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The Aspern Papers by Henry James

14 Jan

I thought I’d ease back into posting with a novella I admire greatly–The Aspern Papers by Henry James. It may be about a literary scholar, but you don’t need to be one to enjoy the haunting story James crafts. If you’re looking for something a little different but not a gigantic tome that you have to devote a month to, look no further than here. I look forward to reading more James one day, and I hope you all with give suggestions and/or feel the same!

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Published: 1888

Quick Read?: It’s not long page-wise, but James’ prose is notoriously complex. So I would say all things considered, it’s an average length read.

Difficulty: This book can be a bit challenging. As I said, James’ prose is complex and even a bit manipulative. His sentences are long and take more twists and turns than the city of Venice itself, where the story is set. That being said, the plot itself isn’t hard to follow, just be sure not to skim–you’ll miss a lot.

Synopsis: The narrator is an anonymous literary scholar who travels to Venice with a clear purpose: to find the deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern’s missing love letters to his beloved, the mysterious Juliana. And while Aspern may have loved Juliana, we see that the narrator himself is in love obsessed with Aspern–or, rather, his poetry. What seems like a straightforward trip to get the papers becomes convoluted when the narrator finds himself embroiled in a strange standoff with an ancient, blindfolded woman who is supposedly the beautiful Juliana. The narrator lives with her and her niece, and over the course of months, slowly admits to trying to manipulate them to gain access to these documents. As the narrator manipulates niece, old woman, and audience, a twist at the end will bring closure, but possibly tragedy as well.

What makes this book awesome? The Aspern Papers is a deceptive book on the outside. It may seem like a slim volume, but it’s packed with sophisticated language and complex grammatical structures. Any fan of language (especially what one might think of as stereotypically 19th century language) will love James’ style. It may not be light, breezy language, but it has a unique appeal all its own.

James also tackles the often tricky world of literary history and criticism. For any avid reader (as I’m sure many of you readers are!), falling in love with a past author can be so enticing, obsessive, and over the top that it is easy to forget that they too were once human (for the record, Woolf will always be a goddess to me, but that’s neither here nor there). Yet here, we see the danger that comes with idolizing someone we have never met. The need to know every detail, every feeling, every quotation becomes dehumanizing to the author and the life they wished to live. Aspern’s every intimate feeling may feel like the natural object to want to preserve for the history of poetry, but also ultimately hurts everyone in the story. The novella highlights a somber side of literary greatness–that of possibly losing privacy within one’s life. It’s a problem that still persists today, perhaps even more so, and feels timeless when reading.

An interesting fact or two:

It's easy to be smug when you've mastered the art of complex sentence structure and writing really creepy short stories. Lean back, James, lean back and enjoy.

  • The novella was actually published in three parts as a serial–it was only collected and published as a novella afterwards.
  • James moved between the U.S. and Europe for 20 years. He was fascinated with Americans interacting with Europe and European peoples, and wrote about it often in his novels. It casts an interesting light on how to read his narrator’s take on Venice, which is heavily romanticized and characterized like an author might describe a character.
  • I, personally, am a fan of the shorter fiction, and James himself was interested in the “compression” of stories with complex subject matter. Just goes to show wonderful things can come in small packages!

If you like this, you might like: “The Turn of the Screw,” Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, or The Bostonians by Henry James; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass; The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells; any of the Romantic poets.


The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

26 Jul

I’m thrilled to post Better Know a Book’s first guest post today by Andrew Coletti on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds! Very timely, especially given the recent closing of the NASA space program. I must admit I myself know very little about science fiction, but now I’m wondering if I’ve been missing out. So whether you’re a bona fide sci-fi nerd bumming out about missing Comic-Con this week, or you loved fantasy books when you were younger, or you just want to read something different, maybe try diving into some Wells (no, not an actual well, you’re not baby Jessica).

Published: 1898

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Quick Read?: Yes. It’s short and action-packed, with a lot of cliff-hangers to keep you turning pages.

Difficulty: Not very. There’s some technical exposition here and there by scientist characters, but it’s nothing that presumes you have a background in science (I certainly don’t).

Synopsis: Mars is a barren red waste, her resources nearly exhausted, but she has a neighbor with lush vegetation and wide blue seas—a planet which Mars’ inhabitants find ripe for the taking. In cylindrical ships fired into space by giant cannons on the surface of their desert world, the Martians come to Earth. They bear with them the seeds of an invasive red weed and horrific weapons, the product of technology more advanced than anything humanity has ever seen. Once they arrive on the island of Britain, they ignore attempts at peaceful communication from Earth’s native inhabitants, unleashing their military power and their landscape-transforming plant with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, our unnamed narrator embarks on a harrowing journey to escape the Martian conquest of earth with his own life. Along the way he makes friends and enemies among the many human fugitives he encounters, and struggles to comprehend a once-familiar world steadily being twisted beyond recognition.

What makes this book awesome?: Science fiction as we know it today owes a tremendous debt to this book, and to H. G. Wells in general (this is the man who invented the term “time machine” we’re talking about here). The War of the Worlds is so deep in our modern scifi mythos that any first-time reader will find it strangely familiar: from the laser weapons and giant walking war-bots to the malevolent Martians more brain than body. These and other ideas have become classic science fiction tropes, endlessly imitated and reinterpreted, but they all started in the imagination of H. G. Wells.

The fact that it pretty much founded the alien invasion story isn’t the only reason The War of the Worlds is worth reading; it also asks some very interesting questions about human arrogance and superiority. Born into an impoverished lower-class family, Wells was acutely aware that the society he lived in evaluated individuals based on their social standing. Wells’ novel has been read as a critique of the Victorian preoccupation with class and rank and the related doctrines of Social Darwinism, colonialism and imperialism. In Wells’ novel it is the English themselves who are “colonized”. But as Wells asks in the first chapter of The War of the Worlds: given the brutal conquests and exterminations that the human race has been responsible for, “are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit”? What happens when those who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as superior and advanced meet beings unquestionably more advanced than they? What happens to a society given a taste of its own medicine?

Aliens don't scare Wells, no siree.

Some neat-o facts:

  • American physicist Robert H. Goddard developed an interest in outer space and started trying to build a functional rocket after reading The War of the Worlds at age 16. Goddard went on to invent the first liquid fuel-powered rocket, and his research laid the groundwork for modern space travel. So you might say that this book is indirectly responsible for the Space Age.
  • The first radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, narrated in the USA by Orson Welles (no relation; note the extra E) on Halloween night, 1938, caused one of the most celebrated cases of mass hysteria in history because it was presented as an actual news report, with the British setting of the original novel changed to New Jersey. It’s unclear how many Americans actually believed that Martians were attacking and fled their homes in panic, but the incident became an immediate global media sensation, even drawing comment from Adolf Hitler (he saw it as evidence of the weakness of democratic society). When Welles-with-two-Es and Wells-with-one-E discussed the results of the broadcast on radio two years later, Wells-with-one-E seemed disbelieving and perhaps a little embarrassed.
  • In addition to being a writer of just about everything, Herbert George “Bertie” Wells was a teacher, an outspoken socialist, a lady-killer (he had illegitimate children by several different women and left his wife/cousin Isabel for one of his students), and in general a lovable old curmudgeon. He also had a knack for predicting the future. We’re still waiting on that Martian invasion, but the wait is over for spaceships, “heat rays” and chemical weapons. Other future predictions of his that have come true include automatic doors, antigravity technology, manned moon landings, and World War II. When asked what he wanted written on his tombstone, an elderly Wells reportedly said, “Damn you all, I told you so”. That quote alone should give you an idea of what H. G. Wells was like. My other favorite Wells quote: “Queen Victoria was like a great paperweight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow all over the place haphazardly.”

If you like this, try: Any of Wells’ other novels/novellas, particularly The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift shares with much of Wells’ work the device of inhuman, fantastical creatures and their societies as a means of social commentary, although Swift is much less violent and more lighthearted than Wells ever was. For more groundbreaking Victorian scifi, try Jules Verne or Hugo Gernsback, both of whom are called, along with H. G. Wells, “The Father of Science Fiction” (three fathers and no mother? Sounds like science fiction to me).



Andrew Coletti has been reading and attempting to write science fiction, fantasy, and mythology for as long as he can remember (although he would like you to know that he does, from time to time, read other stuff too). His other interests include traveling as much as possible, the ancient world, and drag performance/theater in general. Some of his favorite authors in no particular order include H. G. Wells, William Blake, Philip Pullman, C. S. Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Neil Gaiman, and Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket.

He can be reached at Interested in contributing? See the tab at the top of this page.

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

11 Jul

I don’t know about you, but where I am, it is hot and sweaty and sticky and gross. Not that I’d complain–I love summer and I love a reason to be lazy. All I want to do is sit someplace cool, curl up in a ball, and do absolutely nothing. Apropos of this, today I am profiling Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, the story of the craziest, most tragic couch potato of them all. Perfect for mid-July, or any time of year, really.

Published: 1859

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

Difficulty: Not difficult.

Quick Read?: It’s a thick book, but it moves quickly.

Synopsis: Oblomov is a youthful Russian aristocrat who enjoys the finer things in life–namely, leaving his bed as little as possible. A man of “thought,” he wants to be disturbed as little as possible, whether it be by his devious servant or by his worldly, energy-filled friends that come to visit him. Little inspires Oblomov, and it is unclear if he is truly philosophizing, daydreaming, or just sleeping. The reader learns he was always a pampered, sheltered little boy, and never instilled with all of the energy that playing, travelling, working, and existing could give him. He supposedly runs a country estate and serfdom, but does little to manage it, threatening to send him into financial ruin. After much urging by his doctors and friends, Oblomov does indeed go out into the world and meets the lovely Olga, with whom he falls in love. But when Oblomov cannot pull together the will to marry her, it becomes apparent that destiny may in fact have passed him by.

What makes this book awesome? This book, though sad at times, is actually hilarious as well. The comedy of a man who refuses to do anything is both alarming to our soul, but also comical–the book is thick, and much of it is his insistence on how little he wishes to actually exist, merely because he feels he has that choice. Like any Russian novel, it is a fast-paced read, and is really intellectually stimulating.

Also, Oblomov was used by the Russian Revolution as an example of the corruption and decadence of the Russian aristocracy. For any Russian history buffs, the book is actually cited in socialist speeches during the early 1900’s by socialist leaders. The name “Oblomov” has been integrated into Russian culture very strongly–making this book a really great way to examine Russia and its view of work ethic over time.

Someone got lazy when it came to shaving too, eh Goncharov? Oh wait, he's just Russian, never mind.

Some neat-o facts:

  • OK, so they are sort of already up there with why this book is so great, but I felt like I ought to put them for both. At least, because I think this book is truly fascinating.
  • Take a look at this facial hair. Show’em how it’s done, Goncharov.
If you like this, try:
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.