Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

You really couldn't say you knew Mom.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Dear blobbists, in keeping with a new trend, I have created this found plot poem for you, strung from lines in the novel. Enjoy!

How far back does one's memory of someone go?
Mom, who had been left behind at Seoul Station, disappeared as if she were a figment of a dream.

She didn't have time to lie in bed sick, she had too much to do.
Everything your wife touched became fertile and bloomed, grew and bore fruit.

Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers.

You all blamed each other for Mom's going missing, and you all felt wounded.
Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.
Only after Mom went missing did you realize that her stories were piled inside you, in endless stacks.

You won't be able to find the answer to why this happened to me.

Remaining a member of this family even in death would be too much and too hard. I lived with this family for over fifty years; please let me go now.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Good evening, dear readers! I hope that you are cozy and snug when you read this, though most of you will likely not come across this post at the late hour when I am penning it. 

This book was lovely. With this second round of books, I have been taking my time ('Don't blob in a rush!' as Grandma would say ;0) and after I finish a book, especially a really good one, I marinate in it and on it for a while. It's been several weeks since I finished, and it keeps resonating in my mind. Perhaps that's the sign that it is a great novel. Not only did it touch me when I read it, but it comes back to me in the moments when I am simply living my life, like an old friend stopping by for tea on a rainy day. 

Do you have a moment, readers? I'd very much like to tell you about this book, and why I enjoyed it so much. Grab some tea and a soybean cake, or cocoa and a muffin if that's more your speed, and settle in. 

July 24th - Mom's birthdate
I chose to read this book for a number of reasons. (1) I had very few East Asian authors on my first list (wait - strike that. I just double-checked. None, in fact.) (2) I wanted to read more books by women, and (3) I felt this particular book struck a chord since I have not one, not two, but three good friends who were adopted from South Korea, all by white families. Understandably, they all have complex and personal identities and relationships with their families, biological and adopted, and each are badass ladies who make me feel lucky to be their friend. In any case, the idea of a mother gone missing, and a daughter telling that story, felt like a kind of strange inverse to what I imagine their mothers must have felt, in handing their daughters over to someone else, willingly, unwillingly, or somewhere in between.

What I found was a striking amount of similarities to my own relationship and kinship with my mother (surprise surPrise!). As I've said before, that's what I love about this project. That I can pick up a book looking for or expecting one thing, and get that idea turned on its head, rainbow-colored, and topsy-turvy spit back at me. 

Case in point, one of the first things we learn about "Mom", who is 69 when she goes missing (I won't share my mom's age here (she's still turning 55 every year, after all) but it's in a general vicinity of that number) and that her birth date is July 24th. Which is my mother's birthdate. I mean, seriously. What are the odds? I know that lots of people must have mothers who were born on July 24th, but it felt strangely symbolic to me. 

Can we be the mothers we had?
I don't have children yet, and don't know exactly what my family will look like in the future, but I often wonder if I can make the same sacrifices my mother made, or show the same tenderness in so many ways that she did. I'm sure every mother looks back and sees her flaws, or what she could have done better, but honestly all I see when I look at my mother is pure love. From learning the violin with us to teaching our 4-H classes, to substitute teaching so she could keep the same school day hours as us, she was and is a mother through and through. Here's the narrator (well, one of several, but kind of the main one, one of Mom's daughters, a writer) reflecting on this herself: 
  • Since she went missing, I often think: Was I a good daughter? Could I do the kind of things for my kids she did for me? 
Distance
In this story, Mom raised her kids to go out into the big world and do great things, and laid the groundwork for them to surpass her in terms of finance, literacy, education, you name it. Mom is from the countryside, and all of her children relocate to the city. Here are a few lines that illustrate this growing distance between Mom and her children:
  • It was difficult to talk to her about your life, which had nothing to do with hers. If you've noticed the point of view changing, you're not crazy. The narrator alternates with each chapter, moving through the family. When the daughter writes, it's in second person ("your life", "you couldn't say you knew Mom.")
  • Mom would try as hard as she could to lengthen the call when you phoned. This line made me so sad. I've never felt obligated to call my mother, and it breaks my heart to think of Mom in the book, grasping desperately at connections with her children she loves so much.
  • This isn't the only thing that you got me to do for the first time. Everything you do is a new world for me. Mom experiences all kinds of new things, especially with her eldest son, Hyong-chol, when he moves to the city.
  • She always brings rice cakes for your birthday. So I said, Don't, nobody eats those rice cakes anyway, and we just take them home and put them in the freezer. I told her not to act like a country bumpkin, she should just go to Seoul without bringing anything. She asked me if I really stuck all the rice cakes in the freezer, so I said, yes, I even have some that are three years old. And she cried. This passage really gets me. There was something about it that just felt so familiar, like I was standing in the kitchen after Thanksgiving and my mom was offering me leftovers, only I imagined myself saying "stop giving me things" and watching my mother cry gently into the kitchen sink. When mother goes missing, everyone thinks about the ways they took her for granted, the ways she loved them and they wronged her, and hearing the daughter relive this moment was gut-wrenching for me. I wanted to slap her and say, "Don't you dare leave those rice cakes in the freezer! Eat the rice cakes your mother made for you!" But I also knew what it would feel like to re-examine every mean thing I've ever said. 
Time and place
"What was I doing when Mom was left behind on that unfamiliar subway-station platform, having failed to get on the train with Father?"
  • It's the first time you've desperately searched for your wife. Did she look for you like this every time you left home?
Everyone in the family spends time thinking back on the day when Mom went missing, evaluating what they were doing and whether it was worth losing track of Mom. Her husband's voice is reflected in the middle of the book, and he takes (arguably) the most serious hit, as he reviews his actions. We learn more about their relationship in this chapter, too, and how he wasn't always there for Mom in ways that he should have been as a co-parent and a partner. I love the line above, and how much is revolving around in his brain as he looks for her.

Ancestral rites and Full Moon Harvest
I really enjoyed this book because it felt simultaneously very far away and very intimate for me. Some of the concepts or locations were places I'd never been to or heard of, but the relationships were so very much the same, and the feelings so universal. I loved the discussion of how they prepared for ancestral rites and Full Moon Harvest, and they made me think of traditions in my own family.
  • It was a typical winter scene, you and your mom squatting by the well that was covered in thin ice, skinning the skate.
  • When the persimmon tree didn't bear fruit; when one of your brothers, who was playing a stick-toss game, got poked in the eye by a flying stick; when Father was hospitalized; when cousins fought - Father's sister grumbled that it was because Mom hadn't bothered to skin the skate for the ancestral rites. I love this. Mom decides at some point that she's tired of skinning the skate (it's a kind of fish - see right), and of course then all the bad luck is attributed to her not skinning the skate. #can'twin #youskintheskatethen
  • Pasting on new door paper was the true start of fall and the beginning of Full Moon Harvest.
Reading and words
There's a beautiful aysmmetry to the idea that the main narrator is a writer (and a rather famous one) but we slowly discover that Mom couldn't read. 
  • She had never once set foot in the world of letters.
  • You had never even thought of reading your wife your daughter's books. Her husband could read, but it doesn't occur to him that Mom might want to experience that. He doesn't find out until well after she's been missing that she was having a volunteer at an orphanage read her daughter's books to her. 
Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
This book is about a lot of things, but it really centers on this idea that the family didn't realize how central Mom was, or how much they needed her and relied on her, until she just vanished into thin air. Here are four lines from her husband, in particular: 
  • You left this house whenever you wanted to, and came back at your whim, and you never once thought that your wife would be the one to leave. 
  • If your wife would just come back, you would make not only seaweed soup but also pancakes for her. On realizing he never cooked for her a day in his life.
  • You realize how selfish you were to wish that your wife survived you. 
  • Once in a while, when your wife said her stomach hurt, you were the kind of person who would reply, 'My back hurts.'
Mouses and houses 
Once again, just as I started thinking, oh, this book takes place in South Korea, it will be most likely be quite different than my lived experience, wham! I read this line: 
When every student was instructed to bring in the tail of a mouse to show that everyone had captured a mouse at home on mouse-catching days, other children's moms caught a mouse and cut off the tail and wrapped it up in paper to take to school. But Mom shrank away from even hearing about it. A woman of sturdy build, she couldn't bring herself to catch a mouse. If she went to the shed to get some rice and encountered a mouse, she would scream and run outside. Aunt would glare disapprovingly and cluck at Mom when she rushed out of the shed, red-faced.
And guess what I had just seen? A mouse of my very own. In my house. And did I capture it for mouse-catching day? No. Like Mom, I shrank away and screamed. And then I trotted my cat out and plopped her in the kitchen to deal with it. (And she yawned, and walked away.)

Rosebushes
Mom is an industrious worker of the earth, which is why I loved getting to see her enjoy it for beauty's sake:
The first spring after Hyong-chol bought his house, Mom visited and suggested they go buy roses. Roses? When the word came out of his mom's mouth he had to ask, 'You do mean roses?' as if he'd misheard her.
  'Red roses. Why? Isn't there a place that sells them?'
  He had never seen Mom plant something to look at, not to harvest and eat, like beans or potatoes or seedlings of cabbage or radishes or peppers.
Your mom's house was like a factory.
This brought me back to my mom so vividly I could smell the pies in the oven, or the strawberries being mashed into jam, or taste the pure tomatoes from the vine, before or after they were canned. I loved that while the food Mom makes is pretty wildly different from what my mom makes, each woman is master of her culinary domain.
  • She would grind red peppers in the mortar to make kimchi, sift through beanstalks to find beans and shuck them, make red-pepper paste, salt cabbage for winter kimchi, or dry fermented soybean cakes.
  • You had never thought of Mom as separate from the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mom.
  • She paid only for things that could not be grown from seeds.
New words and concepts I learned:


hanbok (South Korea) or Joseon-ot (North Korea) is the representative example of traditional Korean dress, characterized by vibrant colors and simple lines without pockets.


Chindo - a breed of hunting dog that originated on Jindo Island in South Korea. Brought to the United States with South Korean expatriates, it is celebrated in its native land for its fierce loyalty and brave nature.

majigi - a unit of measure in Korea. One majigi is the amount of land that can be sowed with one mal (bushel) of seed, or approximately 1/2 acre, depending on crop and land quality.

makgoli - a milky, off-white, lightly sparkling rice wine that tastes slightly sweet, tangy, bitter, and astringent.

soju - a clear, colorless distilled beverage of Korean origin. It is usually consumed neat, and its alcohol content varies from about 16.8% to 53% alcohol by volume.

Referents and Reverberations (lines that made me think of other books)

The Diary of a Young Girl
At one point, Mom says: "'How can you live without trusting people? There are more people who are good than people who are bad!" And she smiled her typical optimistic smile." and that made me think of dear Anne, and the people in the world being, after all, mostly good.

Proust
This line had a very Proustian air to it: 
"Do you think that things happening now are linked to things from the past and things in the future, it's just that we can't feel them? I don't know, could that be true?"
To the Lighthouse
This line: 
"Even a good house falls apart quickly when nobody stops by. A house is alive only when there are people living in it, brushing against it, staying in it."
Reminded me of these lines describing the summer home being 'recalled to life': 
"The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed."
...
So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
...
They might be coming for the summer; had left everything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them. Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and a tea-set one morning; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender and a set of steel fire-irons. George, Mrs. Bast's son, caught the rats and cut the grass. Attended with the creaking of hinges and the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollen woodwork some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as the women, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairs now, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!"
Beloved
And this line: "A house takes on the characteristics of its occupant, and, depending on who lives in it, it can become a very good house or a very strange house." reminded me of a certain spiteful 124. 

The Master and Margarita
And last, but not least, this passage: 
"There were summer nights when, one by one, they fell asleep stretched over one another, waiting for the buns to cook. While they were sleeping, I would finish steaming the rest of the buns, put them in a basket, cover it, leave it on the platform, and go to sleep; the dawn dew slightly hardened the outside of the steamed buns. As soon as they woke up, the children would pull the basket toward them and eat some more. That's why my children still like cold steamed buns, the outsides slightly hardened. There were summer nights like that. Summer nights with stars pouring down from the sky." 
reminded me of this scene with the Master and Margarita: 
"During the Maytime storms, when streams of water gushed noisily past the blurred windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes. The potatoes steamed, and their charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, and in the garden the trees would shed broken twigs and white clusters of flowers after the rain." 
 I hope I've conveyed even an iota of the tenderness that this novel evokes in its readers. Please do grab a copy if you haven't already read it, and I won't spoil the ending by telling you all of its secrets. I'll leave you with a few thoughts from Mom: 
  • Mom expressed gratitude for the small moments of happiness that everyone experienced.
  • Don't be sad for me. I was happy so many days of my life because I had you.
I can't help but think of my own mother, her love for Pollyanna and finding joy and goodness in the world, and the deep, oceanic love I have for being lucky enough to be her youngest daughter. Mom, I hope that reading this brings you a small moment of happiness, and readers, I hope that this blob reminds you of the things you love about your Mom, if you're lucky to have a keeper like mine. 

Keep each other safe. Look after Mom. Keep each other safe. Good night. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

What kind of life can we have in this room?

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Giovanni's Room is a story of love won and love lost, identities seen and unseen, societal pressure to conform, and what happens when people are pushed to their limits. The story is told by David, who recounts a kind of epic, but ephemeral love story starring himself and another man, Giovanni. From the start of the work we know Giovanni is doomed to die; but only close to the end is it that we discover why. We flash forwards and backwards in time with David, defining his character moment by moment. Each memory or experience brings us closer to understanding of the reason for Giovanni's fate (and in my case, a little closer to despising David). It is a nuanced story that is propelled forward by its visual beauty, rather than by dramatic actions or outcomes. That is not to say that it doesn't have its moments of surprise, or that it is wholly without plot, but rather that the novel's breaths are composed of exquisite tableaus. While the reader is curious to discover what transpired to lead Giovanni to the guillotine, she is equally happy to bask in each painting and explore each intricate detail along the way. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you would like to know more specifically what happened in the book, you shall simply have to read it for yourself. I have to say, it is one of my new favorites, and I highly recommend it. It's also quite short, so you could enjoy it in a long afternoon, or a long weekend, depending on your desired reading pace. This blob is a longer one, since, as you know, I tend to blob more when I like a book.

In speaking to a dear friend (and kindred spirit) about this book, I told her that it was one of my new favorites, but also that I deeply disliked the main character and found somethings about Giovanni deeply problematic from a feminist perspective. I also said I wasn't terribly involved in the plot. After which she said, "so what was it that you liked about it to make it a favorite?" ;)

To me, that is the beauty of great writing, and constructing a beautiful novel. While I can name books that I adore because they make me infinitely happy and I feel deep kinship with the wonderful characters, I also have favorites where I downright despise the protagonist, and don't particularly enjoy the book's outcome. Great Expectations has long been an all-time favorite, and I have never liked Pip. Or Estella. Or most of what happens. I also dislike most of Hemingway's protagonists, but greatly enjoy his works. 

Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like that books can still surprise me. Now, allow me to present the novel to you via a series of nouns, both proper and common. I have alphabetized them for you (no, no, you needn't thank me. It was nothing.)

America, from sea to shining sea
Baldwin wrote this work while he was living in France for several years, and his narrator's relationship with his American identity was very complex:
  • America’s history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world . . . are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word “America” remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.
David (no last name); aka, our narrator
David struggles with himself in a variety of ways. He was not wholly unlikable, but I certainly did not see what drew Giovanni to him. Here are a few quotes that I think sum up David well. 
  • ...for the vision I gave my father of my life was exactly the vision in which I myself most desperately needed to believe.
  • Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. I love this passage. I think it's my favorite one in the book. I also love the 'nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.' Lollllz. 
  • And no matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life. This existential internal terror was certainly reflective of David's own struggles, but it was also SOOOO delightfully French. 
  • But perhaps she sensed, from time to time, that my clutch was too insistent to be trusted, certainly too insistent to last. David grabs onto things, and onto people (did I mention that he has a girlfriend/would-be wife for most of the book? Her name is Hella. Like, wow David, that's HELLA uncool of you to be having multiple people on the side) but he is deeply unreliable in the end. 
Giovanni, of titular fame
Perhaps this is exactly what Baldwin wanted, but as much as I hated David, I loved Giovanni. He was tender and sweet and funny and vulnerable in all the ways that David was closed off from the world and mean and cold. I wanted to reach through the page and hug Giovanni, and celebrate his capacity for joy. 
  • So I saw that he could be useful if I could only find some way to make him keep his hands off me.... he has more hands than an octopus and no dignity whatsoever. Giovanni, in reference to his employer, who has a lecherous nature. I loved the 'more hands than an octopus' line. 
  • 'To choose!' cried Giovanni, turning his face away from me and speaking, it appeared, to an invisible ally who had been eavesdropping on this conversation all along. 
  • He belonged to this strange city, which did not belong to me. referencing Paris
  • 'Come. I am sure that I am much prettier than your wallpaper - or your concierge. I will smile at you when you wake up. They will not.' adorable Giovanni, on convincing David to stay.
  • ''If I am not here,' said Giovanni, both vindictive and near tears, 'by the time you come back again, I will be at home. You remember what that is - ? It is near a zoo.' When David leaves Giovanni to return to Hella, he doesn't even bother to say goodbye, he just disappears. Giovanni happens to run into him and they have this dramatic exchange. I love how Giovanni shames David, but also the melodramatic quality of his response. It reminded me of The Birdcage, when Nathan Lane's character ominously decides to head off to the local cemetery with nothing but his toothbrush.
  • 'You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.' Giovanni, for all his problematic opinions on women (he likes to beat a good woman, need I say more?) is unapologetic in his love for David, and he is not afraid to admit both the intensity of his feelings and the fact that he feels them for a man. The counterpoint of David and Giovanni is so striking and stunning.
Guillotine, and it's not-so-distant past
So you may have noticed that I'm revealing some plot details here, even though my 'spoiler' is over. #sorrynotsorry #getoverit

The book starts off with a mention of Giovanni being headed to the guillotine in the morning, and for some time, you wonder (or at least I did, as a reader) if he is being punished for being gay, or if he has committed some offense. It's the 1950's in France, so it's a little unclear where the legal world stands on gayness, and Baldwin waits until much later to divulge that Giovanni has murdered his lecherous boss, and the sentence is, in fact, for this murder. 

In case you were wondering like I was if the guillotine was really used as late as the 1950's, get this. The last person to be guillotined in France was in 1977. I won't share the details of his crime, as they're quite dark, but needless to say, I was surprised it was so late!

La langue française
Since the novel takes place in Paris, there's understandably quite a bit of French in it. As I think it was more standard at the time that the learned reader would know French, there's no translation, and sometimes it's explained contextually, but other times not. I found this pleasant and natural, given the locale of the book, but I could see this being exceedingly frustrating for a non-French-speaking reader.

Tutoyering
If you're not familiar with French, it has a formal 'you' and an informal 'you', much like many other languages. When you use the informal 'you' - tu - it's called tutoyering. When you use the more formal 'you' - vous - it's called vousvoyering. When, and if, you ever move from vousvoyering to tutoyering with various acquaintances/friends/family is deeply complex, and open to much discussion. 

I particularly enjoyed this moment, in part because it felt extremely on brand for David and his cold nature. He decides at one point to call up a woman he had met before, hit on her, and get her to sleep with him. He does this for a variety of reasons, none of them particularly honorable, but all understandable. After they sleep together, they have a toast, and this exchange takes place:

'"A la votre,' I said.
'A la votre?' She giggled. 'A la tienne, cheri!"

Essentially, he's still using the formal 'you', even though they have just been quite intimate with each other, and she slips over to the informal 'tu', calling him dear, and poking fun at his stiffness. I snorted at this line in the book and thought, David would vousvoyer a woman after having sex with her. 

Whiteness
One of the most striking things about this book is that the protagonist is white, something he makes clear from the very first page: 

"My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past."

Given what a presence James Baldwin has now, it was jarring for me at first to place his racial identity to the side. But, as I came to suspect as the book went on, the duality of Baldwin's identity was (and in many ways, unfortunately still is) too heavy, too profound, to tackle at the same time. Here's a quote from him on it:
‘‘I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.’’
Women, and some problematic opinions of them
  • I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to... But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. David, on proposing to Hella, a relationship which ends up going down the drain
  • These absurd women running around today, full of ideas and nonsense, and thinking themselves equal to men - quelle rigolade! - they need to be beaten half to death so that they can find out who rules the world. and Giovanni, in aforementioned problematic comment re: beating women
Writing
I really came to feel by the end of this book that there was such a thing as a Baldwin sentence, in the same way as there exists a Hemingway sentence, a Proustian sentence, a Woolf sentence. Here's a sample: 
"He was one of those people who, quick to laugh, are slow to anger; so that their anger, when it comes, is all the more impressive, seeming to leap from some unsuspected crevice like a fire which will bring the whole house down." on David's father
Referents/reverberations
There were many books that came to mind as I read Giovanni's Room, several of which aligned immediately when it became clear that Giovanni had been sentenced to death. This is a rich topic for fiction, it seems. Here are the novels I have read for this blob that have a similar thread, in chronological order of publication: 
  • Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin (1956)
Hemingway vibe
"You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by." I loved this line, comparing Paris to New York, and how in Paris, the history is palpable in every direction. A lot of the way that David interacted with France as a sort of would-be expat reminded me of Hemingway's characters. 

L'Etranger
If you know me, you know I have a tenuous relationship with this Camus work. That being said, tell me that this line from Giovanni's Room (about David, of course): 
  • Something had broken in me to make me so cold and so perfectly still and far away.
Doesn't remind you of this guy: 
  • “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure.” oh, Meursault. 
Proust
I have to say I really liked that lots of this book reminded me of Proust. As you know, I'm an unapologetic Proust lover. This adorable exchange between Giovanni and David, on their first meeting: 
But you will come more often now
Ah!' cried Giovanni. 'Don't you know when you have made a friend?'
I knew I must look foolish and that my question was foolish too: 'So soon?" 
"Why no,' he said reasonably, and looked at his watch, 'we can wait another hour if you like. We can become friends then. Or we can wait until closing time. We can become friends then. Or we can wait until tomorrow, only that means that you must come in here tomorrow and perhaps you have something else to do."
Reminded me of one of my favorite Proust scenes, between the Young Boy Narrator (YBN) and Gilberte, his beloved little friend, when she arrives extremely late to the Champs-Élysées where they play together: 
"'I had so many things to ask you,' I said to her. 'I thought that today was going to mean so much in our friendship. And no sooner have you come than you go away! Try to come early tomorrow, so that I can talk to you.'"
Title possibilities
I often keep a running list of potential titles for my blog post, and I was amused to see that this book's selections actually tell the whole story in beautiful succinctness. 
  • People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted.
  • The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid.
  • I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. 
  • The world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget.
  • We have not committed any crime.
  • Why have you gone away from me?
  • What kind of life can we have in this room? 
  • But I'm a man, a man! What do you think can happen between us?
A few new words I picked up
dipsomaniac -  a drunkard or alcoholic: someone who drinks alcohol to excess.

vituperative - bitter and abusive

Some lovely Baldwin sentences
  • And Guillaume brightened suddenly - he was really remarkable, as though he carried, hidden somewhere on his person, a needle filled with vitamins, which, automatically, at the blackening hour, discharged itself into his veins.
  • Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
  • I stared at absurd Paris, which was as cluttered now, under the scalding sun, as the landscape of my heart.
  • The Americans have no sense of doom, none whatever. They do not recognize doom when they see it.
I'll leave you with this rather desperate line from Giovanni, to David: 

"I have never reached you. You have never really been here. All day, while I worked, to make this room for you."

Be off to your Friday night pursuits, spend crucial hours and days with your close friends, and whatever you do, don't be like David. Let people reach you. And if society has a version of your identity it wants you to wear, blow it off and design your own damn self. Life's too short to be anyone else.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Maybe once you could play basketball but you can't do anything now.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Erstwhile local basketball star Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom starts this winner of a novel (oh sorry, am I editorializing already?) off by driving away from his life, his wife, his toddler son, and their baby on the way. He leaves ostensibly because his wife is an alcoholic and he feels trapped in their life. He returns for reasons which are not entirely clear and crashes with an old basketball coach, and then a new ladyfriend/mistress. One of the town's clergy tries to 'rehabilitate' Rabbit's marriage, and Rabbit himself, and when the baby is born, Janice (Rabbit's wife) takes him back with little battle.

Rabbit sticks around for a hot minute, but starts itching to leave again almost immediately. While Rabbit is out, trying to see his old mistress Ruth, Janice goes on a bender and accidentally drowns their new baby in the bathtub. (I know. Not nice!) Rabbit acts like a jerk and blames Janice alone for the incident, eventually heading back to Ruth and trying to convince her to keep THEIR unborn child which he finds out is also on the way. Ruth tells him she will consider keeping the child IF he divorces his wife. Rabbit is overwhelmed at first, but then says he'll do it.

Aaaaand, then he runs away. Again.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well folks, I hated this book. And if you knew my grandmother and how she really felt it wasn't appropriate to use the word 'hate' unless you really really meant it, you'll know how seriously I mean it when I say it. I disliked it so much that I didn't even want to blob on it. And that's saying something. Because sometimes I at least enjoy a good rage-blob now and again. ;)

Here are some of the notes I took in my copy of this book, largely about Rabbit, but let's be honest, he couldn't be so convincing as a character if there wasn't a little of that in Updike, too: 

- Misogynist
- Sexist
- Sexual assaulter/borderline sexual predator
- Puts women in uncomfortable situations, both on an emotional and a physical level
- Wants all women, but his sister should be a saint and never interact with men.
- All women are sexual objects (except his sister. See note above.)
- Once women have children or become caretakers for their husbands, they become unsexy.

I also took a running tally of how often I wrote expressions of disgust on the text itself as I read, much like when I tallied Holden's references to being depressed in 'The Catcher in the Rye' (37.) Here's the tally from this book:

EW - 1
BARF - 8
UGH - 18
Inappropriate expletive - 2

Here are three moments that I think perfectly sum up everything I hated about Rabbit: 

(1) Rabbit: "There's something about her. She's a menace."
Ruth: "This poor wife you left? You're the menace, I'd say." Even his new mistress can tell he's the problem. I mean, why do you think Janice drinks in the first place, Rabbit? Ever think of that, huh didja didja?

(2) Ruth: "You're so smug, is what gets me. Don't you ever think you're going to have to pay a price?"
Rabbit: "If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price." Yes, perfect, Rabbit. You ruin everything and then someone else will clean up your mess. GREAT attitude.

(3) "That his touch still lives in his hands elates him." This is a reference to Rabbit's former amazing record in basketball locally. This whole book felt like a treatise on why you should encourage athletes to pursue multiple interests so they don't spend their whole adult life feeling inadequate and lusting after their glory days.

Well, I believe it was Don Quixote who said that "There's no book so bad that it does not have something good in it."In that vein, here are three lines I actually liked: 
  • He's safe inside his own skin, he doesn't want to come out.
  • That 'her' is a forked word now startles him. After Rabbit learns his child with Ruth is a girl.
  • Nelson (Rabbit's son, FYI) is having soup and raw carrots and a Lebanon baloney sandwich by himself at the table. LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL. Obviously I had to give a shout out to the Lebanon bologna reference (THOUGH IT'S BOLOGNA, NOT BALONEY, UPDIKE). I believe the only other Lebanon, PA, reference I've come across in all these works is a bizarre mention of it in 'The Red-Headed League', a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Gotta give Lebanon its props when it gets its (infrequent) moment in the spotlight!
Well folks, that's all I've got. I'll be hobbling off to the gym with my almost-healed sprained ankle for some low-key stationary biking, and I've already finished 'Giovanni's Room', so expect a blob on that soon. Read away! Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.