Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Branagh

Heart of DarknessKenneth Branagh should read all the audio books.

Well, maybe not all.

He is probably the best narrator I’ve ever listened to, however. Of course, I’m also about to listen to Ian McKellen do Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, so I may stand corrected shortly.

If you haven’t read Heart of Darkness before, I can’t think of a better way to do it than listening to Audible’s version. After all, Marlow tells the entire story to a crew of sailors on the Thames River, and Branagh perfectly embodies not just Marlow, but all the characters, from the Russian protege to Kurtz to the native man who says, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” to Kurtz’s “intended.” In fact, I dare you not to get a chill when he reads Kurtz. He almost makes you understand why Kurtz has so captivated everyone in the novel. Almost.

I think the reason this novel is still relevant is that it speaks to our infinite capacity for evil. All of us have it inside us, and “the horror” is realizing that fact. I think Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel is valid. It is racist. (It’s sexist, too, but that fact often goes uncommented upon.) The African characters are only so much scenery, and their culture is dehumanized. They are depicted like animals, slavish in their devotion to and fear of Kurtz. There is no getting around it. At the same time, you can look at Marlow as narrator. Who is he but a perfect product of his times? Of course he believes Africans to be subhuman. Conrad probably thought so, too, but it is Marlow who tells the story, so who can say? There probably is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.

You might like this Book Drum profile of the novel. I found the section on the history of the Congo very interesting (and very tragic, as is the case in so many places colonized by Europe).

Many years ago, I went to an English teachers’ conference, and one session I attended discussed how you can engage students in the reading of literature and help them make thematic connections by asking them to choose modern songs that have a story, theme, or message similar to a work of literature they have studied. One of the presenter’s students connected Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”

After listening to it with that connection in mind, I had to agree that the song and the novel shared such a close connection that I have wondered for years if Trent Reznor was thinking of Heart of Darkness when he wrote it. Connect Reznor’s last line “You know who you are” with Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror,” and it’s just plain spooky. And I know I make that connection every time I talk about the novel now. I did it in my previous review of Heart of Darkness. This is the third time I’ve read the novel—once in college, once a few years ago.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this mashup of “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me, Maybe.”

You can’t unhear it. Sorry. Not really.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

State of Wonder: A Novel (P.S.)Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder is my school’s upper school summer read. I am not sure I would have thought to pick it up otherwise, as I haven’t read Patchett before, and I have a list of books I want to read a mile long. However, I found it a compelling and fascinating book, and it far outstrips most of the other books I have read this year (and even the previous year) so far.

I don’t typically include the book synopsis in my reviews, but it seems appropriate for this novel.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

The reference to Heart of Darkness is not incidental, but State of Wonder updates Conrad’s classic with ethical questions for our own times. How far should science to go to improve on nature? Why do we develop certain drugs over others? What impact could such scientific research have on native populations? Should we care about that impact, or should we care more about “the greater good”? What happens when, to paraphrase Dr. Swenson, we allow ourselves to lose focus on the things we are looking for so that we don’t overlook the things we find?

Marina’s journey into the jungle reminded me of some of the ancient mythological heroic quests to go into the unknown and come back again. The hero is often never the same, and even Dr. Swenson warns Marina about this transformation. Dr. Swenson is Patchett’s own Kurtz, a formidable and ruthless woman committed to her research, even at the expense of her supposed commitment to her Hippocratic Oath as a doctor. Marina’s confrontation of her former teacher, a woman who has loomed like specter over Marina’s life and informed some of her most important life decisions, is the central story of the novel, and it is fascinating to watch their relationship unfold. Dr. Swenson is at the center of everything, and it is her choices and decisions that the novel revolves around, in the end.

Laura Ciolkowski says in her review of the novel for The Chicago Tribune that State of Wonder is “Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey,” and “a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.” That would be my assessment as well.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who has read Heart of Darkness, but thought it seemed dated. It will change your mind. But I would also recommend it to readers who liked The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. All three novels explore the Western exploitation of indigenous people, simultaneously unmasking the horrors of colonialism as well as the terrible beauty of the jungle.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Books I’d Give a Theme Song To

Top Ten TuesdayThis is an interesting topic. I’ll try to do it justice.

  1. [amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link], F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette. This is perhaps kind of an odd choice, given the song has no connection to the 1920’s or jazz, but if you listen to the lyrics, they essentially describe how Daisy seems to feel about Gatsby.
  2. [amazon_link id=”1456364278″ target=”_blank” ]Heart of Darkness[/amazon_link], Joseph Conrad: “Head Like a Hole” by NIN. OK, this song is really aggressive and may not jump out at you when you think of Heart of Darkness, but again, the lyrics seem to speak to the book’s themes. My favorite is comparing Kurtz’s last words, “The horror!” to the last line of the song, “You know what you are.” Isn’t that the horror Kurtz was talking about? The horror of realizing what he was? Of course that line is whispered on the recording, and I didn’t hear it in this video. But still.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0385737645″ target=”_blank” ]Revolution[/amazon_link], Jennifer Donnelly: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd. I chose this song mainly because it is a motif in the story itself. The song becomes important to Andi both for its message and music.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQYaVb4px7U
  4. [amazon_link id=”1594744769″ target=”_blank” ]Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children[/amazon_link], Ransom Riggs: “People are Strange” by The Doors. I am not a huge fan of The Doors. I liked them a lot more when I was in high school. However, I can’t deny there are some strange people in Riggs’s book.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1400031702″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret History[/amazon_link], Donna Tartt: “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen. Any list like this is better for an Echo and the Bunnymen song. Plus I think the sort of gothic nature of the song (and the fact that it was recently featured in a commercial with vampires) goes with the book’s atmosphere. “Fate… up against your will” describes Richard Papen’s complicated feelings about Bunny’s murder. Plus, “killing.”
  6. [amazon_link id=”0143105434″ target=”_blank” ]Wuthering Heights[/amazon_link], Emily Brontë: “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. Kind of a no-brainer. This video is nearly as weird as Catherine Earnshaw.
  7. [amazon_link id=”0743482751″ target=”_blank” ]Much Ado About Nothing[/amazon_link], William Shakespeare: “Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons. Maybe because the song just alludes to a song in the play and quotes pieces of the play, but it fits anyway.
  8. [amazon_link id=”0393320979″ target=”_blank” ]Beowulf[/amazon_link], Anonymous: “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. Because VIKINGS! That’s why.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBmueYJ0VhA
  9. [amazon_link id=”0345409647″ target=”_blank” ]Interview with the Vampire[/amazon_link], Anne Rice: “Moon Over Bourbon Street” by Sting. Yes, he actually was inspired to write the song because of Rice’s book. Fitting.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0316769177″ target=”_blank” ]The Catcher in the Rye[/amazon_link], J. D. Salinger: “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths. The song’s narrator is an angry, misunderstood loner, just like Holden Caulfield. And honestly, I think what Holden really does want is to be loved. Just like everybody else does.

Related posts:

Kindle

New Kindles

KindlePerhaps the biggest book news this week has been the impeding release of the latest generation of the Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader device. The new Kindle will be available in two colors: white or graphite, marking the first time you could get the Kindle in more than one color. The biggest news is that the Kindle will be available in wireless only and wireless + 3G versions. The wireless only version will be an affordable $139. I paid $259 for my Kindle with wireless and 3G in April, but this version of the new Kindle will cost only $189. The new Kindle will also be lighter by about 2 ounces. The battery life has been extended. With wireless off, the battery will now last a month. It will also have double the storage of the current Kindle. The new Kindle is also supposed to have sharper contrast and quieter, faster page-turns. I have to say that had I known this new Kindle was coming down the pike, I would have waited a few months. I’m hoping owning a Kindle isn’t going to turn into the same frustrating cycle as being an Apple customer. Are you planning to get one? They’re sold out for now, but you can put your name on a list. Amazon says as of today that if you order today, you can expect your Kindle on September 4. I think it’s great that Amazon is working to make their excellent e-reader even better.

A lot of my friends have said that they like the feel and smell of books too much to get an e-reader. I have to say that just because I bought a Kindle doesn’t mean I gave up print books. In fact, according to an infographic in the latest issue of Newsweek, only 15% of Kindle users stop reading print books.

In other news, I thought this podcast about Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was interesting. Give it a listen.

Anniversaries and birthdays this week:

August 3: Birthday of Leon Uris (1924), death of Joseph Conrad (1924), death of Flannery O’Connor (1964), death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (2008).

August 4: Birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792), death of Hans Christian Andersen (1875).

August 5: Birthday of John Hathorne, hanging judge in the Salem witch trials and ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1641); birthday of Guy de Maupassant (1850); birth of Conrad Aiken (1889); birth of Wendell Berry (1934).

August 6: Birthday of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809); birthday of Piers Anthony (1934); death of Ben Jonson (1637).

August 8: Death of Shirley Jackson (1965).

August 9: Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden (1854), birth of P. L. Travers (1899), birth of Philip Larkin (1922), birth of Jonathan Kellerman (1949), death of Hermann Hesse (1962).

Related posts: