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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In a little while, it ain't gonna be so bad. In a little while.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Grapes of Wrath is about family, love, sacrifice, struggle, and redemption. It chronicles the life of the Joad family as they move from Oklahoma to California after they're run off their land. Ma is the matriarch with a will of iron. Pa is strong and well-meaning, but secondary to Ma where family power is concerned. Noah, the oldest son, is a little batty and keeps to himself. Tom, another son, rejoins the family early in the novel, and acts as the functional protagonist. Al is a typical teenage boy who just wants to work on cars and get himself a lady. Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) is their daughter in her late teens who's carrying a child. Connie is her husband (who has a few too many high-minded ideas). Ruthie and Winfield are the youngest children. Uncle John is their relative who lost his wife (and blames himself for her death because he thought she had a stomachache and she ended up dying). Grandma and Granpa are sweet and funny characters, and the preacher (Casy) who isn't a preacher any more tags along with the family on the journey out west. The whole pack of 13 starts off, and by the end there are only 6. Grandma and Granpa both die before the family finds work in California. Noah strolls off by a river and decides to stay and fish there for the rest of his life. Connie runs out on Rosasharn. The preacher goes to jail to save Tom (they got in a fight with a mean deputy) and then he is later killed for leading a strike at a peach farm. Al ends up splitting from the family to stay with a woman (Aggie) and Tom is forced to leave his family for their safety and his after he attacks a few men after watching them kill Casy. The family has a really rough time of it when they get to California. They live in a Hooverville, a government camp, on a peach farm, and on a cotton farm, but they rarely have enough to eat and the outlook is always very grim. At the end of the novel, there's a huge flood, and the family escapes to an abandoned barn (after Rosasharn gives birth to a stillborn child). The Joads find a boy and his father, and the father is dying of starvation. The boy begs the Joads to help, and Rosasharn closes the novel by offering her breast to the dying man.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

In terms of impressions, I really enjoyed this book. The ending depressed hell out of me (as Holden Caulfield would say) but I understood its necessity and appreciated its poignancy.

- When Tom comes looking for his family after he's been released from jail (oops! forgot to mention that in the plot summary, didn't I? Well, he went to jail because he got in a fight with a guy (before the novel starts) and after he gets stabbed, he smacks the guy's head in with a shovel. He gets paroled early for good behavior, and we first meet him when he's hitching a ride to get home to his family.) he brings a turtle for Ruthie and Winfield. He ends up letting it go, but asserts that every kid has a turtle at some point in life, but no kid can keep a turtle, because they have a way of running off. REMEMBER PALOMA, lexie and dinah? (For my other readers, we used to have a lovely turtle named Paloma. She ran away. I understand the irony of this statement.)

- There's a part in the book where truck drivers are contrasted with the migrants moving west. The truck drivers leave great tips at truck stops, whereas the migrants beg for food or for lower prices, which makes the truck stop workers angry. I wonder if there's a similar feeling today about truck drivers vs. the average traveler.

- I wanted to throttle Connie for running off on Rosasharn. Granted, Rosasharn is a little whiny and needy, but it was so sad that Connie claimed he would go to night classes, and save up money, and put Rosasharn up in a lovely beautiful home, and then he just up and left.

- We made Hoovervilles in social studies class in high school. They don't seem as fun or funny now that I've read this book. Maybe it should be assigned reading to go along with that activity.

- When Tom had to leave the family, I was so sad! And I was really angry at Ruthie (she blabs about Tom having gotten in a fight, and so he has to go. She's just a little girl, but still - how stupid can you be?) He tells Ma that he thinks maybe his soul is just a piece of a bigger one, (like Casy told him) and therefore, he'll be around all the time. Any time children "laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready" or when "folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build" he'll be there. I like this sentiment, but I would have liked it just as much if we could have had any idea what happened to Tom in the end. Alas, we are not to know!

- This book alternates between the narrative of the Joad family's journey and stream of consciousness chapters. I still don't know if I quite understand the purpose or the effect of those passages, but I think I liked them in the end. I guess they're to give us perspective from outside the protagonist family.

- Ma tells the family to "redd up the camp." I always thought "redding up the rooms" was a Pennsylvania Dutch saying. Maybe not!

- Ma is the true heroine of this novel. She holds the family together through thick and thin. She sacrifices her life and her memories without complaint. She lays beside Grandma in the back of the truck after Grandma has already died, and she doesn't tell anyone until they're safely across the border into California. She threatens her husband with a jack-handle when he makes decisions that threaten to break up the family. (Ha! I was just talking to Dennis about the way Steinbeck reuses words in the same sentence, with no fear of the redundancy of repetition. Guess it's catching on!) She is totally selfless, loving, and giving, and everything a good mother should be and is forced to be when her family is at stake. I must say, it was awfully refreshing to see such a strong female character at last.

- The nipple thing at the end of the book is a little bizarre, but I guess it speaks to the idea of common humanity and new beginnings. From tragedy (the loss of Rosasharn's baby) comes a continuation of life (feeding the dying man her milk) and a reference to a return to the start, to the beginning of life. What poetry there is in this.

- This book is about working with what you've got, not complaining about it, and always, always, always, helping others along beside you. It's a moral we can all stand to keep in mind, particularly at the end of this year of hard times. Don't forget - when you're down and out, reach out your hand. Someone is always there beside you.

On to Anna Karenina and Maine. Happy Holidays to all!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I'm frightened. Of us.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Lord of the Flies is a story of adolescence. It tells the story of a group of British boys who are stranded on an island. There are no grownups, so one boy, Ralph, takes charge. He is elected chief of the group, despite the fact that another boy, Jack, wants to be in charge. Jack is the ringleader of a group of boys who are all in a choir together. Ralph is voted the leader, and he declares that two things are essential: smoke (for a signal) and shelter. Jack wants to hunt the pigs on the island, so he takes his crew out to hunt. After a while, a few boys announce that a beast is living on the island. This is debated for some time, and this 'beast' eventually forces the boys off the top of the mountain where they had been keeping up their fire. Eventually, competition rears its ugly head, and Jack forces a schism in the group. Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and a pair of twins (Samneric) are left with the 'littluns' and Jack and his crew turn savage, painting their bodies and hunting wildly. There's a moment of almost reconciliation between the two groups, but a frenzied dance and the bizarre approach of something that is assumed to be the 'beast' leads to a brutal murder. It turns out the unknown creature that frightened the group was Simon, and he was trying to tell them that the beast is simply an old corpse stuck in a parachute and pilot's clothes. After this, the group splits gain. The savages come in the night and steal Piggy's glasses (which are the only way to start a fire). Piggy, the twins, and Ralph go to the home of the savages (Castle Rock) to get Piggy's glasses back, but things don't go as planned. Ralph is attacked by Jack, the twins are captured and tortured into joining Jack's tribe, and Piggy is forced off a cliff to his death. The savages then focus all of their attention on hunting Ralph. They throw boulders at him, chase him, and eventually light the whole island on fire in an attempt to catch (and/or kill) Ralph. Just when we think Ralph is done for, he is saved by a navy officer, who has just arrived in a ship. The officer says he saw their smoke signal, and the boys are rescued.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was excellent, in my opinion. My opinion of the book was only enhanced by the fact that I work with middle school boys, all of whom could easily have slipped into the characters in this book. I especially see the connection between Piggy and Ralph with a pair of boys in my after school program, and it made me want to watch those boys very carefully from now on.

- I think it's interesting that the whole premise of the book is that there are no grownups. What would the story have been like if there had been one grownup? Two? Just a thought.

- Jack has a fascinating character development in the novel. He goes from saying things like, "I ought to be chief. I can sing C-sharp." to leading chants of "kill the pig, cut her throat, spill her blood", to suggesting that they use a "littlun" next time they need to re-enact the play of hunting a pig, to making his followers chant, "the chief has spoken", to ruling the island in a chaotic, despotic rule of violence. It's evident from the beginning of the novel that he seeks control, and that he is fiercely interested in killing animals, so it's not really that big of a jump to the end result, but he is just a teenage choir boy who ends up leading a guerilla gang. I guess that happens fairly often in other countries, actually. And though my students are all really good boys and girls, it's hard to know what would happen if they were stranded for such a long time and leadership and communication broke down.

- When Jack and his boys kill a pig, Golding writes that they landed "heavy and fulfilled upon her". This felt pretty intensely sexual, and was in fact the only reference to any kind of desire other than violent hunting desire, which is interesting considering we are dealing with a pack of adolescent boys.

- The "Lord of the Flies" turns out to be the head of the pig, which Jack and his boys leave on a stick as a gift for "the beast". It's ironic that the beast turns out to be nothing more than a deceased human. I suppose it speaks to the idea that the beast is within us, not some massive creature with claws and wings. The fact that Simon is killed when he runs up to the group in the dark trying to announce the news that there is no beast at all is upsetting and horridly ironic.

- The title of this post is a comment Ralph makes after what happens to Simon. Based on the way the book ends, Ralph should be scared of the boys.

- Piggy (who isn't really done justice in the synopsis, which I apologize for) is a pudgy boy who serves as the brains behind Ralph. He is really very sweet, but gets picked on for the majority of the novel for his size, his glasses, and his ass-mar (think asthma with a British accent). Piggy tries to reason with Jack and his gang when he goes to demand the return of his glasses, saying, "Which is better - to have rules and agree? Or to hunt and kill?" After which, a large rock sends Piggy off a cliff to his gruesome death. So, I guess they answered that question for him.

- Ralph is an extremely intriguing character, in that he's pushed to be chief by Piggy, and several times seems to want rather to follow than to lead, but he ends up being the hero of the book (along with Piggy and Simon, of course). He describes several times a "curtain in his brain" that keeps him from focusing on the idea at hand. I know exactly what he means! Sometimes, (and I find it happens quite often when I'm speaking with a student about having done something wrong) I feel a curtain slide across my brain, and I can't clearly elucidate what's wrong with the behavior I'm seeing. Don't worry! I don't think the students notice, as the curtain moment is never more than a split-second, but it feels just the way Ralph describes it.

- Ralph cries at the end when he's saved, and Golding says, "he wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart". Such a difficult lesson, truly learned "the hard way."

Again, I really loved this book. Dark, intriguing, extremely thought-provoking, and, I think, really insightful study of adolescent (particularly male adolescent) dynamics and behavior.

I will end with a quote from Ralph, Simon, and Jack, during their first hike up the mountain and after their first view of the island:


On to The Peaches of Vengeance. Oh, you know what I mean.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of a bunch of animals. (Or is it the story of the RUSSIAN REVOLUTION? WHO KNOWS?) Okay, but seriously, folks. We've got some animals living at a place called Manor Farm, which is owned by Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones is an evil evil man (or so we're told) who doesn't feed the animals enough, works them to the bone, and then murders them. As the book begins, Old Major, a very old prize boar, has a dream where the animals take over and run their own world as comrades. He comes up with a few rules, e.g., in fighting Man, we cannot come to resemble him, no animals shall live in a house, sleep in a bed, wear clothes, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, touch money, or engage in trade. Old Major promptly dies (at the ripe old age of 12) and Snowball and Napoleon, two young pigs, set about making Old Major's dream a reality. The animals revolt against Mr. Jones and successfully run him off the farm. They create their own society, make Old Major's rules into commandments, and set about running the farm by themselves. Mr. Jones eventually returns with a few men, attempting to regain control of Manor Farm (which has now been renamed Animal Farm) but the animals fight back, and only one animal dies in their victory. Snowball and Napoleon are competing for the animals' loyalty, and Snowball hatches a plan to build a windmill and streamline work on the farm. Napoleon systematically attacks Snowball's ideas and eventually has him run off the farm. Snowball does not return to the farm, but is blamed for everything that goes wrong for the rest of the novel. Napoleon tells the animals the windmill was his idea, and the animals build it, but it is ruined once by a huge storm and then again by men who blow it up. Napoleon proceeds to break all the commandments set forth in the beginning of Animal Farm, moving into Manor House with some of the other pigs, supervising instead of working, making and drinking beer, sleeping in the beds, wearing ribbons, and eventually, even walking on two legs and trading with men. In the end, Napoleon makes a deal with the local men, and shows them that on his farm, the animals are actually treated worse than anywhere else, but they're happy because they think their "society of equals" is working perfectly.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

First, I wanted to mention that I think everyone in the Google group ended up receiving a series of emails exchanged between me and Gina. Sorry about that, guys! Next time, I'll make sure I email Gina back directly. :)

I wasn't wild about this book, but I can still dig it. I appreciate its relevance (as a metaphor for many things, not just the Russian Revolution, which I didn't actually experience, nor did most of its readers nowadays) but found it to be somehow less frightening or upsetting than 1984.

Favorite animals:

Mollie - she's a horse, and she likes the humans because they give her sugar and tie ribbons in her pretty pretty mane. She has to be convinced that humans are bad, and is told that "liberty is worth more than ribbons". She eventually disappears, and some of the animals catch her living with humans who feed her sugar and tie ribbons in her mane. Good work, Mollie.

Boxer - Boxer is a horse, and he works tirelessly on both windmills. His mottos are "I will work harder" and "Napoleon is always right", which don't really serve him that well in life. He ends up with a collapsed lung, and instead of retiring and living out his "pension" in the pasture, he gets sent off to a horse slaughterer. Napoleon claims he died in hospital, but I know he's really glue. Sad. Oh, and the title is a line from Boxer. In the first battle, he thinks he's killed a man by accident, and he says "Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?" It's such a tender moment in this otherwise callous tale.

Snowball - He's kind of a badass! And the windmill was probably a good idea in the beginning. He also gets a medal in the first battle against the humans.

The cat - The cat tries to eat rats in the beginning of the book, which prompts Old Major to ask for a vote on whether rats are counted in the "all animals are comrades" rule. The animals agree that "rats are comrades", but it comes out that the cat voted on both sides.

--I think the slippery slope with the pigs started with the fact that they only supervise while the other animals work. Clearly that is a problem. Although, what was that, Mom Mom? Supervision's half the job? Half the job. Cancellation's the name of the game.

--All the commandments are broken in this story, which I suppose smacks of blatant irony. Can you imagine breaking all of the ten commandments? Or any set of religious rules, for that matter? I mean, I'd have to kill, steal, worship idols, lie, mistreat my parents, and it just goes on and on and on! I guess they figure if you break 'em all, you're not really making the cut. It certainly made me think the animals were REALLY stupid when they didn't quite notice that Napoleon was breaking all the rules. I mean, a lot of the animals couldn't read, and the animals that could only read the modified commandments (Squealer, Napoleon's numero uno, added choice phrases to the end of the commandments to make sure that Napoleon was still up to code). But still! I guess I'm supposed to feel angry at the stupidity and the "let's just go along with things" attitude. I think that's the point.

--Rewriting history is brought up again, which reminded me of 1984. Not sure which book was published first, so don't know which one used the idea first. But still a very thought-provoking and distressing thought. What if we are all written out of history someday? How many people already have been?

--It's mentioned several times that some of the animals "would have protested if they could think of the right arguments". This hardly seemed realistic to me. I recognize that awful things have happened before where people get steamrolled into being on board with an idea, but is it really because people can't think of the right arguments, or is it because they're cowards? Or is this more irony? Shouldn't it be easier for me to tell if it is irony? But then I think someone said Orwell wrote this in code. Gosh, maybe I missed the whole point. Ah well. Worse things have happened. I'll read up when I finish this post.

--The moment when the pigs start walking on two legs is both comical and horrifying. I especially liked the sheep being taught to sing "4 legs good, two legs better!" to replace their old song of "4 legs good, two legs bad". It made me wonder if there were songs (or other musical propaganda) used in the Russian Revolution to stifle dissent.

Well, I'm going to end this blog, as it's only made me feel very stupid and very uninformed. But I don't like to read about the books before I blog! It changes my whole opinion of them!

Okay. I've already started The Lord of the Flies. Oddly enough, they're both on the reading list for my students this summer. Funny that they're back to back on the list.

Maybe the 8th graders will understand this book better than I did. ARE YOU SMARTER THAN AN 8TH GRADER? I'm not, apparently.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Daylight began to forsake the red-room.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Jane Eyre, our heroine and the namesake for this novel, is a child when our story begins. Her parents are dead, and she has been taken in by a wealthy aunt, Mrs. Reed, to be brought up with her cousins Georgiana, John, and Eliza. Mrs. Reed is a very unpleasant sort of woman, and she treats Jane very ill. John abuses Jane, both emotionally and physically, and Jane is exceedingly unhappy (and unloved by all but one servant, Bessie) at this house. After 10 years here, Jane is removed to a religious school for orphans called Lowood, run by a man named Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane is tolerably happy there, though the conditions are exceedingly poor. Mr. Brocklehurst tries to ruin Jane's good reputation at the school by informing all her classmates and teachers that she is a bad seed (more specifically, a LIAR) which he was told by Mrs. Reed, but the students and teachers all hate Mr. Brocklehurst, so Jane's reputation remains unsullied. Jane makes friends, and particularly enjoys the company of one teacher, a Miss Temple, and one student, Helen. Helen, however, dies of consumption, and Miss Temple eventually marries and moves away. Jane stays at Lowood until she is 16 as a student, then stays on for 2 years as a teacher. The conditions are vastly improved after Mr. Brocklehurst's treatment of the girls and attention the school is revealed to be less than perfect. Jane is sad with the loss of her teacher, however, and advertises herself as a potential governess. She is accepted by Mr. Edward Rochester, and becomes the governess for his ward, Adele. Adele is not actually his child, but we learn later on that his French mistress became pregnant with Adele soon after she betrayed Mr. Rochester with another man, and she tries to convince Mr. Rochester that Adele is his daughter. He doesn't believe that Adele is his daughter, but takes pity on the child and helps raise her. Jane falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and he falls in love with her. There is an ongoing mystery involving a woman who lives in the attic of the house, Thornfield (she lights Mr. Rochester's bed on fire, cackles in the night, and even comes close to attacking Jane) and Jane believes that this woman is a lunatic servant, Grace Poole. Jane and Mr. Rochester become engaged in a spontaneous moment (after Jane has completely convinced herself that he will marry another woman who has been staying at the house, Blanche Ingram) and they go to the church to get married. A man intervenes, however, (a Mr. Mason) saying that Mr. Rochester is already married, and to his sister, Bertha Mason. It becomes clear that the lunatic in the attic is Mr. Rochester's wife, a woman he married in the West Indies. After the wedding, however, she soon lost control of her sanity, and Mr. Rochester was forced to bring her back to England and hide her away. He was hoping that he could marry Jane and then tell her about his other wife, but alas, the marriage to Jane is now impossible, and Jane departs, horrified and full of despair. Jane wanders about, starved and depraved, not a penny to her name, until she stumbles upon a family (two sisters and a brother) who take her in and revive her. She stays with them for a time, then obtains a position (through the help of the brother, Mr. St. John) as a school mistress in the village school. She is moderately happy, but frequently falls into depressions about Mr. Rochester. Through an odd twist of fate, it turns out Jane's uncle, Mr. John Eyre, has died, leaving her 20,000 pounds. Not only that, but it also turns out that he left his other nieces and nephews penniless, who just happen to be Mr. St. John and his sisters, Diana and Mary. So Jane splits the money with them (her cousins!) and happily settles in the town. Mr. St. John tries to convince her to become his "missionary wife" and go to India with him, but she doesn't love him, and she eventually decides that she might go to India (just as his adopted sister, not as his wife) but she realizes she must go to Thornfield first and find out what has become of Mr. Rochester. It turns out the crazy wife lit Thornfield on fire, and Mr. Rochester, in his attempts to save everyone, became blind and lost the use of one of his arms. Bertha (the crazy wife) jumped off the roof. Mr. Rochester moved to a small country house and shunned the company of all but 2 of his servants. Jane goes immediately to him after finding out about the disaster, and they are happily reconciled. They have children together, and she stays in close contact with her cousins. Mr. Rochester also regains a small bit of sight in one eye, and they all live happily ever after.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! Congrats if you made it through that plot summary! It turned out to be more challenging than summarizing the Brothers Karamazov! Also, my apologies for the lateness of this post. I will be reading Animal Farm this weekend to make up for the lost week (ah, Thanksgiving) and then will move right on to Lord of the Flies.

I have to say I loved this book as much as I hated Brothers Karamazov. Charlotte Brontë has an absolutely exquisite vocabulary, and her asides to the reader are amusing and familiar without being trite and silly. I truly think she had an incredible sense of the English language, and I'm so glad this book is considered a classic.

Just read a bit about Charlotte, and am extremely saddened to find that she died at age 39, and she was pregnant at the time. She also outlived all of her sisters, several of whom died from tuberculosis at the orphan school they attended (the inspiration for Lowood, apparently). So sad.

Unlike my previous posts, I'm inclined to write a free-form blog for this one. I absolutely loved the way Jane and Mr. Rochester's affair is depicted. It's full of this torrid undercurrent of suppressed passion and desire, and Jane repeatedly doubts the possibility of her happiness with him. The book's mystery on the side (Bertha Mason) and the slight soap opera twang (oh my gosh, you mean we're cousins? and I'm rich?) were, I think, more enriching than bizarre, and Bronte somehow makes them work. The book kind of felt like a Frankenstein romance novel (which is only reinforced by the supposed ugliness of Mr. Rochester). Jane's fortitude of mind and spirit is truly inspiring, and her faults and weaknesses feel equally real and poignant.

I wasn't wild about the Mr. St. John wanting Jane to go to India storyline, because I felt that Jane lost some of her strength as a woman and as a particularly aggressive self-advocate. I do know what it feels like to go along with someone without really knowing why, though, and I suppose that even iron Jane has her moments of obedience with disregard for her own feelings.

For some reason, though I read this book fairly recently (within the last few years) I forgot most of it, and my roommates just about gave away large chunks of it. (Ragina: So, where are you? Did the crazy wife attack Jane yet? Me: Um, no. Crazy wife? Do you mean Grace Poole?) Clearly I don't have the best memory for some things.

The title of the post comes from the beginning of the novel, when Jane is locked in the "red-room" because she strikes back at John Reed after he throws a book at her. (Answer me, John Rosse! That's NOT my name!) Jane's terror at being locked in the room where her uncle died forms the delightfully creepy framework for the novel. The title of the post was one of my favorite lines from the book.

Well, so much time, so little to do. (Wait. Strike that. Reverse it.) Kudos if you've picked up on the movie references in this post.

Love to all, happy December (it's snowing here in Philly), and on to the farm of animals.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Have you fallen in love with disorder?

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So. In a nutshell, this book is about three brothers: Alexei (Alyosha), Ivan (Vanya), and Dmitry (Mitya) and their relationship with their father. There's another brother (sort of, he's illegitimate and it's never proven) named Smerdyakov. There are two women important to the plot, Katerina (Katya) and Grushenka (Grusha). Dmitry is engaged to Katya, but blows her off to be with Grushenka, who is kind of a woman of ill repute. She was spurned by another lover, and becomes sort of a loose woman around the town. Mr. Karamazov (Fyodor) also falls in love with Grushenka, but she doesn't really love him. Alyosha is a kind and loving son, who starts off in a monastery, then leaves the monastery after his beloved mentor dies. Ivan is kind of wild, and very deep into philosophy and fairly atheistic. Mitya is very passionate and a little over the top (with a bit of an anger management problem) but generally well-meaning. Mr. Karamazov is killed. Mitya is blamed for it, but we're pretty sure he didn't do it. It turns out that Smerdyakov killed the old man because he felt that Ivan was asking him to (based on some philosophical discussions they had and some "cues" he thought he was receiving). Smerdyakov is never even considered as a suspect, though, because he "had an epileptic fit" during the day of the murder (which he actually faked, after which he had a real epileptic fit). Smerdyakov tells Ivan, Ivan gets sick with "brain fever" because he kind of did want his father dead (they all actually hated him, he was a really terrible father and he had orgies and drank all the time and all three boys were raised by other relatives and one of the servants) and Mitya is convicted of a crime he didn't commit. There's a random side story about a little boy whose father got beaten up by Mitya. The boy, Ilyusha, got in a fight with some other boys because he was mad about his father's honor, and Ilyusha ends up falling very ill and dying, much to the chagrin of the father. Alyosha mediates a reconciliation between the boys and Ilyusha, and makes sure that they all go to visit him while he's dying. The book ends with Alyosha speaking to the boys, encouraging them to hold on the good and just moments in life.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I'm going to go right ahead and say it. I hated this book. Yes, Grandma, I know that hate is a very strong word, but I mean it this time. The book was extremely long (930 pages) and it really wasn't worth the read, in my opinion. I hate to say that about any book, but it's really how I felt about this one. I will say, though, that after researching the book a bit after reading it, I figured out why I didn't like it.

When I Wikipedia'd the book, I found this:

"Though religion and philosophy profoundly influenced Dostoyevsky in his life and in The Brothers Karamazov, a much more personal tragedy altered the course of this work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky's novel was interrupted by the death of his three-year-old son Alyosha. As tragic as this would be under any circumstances, Alyosha's death was especially devastating for Dostoyevsky because the child died of epilepsy, a condition he inherited from his father. The novelist's grief for his young son is readily apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky made Alyosha the name of the stated hero of the novel, as well as imbuing him with all of the qualities he himself most admired and sought after. This heartbreak also appears in the novel as the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.

A very personal experience also influenced Dostoevsky's choice for a patricide to dominate the external action of the novel. In the 1850s, while serving his katorga (forced labor) sentence in Siberia for circulating politically subversive texts, Dostoevsky encountered the young man Ilyinsky who had been convicted of killing his father to acquire an inheritance. Nearly ten years after this encounter Dostoevsky learned that Ilyinsky had been falsely convicted and later exonerated when the actual murderer confessed to the crime. The impact of this encounter on the author is readily apparent in the novel, as it serves as much of the driving force for the plot. Many of the physical and emotional characteristics of the character Dmitri Karamazov are closely paralleled to those of Ilyinsky."

So that was kind of an "aha" moment for me, and it helped me realize why the book is so biased toward Alyosha when I really didn't feel like he did much at all. Dostoevsky's own time in Siberia also explains why he's so seemingly obsessed with it, and why his characters continually end up there. (For those of you who may have forgotten, Crime and Punishment is by the same author, and Raskolnikov, the protagonist, spends 8 years in Siberia. He was actually guilty, though.)

I felt like the book started building a momentum around 6 or 700 pages in (a little late, I know) but then it sort of fizzled at the end. The author also continually makes these cryptic references to "the sequel to this book" or to "future installments", and I was (a) baffled by this and (b) horrified that there might be, in fact, MORE to this story. Turns out the novel was supposed to be the beginning of an epic work, but Karamazov died 4 months after the first publication in a serial magazine.

All I can say is, thank goodness he didn't get to write any more.

I think the two most interesting comments in this book are about God and philosophy.

A woman comes to speak with the elder (Alyosha's mentor) in the beginning of the book, and she asks this question: "What if, after I've been a believer all my life, when I die it suddenly turns out that after life there's nothing at all, nothing but wild grass growing on my grave?" She says she's quoting "some writer" here, but whoever said it, I certainly identify with this statement, as I'm sure many people do. The belief (or lack of belief) in God features heavily in discussions between Alyosha, Dmitry, and Ivan, and I found it particularly relevant to my own life, as I discussed religion recently with my two older sisters, and we have disparate beliefs much like the Karamazovs.

When Smerdyakov tells Ivan why he committed the murder (oh, and there's 3,000 rubles involved, but that part is just too complex to add to the synopsis) he says, "I did it above all because 'everything is permitted.' And the truth is, I learned that from you." This was SO reminiscent of "Throw Momma From the Train", which was inspired by Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train". Perhaps Hitchcock was inspired by Dostoevsky (maybe he liked Russian Lit better than I have so far) but in any case, the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito version is about miscommunication. Danny DeVito thinks that he and Billy Crystal have tacitly decided to kill each other's awful person (one's an ex-wife, one's a mother - "Owen! Don't feed me the unsalted crackers! Unsalted crackers make me choke!") so he tries to kill Billy Crystal's ex-wife for him. Billy Crystal is horrified, and doesn't plan to kill Danny DeVito's mother, but they spend the movie trying to come to an agreement.

Well, this has been a rather addle-brained post, I think, but I did spend most of the day helping Diana make spinach dip, devilled eggs, chex mix, and pies made of pumpkin and pecans. Ah, Thanksgiving.

On to Jane Eyre and Victorian self-sacrifice!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

There are, after all, several brothers

in the Brothers Karamazov. Therefore, I'm taking two weeks on this one. Sorry, no post until next week!

Monday, November 9, 2009

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European man who comes to America and harbors a strange desire for young women. He calls them "nymphets", and particularly desires girls between the ages of about 11 and 13. He marries while still living in Europe, in the hope that the normalcy of marriage will quell his urges for younger women. This attempt is mostly unsuccessful, and his wife leaves him for a taxi driver. He moves to the States and moves to New England, where he becomes a boarder at the Haze home. Charlotte Haze, a middle-aged woman, and her daughter, Dolores Haze (aka Lolita) find Humbert Humbert to be endearing, and Lolita is exactly what Humbert desires. He marries Charlotte (after she confesses her love for him and says he can't stay because she's too much in love with him) and hopes that he will be able to secretly seduce Lolita by drugging her and her mother in their sleep. Charlotte discovers Humbert's secret, however, and asks him to immediately depart. He tries to persuade her his diary (where she discovered his secret) is simply the beginning of a novel he's working on, but she's unconvinced. As she crosses the street to mail letters revealing Humbert's true nature, she is struck by a car and killed. Lolita is away at camp, and Humbert hatches an elaborate plan to claim her as his own daughter and seduce her. He travels up to the camp, lies to Lolita (saying her mother is sick) and takes her to a hotel in the woods. He tries to give her sleeping pills and seduce her, but the pills don't work, and to his surprise (and assuming we're taking him at his word) she seduces him. He tells her that her mother is really dead, and they go on a long road trip moving from hotel to hotel and continue their affair. They move to another New England town after a while, and Lolita attends a girls' school, but they both get bored, and Lolita asks to go on a road trip again. While on the second road trip, a man starts following them, and eventually absconds with Lolita. Humbert goes on a mad quest to find Lolita, and when he finally finds her, she is pregnant and married to a random, rather simple man. It turns out that the man she ran off with was her drama teacher at the girls' school, and he was even more of a sexual deviant than Humbert, and she ran away. Humbert is crestfallen that Lolita is pregnant, but still asks her to run away with him again. She doesn't, and she decides to move to Alaska with her husband with the money that Humbert gives her. Humbert kills the man who absconded with Lolita, and goes to prison. Humbert gets the death sentence, and the book is supposedly not published until both characters are dead.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The title of this post is from Humbert's description of his family history. I love the turn of phrase, but I admit I chose it because it's also the first line of a Billy Collins poem, and inspired the title of his poem collection, "Picnic, Lightning".

- First, I would like to mention that though it isn't clear from the summary, Humbert really is a rather lovable character in some ways, and I'm sure that a great deal of the success of this book is derived from the strangeness of this affection. I love the name "Humbert Humbert", and the way Nabokov plays with the name, talking about fondling Lolita in Humbertish, and whether she'd prefer a Hamburger or a Humburger.

- Humbert does make the rather valid point that Dante, Petrarch, and Poe all fell in love with "nymphets". Whether it's more "acceptable" because they were famous, or because it was a different time period, who knows. But what is important is that these men were satisfied with these women after they settled with them. They didn't tire of them after they hit puberty and move on.

- When Humbert's wife tells him she's leaving him for another man, they're in a taxi, and Humbert says, "What man?" And she points to the taxi driver and says, "That man." Hilarious. Delightful.

- Humbert travels to the arctic when he's on a "rehabilitation" journey (he's frequently in and out of treatment for mental illness in the beginning of the book) but he says that the Eskimo girls didn't tempt him. He says that "nymphets do not occur in polar regions." This was quite funny, I thought.

- When Humbert plans to fetch Lolita from her camp, he wonders at one point if he shall have to disguise himself as a "gawky female", Mlle Humbert, and set up camp near the outside of the establishment. The image of a gawky Mlle Humbert is incredibly amusing to me.

- Humbert references a "Dostoevskian grin" - never more will I be confused by these allusions!

- Humbert talks about blackmailing someone at one point, but says it seems too strong, and thinks perhaps he should mauvemail her instead. What a perfect color to use for this joke! Nabokov has such an incredible grasp of the language, despite having grown up in Russia and Paris before moving to the States.

- A mattress is supposed to arrive at the Hazes from Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia. Ha! I didn't know it was around that long! I drive on it every day to and from work!

- Humbert makes a lovely point about how when we've lost touch with people, we treat them like characters in an already read novel. We think, oh, well Romeo will always die, Harry Potter will always defeat evil, and my friend so-and-so will always live in such-and-such a state and think such-and-such a way and it doesn't matter how much time passes, I'll just happily wait for her to live out the life I've already ascribed to her. I like this point, especially because I just met up with several of my very close college friends, and I think each one of them surprised me in a very major way, and I was so pleased to hear about all of their new endeavors and life changes.

- Though I liked Humbert, I must say that the drugging and the occasional violence against Lolita was entirely unacceptable. Since we're not condoning, but perhaps temporarily overlooking the pedophilia as Lolita is consensual, though clearly not old enough to consent, I must say that the removal of consent (drugging) and the abuse (grabbing Lolita's arm, twisting her wrist, physically forcing her in several situations) is simply something I cannot in any way overlook. And it made me dislike Humbert.

All in all, though, I think compelling is the best word to describe this novel. I'm glad I finished it, and I'm glad to be moving on.

I'll end with this quote from one of the women at the school for girls Lolita attends:

"With due respect to Shakespeare and others, we want our girls to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books. We are still groping perhaps, but we grope intelligently, like a gynecologist feeling a tumor."

Back to my musty old books!

Brothers Karamazov, here I come...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Is anybody in the John, Milton?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This book takes place during World War II on an island in Italy called Pianosa. The main character is a man named Yossarian, who is a bombardier (aka a pilot who drops bombs). When he first joined the army, Yossarian wanted to be a good bombardier, and tried very hard to do his job well. As time goes on, however, and the number of missions men are required to fly before being allowed to return home is increased again and again, Yossarian stops caring about the bombings and wants nothing more than to stop flying missions and be allowed to return home alive. The book is witty and serious at the same time, dealing with extremely dark subject matter in a way that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Yossarian has many friends in the squadron, most of whom die before the book ends. There are various silly bureaucratic higher-ups (Colonels, Generals, Lieutenants) who make it impossible for Yossarian and the other men to stop flying missions. The title of the book is drawn from a bureaucratic edict called "Catch-22", which states that "if a man is crazy, he can stop flying missions; however, if a man makes the necessary steps to prove he is crazy, he is clearly a rational man and therefore not crazy, and must continue to fly missions." I hope I got that right. Yossarian, through copious amounts of scheming and many attempts at rebellion, finally gets offered a return trip home, in exchange for saying that he likes the two lead Colonels and speaks well of the Army at home. At first he accepts, but he later realizes this isn't how he wanted to stop flying missions. His friend and former tentmate, Orr, who went missing on a mission and was presumed dead, reappears in Sweden, and Yossarian, overjoyed at the news that his good friend is still alive, decides to escape, running from the Army's wrath, and attempt to join Orr in Sweden.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

- One of my favorite things about this book was Heller's attention to detail. The book is separated into 42 chapters, and each chapter is devoted to a different character. This got rather confusing, as there are many many characters and even more military titles thrown around (thought anything would be easy after the Russian names - I was wrong!) but it created incredibly powerful images of each character in my mind. Orr, for instance, used to stuff his mouth with horse chestnuts and crabapples because he wanted lovely chubby cheeks. Havermeyer is always eating peanut brittle. Clevinger tears up when he speaks passionately about something. And my personal favorite, Dunbar, tries to perform actions that are incredibly boring or particularly mind-numbing because he believes that time moves more slowly during these moments and he wants to increase his life span.

- Nately, another friend of Yossarian, has a girlfriend in Rome who is a prostitute. She ends up falling in love with him after he visits her and pines for her several times during rest leaves in Rome. Nately dies on a mission near the end of the book, and when Yossarian travels to Rome to tell her the news, she tries to kill him. Yossarian escapes, but the woman reappears 6 or 7 times throughout the book, always disguised as someone else (a mechanic, a Nazi, a pilot) and leaps out to attack Yossarian. When Yossarian sets out on his journey at the end of the book, it is only after deftly escaping another one of her knife attacks.

- I can't believe this book is assigned reading in high school. I found it a challenge to read, and to really understand, but most of all, there's a serious amount of violence and some very dirty sexual references in it. I'm pretty liberal, and I'm 23, and I was shocked in a few places.

- Yossarian frequently gets himself admitted to the hospital so that he won't be able to fly missions. He makes up liver ailments and other various diseases. His friends do likewise, often at the same time just so that they can spend time together. In what is probably my favorite part of the book, Yossarian is assigned the duty of censoring letters to be sent abroad. Deciding the process is completely ridiculous and arbitrary, he deletes random phrases, entire letters, signatures, and anything else he feels like. He signs Washington Irving to many of the letters. He gets tired after a while, and writes John Milton instead. Then he comes up with creative ways to write John Milton as a signature, including "John, Milton is a sadist" "Have you seen Milton, John?" and the one that serves as the title for this post.

- There's a character named Milo Minderbinder who makes terribly confusing business deals left and right with various countries to make money from the war. He claims that everything he earns goes back into something called "the syndicate" and that every man in the country has a share. One of my favorite moments in this story line is when one of the planes crashes into the ocean. The men inflate their raft, but as they try to inflate the life jackets, the carbon dioxide cylinders are missing. Milo used them to make strawberry and crushed-pineapple ice cream sodas in the mess hall. They find only a note, reading "What's good for M and M Enterprises is good for the country."

- There are 2 references to Raskolnikov in this book! What are the odds that I would just have read that book? It's a sign. Good karma for this project.

- I really liked the ending to this book (especially compared to the ending of Crime and Punishment). It felt hopeful, but with just right amount of humor and latent seriousness. Most of Yossarian's friends are dead, but Orr survived and made his way to Sweden, and Yossarian might just be able to get there, too.

All in all, I can see why this book is a classic. I thought it was brilliant.

On to Lolita!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Perhaps it really would be better in Siberia

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The main character is Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov. (Delightfully alliterative, eh?) When the book begins, he is getting ready to do something. We're not entirely sure what it is he's getting ready to do, but we begin to understand that it's very bad. He has to talk himself into it. It turns out that he is planning to kill his pawnbroker and steal her money, not particularly because he's poor, but because she's a bad woman and he kind of thinks he's doing society a favor. He murders her with an axe, and then her sister walks in, so he kills her as well. He very nearly gets caught in the act by some random men who come to speak with the pawnbroker, but he gets away, stashes the stolen items under a rock, and manages to get home to his bed before falling seriously ill. He is sick for a few days, and his friend Razumihin and his landlady's servant Nastasya take care of him. Upon waking up, everyone kind of thinks Rodya (Rodion) has gone mad, and he comes very close to implicating himself in the murder. Everyone is gossiping about the murder, as it has now become known all over town. Rodya's mother and sister come to town (St. Petersburg) because she is getting ready to marry Luzhin, a man who has promised to support her. Rodya's family is very poor. When Rodya meets Luzhin, however, he instantly hates him, and makes sure that his sister Dounia doesn't marry him. Rodya meets a man named Marmeladov while he's out at a bar, and hears this man's sad tale of how he's a hopeless drunk and his family is incapable of feeding themselves. Marmeladov later gets run over by a carriage, and Rodya offers his last 15 rubles (which his mother borrowed from her pension to send to him) to Marmeladov's widow, Katerina Ivavnova. Katerina's stepdaughter, Sofya (Sonia) Semyanova was whoring herself out to support the family, and Rodya befriends her and tries to help her out. Dounia (sorry, I forgot) had her reputation ruined while she was a governess for a family back home in the country because the man of the house said she was coming on to him. It turns out he was coming on to her, and her reputation was mostly repaired, but this man, Svidrigailov, comes to St. Petersburg when his wife dies, and tries to proposition Dounia. Dounia, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Rodya's best friend, Razumihin. Rodya spends most of the book in a sort of delirium, going over the murder in his head, wondering if people know, deciding to kill himself, deciding to turn himself in, and lying around in bed having nightmares. Eventually, he tells Sonia (the whore stepdaughter) and Svidgrigailov overhears. Porfiry Petrovich, Razumihin's cousin and a cop, figures it out as well. Svidrigailov makes a last attempt to get Dounia to run away with him, but when he realizes she doesn't love him, he shoots himself. Dounia finds out (via Svidrigailov) that Rodya killed the two women. Sonia and Dounia are strangely supportive of Rodya, and he eventually turns himself in to the police. He almost decides not to, but as he's walking away from the police station, he sees Sonia, and her look sends him back inside and he confesses. For various reasons his sentence is only 8 years, and he goes off to a work prison in Siberia. Sonia follows him, visiting and sending various messages of support. At the end, he decides that he really does love Sonia, and that he's been able to repent, and he will start his new life with her in "only 7 years." Yeah. Only seven years. Congratulations if you got through this plot summary. I promise the blog will be less complicated.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

- The title comes from a comment Rodya makes when he's contemplating turning himself in. I think it's pretty comical, in that I can't imagine anything being better in Siberia. But then again, I'm not quite as crazy as Rodya.

- This book was really hard for me to read. Those of you reading this who know me well know that I had a deep existential crisis when I was in France, and since then I don't really like to read books or watch films with dark and twisted psychological plots. I'm not living a shallow existence, I just prefer to stay away from things that I know will set my overactive mind to work. So, as you can imagine, reading a 530-page psychological thriller from the point of view of a man who's just killed two people basically because he thinks it's his right was not really on my traditional game plan. But I decided that a book would not conquer me, and that I would be the better for having read it afterward. And I do feel proud to have finished it.

- The names in this novel were immensely confusing. Aside from the massive syllable count, many characters have multiple names, and they're used interchangeably, often within the same paragraph. I'm sure this has something to do with Russian formalities, but still. It was extremely confusing trying to remember that Pyotr Petrovich and Luzhin were the same man, and that Dounia and Avdotya Romanovna were the same woman.

- The book is told from Rodya's perspective, not in third person, but with full description of what he's feeling and experiencing. We occasionally get thoughts and feelings from others, but Rodya is the main focus. It was odd, therefore, when the book inexplicably switched to Svidrigailov's perspective just for the chapter in which he kills himself. I'm not sure if it was to show us his full range of emotions prior to the event, or what, but it's the only part of the book where we don't deal with Rodya really at all.

- Everyone seems to believe that Rodya couldn't possibly have committed the crime, even after they've downright suspected him previously. Several of the policemen who suspect him early in the book go on to apologize later on for having accused him! There's such a strange sense of everyone wanting to believe that anything is wrong with him before they believe he is a murderer. I suppose it's human nature to want to think the best of people who we love and care for, but even complete strangers try to give him the benefit of the doubt! I found this odd.

- Ultimately, Rodya commits the murder because of a theory. He believes that certain men have the right to commit crimes because they have a greater purpose in life that can only be achieved with the help of those crimes as stepping stones. He sees himself as ridding the world of a "louse" because the pawnbroker was an unpleasant sort of woman who held people in debt over small pledges and IOUs. He also talks of how insignificant one murder is in the face of all-out warfare. Which brings up an interesting philosophical debate, but what is warfare but systematic murder? I can't see it as any more excusable, but I suppose the author is asking why war is acceptable when murder is not.

- In the end, Rodya has a moment of redemption where he falls at Sonia's knees and they know they love each other and in 7 (short) years they will be together and start a new life. This moment rang false to me. It just felt completely fake, after this deep, penetrating, convoluted psychological study, to end with a moment of joy. And Rodya is so sullen, so sulky, that he doesn't at all deserve to be redeemed. Sonia is far too good for him. And then Dostoevsky throws in this line that this isn't the end of the story, and maybe there's another whole story to tell. What a lame ending, dude! There's no other story, this is the end! And it's a crappy end, if you ask me!

- Last comment. I was chatting with my boss about this book, and after I'd told her the beginning, she asked, "Crime and Punishment. Is that the one where he wakes up at the end and it was all a dream and he's a schizophrenic?" And I said, "Well if it is, then you just ruined the end for me." And then she said, "Or is that... Fight Club?" Hilarious. I'm not sure those books have ever been compared, but maybe that should have been my thesis. It probably would have been a hell of a lot more fun than the one I did write.

Well, this first of what will be many Russian novels on the list didn't conquer me. Time to conquer another classic - Catch-22, here I come!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Nick Carraway is our narrator, and for those who haven't been keeping up, The Great Gatsby is the book. It's a little complicated, but here's the basic connection: Nick is Daisy Buchanan's cousin, and he went to Yale with Daisy's husband Tom Buchanan. Jordan Baker, a famous golf player, is a friend of Daisy's and a somewhat half-hearted love interest for Nick. Jay Gatsby (real name James Gatz) has been in love with Daisy for years, but was too poor to marry her, so she married Tom instead. Tom has been cheating with various women, but most recently with a woman named Myrtle Wilson, when we come upon the group in the story. Nick is Gatsby's neighbor. Gatsby is now very rich and has elaborate parties with great frequency. Nick and Gatsby strike up a friendship, and Gatsby gets Nick to orchestrate a reunion with Daisy. On the way home from a trip to New York City together (the rest of the story takes place in East and West Egg, NY) Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle Wilson, who has run into the street thinking that Tom is driving with his wife. Myrtle is killed, Gatsby takes the blame, and Wilson (the husband), overcome with grief and anger, shoots Gatsby. Only a handful of people attend Gatsby's funeral (much to Nick's dismay). We find out towards the end of the book (after hearing various rumors) that Gatsby created his "rich self" after performing well in the army and running various deals with a few unsavory characters. Oh, and our time period is the early 20's.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

- The first thing I thought of as I read about Gatsby's parties was the movie Sabrina and the parties at the Larrabee's. Oddly enough, after reading about East and West Egg (which, it turns out, don't exist) I found that Great Neck (the likely referent for the Eggs) is on the North Shore of Long Island. Also where the Larrabees live, supposedly. I guess it's not such a coincidence, since it's a wealthy area, but I liked the connection.

I like this book. I like the way it's written, I like the characters, I like the somewhat depressing ending, and I like the quiet eloquence of it. Fitzgerald has exquisite sentence structure, and delicate imagery, and I really just enjoyed the experience of re-reading it. Just wanted to throw that out there.

-Apparently I cut out the title page of this book at one point. (Sacrilegious, I know!) I think it was for an English project, if that makes it any better. I'm still 90% sure I read The Great Gatsby.

-Nick and Gatsby pass by a funeral early in the book, and Nick is glad that "Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday". I thought it was a nice sentiment when I read it, but after reading to the end and knowing that only 9 people attend Gatsby's funeral (and half of those 9 servants) this moment seems really sad to me. I can't quite explain why.

-Meyer Wolfsheim (one of the unsavory characters Gatsby is in business with) has cufflinks made of molars. As in, human teeth, yes.

-Gatsby asks Nick if he can ask Daisy over to his house so that Gatsby can "meet" her again for the first time. Gatsby cuts Nick's grass in preparation for the visit. I think it's delightfully amusing that Gatsby tidies up Nick's life so that it can be the scene for his reunion with Daisy. Waiting for Daisy, Gatsby gets fed up, and says "Nobody's coming to tea!" and Nick has to persuade him to stay. But when Daisy arrives, Gatsby disappears, and then comes to the door and rings the bell. I love the way Fitzgerald describes it: "Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes." Gatsby seems so vulnerable and childlike here.

-When it stops raining, Fitzgerald uses the weather as a metaphor for Gatsby and Daisy's love being rekindled. "When [Gatsby] realized what [Nick] was talking about, he smiled like a weather man, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light, and repeated the news to Daisy. "What do you think of that? It's stopped raining."

-When Gatsby takes Nick and Daisy over to his house to show it off, Daisy weeps into Gatsby's shirts. She says, "It makes me sad because I've never seen such - such beautiful shirts before." There's such poetry in this moment.

-Tom's first reaction is excitement when he discovers the car accident, before he realizes his mistress has been killed. I think it's deeply fascinating that we, as a society are often first intrigued and excited by death and injury, then shocked and saddened. It's why rubbernecking causes so many traffic jams, right, Dad? :)

-Nick flip-flops throughout the book between liking, loving, and hating Gatsby. And as Nick is our narrator (and therefore, we feel close to him) we, as readers, go through various emotions regarding Gatsby. Nick tells him he's better than "the rotten crowd", but then follows it by saying he "disapproved of [Gatsby] from beginning to end." Despite his disapproval for Gatsby, Nick champions him in the end, managing his funeral, spewing anger at those who share no condolences and make no attempt to celebrate Gatsby's life. To the world, Gatsby was good for a party. Dead, he is worth nothing.

-Gatsby's father shows up for Gatsby's funeral, and he shows Nick a list that Gatsby made as a boy, to prove to Nick that Gatsby was always about something.


No wasting time at Shafters

No more smokeing or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents

I'm sure we could all benefit from doing the things on Gatsby's list. Sounds about right to me.

-Last but not least, in reference to the title of this post: The line before it reads ,"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning-- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

I always liked the middle of this line. It's one of those lines that I keep thinking I understand, then stop and read again, because (at least for me) it's not so much about getting the meaning of it as it is about evaluating the philosophy behind the phrase. I'm fine with feeling a little unresolved in this case.

And now I'm borne back into the past (of necessity, I suppose, as each of these books represents the past, fictional or no) into 19th century Russia.

Do svidaniya!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever!

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So there are 2 sisters that count, and 3 others who are very silly. There's a ridiculous mother, a witty father, and two lovely gentlemen. One is very proud (Mr. Darcy) the other is very sweet (Mr. Bingley) and though it takes the whole book for everyone to get together, Darcy and Elizabeth (one of the sisters that counts) and Bingley and Jane (the other sister that counts) finally end up married. One silly sister (Lydia) manages to run off with a completely inappropriate man (Mr. Wickham) and almost ruin her entire family's lives, but Mr. Darcy (secretly) saves the day because he's totally crazy about Lizzy, and everything ends up okay. Throw in one crazy relative who is simpering to the point of vomiting (Mr. Collins) and who happens to be the future owner of the Bennet family's estate (the sisters are Bennets) and one crazy aunt (Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy's aunt) and you pretty much know the whole story.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

First, allow me to apologize for not blogging yesterday. I'm sure you were all on tenterhooks waiting for me to blog and I LET YOU DOWN! Right? Right.

On to random comments...

- One of my favorite moments in this book is when Mr. Colllins proposes to Lizzy, and her mom tries to force her to accept, and her father says, "From this moment you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not accept Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do." Go, Mr. Bennet!

- Elizabeth says at one point, "What are men to rocks and mountains?" I agree! Who needs men when you can hike in the great outdoors, and explore the lake country?

- Lydia says "I am sure I shall break mine" in reference to her heart, when she thinks of the officers leaving town. She is so petulant and obnoxious. It really does make for a great character. This is also the origin of the title for this post - Mrs. Bennet says that sea-bathing would set her up for ever in reference to the fact that she wants the whole family to go to Brighton to follow the officers. She is so... special. What an interesting mother.

-Darcy tells Miss Bingley to shut up, basically, when he says that Lizzy is one of the "handsomest women of his acquaintance." Take that, Miss Bingley, you conniving little snot.

-Darcy comes upon Lizzy when she first finds out about Lydia running off with Wickham, and he is so sweet! I have nothing more to say about this. Other than that it is one of my favorite moments in the book.

-Mr. Collins writes to the Bennets and says that Lydia's death would have been preferable to the shame she brings on the family. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Collins.

-I love when Mr. Bennet says that Kitty can't leave the house until she can prove she's spent at least 10 minutes of every day in a rational manner, and Kitty starts crying because she thinks it's such an overwhelming request. Can you prove that you've spent at least 10 minutes of every day in a rational manner?

-Lizzy's aunt realizes Lizzy's in love with Darcy perhaps even before Lizzy does herself, and references wanting to spend more time at Pemberley (Darcy's house) once her niece is settled there. Made me think of my aunts, and how much I love all of them, and how I could see them making similar knowing comments about my future.

-Mrs. Bennet winks at her daughters to get them to leave the room so Bingley can propose to Jane, then denies that she has done anything of the sort. What a hilarious woman. ('Why would I wink at my own Daughter?')

-Lady Catherine de Bourgh yells at Lizzy and tells her she must not marry Darcy (before Darcy has proposed a second time), and screams, "Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?" Little does she know (little did he Know? Little did he know?) that she sets in motion the future reconciliation between Darcy and Elizabeth. Ha! Take that, Lady Catherine!

-I love that when Elizabeth and Darcy finally get together, they tell no one. They spend the evening with family, and keep their engagement secret. Jane is the first to know that evening, and the rest of the family finds out the next day. I like that Darcy and Elizabeth keep their love to themselves at first.

-In the book, Lizzy tells her father that Mr. Darcy went completely out of his way to hunt down Wickham and force him to marry Lydia (because, he claims, he knew that Wickham was not to be trusted. Wickham tried to do the same thing with Darcy's little sister Georgiana a while back. WE know that he does it because he loves Lizzy and hates to see her suffer.) I like that this happens in the book, because it's one of the few things that doesn't make it to the BBC 5-hour movie version, and I think it's crucial. It's what really makes Mr. Bennet realize that Darcy is incredible and wonderful and deserving of Lizzy.

And at the end, we get to spend a chapter with Lizzy and Darcy while they're happy and just existing at Pemberley. I think there's nothing I hate more than a book that has a happy ending, but no follow through on what life really looks like for the main characters at the end. Happily, this book did not fall into that trap.

Last, but not least, I'd like to mention that the copy I read was apparently the same one I read when I was, oh, perhaps 13 years old, and has random comments written here and there. I seem to have been in a phase where I decided it was appropriate to write in books (I still come down both ways on that topic) and wrote quite frequently in the margins. I'll leave you with my two favorite comments:

"Well, you're uglier anyway" in response to Miss Bingley saying something snotty about Lizzy and "Ah! I'm melting! He's so sweet!" in response to something Mr. Darcy said to Lizzy in a letter.

Okay, I know I said I was leaving, but last comment. For real. I must give a shout out to my lovely ladies, my very own Bennet family. This book is near and dear to my heart because I have shared it always with not only my 2 dear sisters, but the lovely Light ladies as well, Anna and Becca and Marah. And my mother, and my second mother, Mrs. Light, neither of whom are even remotely awful in the way that Mrs. Bennet is, but are rather lovely and wonderful and full of baked goods and warmth and smiles. Thank you for being my Austen family - I will always treasure you all.

On to Fitzgerald...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hobbits: Soft as butter they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree roots.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So we've got your basic battle between good and evil. The characters are the Fellowship (4 hobbits, 1 dwarf, 1 elf, 1 wizard, and 2 men) and their quest is to return the ring of Sauron to where it was forged in Mount Doom, thereby destroying Sauron's power and saving Middle Earth from his evil reign of terror. I could say more, but that's the general gist. Oh, and there's a creepy used-to-be-a-man character named Gollum, who used to wear the ring (after he'd murdered his friend and stolen it from him) who plays a pretty central part in the story. And there's also a side-story of Aragorn (one of the men in the Fellowship) who turns out to be a king from the old races of men, and he's the end-all be-all awesome new leader of Middle Earth. Until he dies, at least. And there are elves and the Rohirrim (the horse riders) and Tom Bombadil (Father Nature kind of dude) and Treebeard (who is an Ent, aka a super awesome old-type tree) and lots of other fun things. SO, yeah. There you go.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The title is a reference to a line that Gandalf says in the beginning about hobbits. I thought it perfectly summed up the hobbits, and this series.

Thoughts on Fellowship

- Frodo asks an elf this, before setting out on his quest: "But where shall I find courage? That is what I chiefly need." And the elf says, simply, "Courage is found in unlikely places. Be of good hope! Sleep now!" I thought it was very poetic that Frodo says he needs courage more than directions, or help, or a plan. And what helps bring courage more than good hope and sleep? I did NOT sleep well last night (I've been having trouble sleeping on Sunday nights. Don't know what that's about. But I know I have more courage in the face of middle school children on days when I have good sleep under my belt. ;)

Well, that's it for Fellowship. It's really a scene-setting book. Onwards and upwards!

Thoughts on The Two Towers

- Smeagol (aka Gollum, so named because of the sound he makes in his throat) has an amazing argument with himself after he's been "tamed" by Sam and Frodo. He's been following Sam and Frodo (the hobbits bearing the ring into Mordor (land of evil) for those who are new to the whole saga) across abysmal lands to try and get the ring back, and he talks to himself when Sam and Frodo are sleeping. LOTR fans know this scene well, but I had to mention it, as it's such an interesting psychological struggle for Gollum's character.

- Sam watches his first battle of men fighting men fairly late in this book, and I'm so glad Tolkien mentions it. I think I like fantasies because there's always a battle (usually many) and it's so fun to imagine yourself fighting with the good side. But fantasies make war palatable because they feature men (or women, thank you very much) fighting monsters, objects that are clearly evil. Even if the monsters are humans who "went bad", the violence is usually desensitized (like in Harry Potter, where people die from wands and spells, not swords and bloody wounds). I think it's refreshing to read about an author's self-awareness of the troubles that come with battles between humans, evil or no, possessed or no. So thanks, Tolkien. I appreciate it.

- Smeagol (Gollum) gets in trouble for fishing in a secret pool, and when Faramir (the lord of the land) tells him that he can't be fishing there, on pain of death, Smeagol spits out the raw fish carcasses onto the floor and says, "Don't want fish." He cracks me up in his simplicity, and his delicate evil nature.

- Sam takes the ring from Frodo when he thinks Frodo has died. Sam, the servant of a hobbit, Sam, the endearing character who wants nothing more than to marry a hobbit named Rosie and tend a nice garden, this very hobbit carries the ring closer to its destination. Truly, the unassuming can set in motion wonders.

One more book!

Thoughts on Return of the King

- There's a classic Gandalf moment (he's the wizard in the fellowship) in this book. Gandalf has led all the forces of good to the gates of Mordor (land of evil) and he's "parleying" (parler! parler! get it? pirates of the caribbean? okay.) with this evil lieutenant and the lieutenant says that they have Frodo as a prisoner and flashes his clothing and his mail (armor) and everyone's really sad because they all think that Frodo is captured, and the lieutenant says he'll give up the prisoner if the forces of good give up the fight, and he says, "These are our terms, will you take them?" and Gandalf says, "THESE WE WILL TAKE! In remembrance of our friends, but your terms we do not accept!" And he takes the clothing and the mail. You are SO COOL, Gandalf! So cool. I mean, seriously. I nerded out like crazy about this moment to all of my roommates.

- When Frodo is too weak to go on, Sam carries him on his shoulders. Now that's friendship. And commitment to a goal. I love you, Samwise.

- When the war is over, and the ring is destroyed (Oh yeah! I forgot to tell you in the plot summary that good wins!) they decide to celebrate the New Year always on March 25th. That is MY birthday, thank you very much. Yes indeed.

Merry and Pippin are totally incredible, and though they didn't get mentioned in my "thoughts" they totally merit mentioning in this post. They come along because they're really tight buddies of Sam and Frodo, and they perform truly incredible deeds, like saving future Lords (Faramir) and helping to kill the Lord of the Nazgûl (evil ringwraiths). Go, hobbits!

I cried like crazy at the end of the book. I always think it seems completely unfair that Frodo can't go back to the Shire and live a happy, fulfilled life afterwards. I mean, I knew things wouldn't be perfect, but it makes me so sad to think of people going through horrible things in their lives and never really recovering. He goes to the Grey Havens, which is basically heaven, but he leaves ALL HIS FRIENDS BEHIND! Except Bilbo, his awesome relative. So yeah. I cried. And cried. And then I couldn't sleep. Clearly I'm too emotionally involved in this whole reading thing. But that's how I've always been about reading, I guess. (Ahem. Comparative Literature major.)

I leave you with this to remember: Not all who wander are lost.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

All I can say is, don't see it if you don't want to puke all over yourself.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
We've moved to a year somewhere around 1945, and our main character is Holden Caulfield, who I think is about 16 years old. Maybe 17. He's just been kicked out of Pencey Prep School for Boys, in Agerstown, PA, for flunking all his subjects but English. We learn throughout the book that he is most likely failing because he has lingering depression from his brother Allie's death. Allie had leukemia, and passed on a few years before the book starts. Holden decides to leave Pencey early (Christmas break starts on Wednesday, it's Saturday night, I think, when the book begins). He figures his parents won't get the letter saying he was kicked out until at least Tuesday, and he wants to have an adventure. He goes to New York City, his hometown. He sees a few acquaintances, stays in a hotel, orders a prostitute on a whim (it goes terribly), leaves the hotel, and goes on a date with a semi-obnoxious ex-girlfriend. The date goes sour, he ditches the girl, and he sneaks into his house at night to visit his littler sister Phoebe, who is about 9 years old, I think. He hides from his parents in Phoebe's closet, Phoebe gives him her Christmas money to fund his adventure, and he calls an old teacher, who lets him spend the night. Holden seems happy at his teacher's house, but freaks out when he wakes up in the middle of the night and his male teacher is patting him on the head. He leaves in a hurry and sleeps on a public bench. Holden finally decides to hitch hike out west, but when he tries to drop off a note to Phoebe saying goodbye, she tries to come with him. This stops him from going, and in the last chapter, we find out that Holden is "sick" and being treated in some kind of hospital. He talks about returning to school, but isn't too hopeful about not failing out again.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I started reading Franny and Zooey, Caulfield's only other famous work, just before I started this blog. I didn't finish it, because I found the plot to be lacking a driving force. I noticed quite a few interesting similarities between that book and this one, though, and I'll start this post by mentioning them here. If you don't mind.

Both books feature the same family structure: two parents, three sons, and one daughter. Both books deal with the loss of one of the children, a son, and the repercussions of this loss. And in each book, the death of that sibling is a quiet driving force for the main character's actions. Maybe it's not really that quiet, but it felt subtle to me.

All right, on to random comments, as I eat my cream cheese-stuffed french toast and hash browns. I don't even really like french toast that much. I just like to drown my hash browns in syrup.

- Holden talks about his brother Allie's death, and he says that when it happened, he smashed all the windows in his garage. Holden points out that, though he now can't make a fist with that hand, fist-making is really only crucial for surgeons and violinists. I thought this was funny, considering that my sister Diana could potentially be both of those things.

- Holden loves his red hunting hat with ear flaps that he buys in New York City with the Pencey fencing team. I think the hat is adorably interwoven in the story (haha. get it? woven?) It made me want to knit myself a red hat. Maybe I will.

- Holden wants to know what happens to the ducks in Central Park in wintertime, but no one can tell him. One taxi cab driver tells him that he doesn't know what happens to the ducks, but the fish stay in the pond, frozen in the ice. Holden doesn't seem to believe this, but I know it's true, seeing as how we had that fish pond growing up and I watched the fish keep on living under the ice each winter. Right, mom? Except for that last winter, when they all died mysteriously. Oops!

- Holden cries when the pimp, Maurice, and the prostitute, Sunny come to fetch more money from him for the sex he didn't have. He gets punched by Maurice in the stomach, but I liked this moment because it felt like Holden was crying not because he was hurt, but because he was angry at being cheated out of money. It felt very vulnerable and childish to me.

- Sorry I forgot to mention this earlier, but the title of today's post is in reference to a movie that Holden and Sally (his ex-gf) went to see. I thought it was a very Holden comment, so I chose it for the title.

- When Holden is in a bar (he manages to get cocktails "on account of his gray hairs, and his height") he pretends he's been shot in the gut. He keeps pretending for several hours. I don't know if I've ever imagined quite that scenario, before, but I've certainly imagined some random scenarios, so I can identify, Holden.

- In what I thought was one of the most poignant moments in this novel, Holden talks about going to see Allie's grave. He went with his family only a few times, and twice, he said, it rained. It rained right on Allie's stomach. This image makes me want to cry it feels so real.

- Phoebe tells her mother that she said her prayers in the bathroom, at one point. This reminded me of when I used to tell my mom (after long car trips, and after my dad had carried me to my lovely bottom bunk bed) that I had already been to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. And someone (ahem. Diana, little miss top bunk) used to rat me out, and tell mom I hadn't. I know it's just because you care about my dental health, Diana. And everyone knows you used to beat me up because you still slept with a night light and I didn't like it. And I guess I did get your mouth washed out with soap. Twice. Ahem. Sorry.

- When Holden spends the night with his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, and his teacher pats him on the head in the middle of the night, Holden launches into this mania, worried that his teacher is a "flit" and a pervert. Later on, when Holden has cooled down, he realizes that his teacher might not be a pervert, and even if he is a "flit" (a gay man) that might not be such a bad thing. I thought this was pretty forward-thinking for 1945. Thanks, Salinger.

- Holden sees inappropriate phrases written on his sister Phoebe's school, and later on in the museum, and it upsets him. He tries to erase the first "f*** you" that he sees on the school wall, but when he sees it in the museum, he despairs, and says that ultimately there will always be someone to write "f*** you", and that it will probably be written on his tombstone. I think it's true that people write nasty things, Holden, but I don't think anyone would write that on your tombstone. I'll erase it if they do.

- I counted the number of references to "depression" or "being depressed" Holden made in the book. Guesses? 37 is the answer. 37 separate references to feeling depressed, or things that happen that make him depressed. And yet, I was somehow still totally surprised that Holden ended up being treated for mental illness in the end of the book. I guess I just don't have that much faith in the quality of mental health options in 1945. As someone who suffers from depression, and had helpful discussions with mental health professionals, and unhelpful discussions, I appreciate Holden's plight, and I hope that things go well for him after the end of this book.

Last comment. In reference to the title of the book, Holden says the only thing he can see himself doing in life is summed up in a Robert Burns poem. It turns out he's misquoting it (it's "if a body meet a body coming through the rye", not "if a body catch a body coming through the rye") but he sees himself in a field of rye with a bunch of little kids. The children are playing ball, and they're standing right near the edge of a cliff. He says he's the only "big one" around. "What I have to do," he says, is "I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

I think Holden wants to be the catcher because he knows he's running off a cliff, and he doesn't know if there's anyone there to catch him. We all need a catcher in the rye, Holden. I think that's a perfectly respectable career choice. In fact, I've spent the last two and half years being a catcher in the rye, now that I think of it.

I'm off to Middle Earth.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Every Third Merriweather is Morbid

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So we've moved back to 1935, and our main characters are children. To Kill A Mockingbird takes place in the rural South, in Maycomb County, Alabama. Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, a prominent local lawyer. The story chronicles Scout and Jem's transition from childhood innocence into a heightened level of awareness. Race, poverty, class, manners, education, and morality are all themes that arise in the novel. The novel's plot stems from two main characters: Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Boo Radley is a neighbor of the Finches who hasn't emerged from his house in many years. Scout and Jem frequently play games near Boo's house, trying to coax him out, but Atticus disapproves. Tom Robinson is a black farmhand who is accused of beating and raping Mayella Ewell, a low class white woman. Atticus defends Tom Robinson in court (it becomes clear to the reader fairly early on that Tom is innocent and Mayella's father attacked her) but to no avail. Tom is convicted, and, despairing while in captivity in prison camp, attempts escape and is shot to death. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, holds a grudge against Atticus after the court case, as the whole town knows what really happened, and Bob Ewell is a mean drunk. At the book's climax, Scout and Jem are attacked by Bob Ewell, but Boo intercedes, emerging from his house and killing Bob Ewell. Scout realizes that Boo is really very nice, and the book closes.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book, above all, is funny and endearing. I loved it when I read it in 8th grade, and I loved it when I read it last year with my 9th graders at Fels, and it was enjoyable once again as I read it this time. The title for this blog is a reference to certain Maycomb families that "everyone knows about", according to Scout. Coming from a small town where there were lots of preconceptions about "the Zackey family", I know what Scout means.

I'm going to continue with my random comments/analysis style from last week's post. Hope you don't mind.

-Haverfords are jackasses in Maycomb. I found this pretty funny, as a Haverford alum and all.

-When Scout and Jem first meet Dill (sorry he didn't make it in the plot summary, he's delightful, but not really essential to the plot), a neighbor's relative, he's so small he barely reaches above the collards. I thought this image was rather funny, and very reminiscent of cabbage patch kids.

-When Scout first starts going to school, she gets reprimanded for already knowing how to read. After her teacher tells her to stop, Scout says, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." This is classic poignancy from Scout via Harper Lee. I can't imagine a world without books, or without reading. It reminded me of when I accidentally failed the French placement exam in college (they were playing this recorded French woman's voice and asking comprehension questions and I messed up some of the scantron answers and started erasing and all of a sudden the test was over) and passed into French 001. The first semester I played catch up, relearning essential grammar, but the second semester, I got a new professor, and she started giving me C's on papers. I asked her why, and she said, "Well, you started using the past tense, but you used it wrong. Don't worry, we won't learn the past tense for a few weeks." And I said, "Well, can you teach me, so I get better grades and I use it right?" And she said, "We aren't learning it for a few weeks, don't worry about it." I transferred up 2 levels to a French-Canadian's class. (That class was awful and I didn't realize for weeks that the main character in a story we were reading was "aveugle", which means blind. That was a fairly crucial vocab word, as it turns out. Serves me right, I suppose.)

-Okay, I'm already getting long-winded. Sorry. Reeling it in. I also loved when Scout tried to "spit-seal" a compromise she makes with Atticus. Very adorable 8-year-old behavior.

-Harper Lee does a beautiful job with the relationship between Scout and Jem. At one point, Scout tries to cheer Jem up. "I picked up a football magazine, found a picture of Dixie Howell, showed it to Jem, and said, "This looks like you." That was the nicest thing I could think to say to him..." Hilarious. I love the way Scout's mind works.

-Dill cries when it becomes clear that the court is going to go against Tom Robinson. I love that he cries, because I cry when things feel wrong and unjust, too, and I rarely feel more like a child than when I cry at things that seem immoral.

-I take offense at Harper Lee's discussion of why women can't serve on the jury. Scout seems dismayed upon first finding this out, then decides that women would "talk too much" and "ask too many questions". I don't know if Harper Lee is being ironic and I'm just not getting it, but I just got called for jury duty, and I'm damn proud. I feel very excited about the prospect of serving on a jury.

-The owner of the town paper writes an editorial about the case against Tom Robinson, and Scout sums it up in these words: "Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. " Much goes on in the secret courts of men's (and women's) hearts, and the best lawyer with the best intentions often has no sway there.

-Boo cultivates a sort of secret friendship with Scout and Jem, leaving them gifts in a tree. After Boo rescues Scout and Jem at the end of the book, Scout says, "Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. " I wonder if this counts as zeugma. Zeugma is my favorite literary term, and it refers to mixing the literal and the metaphorical, like "Mrs. Weasley threw dirty looks and sausages into the frying pan." Delightful, right?

Lastly, I'd like to point out what I remember from when I was Scout's age - 9 years old. I was in fourth grade. I was best friends with my still best friend, Deanna. (We met in second grade.) I had Miss Patches (now Mrs. Erb, and now, in fact, my neighbor). I loved my enrichment classes, and I remember we used to draw on laminated copies of the Pennsylvania map. We had to write in cursive on our spelling tests (I maintain my cursive is ugly because I missed some of handwriting when I skipped 1st grade) and there was a mean girl named Vanessa, that I called a "wishy-washy". I posited that "wishy-washies" were the worst kind of people. Sometimes they were nice, but sometimes they were incredibly cruel, and I never knew what to expect. People used to think my sister and I were twins, which I thought was utterly stupid, because we looked (and still look) very dissimilar.

I hope you all Thoroughly enjoyed that trip down memory lane with me. As you can see, my life is fascinating, and being 9 was very formative for me. What do you remember from when you were 9?

I'll close this incredibly long post with my favorite lines from this book.

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"
"No, honey."
"Then why-"
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

I didn't want to turn this post into a diatribe on race, but I know that I share Atticus's opinion when it comes to making the world better for people of every color, every gender, every sexual orientation, and every faith. The good fight is always worth fighting.

On to The Catcher in the Rye...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one

Greetings, readers! I've stuck to the schedule so far, and I finished 1984 in exactly 7 days. I've decided to start each blog entry off with a quick synopsis so that people have some background as they read my thoughts. If you're planning to read one of the books on the list and haven't read it before, skip the synopsis so you don't ruin the plot for yourself.

1984 by George Orwell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

So we've got Winston Smith, who is our main character, and I suppose we must say, our protagonist. He is rather dull, very run of the mill, and fairly uninteresting. Winston lives in 1984, a time in which, according to Orwell, the world has basically gone to hell in a handbasket. This lovely dystopia features constant surveillance of the "party" members by the government, as well as the ritual torturing, interrogation, and murder of dissenting citizens. Winston spends most of the book trying to determine if a revolution against the party really exists. He has a love affair with a woman named Julia, who is also against the party (in secret, of course) but doesn't believe that an organized revolution exists. Winston latches onto a man named O'Brien, who helps Winston to "join" the revolution. Winston soon realizes, however, that O'Brien is merely a member of the "Thought Police", and Winston and Julia are captured, tortured, and interrogated. Winston withstands the torture, despite its long duration, maintaining the belief that as long as he doesn't offer up Julia's life for his own, he will have succeeded in his rebellion. In the end, however, when faced with his greatest fear, Winston offers to sacrifice Julia, and O'Brien (and the party) have won. Winston and Julia are reintegrated into society, and though they meet again, they cannot love each other any more because they were both willing to offer the other's life in order to save their own. Winston ends the novel with the realization that he does, in fact, love Big Brother (the icon for the party).

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The first thing I did after I finished 1984 was take a shower. I spent the rest of the day doing traditional, Saturday afternoon, free human things: I made a beef stew, a Thai curry chicken soup, and chocolate ginger soufflés. I needed to reassert my existence and my freedom after reading about Winston losing his completely.

I underlined a few sections of the book as I read (I know, scandalous! Writing in a book! And I can't do it for the next 2 books because I got them from the library. Sad!) so I'm just going to jump about with a few comments on each one, then I'll discuss general feelings about the book as a whole.

Cabbage - Orwell says that everything smells of boiled cabbage, and I found this interesting. I mean, I like the taste of cabbage, but I suppose sauerkraut is probably on my list of permanent scents for hell. Also making the list are cooked scrapple, raw chicken, and patchouli.

Children - the children in this novel are some of the most despicable characters. They rat on their parents to the Thought Police, they are the mouthpieces and earpieces of the party, and they don't know anything before the existence of the party. I found this frightening, and somewhat reminiscent of Briony in Atonement. Briony means well, but she sets in motion a series of truly horrible events. I found Winston's discussion of his own terrible behavior as a child to be particularly interesting. Orwell seemed to try hard to make Winston unlikable, and yet, he was the only possible character we could hope would do anything really important. He was, in fact, pretty much the only character at all!

I found the aspects of revisionist history (the past is what we decide it is, not what actually happened) and Newspeak (the destruction of words - why do we need good and bad, if we can have good and ungood, which are true opposites) to be provocative, and rather too close to home. Revisionism made me think of people who don't believe the Holocaust happened, and Newspeak made me think of the Académie Française, who decide what foreign words are allowed to enter the pristine French language. (Only so many are allowed each year, so they have to decide whether to let in "ahmbaregare" (hamburger) or "papier de toilette" (toilet paper, instead of hygienic paper). Most French people say what they want anyway, sorry Académie. I asked my host mom for some "papier hygiénique" when I was in France, and she looked at me like I was an alien. Then I waggled the old toilet paper roll at her, and she was like, "ah! papier de toilette!")

Bowels - When something frightens Winston, or shocks him, he feels it in his bowels. I suppose this is true for many people, but I was amused by Orwell's constant reference to things happening in Winston's lower area.

At several points in the book, Orwell discusses sanity and what it means to be sane. I chose the quote for the title because it felt brilliantly poetic. Winston thinks for some time that he is, perhaps, the only dissenter against the party, and he wonders if he is insane, or merely a solitary revolutionary. Don't worry, Winston, I often feel like a lunatic and a minority of one. Winston also comes to the conclusion that stupidity, or ignorance, is a coping mechanism for the masses to remain sane. I have always wished I were less intelligent, less of a critical thinker. I think happiness might be more attainable, and, if nothing else, my mind would be a little more quiet. But I'm sure that's just "grass is greener" talk, and I know everyone has their own worries and struggles.

When Julia and Winston have a tryst in the woods, a thrush sings for a long time. Winston says later that he felt the thrush was singing just for them. This was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful moments in the book. To be perfectly honest, I hate birds, and have a totally irrational fear of them, (Well, maybe it's not so irrational - when I was little a blue jay landed on my head. I'm almost sure I'm not making that memory up. But sometimes you just don't quite know either way.) so I was surprised I liked this section as much as I did. But it's one of the very few moments when I truly felt that the world of 1984 was still a world, a place where people and animals and plants existed at all.

I enjoyed Orwell's description of Room 101 at the end of the book. Room 101 is where Winston is taken for his last bout of torture. It's a torture of the less conventional variety. Room 101 is a sort of boggart. For non-HP fans, that's code for your worst fears. Winston can handle beatings, electric shocks, humiliation, degradation, but not what O'Brien has in Room 101. For Winston, Room 101 is... rats. Well, technically, a cage for your face with rats waiting to chew your skin off. And you know what, Winston? I can't blame you. I can't stand the thought of rats either. I've had several bad experiences with mice, and I just don't even need to think about how much bigger and sneakier and dirtier rats can be. Although I did buy a pair of "fancy rats" for my sister as pets with my other sister one Christmas. But ultimately, we could none of us get over the fact that "Captain Cynthia", and whatever the other one's name was, were still rodents. We gave them to a Biology teacher, who kept them as class pets. I think Captain Cynthia died.

But think about it. What would be in your Room 101? What is the thing that is so frightening that you would sell off any one you loved, the person you loved most, to avoid it? I'm not sure what would be in my Room 101. Birds, maybe. Failure, perhaps. A huge wall of F grades and no books or music or happy thoughts. Maybe 1984 is my Room 101.

I spoke to my roommates about the end of the book, and when I told one of my roommates that I was disappointed with Winston for failing Julia in the end, he said, "well, you do like a happy ending." And it's true, I am always hoping that happiness can come from the most dire situations and hope can spring from darkness. But I think it's more than that. I was angry with Winston because I wanted to believe that, were I in his situation, I would act differently. I would accept the torture, and the rats, and Room 101, and gladly die before offering up the ones I love. But I can't truly say I know if I would be different. If I would be better. Perhaps I'm not really angry at Winston; perhaps I'm angry at myself.

All told, I'm glad I read 1984, though it was challenging to read on an emotional and metaphysical level. I'm really not sure it's something people should read in high school, as I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have understood it on as deep of a level had I read it back then. But who knows - maybe lots of people really connect with it as teenagers, maybe they get it just as well.

I'm looking forward to reading To Kill a Mockingbird next, though I've read it twice before. It will be a nice departure from Orwell's haunting vision, and I look forward to what will hopefully be a slightly less morbid post.

See you in a week or so!