#96 ~ Melmoth the Wanderer

August 27, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Books, Reading | 6 Comments
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Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin

Earlier this year Devourer of Books posted about the Penguin Books giveaway and I quickly joined for my chance to get a free book. When I found out that the Penguin Classic book assigned to me was Melmoth the Wanderer, I had flashbacks to Junior Year Honors English taught by Sister Irene Mary. Our final project for that class was a 20 to 25 page term paper. Sister gave us options as to what that paper would be about: architecture, art, or literature. I chose literature. Once that decision was made, Sister selected the book for us. There were only three of us who chose literature. The day that the assignments were handed out, three brand new books were proped up on the chalk board: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, My Antonia by Willa Cather, and Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery. I was the one singled out to readVanity Fair. Even in high school I enjoyed a reading challenge. Still, my heart sunk when I noticed that my book was twice as thick as My Antonia.

Melmouth the Wanderer tells the story of Jonathon Melmoth, a man who comes into his uncle’s estate upon that miserly man’s death. Before he died, his uncle asked him to destory the portrait in his private room along with the papers in the drawer. After Johnathon believes that he sees someone in the house when his uncle dies, he cannot resist the tempation of reading those papers, which end up telling the story of the Melmoth family. Thus begins his trek toward selling his soul.

The tone, themes and narrative methods are classically gothic. Everything is dark and foreboding. From the moment you enter into Melmoth’s manner, you sense that you better watch over your shoulder. The history of the Spanish sailor who rescues Johnathon from the cliff sweeps you away into the world of forced vocations to a Jesuit convent and his multiple attempts at escape despite the cost to his safety and sanity. What made this novel difficult to read was the narrative style. Whereas it is typical for a paragraph to start with each new speaker, Maturin included the dialog of two or more characters within the same paragraph. Without a careful and close reading, it because quite easy to get lost. There also were times where the level of detail was oppressive, much like being in a one-sided conversation with someone who makes sure to cover every minute detail. There were sections of the novel, often where single paragraphs went on for three plus pages, where I found myself getting impatient a needless wade into the quagmire.

In the end, I did not complete this novel. When I realized I was 255 into the novel and I was just getting to the point in the Spanish sailor’s story where he was finally brought before the Inquisition, I couldn’t continue. It wasn’t because the basic plot wasn’t enjoyable. It was actually. However, the style in which this story was written and the number of references made by the author within the text made reading this novel feel like climbing Mt. Everest without any preparation or supplies. It was frustrating not having the source material to read along with it.

This novel would be best read in a classroom setting or by someone who was willing to devote weeks of time, energy and study to it. I wouldn’t have been able to read and enjoy Ulysses without the guidance and encouragement of a wonderful professor. I’m in no way comparing Charles Robert Maturin to James Joyce. There was no poetry in Maturin’s prose, but I would imagine that there could be an engaging course taught about Melmoth the Wanderer.

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#33 ~ Special Topics in Calamity Physics

August 8, 2007 at 3:27 am | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Brain Food for Thought, Childhood Memories, Inspiration, LIfe, Marisha Pessl, Memoir, My Life with Books, Reading, Secrets and Lies | 2 Comments
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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Just 75 pages into Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I knew that I was going to enjoy it. When what I was reading spoke to me personally in conjunction with an outside conversation I had just moments before reading it, I knew that I was reading something spooky-spectacular. Now that I’ve completed this novel, I can say that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is as fabulous in its story as it is original in its style and form. I hope to keep my mind long enough to see how this book is regarded by future generations.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of Blue van Meer, the only child of an amazingly intellectual college professor named Gareth. She lost her mother at the age of five in a terrible car accident. From that time forward, the van Meer’s traveled from one small college town to the next ~ usually once per semester. The main story begins just before Blue’s senior year of high school. As a special “treat,” her dad takes a year-long teaching position in a small North Carolina town with an excellent prep school which will help Blue get into Harvard. Truth be told, Blue’s intelligence matches her father’s. There’s little doubt that Harvard would pass her up.

Given Blue’s nomadic childhood, she developed a strong bond with her father ~ in equal parts because he was her only constant and because she tended to keep to herself. That all changed at St. Gallway. Through a fluke encounter at the local grocery store, she catches the eye of Hannah Schnieder, a beautiful woman who happens to be the film teacher.

Hannah has mentored a group of five classmates called the “Bluebloods” by the rest of the class. Upon Hannah’s insistence, Blue is reluctantly included in their weekly Sunday dinners at Hannah’s house. After a couple of months, she’s even seen as one of them. In one form or another, they all get embroiled in figuring out Hannah’s mysterious life away from them. When Hannah is discovered dead, Blue’s newfound life is destroyed along with it. Worse still, while the “Bluebloods” are nearly violent in blaming Blue for Hannah’s death, no one else will believe that her was anything other than a suicide. Blue is forced to go it alone to detangle Hannah and why she was so mysteriously attached to her.

This book is written in first person by Blue as a memoir of her childhood. Pessl uses the experiences of this interesting father/daughter relationship to construct this novel. It is full of references and hand-drawn reproductions of pictures used to illustrate her points. One might think that references would bog down a novel written as a memoir, but they were nothing short of a delight. Blue never used a quotation unnecessarily. Although I never bothered to check to see how fictitious (or not) they were, this novel would not have worked without them.

I would have to say one of the most amazing things about the construction of this novel is the Table of Contents. It is created in the form of a syllabus from one of Gareth’s courses. Each chapter title is that of a well known novel or story. Each one (for at least those that I was familiar with) was absolutely perfect for that chapter. I could not believe how ingenious and creative that little touch is. How could I not buy a book with a chapter entitled, “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man?” For that matter, how could I not adore a character who makes up a Ulysses study group to get out of her house and out with her mentor? There were times that the Table of Contents alone made me happy to be alive as a literate human being.

There is still some summer left. Do yourself a huge favor. Buy this book.  I swear you’ll want to keep it. Take a long weekend (Labor Day if you must), sit back, crack open this book and be delighted. You may find yourself reading way into the wee hours of the night without being exhausted the next day.

Yes, my friends, it’s that refreshing.

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