Monday, December 5, 2011

Frankenstein and A Confederacy of Dunces

Have I ever told you how awesome my book club is? Well, they are. It's a group of people from law school that I initially lured into the group by offering booze and snacks, and they keep coming for the same reason(I presume). Here's an old picture of the group - some of these people don't come anymore, and there are a couple of new members, but you get the general idea. I'm going to have to remember to take a new picture at every meeting.

We've met twice in the last few months, and read two really interesting books.

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

This meeting was quite awhile ago, and I read a library copy of the book, so I don't have much to go on other than my memory. The general plot of the book follows Ignatius J. Reilly through some "adventures." Ignatius is a bit off - really intelligent, but socially inept. The book is basically a series of unfortunate events, and through it all, Ignatius continues to declare his intellectual superiority, while being unable to see what an utter failure he is. He expects everyone to do things for him - especially his mom.

There are a lot more absurd things and weirdness, but here are the things I remember most from my reading and from our discussion:

The Language

The language was so great. There was a lot of alliteration and interesting phrasing. Each character had his/her own linguistic tics and unique phraseology. I loved how the author used language to help create the characters and to set each scene. I remember on several occasions making notes about the use of language even though I didn't like what was happening in general.

Each reader sees what they want

At the beginning of our discussion, we all felt pretty blah about the book. It was interesting, I guess, and we all liked bits and pieces, and we were generally glad to have read a book that has gotten so much attention over the years. But we felt like it lacked an actual plot and I personally felt like I didn't quite get what the author was getting at. This feeling conflicted with reports we'd all read about how genius the book is and how it's the best book ever, and how our lives would only be complete after reading it.

But after an hour or so of conversation, Professor Leary (our former faculty adviser, who so generously still shows up and helps make the discussion coherent and dazzles us with her brilliant insights) says: "maybe this book is genius in that it brings out something different in each person." As soon as she said it, we all realized it was true. I was especially interested in the relationship between Ignatius and his mother. Others focused on the psychological aspects of the character and what made him the way he is. Others honed in on Ignatius's attempts at social reform, and what statement the author might be making about society in general.

So, I'm really glad I read this book, but I'm even more glad that I read this with this group of people. Some books are so much better with a discussion, and this is one of those books.


By Mary Shelley

This is my third time with this novel, so obviously I like it. Even so, I still forgot so much about the plot that it still felt fresh for me.

Things I forgot: 1) Frankenstein is the name of the creator, not the monster; 2) the story is told to the reader by a ship captain (on a mission to sail across the North Pole), who was told the story by Dr. Frankenstein himself; 3) How caught up in himself the creator is that he can't see how things will unfold - his selfishness really stood out to me this time around.

The plot is fairly simple: doctor becomes obsessed with the idea of reanimating the dead and creating life from nothing. He slaves away, forsaking his family and friends to focus solely on his project without one thought to the potential consequences (well, the potential bad consequences - he thinks about the potential glory a lot). When he was confronted with the reality of his actions, he abandons everything, flees and tries to forget - but he can't. He'll be haunted by his actions for the rest of his life.

There is so much to say about this novel - thousands of papers have been written on it - but my focus during this read was on the author of the novel: Mary Shelley. What a life she had! Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft was a famous Feminist (she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman). Her father was a writer too - on politics, and he was a friend, benefactor, and later a sponge off of several poets and other literary players of the time. Mary grew up with the likes of Samuel Taylor Colridge reciting their work in her living room.

This is how she met Percy Shelley, one of the most celebrated of the Romantic Poets. They had a tumultuous relationship - one that started while Percy was still married to another woman. His first wife granted him a divorce when Mary became pregnant so that he could marry Mary and make sure that his new child was not born a bastard.

Mary and Percy were always in debt, and Percy was often in danger of being put into debtor's prison. When those serious times rolled around, he left Mary to hide out elsewhere, and she would have to sit home (often pregnant) and wait for the officers to knock on her door looking for Percy. She never quite got over the feeling of abandonment and exile she felt during those years. Abandonment is one of the great themes of the novel - the need for companionship and nurturing is one of the most basic human needs.

Meanwhile, Mary was reading everything she could, and she began making attempts to write stories and poetry. During one particularly lucrative time in their lives, the Shelleys met up with their friend, Lord Byron, and rented a cottage on a lake in Italy. It was here that the dare was issued: each person (Shelley, Byron and Mary) would have to write a ghost story to tell to the others the next night. Shelley and Byron both made feeble attempts, but Mary didn't let the idea go. She laid awake many nights trying to think of how best to tell the story. Frankenstein took many months to perfect, but perfect it she did.

Mary and Percy were together for about 7 years when Percy died (another abandonment). After giving birth to 4 children, only one of them was still alive when Percy died. Mary regularly visited Percy's grave, often reading Milton's "Paradise Lost," crying and mourning her lost husband. She continued to write, and she was fairly successful, but nothing has outlasted her masterpiece - her own creation, Frankenstein.

Child of Light

By Muriel Spark

I read bits and pieces of this biography as a supplement to the novel. It's fairly comprehensive, and is clearly well-researched, but it is also dry and not very compelling. There MUST be a better biography out there! Mary Shelley's life was very dramatic - it shouldn't be difficult to tell her story in a compelling and page-turning way. Right?

If you have never read Frankenstein, I would encourage you to do so. The first few chapters are a little bit dry, but all in all, the story of Frankenstein's monster is surprisingly human - full of the love, fear and misunderstanding that are so prevalent in human nature. There is so much more to discuss - not the least of which are the many feminist issues within the text - and I could go on and on, but this seems like enough for now. Please leave a comment if you have input. I'd love to continue the discussion.

Every book we read as a group is so much better than when I read it on my own. Our discussions are so enlightening and every time I'm sure I have things figured out, someone else thought of it in a different way and my eyes are opened. Jane Austen's advice to living a full and satisfying life is to surround yourself with people who you admire, people you look up to and from whom you can learn things. I believe in my book group I have found just that - a group of people I admire and from whom I learn things at every meeting. Thanks, everyone!

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