Friday, May 31, 2013

A Separate Peace by John Knowles // Cassette Tapes and Boarding Schools

An Apology: I'm sorry I haven't posted anything lately. The weather's been so nice, so I spent most of my time this week on my back porch reading Alexander McCall Smith books and studying for the SAT's on Saturday; and my evenings have been filled with rehearsals for a play that I'm in. So I haven't had much time to write, unfortunately.
I have tons of ideas though, so there will be a lot more coming in the near future!


When I was younger, my sister and I would often listen to books-on-tape in the car while my mom drove us to various activities and classes. This was an excellent way to pack even more great books into our already literature-filled life - but is there such a thing as too many books?
However, as we got older, the amount of extracurricular diminished. The ones we did go to, we did separately, so we were rarely in the car at the same time. And when we were - we would listen to the radio. 
You can imagine our surprise when, a few months ago, my mother pulled out a couple cassette tapes (yes, my mother's car is that old) and announced we were going to be listening to A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Our last attempt at books-on-tape together had been Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (by Richard P. Feynman), which hadn't gone too well. My mother was so excited to listen that she would turn it on no matter who was in the car - meaning that I missed a good chunk and had to rewind. I eventually gave up and got the book from the library. (By the way, I highly recommend Feynman's book. It's hilarious, nerdy, sincere, and inspirational, all at the same time.)

So when she pulled out A Separate Peace, my sister and I wondered how it would turn out. 

A Separate Peace cover.jpg

A Separate Peace is a story that tells of life in an East-coast boarding school during World War II. It is told from the perspective of one of the students, Gene, and focuses on his relationship with his best friend, Phineas (or Finny). I'm debating how much of the plot to give away, as I don't want to ruin it for anyone who chooses to read it, so I'm sorry if this comes off vague. 
Finny is definitely a stronger character, and in the beginning the book seems to be a character description of Phineas. The reader sees Finny through Gene's eyes, and as the book progresses, our opinion of Finny changes as Gene's does. I feel that ultimately Phineas is, as Gene says in the end of the book, the only person in the entire Devon School who wasn't affected by the traditions and Devon-ness. He is confident in himself and does not let anything sway him or his opinions. (I really, really like Finny. He is awesome. I would love to have him as a friend.)
Even though, if you look superficially at the book, Finny is a sort of "main character," a deeper analysis reveals that the story is not truly about Phineas's adventures but more about Gene's inner struggles and growth. Gene definitely has his major flaws - selfishness is a big one - and the story shows his coming of age, and his learning to come to terms with himself. He learns to not take everything seriously; to be kinder, gentler; and ultimately, to forgive - not just others, but himself, as well. 

Knowles definitely is a good writer, but I feel that he tends to ramble on a bit at times. I discovered that A Separate Peace started out as a short story, Phineas. Perhaps it would have been better staying just a short story. The writing sometimes slips out of Gene's voice and into Knowles', describing everything in detail, so much so that we would often joke how everything was so "sensuous." Gene is 17. I don't think that a 17 year old boy would realize the "sensuousness" of nature. The continuous descriptions may help us to form a better picture of the Devon School, but after a while, it just gets a bit tiring, and we can't wait for it to get back to the plot again.

In conclusion, this book didn't quite make it to my (rather large) list of book I truly like, but it's excellent character analysis and substantially good writing.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rambling with a Purpose

I had a nice talk with my mom about the art of journaling some time ago, so I thought I would turn it into a blog post.

There are two kinds of rambling. Generally, rambling has no point or purpose. It has no central topic around which the "ramble" rambles. It just sort of goes.... and goes... leading from one thing to another... until.... you reach the end.... which is a completely different subject than the beginning.
This is how I write in my journal. This is how most people write in their journals. Or blogs - there are lots of blogs with purposeless rambling.

Then there is Rambling With A Purpose (RWAP?). The subtitle of this blog is "Reviews, Recommendations, and Ramblings about Books and Literature." I intend the word "ramblings" here to mean RWAP-ing. :-) I like to think of each of my posts as a little essay, each with a particular topic, from which I may deviate only slightly. Take this post, for example. I am currently rambling with a purpose on Rambling With A Purpose.
What I mean is that it has to have structure. An essay has structure - everyone knows that. Introduction, Support, Conclusion. I try to do that with my posts here - though I do give myself more freedom than I would if I were writing a school paper. With journaling, it's the same. A journal entry might not have a defined "thesis" like an essay would; it would have more of a short story feel. But short stories still need to have a purpose.

In my 11th grade English class, I read an excerpt from William Least Heat-Moon's biographical book Blue Highways. In it, he tells of his experiences on a road trip across the States. It was wonderfully written, and I always mean to read the full book - I just haven't gotten around to it. Heat-Moon is a wonderful example of a master of the art of journaling, which is another name for RWAP. The book (or at least the excerpt that I read) is a series of anecdotes, each one separate from the next, and yet somehow neatly flowing from one to the other. Each one is like a really short short story that tells of something generally inconsequential, and yet, somehow, meaningful. Heat-Moon's descriptive powers are spectacular, and this is definitely a contributing factor, but what makes his work so memorable is his way of isolating everyday occurrences and endowing them with importance.
This - the art of making minor occurrences grand and glorious, yet without taking away their simplicity - is the essence of journaling. This is the essence of Rambling With A Purpose.

The fault with so many "tween" books today (and "teen" ones as well) that attempt to portray realistic tween and teen life is that the writing just becomes one big ramble - without any purpose at all. I highly dislike contemporary books marketed particularly to tweens just because of this reason. (And also because they never actually discuss realistic tween life, but that's for another time.)

I do keep a journal, though rather sporadically, and when I was younger, I used to wonder if, when I was a rich and famous writer, anyone would publish my musings. Then I read it, and knew for sure that would never happen. No one would ever read it. It was extraordinarily boring. I decided that must be just because I had an extremely boring and normal life, and left it at that.

But in reality - I do belive it was because I just didn't know how to journal with a purpose. My entries were all purposeless ramblings. I didn't know how to extract from my day those meaningful - yet externally meaningless - occurrences that were the essence of my day. Frankly, I still don't. It takes a really good writer to be able to do that. But I'm definitely trying, and I hope that in time, I will get better.

On a somewhat related note, do any of you keep a journal? If you do, how do you manage to write consistently? It seems like I only write twice or three times a year now! (Hmmm... I better go write an entry after I post this - I think I last wrote in February.)


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde // An Unknown Genre

When I got back from the library with this book, my mom glanced at the title and said, "Is this that horrible book...?"
No, this is Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde, where the amount of shades is not specified in the title. :-)

I recently discovered Jasper Fforde through his book The Eyre Affair, and wanted to read more of his work. Though The Eyre Affair is part of the Thursday Next series (which I will read in due course), I ended up reading Shades of Grey first - completely unrelated to the Thursday Next books. It is about an alternate universe where your station in life and rank in society is determined by the colors that you can see. I am always intrigued by imaginative plots and situation such as this one, so I was very excited to read this book. And after reading The Eyre Affair, I had already fallen in love with Fforde's descriptive, humorous, and simple style of writing. 

While we're on the topic of writing style, I would like to make a side note. This book (as are any of Fforde's) is definitely PG rated, if not almost on the R border. This is mainly for language, as the F-word pops up a few times, and in The Eyre Affair, there is a fellow named Mr. Schitt (This is joked about numerous times, as you may guess). There is some "questionable content," including the whole "sleeping with someone before you are married" thing, but it's pardonable, because Fforde doesn't make any statements about values or principles or morality. He's not glorifying situations nor condemning them. It's just part of the plot, which is intended for more mature audiences. He writes candidly, without unnecessary detail. 

Alright. Onward.

I really enjoyed how Fforde managed to weave in the culture of the land of Cromatacia (an alternate UK) without stating it outright. The oft-referenced writer's maxim states, "Show, don't tell," and Fforde does this with glorious results. As I said, the best description of his writing is candid. It's just so clear and straightforward.
There is one thing that really, really bugged me about this book - the ending. Since The Eyre Affair ended rather satisfactorily, despite having a sequel, I thought that Shades of Grey would, too. 
It's a decent ending, but not satisfactory at all. There is promise of two more books in the series (Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers, and Shades of Grey 3: The Gordini Protocols), but they aren't published yet. So I suppose my one problem with the book isn't really a problem, but proof of the quality of the book. If Shades of Grey weren't as good as it is, I wouldn't be so antsy to read the next one. Because I generally read so many classics, I am unused to having to wait for a book to come out. A few years back, I thought I'd like to write a letter to one of my favorite authors, but I realized - all my favorite authors were dead. So I take for granted that when I finish one book in a series, the next will be right there for me at the library. I guess I'm going to have to get used to waiting if I'm going to be reading more contemporary books.

An interesting mental exercise is trying to classify this book in a particular genre. Is it fantasy? It does have some fantastical elements, but I wouldn't call it straight-out fantasy. Perhaps it's more satire. Again, it does have elements of satire, but it isn't completely satire. At first I thought to call it that new pseudo-genre of "Apocalyptica" that is sweeping young-adult literature (think Hunger Games, and Divergent). But it's not exactly that either, perhaps for the reason that it's definitely not "teen" reading. The only way to classify the Shades of Grey (or any of Fforde's work, as a matter of fact) is as "un-classable." It's a melding of various genres, and doesn't conform to any one in particular. I've never really come across anything quite like it.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, and I do recommend it - but only to a certain sort of reader. Someone who doesn't mind a bit of fantasy melded with a bit of satire melded with a bit of romance melded with a bit of mystery.

And somewhat on topic, here is an interesting quote:

Post Script: There is a nice little "following" button on  the right sidebar.
Somewhere that way -------------------------------------->
There's lots of interesting posts coming up, so it would be to your benefit to follow this blog! You'll read a lot of interesting stuff!


Monday, May 20, 2013

Holmes vs. Dupin: The Ultimate Detective Face-Off

C. Auguste Dupin
Sherlock Holmes

Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is. You might have discovered him directly through Conan Doyle's great stories. Or, more probably, you saw a film version of one of his many adventures, or his newest screen appearance - BBC's Sherlock. And there are numerous other references to the great detective in our daily lives. Do you know who Sherlock Holmes is? "Elementary, my dear Watson."
Trivia time! Holmes never says the above phrase, though he does say "Elementary," in The Crooked Man, and " dear Watson," a few lines before.
Recently, however, I discovered that Sherlock, though he may be the most well known, was not, by far, the first of his kind. Doyle may have made famous the detective with the clever mind, the discerning eye, and the occasional dry humor, but he only developed what had come before.
Who was Holmes's predecessor? The clue is in the text. In the first-ever Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet, Dr Watson comments:
"You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories." 
Sherlock Homes rose and lit his pipe. 
"No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."
I have the Complete Works of Poe on my shelf, so I was curious to find out about this Dupin fellow, of whom Holmes speaks so disparagingly. Turns out, Poe only wrote three stories starring Dupin: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. These three short stories are narrated by a friend of Dupin's - a sort of Dr. Watson character - who's name is never revealed. I won't talk much about the plots of the stories - I highly recommend that you read them yourself - but here is my analysis  regarding Dupin, his methods, and his comparison to Holmes.

Firstly, I found that the stories could be classified in the following manner: Rue Morgue was quite an adventure story, and rather similar to Sherlock Holmes. Marie Roget was very analytical, as Dupin not only got all of his clues from the newspaper, he never left the comfort of his home or exerted himself physically in any way. The Purloined Letter could be called a mixture of the two, having some action, but less than in Rue Morgue.
However, overall, I found Dupin to be much less active than Holmes, even in Rue Morgue. In both Rue Morgue and Purloined Letter, Dupin does go out to do some investigating, but all in all, he and his unnamed friend are rather secluded on the outskirts of the town, and get most of their information from the newspaper. Though Holmes does have his pensive moments of excessive smoking and violin playing, he is much more of a part of society than Dupin.

Before I go on, I must make the point that in no way did I not like Dupin or the aforementioned three stories in which he appears. My opinion was quite the opposite. And though it may sound as though I have much to say in favor of Holmes and even some against Dupin, I must say that in Dupin's day, the term detective had not yet originated. Dupin was the first of his kind. He was not a professional "Consulting Detective" like Holmes. It must have been hard to get permission to look over a crime scene such as the one in Rue Morgue without being in the police force. Dupin's character was a very unique idea at the time. Highest commendations to Poe!

We continue.

One thing that I find very strikingly different between Dupin and Holmes is that Holmes is much more of a Character. Dupin is not as a well rounded Character as Holmes. This may come of the fact that Holmes is in sixty stories, and Dupin is in three. But even in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock's debut appearance, Holmes is more fully developed in that one novel (an extremely short one, though) then Dupin is in his entire literary existence (disregarding fan fiction, of course). We know that Holmes plays violin, smokes a pipe, is an excellent shot, enjoys boxing and wrestling, has an excellent knowledge of the theatre, and doesn't know that  the earth goes around the sun. (Yeah, Watson was amazed at that last one, too...)
But Dupin? Can't say that much for him. Sure, he has an excellent mind. Yes, he likes seclusion. He definitely enjoys reading the newspaper. But what else? I suspect that at least he knows the structure of our solar system. :-)

And talking about developed characters, what of Dupin's friend with no name? Watson is as clear a character as Holmes (though many times portrayed in film incorrectly - but that's for another post). We know about his past in the wars, his medical practice, his married life - but we know practically nothing of the Unnamed Fellow. It seems as though the Unnamed Fellow is just there to marvel at Dupin's wisdom and perspicacity, similar to Watson in many film versions.

But despite these differences, there are quite a few similarities. They both like to freak people out by their uncanny perception abilities (despite this being what Holmes so disparagingly accused Dupin of in the quote in the beginning of this post). They both like to show off their knowledge. They both have to deal with the rather dull police. They both agree that the right method is to put themselves in the mind of the criminal, and both use this method time and time again:
Watson/Unnamed Fellow/Unbelieving Observer: "But there is no way out! The criminal couldn't have escaped!"
Holmes/Dupin: "But he did, for we searched the room and he is not here. Therefore, he must have gotten out somehow, or is hiding in some secret place we didn't think of.  Now, if you were the criminal, what would you have done?..."

...and so on and so forth.

I believe that I am slightly biased in that I was raised on Sherlock Holmes and just recently discovered Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. I have seen no films with the French detective (though I am sure there are many), and the fact that there are only three of his books makes him rather less widely known. However, am very glad that I found him, as I am sincerely greatful to Poe for introducing the genre of detective stories, without which Holmes would never have existed. Once again: highest commendations to Poe!

And talking about detectives before Holmes, has anyone heard of Sergeant Cuff? From Wilkie Collins' Moonstone? Regarded as the first true British detective?

Hmmm... I feel another round of "The Ultimate Detective Face-Off" is near at hand!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sherlock Holmes on the Stage!

I have a big post coming about Sherlock Holmes soon... stay tuned.
But before I finish that, I thought I'd let you know about the play I saw today, since it's rather related.
It was A Study in Scarlet, performed by Promethean Theatre Ensemble, and quite excellent.

written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
directed by Paul Edwards
MAY 3 - JUN 1, 2013
Thursday - Saturday 8pm
Sunday 2pm
Opening Night
FRI MAY 3, 2013 at 8pm

If you don't know, A Study in Scarlet is the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, where he and Dr. Watson are introduced to each other. It is the first of their adventures as a team, and the reader's first glimpse into the depths of the remarkable character that is Holmes. I have read the entire collection of stories twice, some more than that, so as you may guess, I was very excited.

I must say, it truly surpassed my expectations. I had not read the book in a while (because I was busy rereading the The Three Musketeers, as we are going to see a play of that in June). However, I had a decent memory of the plot, and as I watched the play, I remembered more. As far as I can tell, they did more than justice to Doyle's work.

The actual theatre helped a lot. I always say that straight plays are better done in intimate theatres, as opposed to musicals or operas, which require a large stage for the ensembles. This theatre was excellent in that there were only 80 seats, so we were able to see everything, down to the expressions on the actors' faces.

One thing that I highly commend the theatre company for is their disregard for the stereotypes of the characters of Watson and Holmes, and their loyalty to Doyle's original description. I highly dislike the bumbling portrayals of Watson in the Basil Rathbone films. Watson is not an idiot. He's a highly trained doctor. Watson is not clumsy. And Watson is not old. At all. Both Holmes and Watson are actually in their twenties in the first book. And this production respected that. The actors who played Holmes and Watson were young, possibly in their late twenties, early thirties. And the fellow playing Watson was actually taller than Holmes, handsome, and not a bit fat or bumbling. Quite elegant. It was all very refreshing.

The actor playing Holmes was excellent as well - observant, astute, rather full of himself, and somewhat hyper and high strung. Perfect! Lestrade and Gregson (the Scotland Yard detectives) were spectacular as well - especially Gregson, who was more full of himself than Holmes, if that's possible.

All in all, it was a spectacular production. If you can, you should go see it - you will enjoy it tremendously.

In the meantime, stay tuned for my next post on Holmes. It should be coming no later than Tuesday.


Friday, May 17, 2013


Hello and Welcome to Ravens and Writing Desks! I'm glad you're here.

This blog is, in all probability, going to be a seasonal blog. As I am still in school, this means that the amount of posts on this blog is going to be indirectly proportional to how much homework I have. Therefore, it will probably flourish in the summer, come down to average in the fall and winter, and almost die out in the spring. This is because mostly what I am reading during the spring is this:

Not such great blogging material, right?

Yesterday, my sister and I celebrated the advent of summer by a trip to the library, where she got books on constellations (stargazing being her summer project), and I got these:

What a nice pile of books! How exciting!

One of the purposes of this blog is to present candid reviews of classics from the perspective of the modern young adult (me!). The reason why classics are called classics is because they have withstood the test of time, and thus proved themselves to be examples of great literature that contemporary writers should aspire to. However, nobody's perfect, and everyone has their own opinion - I hope to humbly present mine in this blog.
I may post reviews of contemporary books as well, though I do not read them quite as often as I do older classics, and generally only the most well known.
In addition to reviews, there will be a miscellany of posts on various topics related in some way to writing and literature.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy my blog. If you have anything to say, please comment; I appreciate any feedback. See you in the next post!