a child?  A vivid imagination would help most adults as they tackle the daily tasks they are confronted with.  Imagine if you thought as creatively as Tom does when you were assigned tasks.  Think of how Tom reacted when he is forced to whitewash the fence.  Not only is the work done, Tom comes out ahead.  Tom Sawyer’s solves almost all of his problems with his unquenchable creativity.
            Next, Tom is resourceful.  When he is lost in the cave, he blows out a candle to give himself more time.  He rations his food and finds a spring.  And when the candles burn out he takes a piece of kite string and continues to search for a way out.  This quality of tenacious resourcefulness is something that we often lose as adults.  But children have it.  Watch a preschool age child that wants a treat that is out of reach.  Stay hidden while they make their attempts.  The child will build ingenious towers and try to scale cabinets.  Now this is not always great behavior, but it is resourceful. 
            Finally, Tom is admirable for his courage.  Think about how he treated Muff Potter.  Consider the courage it would take to speak the truth in front of the Injun Joe in your life.  Imagine how much better a world we would live in if we all had Tom’s courage to speak out against injustice.
            The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a great book.  Mark Twain is one of the greatest authors of all time and this story is well deserving of the praise it receives.  It is timeless.

Something to take note of:
1.      Mark Twain is a master of humorous writing, which is a very difficult task.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wuthering Heights

By: Emily Brontë
Great Quotes:
“‘They are afraid of nothing,” I grumbled, watching their approach through the window. ‘Together, they would brave Satan and all his legions.’”
“Would you like to live with your soul in the grave?”
“Now, my bonny lad, you are mine! And we’ll see if one tree won’t grow as crooked as another, with the same wind to twist it!”

This was a great book.  Emily Brontë’s masterpiece is artfully written.  I can think of few characters which I despise more than Heathcliff.  Wuthering Heights shows that great writers are artists that paint with letters and words.  I felt this book had two great interconnected themes.
First, I thought Brontë’s work was an allegory about the eventual defeat of Lucifer.  Here, Heathcliff represents Satan.  Wuthering Heights represents the world.  And Thrushcross Grange loosely represents Heaven.  Heathcliff is brought by Mr. Earnshaw to Wuthering Heights.  In time, he comes to rule and reign over the estate.  He is a tyrant and seeks to pervert and destroy all goodness.  He is especially intent on destroying those who are descended from the land owning class.  The land owners—the Earnshaws and Lintons—represent the sons and daughters of God.  Notice how Heathcliff refuses to live at the Grange.  He is not comfortable there.  Heathcliff fails to accomplish his ultimate designs.  He finds no lasting satisfaction in tormenting the descendants.  He is unable to destroy the land-owners.  And ironically, it is Heathcliff’s actions that bring the Catherine and Harenton together.
Second, the book is about the indomitable spirit of humanity.  Wuthering Heights reminded me of Victor Frankl’s inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning.  Notice how Heathcliff can only destroy those that allow themselves to be corrupted.  Heathcliff destroys Isabella, Hindley, and Linton.  But he is unable to destroy Catherine Jr. and Harenton.  None of us can avoid life’s pain, sickness, and setbacks.  But we can overcome and conquer them.  We will not all end up with our ideal lives, but we should all struggle to find happiness.  Remember that near the end of the book Harenton is still struggling to read.  This was Brontë giving us insight into his character.  He has love, land, and money.  Harenton isn’t satisfied.  He wants to read.  Harenton personifies the “unconquerable soul” spoken of in Henley’s poem “Invictus.”

Things to take note of:
1.      Unfortunately for all of us, this is the only novel published by Emily Brontë.
2.      When Heathcliff is found dead he “seemed to smile” and his cut was not bleeding.  Was Heathcliff a man or evil incarnate?
3.      I think the Moors were a representation of Hell.  Notice how Heathcliff—the devil—loves to wander around there.  And after Isabella marries Heathcliff—making a deal with the devil—she gains her freedom by traveling alone through the moors to the “beacon-light of the Grange.”
4.      Compare and contrast the physical features of Linton Heathcliff and Harenton Earnshaw.  Brontë is using the tangible to demonstrate the incorporeal.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Time Machine and The Invisible Man

By: H.G. Wells
Barnes & Noble occasionally combines several of a brilliant author’s shorter works in one publication.  Such is the case this week as we examine two of H.G. Wells classics: The Time Machine and The Invisible Man.  I will discuss each below in turn.
The Time Machine
Great Quotes:
“We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity.”
“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. Without them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence. ”

            This book had me hooked from the beginning.  I loved the abstract discussion in the opening pages about time—the 4th dimension.  I particularly enjoyed the light mental exercises that Wells puts the reader through in the Time Traveler’s discussion of humans interaction with time. I also liked the vivid descriptions of the earth as the Time Traveler moved further into the future.
            I felt like one of the great themes of this book was the need to be a complete person.  The Time Traveler arrives at a time when humanity has evolved into two distinct species.  The Eloi live on the surface.  They live and appear childlike.   In contrast, the Morlock’s live underground and are nocturnal.  They are animal-like.  They eat the Eloi and attempt to capture the Time Traveler.  Wells hints that both the Eloi and Morlock culture has become stagnant.  I think that Wells’ message is that in order to reach our potential we must continue to learn and grow.  In the end, both the Morlock’s and the Eloi are seen as something between human and beast.  The Eloi are too trivial to be extensively pitied; the Morlock’s too brutal to be admired.  In other words, in order to be a complete person we must strive to balance our child and the beast inside of us.  When we find that harmony we will be able to live a rich and rewarding life

Things to take note of:
1.       I really became a huge fan of H.G. Wells.  This book was an interesting story and inspired some deep thoughts.
2.      Notice how intriguing and relevant this book still is.  A mark of a classic is how well the story holds up under the strain of time.  The Time Machine was originally published in 1895 and is still gripping.  (This observation really goes for both books.)

The Invisible Man
Great Quotes:
“Alone—it is wonderful how little a man can do alone! To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end.”
“I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got.”

            The Invisible Man was an interesting book that dealt with many issues.  Obviously The Invisible Man screams the question: “What would you do if no one would ever know that you did it?”  The book also deals with the ability of power to corrupt and destroy.
            This book’s main theme was a theoretical discussion of crime.  Griffin begins his crime spree with small and, arguably, necessary crimes.  We trace Griffin’s criminal acts as they escalate from trespass to murder.  It is interesting to note that every one of Griffin’s criminal acts is motivated by selfishness.  On the other hand, Kemp represents the antithesis of crime—justice.  Kemp leads the attack on Griffin, but also attempts to protect Griffin from further harm once caught. 
It is also interesting to observe that Griffin must convince others to assist him in order to succeed.  Star Trek’s Mr. Spock perhaps said it best when he said, “Without followers, evil cannot spread.”  Griffin approaches Kemp seeking a place to rest and gain strength.  Griffin offers to let Kemp share the profits.  Evil always attempts to purchase the legitimacy of justice.  But Kemp recognizes that if we do not allow evil to rest, it can and will be destroyed.

Things to take note of:
1.      I truly loved the ending and how Wells reincorporated Mr. Marvel into the story.
2.      Griffin’s dead body is “naked and pitiful” and the townspeople cover him so they cannot see him.  When evil is destroyed, it is almost always because goodness has “exposed” it.
3.      Notice how the police direct and organize the effort to stop Griffin, but only when the community acts together is the evil destroyed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Peter Pan

By: J.M. Barrie
Great Quotes:
“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
“Pan, who and what art thou?" [Hook] cried huskily.
"I'm youth, I'm joy," Peter answered at a venture, "I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”

            This book really surprised me.  Maybe that is because I grew up watching and loving the Disney adaptation.  Where the movie is very silly and breezy, the book tackles some very serious issues.  I think children would enjoy the book, but it is probably best received by an older audience than the Disney movie.  My point is probably best illustrated by several examples.  First, Tinker Bell calls several characters a “silly ass.”  I was surprised to find this language used in a children’s book.  Second, Captain Hook and even Peter Pan—to a lesser extent—were more sinister in the book.  Third, Peter Pan flippantly kills several pirates.  This was somewhat disturbing to the mental picture I had of Peter (admittedly, my mental picture is the same as the Disney character—silly and innocent).  Please don’t get the wrong impression; the book was truly delightful to read.  It just wasn’t what I was expecting.
            This book is an examination of childhood.  Peter Pan is the personification of youth.  To his credit, Peter is creative, happy, and carefree.  But Peter is also undependable, finicky, and self-centered.  To explore the nuances of children Barrie gives us two polar opposites: Hook and Wendy. 
Hook is childhood’s negative attributes personified.  Hook, like Peter, is creative and impulsive.  But Hook is mean, selfish, and a cheater.  Hook is youth stripped of its virtues.
To contrast this, we have Wendy.  Wendy is youth’s virtues amplified.  She is caring, happy, and charitable. 
In the middle of these great opposites sits Peter.  He is the character we can all relate to.   Barrie has given us an image of ourselves in Peter Pan.  It is ours to decide to embrace, and thus become more like, Hook or Wendy.
            Peter also personifies life and vitality as the book explores aging, life, and death.  The book’s final chapter becomes pensive and philosophical as we watch Mrs. Darling, Wendy, Jane, and Margaret age.  Barrie reminds us that life is fleeting when Peter returns and cannot remember Tinker Bell.  And Barrie hints at our fear of death when Wendy sighs and says, “If only I could go with you” when Jane returns to Neverland.  But Wendy is too old and Peter—or life—cannot wait for her.  We feel a tinge of sadness and wish that we too could join Peter and fly back to the Neverland of our childhood. 

Things to take note of:
1.      Loved Barrie’s use of the word, Quietus which means: 1. a finishing stroke; anything that effectually ends or settles: Having given a quietus to the argument, she left. 2. discharge or release from life. 3. a period of retirement or inactivity.
2.      Notice how adept Barrie is at telling a story.  He invites you into the story and becomes your storyteller.  He allows the reader a chance to escape back into childhood.
3.      I think that Disney most missed the mark with Tiger Lily and the rest of the Piccaninny Tribe.  In the book, they are a very noble and courageous people.

Moby Dick

By: Herman Melville
Great Quotes:
"From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."
“The most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

Moby Dick is a great read.  Melville’s writing is beautiful and descriptive.  While many things can be gained from Moby Dick, I felt the book was about failed leadership and the individual’s quest to know itself.
First, the whaling ship, the Pequod, is a case study in failed leadership.  Melville gives us this case study in the first-mate—Starbuck.  Starbuck is clearly a flawed character.  Starbuck has all the attributes of a perfect leader except courage.  Melville writes Starbuck to identify and demonstrate the need for courage.  Consistently throughout the book, Starbuck has the intelligence to question Ahab.  Starbuck can clearly see that Ahab’s quest will end in financial ruin and possibly destruction.  And yet, Starbuck stands next to the captain throughout the whole endeavor.  I felt most sorry for Starbuck when the Pequod goes down.  The quote about courage above foreshadows the entire book.  In command of the Pequod we have Ahab—an “utterly fearless man”—and Starbuck—a coward.  Melville has given us the recipe for disaster.
Second, the book spoke to me about the individual’s quest to know and understand itself.  This was most effectively demonstrated in chapter 99—“The Doubloon.”  In this chapter many of the ship’s crew approach a doubloon nailed to the mainmast.  In the coin each sees something different.  The doubloon acts as a personality mirror.  In the exposition of what each sees in the doubloon we are able to understand each of the characters.  While the characters do not use the opportunity to understand themselves, Moby Dick gives the reader a chance to reflect and comprehend itself.
One other fascinating aspects of Moby Dick was the pacing.    The book begins slowly and ponderously.  As the book progresses, the pace accelerates.  The pacing gives the book the foreboding feeling of sinking faster and faster into a whirlpool.  Melville uses 21 chapters before the Pequod even leaves Nantucket, but only in the last 3 chapters does Captain Ahab tangle with Moby Dick.  The pace of the book is truly a masterpiece in itself.

Things to take note of:
1.      Compare and contrast the ships that the Pequod meets.  I think Melville uses these ships to demonstrate several things (it’s a work-in-progress for me, or else I would write more on it).  What do you think they mean?
2.      Take note of the contrast between how the crew acts and reacts to situations.  In my mind, this is one of the great comparisons that Melville was trying to make.
3.      Ahab and Pip’s friendship signals Ahab’s growing obsessive insanity.
4.      One of my favorite chapters was “The Sermon.”  Father Mapple really sets the stage for the entire book.