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 26, 2011

For you, a thousand times over.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Kite Runner is a story about love, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption. It centers around two boys, Amir and Hassan, who grow up together in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hassan and his father, Ali, are Amir and his father, Baba's servants, due to the fact that Hassan and Ali are Hazara, a particular ethnicity who are forced into a lower caste in Afghan society in part because they are Shi'a Muslims, while the Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims. Despite the difference in their respective castes, Hassan and Amir grow up like brothers. Amir is constantly fighting for Baba's affection, and hates that his father seems to share as much (if not more) affection and love for Hassan. The story pivots around a moment that occurs when Amir and Hassan are 12; (NOTE: this is graphic, and not for children's eyes); Amir wins a kite-flying competition, and after Hassan runs for the last kite (a great honor) and catches it, he is cornered by the local vicious bully and raped. Amir watches and does nothing, too terrified to intervene. Their relationship goes downhill in the coming weeks, and Amir, eaten alive by his guilt, frames Hassan and claims he has stolen from the family. Hassan is, in reality, unbelievably good and kind and would never do such a thing, but his father, Ali, finally having been clued in on all that happened, decides that he must take his son away. Baba is heartbroken, and tries to get them to stay, but they leave. Amir and Baba leave Afghanistan a few years later because of the Russian occupation and move to America. Amir eventually marries Soraya, an Afghan woman, and Baba dies of cancer. Amir and his wife are unable to have children. Amir gets a call from Rahim Khan, his father's old friend, and Rahim asks him to come to Pakistan. When Amir arrives, he finds Rahim Khan near death from illness. Rahim divulges to him Hassan's life since Amir left for America, and tells him that Hassan and his wife and son ended up moving back to Amir's old house (and living in the servant hut) while Rahim lived in the house. They led a happy life for awhile, but when the Taliban took over Kabul, they massacred the Hazaras. They arrived one day claiming that rumours had gone around that Hazaras were living in a mansion in Mazar-e-Sharif, Amir's neighborhood. Hassan denied it, but when the Taliban threatened to occupy the house and he protested, they shot him in the street. His wife ran out to stop them, so they shot her too. Sohrab, their son, was sent to an orphanage, and Rahim Khan asks Amir to find him. Amir is not at all interested in going to Kabul, and almost refuses, at which point Rahim Khan (who by the way knows everything about what has happened between Amir and Hassan) reveals that Ali, Hassan's father, was impotent, and in fact, Baba is Hassan's father. He dishonored Ali by sleeping with Sanaubar, Hassan's mother, and so Hassan is actually Amir's half brother. Amir is, of course, furious that this secret has been kept from him, but he agrees to go to Kabul. He goes to Kabul, only to find that Sohrab has been sold by the orphanage to the Taliban. He confronts the Taliban leader, who turns out to be Assef, the very same bully who assaulted Hassan decades before. Assef taunts Amir, and tells him he finally has it coming to him. They fight until Amir is near death when Sohrab (who Assef has been using as a slave and sexually abusing) holds his slingshot up to Assef and tells him he must stop. Assef won't, so Sohrab shoots a brass ball into Assef's eye. Amir and Sohrab escape, and Amir is nursed back to health in a hospital in Peshawar. Amir tries to set Sohrab up with an adoption agency run by two Americans recommended by Rahim Khan, only to find out that no such agency exists. He realizes Rahim Khan's motives, and decides to adopt Sohrab. The process is incredibly challenging however, and he ends up having to go back on his promise to Sohrab that he would never send him back to an orphanage. Overwhelmed and emotionally broken, Sohrab attempts suicide, ironically just as Amir receives news that a friend of the family will be able to help them bypass the orphanage requirement and he will be able to bring Sohrab home immediately. Sohrab is treated in a hospital and Amir eventually takes him home, but Sohrab doesn't speak for nearly a year. The book ends with a small, but encouraging outing where Sohrab and Amir fly a kite. It closes with Amir running the kite for Sohrab.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

So, first off, sorry if I ruined it for anyone interested in reading it, but you really should still read it. It's a tough book to stomach, not just because of the scene in the beginning or the scene at the end, but because of a few moments of really inhumane behavior, but it's also a book that centers on a very real and very upsetting event that touches all of our lives.

As always, in no particular order or structure, here are my thoughts:

- It is always an interesting experience reading a story that is told from the point of view of a protagonist you don't really like. Amir grows on you, and I think I found him unlikable because he represented the worst side of all of us when we're being petty and selfish, but he's a very believable character. I also think that you couldn't tell this story from anyone else's perspective and have the same power behind it. Just the same, I had forgotten how challenging it can be from the reader's perspective to disagree with and feel shame at the narrator's actions. This isn't to suggest that all protagonists are all good; the best ones are imperfect in just the right way. It's just hard for me to feel such tension with the character telling me the story.

- The people in Kabul treat Hassan like complete shit in this novel. I don't know exactly how true to life this is, but I really just don't understand societally-sanctioned, pervasive prejudice. I know that there are many groups persecuted and looked down upon, both here in the U.S. and in other countries across the world, but such dishonor, such hatred, such totally inhumane treatment, is hard for me to conceptualize and impossible for me to sanction. When Hassan and Amir are on their way to the movies, a man on the street insinuates that he slept with Hassan's mother. Hassan cries throughout the movie and Amir just keeps whispering, "He took you for someone else." Amir takes a back seat to the prejudice at several key points in the novel, but here he is a human, and a friend, and he is tender.

- Unlikable though he may be for the first half of the book, Amir is an obsessive reader, which I must admit, I love. He reads Hafez, Saadi, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and Ian Fleming. I love a child who loves books.

- Hassan and Amir often visit a pomegranate tree behind Amir's house, and one day, they carve into the trunk these words: "Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul." When Amir comes back decades later, the words linger, faded, but visible.

- Part of the reason Assef is so angry with Amir and Hassan at the beginning is because he tries to beat them up, but Hassan threatens him with his slingshot. He tells Assef that if he tries to hurt Amir, he will become "one-eyed Assef". Even when he is faced with Assef, a bully and a jerk, Hassan still calls him "agha", a term of respect. Amir notices how bizarre it seems that Hassan is so ingrained in his class that he uses a respectful term even in this moment.

- I found the description of kite-running quite fascinating. They roll the kite string in a mixture of shards of glass and glue, and as they fly the kites, they undercut and attack each other, slicing the kite string. The last kite in the sky is the winner, and running (and catching) the last kite is an enormous honor. Hassan runs Amir's winning kite for him, and his refusal to hand it over to Assef is what leads to his assault. Part of what keeps Amir from intervening is that he hopes bringing home the winning kite will help him to win his father's love and approval.

- Before Hassan and Amir begin the kite tournament, Hassan tells Amir about a dream he had the night before. There is a lake in town, and no one will swim in it, because they think there is a monster living in it. Amir dives in and shows the town that there is no monster, and they rename the lake after Amir and Hassan. As they leave for the tournament, Hassan whispers to Amir, "There is no monster, just a beautiful day." He is wrong; Assef is the monster.

- When Amir witnesses Assef cornering Hassan, he wonders if maybe Hassan is the price he has to pay for Baba's love. While Amir atones for this moment in many ways throughout the rest of his life, I can't help but feel that it's kind of unforgivable. And even though he's terrified and he's 12, he could use the time after the event to change the outcome of all of their lives, but he doesn't. This moment took me back to my first book on this list, 1984, and the idea that maybe I hated Winston so much because the possibility that I would not act differently scared me so much. Amir finds that Baba loves him, and that is enough to cloud the guilt; the power of a parent's love (or lack thereof) is a thing to be reckoned with.

- After ignoring Hassan for weeks and not divulging the secret of what transpired in the alley to anyone, Amir takes Hassan to the pomegranate tree. He throws pomegranates at Hassan's face, hoping that Hassan will fight back. Hassan merely takes the beating, and eventually smashes a pomegranate in his own face. Hassan is almost unbearably good to Amir, and even in this moment, he is incapable of causing him harm, despite the harm Amir has done to him. In many ways, I found this the hardest scene to read.

- Amir and Baba end up having to leave Kabul at the drop of a hat. They are transported in the back of a truck part of the way out. Baba stands up for a woman who a Russian officer tries to rape as a "toll" to cross the border. They end up having to be smuggled the rest of the way to Pakistan in an oil truck, and one person ends up not making the trip because of the fumes. (There's another connection between this character and Amir, but it's complex and I'll leave it for you to read. I can't give away ALL the secrets!)

- I'm not going to get into it here, because it's a subject I have a strong opinion on and it's by no means a simple issue, but I found the treatment of women in Afghan culture (both before and after the Taliban) to be quite upsetting. Obviously it's tremendously worse with the Taliban (beatings in the street, stoning for adultery, etc) but I'm not wild about the whole "no non-chaperoned visits with boys", your honor is a one-time only deal, you should be on a separate side of the mosque, etc. thing. I know that there are totally different cultural and traditional customs, which is why I don't want to make any sweeping statements, but I just want to put it out there that I've got some concerns.

- Amir's wife, Soraya, has a complicated past - she lost her honor because she ran off with a man and did drugs and ended up being rescued and brought home by her father - but she reveals everything to Amir the night he has his father ask for her hand in marriage. He, on the other hand, does not reveal the truth of his past with Hassan until they are married for nearly 15 years. I know married people have secrets, but I find it telling that Amir withholds his, while Soraya immediately shares hers.

- Sanaubar, Hassan's mother, returns to him just before Sohrab is born. She ran off just after giving birth to him, but appears on the doorstep, bedraggled and quite ill. They nurse her back to health and she delivers Sohrab. She ends up passing away a few years later. I don't really have anything particular to say about this, other than that my only complaint about this book is that it feels a little bit like it's trying too hard to tie up loose ends. It brings just about every story line full circle, and at a certain point, I was like, "really? do we really need to resolve every relationship and every event?"

- When Rahim tells Amir about Hassan and what has happened to him in the years since Amir and his father left Kabul, Rahim gives him a letter from Hassan. Hassan was illiterate growing up, and Amir sort of withholds literacy as a trophy and a way to maintain hierarchy over Hassan. Hassan learns later on, and in his letter, he is still faithful and loving to Amir. I know that Assef is the one who is truly to blame for what happened to Hassan, but I am still amazed that he is able to forgive Amir for how he behaved after and what he did to have him sent away.

- The whole, "hassan was actually your half-brother" thing did feel a LITTLE bit like, "Luke, I am your FATHER!" But it does make sense with the rest of the story line. I think the book could have stood to be one ironic cliché or two shorter.

- There were so many parts of this book that were hard to read; the scene with Hassan and Assef, the public stoning by the Taliban at the soccer game, the grisly battle between Amir and Assef, and Sohrab's suicide attempt. I certainly wouldn't recommend this book to a child, and I'm not sure if I had a teenager I'd recommend it to them, either; it would depend on what that teenager had already experienced in his/her life. I'd probably recommend it to my old students at Fels, but not my students at Breakthrough. These things still occur to me even though I'm in grad school now :).

- As Amir watches Sohrab sleep and pulls the door closed, he has this thought: "Closing Sohrab's door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night." I found this line really powerful and poetic.

- Amir grows a backbone throughout the novel (though it's often kicking and screaming) and when his father-in-law, a traditional Afghan, questions his decision to adopt Sohrab, Amir tells him that he is his nephew, and practically spits out, "You will never again refer to him as 'Hazara boy' in my presence. He has a name and it's Sohrab." I actually wrote "Go, Amir!" in this part of the book, I was so pleased that he stood up for Sohrab and shirked the Afghan prejudice and bigotry.

- The book closes with Amir offering to run a kite for Sohrab. He turns and says, "For you, a thousand times over." Hassan says the same thing just before he disappears to run Amir's winning kite. This is the last time Amir sees Hassan smile.

This book is dark, and it gets at some of the deepest part of our souls. It pulls you into difficult and painful situations, but there are moments of levity and joy, too. It may not be a classic in the truest sense of the word - only time will tell - but it is certainly a well-told and well-crafted story.

I'm off to bed (and YES, I do know what time it is!) a belated Merry Christmas to you all! I'm off to Narnia and the land of Aslan.

Safe travels, sweet dreams, and kind thoughts.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.

The Hobbit; or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Hobbit is a tale of adventure when it is sprung upon the unsuspecting. It takes a quiet, settled hobbit on a trip to faraway lands with 12 dwarves and one wizard to reclaim ancient dwarf treasure from an evil dragon named Smaug. They survive encounters with wood-elves, spiders, wargs (wolf-like creatures), being stuffed in barrels, and fighting an epic battle against goblins. Theirs is a tale of greed, deep-rooted family pride, friendship, magic, and merriment. Bilbo Baggins, our protagonist, finds a spirit in himself he never knew he had, and as you may or may not be lucky enough to know, this is not his only adventure.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I know my plot summary was a bit thin, but it's practically a novella and if you haven't already (or haven't in a long time) you really should pick up the book yourself. It's practically a tea-time snack.

I loved reading this book. I love the trilogy, but when I first got into them, it took me some time to get completely pulled into the story. From the first page of The Hobbit, I was entranced. I could practically hear Bilbo's kettle boiling on the stove, and his hobbit-hole would appear when my eyes closed.

I remember reading this in 6th grade, with Mr. Bricker? Brickstein? Brickle? (I think that last one is a computer game from the 90's.) Anyway, I distinctly remember being asked to draw the door to Bilbo's hobbit-hole, and I also distinctly remember getting a C on my drawing. (Art never was my strong suit.) I think I painted the door blue, and it was supposed to be green, with a yellow knob. Something like that. It's strange the things we remember.

In terms of overall thoughts, I think what struck me most was that Bilbo and the dwarves are on a completely voluntary adventure here. They decide to just pick up and go, and while the dwarves have their whole "we need to win back our hard-earned gold from the dragon" thing going on, Bilbo really is just along for the ride. Of course, he discovers some wonderful (and not so wonderful) traits about himself along the way, but it definitely makes him question his own motives more than Frodo is able to. Frodo is basically in for an epic battle between good and evil, and everyone takes a side, whereas here, things are a bit more grey. I actually got quite mad at the dwarves toward the end, because before they end up joining forces with the elves and the men to fight the goblins, the dwarves were going to wage war with the elves and men over the treasure and they are acting downright nasty, even though - and here's the kicker and I Totally forgot this part - THEY DON'T EVEN KILL THE DRAGON. There's all this buildup and Bilbo goes down several times to see the dragon, but Smaug ends up getting shot by some man from the nearby town named Bard. Kind of anticlimactic, if you ask me. And pretty petty of the dwarves to withhold "their" gold when the dragon was sleeping on it all these years and they didn't even kill him. Also, is dwarves not the correct plural form of dwarf? My computer's autocorrect has underlined the word every time I've written it. Amusingly enough, it also does not choose to recognize the word autocorrect. Ironic much?

Anyway, here are the rest of my thoughts, in no particular order:
(And yes, I am aware what time it is, mother. And no, I'm not pregnant. INSIDE FAMILY JOKE!)

-Gandalf is responsible for getting Bilbo involved with the adventure (of course; Gandalf is always involved in the "I have an ulterior motive but it's in everyone's best interest" kind of mind games) and Bilbo is having NONE of it at the beginning. "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" He's almost gotten Gandalf to leave and he says, "Sorry! I don't want any adventures, thank you. Not today."
[But sneaky Gandalf puts a mark on his door that says BURGLAR LIVES HERE LOOKING FOR AN ADVENTURE (okay, I looked it up and it's actually "Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable reward" - close enough!) - only some compact, runish form of that phrase - and the adventure comes looking for Bilbo anyway.]

-When Bilbo decides to join the adventure, Tolkien calls it his "Tookish side", implying that his ancestors, the Tooks, were more adventuresome than the average hobbit family. I just love the sound of the word - maybe because it rhymes with bookish. ;)

-At one point, Bilbo says it smells like elves. I wonder what elves smell like? I imagine something appropriately woodsy. Perhaps like pine.

-Just before Bilbo encounters Gollum in the tunnels, he says to himself, "Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!" It reminded me of the book, "We're going on a bear hunt" where they say, "Can't go OVER it! Can't go UNDER it! We'll have to go THROUGH it!" (swish swish swish)

-When Gollum and Bilbo are playing riddle games, Bilbo tricks Gollum by asking him to guess what is in his pocket. (It is, in fact, the ring; as in Lord of the...) Gollum is frantic, because he can't think of what it is. He has three guesses, so first he guesses, "Handses!" When that's wrong, he thinks of what he keeps in his own pockets -- "fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on". I laughed so hard at the thought of little Gollum thinking about his own pockets and the disgusting things he keeps in there. Bat-wing? Hilarious.

-I like that Gollum calls Bilbo "the nasty noser". I'm going to start calling people "nasty nosers." You nasty noser, you!

-Gandalf tricks Beorn, a man-bear who befriends them in the midst of their adventure (yes. I said man-bear. get over it.) into thinking it's just him and Bilbo at first, then he lets the rest of the dwarves trickle in two-by-two. Beorn is too interested in the story to notice that he has 14 guests when he rarely suffers any at all (according to Gandalf). Gandalf is so Tricksy!

-I started taking notes of the trials the group faced, so pg. 108 of my copy has the following list:
-Wood Elves

I kept it going for a bit, but lagged at the end - I could also have included war with the men, impending doom, WAR WITH GOBLINS, THE END. but I didn't.

-Bilbo is CLUTCH in several situations. (Gretchen, stop trying to make FETCH happen!) He saves the dwarves from the spiders, he uses the ring to stay hidden and frees the dwarves from their imprisonment by the wood-elves by stuffing them in barrels and sending them off to Laketown, and he steals the first cup from Smaug and discovers his weak spot. He gets a bad rap from the dwarves in the beginning ("more of a grocer than a burglar!") but he shines in the end.

-The dwarves are TOTAL cowards for most of this book. I mean, I love Gimli in the trilogy. He is SO badass! So I was all, great, the dwarves will be so cool, and IMAGINE MY SURPRISE when they did things like when they finally got to the mountain and found the door and then said, "Okay, Bilbo, go on in and meet the dragon!" Seriously? Seriously. Ugh. Dwarves.

-The title of this post comes from a riddle-speak conversation between Bilbo and Smaug, the dragon. I adore the line. And Bilbo is also partly chosen because the dwarves refuse to set out on the adventure with 13 total (12 dwarves plus Gandalf), making Bilbo the lucky fourteen.

-Tolkien follows some fairly familiar territory in this story, but he has such flair. Smaug is a riddler and a trickster, and Tolkien says he has an "overwhelming personality." Sassy dragon!

-As mentioned previously (ahem. as I Ranted about previously) Smaug's death is quite anticlimactic. After it happened, I was like, OK, got it. And then everyone thought he was dead but REALLY HE JUMPED UP AND FLEW INTO THE AIR AND THE WHOLE VILLAGE WAS IN FLAMES but no. That is not what happened. OF course, stupid me, it's a GOBLIN WAR. Why didn't I think of the inevitable post-dragon GOBLIN WAR?

-So, Bilbo steals what is basically the most prized gem in all the treasure - it's called the Arkenstone - and at first I was like, ACK, Bilbo, you have to give it back! The greedy dwarves will have your head! But then he uses it to try to create peace between the wood-elves/men and the dwarves. The goblin war ends up bringing everyone together (nothing unites people like a common hatred of GOBLINS, duh!) but Bilbo is the real peace-maker here. Dummypants dwarves are blinded by treasure.

-Bilbo rats himself out about stealing the Arkenstone and giving it to the other side, and Thorin (the lead dwarf) is FURIOUS. He basically threatens to throw Bilbo on the rocks (SOME GRATITUDE if you ask me) but Gandalf steps in, saying "If you don't like my Burglar, please don't damage him." Adorable.

-As Bilbo and Gandalf get weary on the journey back, they stop at one point and Gandalf says, "There is a long road yet." And Bilbo replies, "But it is the last road."

I leave you with those parting words, and another Tolkien reminder that not all who wander are lost.

I'm off to fly kites in a war-torn land not too far from where our world began.

Good afternoon, good evening, and good night. (And good morning, to you, mommy!)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Brother Sancho, an adventure looms.

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Don Quixote is a story of adventure, travels, battles, love, and friendship. It centers around two main characters: Don Quixote, a moderately well-off gentleman from a small town in Spain who fancies himself a knight errant, and Sancho Panza, a local from the same town who agrees to serve Don Quixote on his travels as his squire. The two men get into a wild series of situations, including but by no means limited to battles with (enchanted) windmills, wineskins, priests, and women, intervening in a many a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, in a few rare cases actually defending people's honor, and generally gallivanting and gadding about Spain. The two are both generally perceived to be - how shall I put it - stark, raving mad. Don Quixote is by no means an idiot, and has quite a lot of very interesting and intelligent things to say along the way, and even Sancho proves himself as a loyal friend, a lover of proverbs, and, occasionally, a man of sense. They are brought back home a few times (some due to injury, others due to tricks played on them by well-meaning friends) and in the end, Don Quixote dies a quiet death a mere week after returning from his last venture, leaving his possessions to his niece and to Sancho.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was 982 pages, so as you can guess, I've left quite a bit out of the plot summary; the adventures are far too many to enumerate each one, but I will say that my favorites involved slapping oneself to remove enchantments and battles with cats.

Here are my thoughts in regards to the book, in no particular order:

- I felt an immediate kinship with Don Quixote at the beginning of the novel when his niece, the barber, and the priest burn all his books on knight errantry to try and rid his head of the "foolishness" of it all. It reminded me of Fahrenheit 451 (which is coming up later on my list) and I was appalled at the thought of someone intentionally burning my books. I knew (just 50 pages in) that this Don Quixote was a character I was going to like. (Don Quixote, by the way, has no trouble believing the story he is told later that an enchanter burned his books and walled up his library. He knows the enchanter had a beef with him, so it came as no surprise.)

- When Don Quixote is first starting off with Sancho Panza, he tells Sancho, "Over there, we can dip our arms right up to our elbows in what people call adventures." I liked the image of reaching into a big pile of adventure right up to my elbows and pulling them out, one by one.

- I listened to a great deal of Spanish guitar music while reading this book (which I downloaded expressly for that purpose) as well as some Ennio Morricone soundtracks and a few other movie soundtracks (including the soundtrack for Jurassic Park - make fun of me if you choose, but it is LOVELY!)

- I write in my books, and the most common notes I found when I skimmed back through were:
- "Ack!"
- "Hagh!"
- "Aw!"
and my favorite -- "!"

- This book is replete with story-within-a-story plot lines, which I found first endearing, then tiresome, then downright confusing. They did, however, contain lots of poetry, and one of my favorite lines in the book:

I die, and I despair of being blessed
In life or death with any joy at all,
So I'll persist in my fantastic dream.

- The relationship between DQ and SP alternates between hilarious, heartwarming, and downright adorable. In one of my favorite scenes, DQ accuses SP of talking too much: "in all the books of chivalry I have read, an infinity of them, I have never come across any squire who talked to his master as much as you do to yours." After this, SP doesn't talk to DQ at all, but then he nearly Bursts and simply HAS to start talking to him again. So cute.

- After Sancho returns with DQ to town at one point, he's describing to his wife why he enjoys adventuring with DQ. "It is true that most of the adventures you find don't turn out as well as what you'd like them to, because out of a hundred you come across ninety-nine usually go skew-whiff. But in spite of all that, it's great to be waiting to see what's going to happen next as you ride across mountains, explore forests, climb crags, visit castles, and put up at inns as and when you like, and not the devil a farthing to pay."

- Other people who come across DQ and SP are constantly evaluating their sanity. Here's my favorite line DQ comes up with in discussing madness: "To tell jokes and write wittily is the work of geniuses; the most intelligent character in a play is the fool, because the actor playing the part of a simpleton must not be one." Truly, Don Quixote is no fool, and we see this most clearly in the end.

- Sancho's loyalty to Don Quixote becomes one of the great themes in the book -- he defends DQ when he's discussing serving a master with a fellow squire (who turns out to be a man from his town who's pretending to be a squire as part of a ruse to get DQ to come home), saying, "a child could make him believe it's midnight at noon, and it's because he's so simple that I love him from the bottom of my heart, and can't bring myself to leave him, however many silly things he does."

- Hands down, the funniest scene in the book (and trust me, there are MANY) is when Don Quixote offers to fight a group of caged lions. The lions refuse to come out of the cage (and DQ declares this a victory) but when a fellow knight urges DQ not to attack the lions, DQ retorts, "Sire hidalgo, pray go away and play with your tame decoy partridge and your intrepid ferret, and let others proceed with their own business. This is my business, and I know whether or not these lion fellows have come after me." I'm going to start telling people to go off and play with their intrepid ferrets.

- When other people questioned DQ's obsession with knight errantry and his sanity, I was reminded of the first blog post and the line, "Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one." When a critic accuses DQ of wasting away his time, DQ replies, "Is it appropriate to go bursting into other men's houses to rule their lives, or for certain people, brought up in the narrow confines of some hall of residence, and having seen no more of the world than that part of it lying within fifty or a hundred miles around, to take it upon themselves to lay down the laws of chivalry and pass judgement on knights errant?" Don Quixote, crazy as he may be, is eloquent and passionate in his defense of his chosen pastime.

- Teaser for if you decide to read the book yourself: Sancho does eventually get to govern an island (in a very Loose definition of the word island) and there are some great moments in that story as well, which I won't go into here.

- Don Quixote and Sancho Panza may not accomplish much throughout their journey, but they are most certainly free to explore, free to have adventures, and free to be whoever they choose to be. As Don Quixote puts it to Sancho, "Freedom is one of the most precious gifts bestowed by heaven on man; no treasures that the earth contains and the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, men can and should risk their lives and, in contrast, captivity is the worst evil that can befall them." This line has particular meaning given that Cervantes himself was captured by pirates and spent 5 years trying to escape from a Greek he was sold to in Algiers before being ransomed in 1580, 25 years prior to publishing this book.

- I'll leave you with two final thoughts. One character, Don Juan, asserts that "there's no book so bad that there isn't something good in it." I think there's a great deal of truth in this; I can't say I've loved every minute of every book I've read so far, but I can say with total certainty that I've derived some good, some new amusement or nuance or passion, from every novel on this list. The best parts of books are often buried far beneath the surface, and the casual reader, if she's not careful, might miss them entirely.

- Don Quixote dies rather abruptly at the end of the novel, which made me a little sad and a little bit wanting more. His character aptly speaks to this a few chapters earlier, telling Sancho, "There is a remedy for all things but death." Don Quixote, you batty, brilliant, brave man - I'll miss you.

My older sister Lexie also read this book with me and (GASP!) finished it before I did. I may post some of her thoughts (if she would like to be so gracious as to share them with us) a bit later.

Now I'm off (a second time) to Middle Earth, this time to an older generation of hobbits, dwarves, and dragons, and where the story of the ring began.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

We're not wheat, we're buckwheat!

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Gone With the Wind is a tale of love, hate, war, friendship, family, and grit. Its protagonist is Scarlett O'Hara, a Georgian girl with gumption. It chronicles her family and her marriages during the years just before, during, and after the Civil War. Scarlett lives on a plantation named Tara, and when the novel starts, she's the belle of her county, but she can't have the one man she really wants: Ashley Wilkes. Ashley has just gotten engaged to his cousin (apparently it was totally okay back then) Melanie Hamilton, and he is off the market. Scarlett confesses her love, but he is too honorable to go back on his word, but he leaves the door open, telling Scarlett he loves her, too, and this launches them into nearly a decade of desire. Scarlett marries Melanie's brother, Charles, to spite Ashley. She gets pregnant and has a son, Wade, and Charles promptly dies of pneumonia after enlisting in the army. Scarlett moves to Atlanta to live with Melanie and her Aunt Pitty Pat after Ashley goes off to war. Melanie is also pregnant, and Scarlett must deliver her baby as the Yankees are invading and Atlanta is burning. Scarlett escapes with Melanie and Melanie's baby, Beau, to Tara (with the help of one rapscallion Rhett Butler - more on him later) but is stricken with grief upon arrival. She finds her mother has died of typhoid (I think - I get those Civil War era - diseases mixed up with Oregon Trail illnesses) her sisters are ill but recovering, her father is addled in the head from his wife's death, most of the slaves are gone, and Tara is a mess because it was used by the Yankees as a headquarters. All but a few of the other plantations in the county have been burned or destroyed. Scarlett rebuilds Tara, despite several extreme challenges along the way. She can't raise the money to pay the taxes, though, so to avoid losing Tara, she goes to Atlanta to offer herself to Rhett, who is loaded. Rhett almost falls for it, but he is in jail and he is angry that she tricked him, so she ends up stealing her sister Suellen's beau, Frank Kennedy. He has a small store and she believes Suellen wouldn't have helped to save Tara, so she lies to him and tells him Suellen has promised herself to another man. She flirts with him shamelessly and gets him to marry her. She helps him run his business (much to his dismay), saves Tara by paying the taxes, buys a few mills and runs them herself (SCANDAL!) and eventually gets knocked up a second time (MUCH TO HER DISMAY). She has a girl, Ella, who she claims is quite ugly (Scarlett is not especially motherly). She goes back to running the mills. She receives word from Tara that her father, Gerald, has died - turns out Suellen sort of made him crazy by trying to get him to say he sided with the Yankees and he got drunk and tried the jump the fence he always tried to jump and didn't make it. Scarlett sort of tricks Ashley into coming to run one of the mills for her, and Melanie and Ashley and Beau move back to Atlanta. One day, Scarlett is driving to and from the mills alone (she has been asked not to, because shantytowns of disreputable men and women have sprung up after the war and they have been known to attack and rape women, but she needs to go to work!) and she is attacked and her dress is slashed and she narrowly escapes thanks to the help of one of her old slaves who is now free and was hiding there. Frank, Ashley, and several of the other town men (unbeknownst to Scarlett) are in the KKK, which (according to Mitchell, this has NOT been researched as any kind of fact) has sprung up as a sort of vigilante justice system against these groups who were attacking women, as they felt the Yankees weren't taking appropriate action. Frank dies, Ashley is injured, and Rhett has to save everyone from being arrested by the Yankees by telling them that all the men have been hanging out at Belle Watling's whorehouse (which he owns) every week and that they were there. Right after Frank dies, Rhett asks Scarlett to marry him. She is shocked, as she doesn't love him, and her husband has just died (they had very specific mourning times, usually several years to a lifetime for widows) but Rhett says he doesn't want to lose her to another husband, and he convinces her it will be fun, and not like the other two marriages of convenience that she had. She reluctantly agrees. They have a very tumultuous marriage, including a violent miscarriage, a pseudo-rape, a moment where Scarlett is caught with Ashley (to be fair, at this moment she was only crying in his arms and wasn't trying to snare him but she is vilified by the town and her saving grace is that Melanie is too good to believe anything but the best of Scarlett and Ashley), the birth of a daughter (Bonnie), Scarlett's blossoming relationship with Rhett, and Bonnie's tragic death. Rhett and Scarlett realize (at different times) that they really do love each other, but the timing is tragically flawed, and the permanent possibility of Ashley stands between them. It isn't until the very end of the novel when Melanie dies after trying to have another child (despite the doctor's advice that another would surely kill her) that Scarlett realizes that (a) Melanie is actually awesome and (b) she doesn't really love Ashley and (c) she totally does love Rhett. But when she runs home through the fog to tell Rhett, it's too late. He's been hurt by her too many times to see that she's sincere, and he leaves. Scarlett decides that she will return to Tara, and she convinces herself that she can get Rhett back. After all, tomorrow is another day.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Okay, so I forgot/left out a few major points (the book is over 700 pages, after all) like where Ashley gets taken prisoner in the war and Scarlett and Melanie both pine for him and he returns, all dusty and sexy from the war and traipses up to Tara. And Mammy, who is one of the original slaves at Tara who sticks with Scarlett through thick and thin, through good decisions and terrible ones, and who Scarlett plans to return to in the end. And the part where Scarlett shoots a Yankee soldier who's trying to steal her mother's sewing box. And that Rhett and Scarlett honeymoon in New Orleans and they're actually pretty much happy then. And I glossed over Rhett and Scarlett's marriage - like the part where Rhett basically loses his mind when Bonnie dies. Or the part where Scarlett tries to hit him because he tells her maybe she'll miscarry after she's decided she's actually thrilled that she's having a fourth child and she actually finally wants one and she loves him but she falls down the steps and gets really sick and breaks some ribs and he's a wreck and he's so worried about her and he tells Melanie that he loves Scarlett but she NEVER KNOWS because when she gets better, HE DOESN'T TELL HER that he was so worried for her and she doesn't tell her she really loves him because she's so worried he won't reciprocate, or he'll bring up Ashley.

But those are all REALLY great parts, and you have to read the book yourself if you want to experience them for REALZ. Hokay? Seriously, the book is fantastic. It falls somewhere between low-level romance novel meets gripping war epic meets fascinating snapshot of a historical period meets the glorious glorious (did I mention GLORIOUS) south and its perpetual pride.

I loved this book. If you've talked to me in the last few weeks, I've probably told you about it. It was gripping, well written, and had great characters. Even though I had a rough time with the ending and I felt Scarlett didn't get her fair due (full disclosure: I cried for literally the last HUNDRED pages) and like no one really truly understood her but ME, I really really liked it. And for those of you who have seen the movie, scrap it from your mind and go read the book. The movie is fine, but the book is a masterpiece, and I guarantee you will probably feel differently about Scarlett after reading the book.

A few leading ladies/gentlemen other than Scarlett:

-Melanie - Okay, so Melanie (aka Melly) totally comes off as a NAMBY-PAMBY in the movie (think Beth at the end of Little Women) but she is actually the glue that holds EVERYONE together. When Scarlett shoots a Yankee soldier at Tara, Melanie, who has just given birth a few weeks before and is seriously unwell, appears on the stairwell dragging her brother's enormous sword. And Scarlett's like, whoa! Melanie's got some spirit in her after all! And she loves everyone, really and truly, and while that's kind of annoying at times, she really is good at heart. She's great with children, and her desire for more of them is what does her in, which is really sad. She loves Scarlett, even when Scarlett is SERIOUSLY unlovable and doesn't deserve it, and she steps up in times of need (handles the KKK almost arrest night/husband getting shot and having to pretend he was at a whorehouse like a CHAMP, lets Rhett cry in her lap when he's an absolute mess over Scarlett miscarrying and falling ill) and she embodies both the traditional image of a Southern lady from before the war and the true grit that is required of a Southern lady after the war. Melanie, I wish you were real, because I think we would be true friends.

-Ashley - Ashley also comes off as a NAMBY-PAMBY in the movie, and he seems a little addled. Granted, he is a bit of a space cadet at times in the book, but he is kind and smart and gentle and philosophical and honorable, too. And even though he knows he shouldn't, he really feels something for Scarlett - whether it's love or infatuation is never really clear - and this causes him a LOT of trouble. He fights in a war he doesn't believe in because he honors the South and its values, and he tries hard to be a good husband, though he's really quite bad at business and farming and pretty much anything other than being a well-read country gentleman. All in all, he's no Rhett, but he's more reliable, softer, and definitely a good match for Melly. (And probably who I'd marry if I had my choice of the men in this book. After all, we're both BOOK-LOVERS, duhh!)

-Mammy - while she's definitely a type-cast character, Mammy is a fabulous fabulous personage. She's tough, and she's gritty, and she is one of the few people who puts up with Scarlett and puts her in her place. She comes to live with Scarlett and Rhett, but she doesn't like Rhett at ALL. Rhett buys her a red petticoat in New Orleans on the honeymoon, and he gives it to her. She refuses to wear it until she bonds with Rhett over Bonnie's birth. She's so delighted that Rhett isn't mad it's a girl (boys are favored for a man's first child) that she reappears rustling and bustling in her new petticoat. ADORABLE.

-Will Benteen - he's one of many Confederate soldiers that appear on Tara's doorstep after the war who have no place to go. He falls for Carreen (one of Scarlett's sisters) but Carreen's love died in the war (Stuart Tarleton) and she never really gets over it. She eventually joins a convent and he marries Suellen (who has made herself quite hated due to her inadvertently causing her dad's death) so that he can stay at Tara and keep running the plantation. He is solid, hard-working, and an all around really good guy. He understands Scarlett, and he understands her love for Tara, and he keeps it going after she goes back to Atlanta.

-Rhett - Rhett is, in a word, a scallawag. But he is not so simply described. He spends a good portion of the book seeming like a rogue but secretly going around doing nice things for people and making himself invaluable. He really does passionately love Scarlett, but too many things stand in the way for him to show it in a true way. He's dangerous, intense, and sometimes violent. He takes to drinking occasionally, and when something sets him off, he's in a temper. His best moments (like Scarlett's) are generally behind the scenes, which keep everyone from knowing how great he is (saving the KKK men, raising Bonnie with a maelstrom of love and affection, prostrating himself to the town to make up for his previously terrible reputation when he realizes that Bonnie's acceptance by society will be impossible if he doesn't, falling apart when Scarlett is ill and he can't do anything). He's the husband you sort of wish you could have a slightly tamer version of, but you know if you tamed him he wouldn't be the same. Definitely a tough nut to crack.

I realized that the last 4 books I've read have been about wars: War and Peace - Napoleonic war, Lés Misérables - not technically about a war, but a great deal about the post-Revolution France and deals with the June rebellion, Slaughterhouse-Five - about World War II, and this one, obviously about the Civil War. I was struck by how each author made the book ostensibly about something other than the war (people's lives, other events, love, children, family) but how the war pervaded every aspect of the characters' existences. Sombering.

I was also reminded of the part in Slaughterhouse-Five where Vonnegut says that he tells his sons never to participate in any massacres or let the idea of future massacres fill them with glee. The war lasts so long that many boys who are not old enough to join up at the beginning must fill the ranks, and even later on, when the Confederate troops are on their last legs, the oldest men and the youngest boys must join the fight. We all hope our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and grandfathers and grandmothers will never be expected to fight, but in this war that tore our country in half, no man was safe from the fray.

There's a tender moment at Gerald (Scarlett's father)'s funeral where Will keeps the town from erupting into judgment of Suellen and protects Scarlett from having to hear the "clods dropping on the coffin". One of the town biddies says "as long as you don't hear that sound, folks aren't actually dead to you." Will is really so sweet.

The title to this post is courtesy of Grandma Fontaine (another great character, but I'll let you discover her yourself). She tells Scarlett that the two of them are buckwheat, not wheat: "When a storm comes along it flattens ripe wheat because it's dry and can't bend with the wind. But ripe buckwheat's got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before."

I listened to a lot of Alison Krauss & Union Station while reading this book. It was the perfect soundtrack to this novel.

There are so many great lines in this book, I can't possibly share them all, so I'll just give you this last one:

"She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him."

Onwards to windmills, Sancho Panza, a world where fantasy and reality are never quite clearly defined, and what the French call Don Quichotte.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of many different things. The main character (I suppose we'll call him that) is Billy Pilgrim, and the story chronicles his life from his adolescence to his death and back again. Billy Pilgrim travels through time, so we see snapshots of various points in time, some during the second world war (as a prisoner of war and then in Dresden during the bombing), some in outer space (after he's been abducted by aliens and transported to the planet Tralfamadore to live in a zoo exhibit), some in hospitals where Billy may or may not be going crazy, and some in Ilium, New York, during his time as an optometrist. The story begins before Billy enters the scene; the narrator during this part is ostensibly Vonnegut himself. He tells (satirically, of course) the story of how he came to write his book on the bombing of Dresden. He travels back in time himself (not quite as literally as Billy) and returns to Dresden with an old war buddy of his. He discusses the verity of the events in the novel, asserting that they are, for the most part, all quite true. The whole book is written with a constant stream of actually funny and funny-because-it-hurts kinds of moments. Vonnegut deals with some very dark territory in world history; when he compares the bombing in Dresden with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden has almost as many casualties as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Billy Pilgrim has a few friends along the way - on Tralfamadore, he mates with Montana Wildhack (amusingly I had to go back in the book to check that I'd gotten her last name right, and I hadn't - I called her Montana Wildsack. heh. heh.), and at home in Ilium, he's married to Valencia - and most of his family thinks he's totally batshit crazy because he's constantly traveling in time (although I think only his mind travels, not his physical body, though he has a body in other dimensions). He befriends a weird science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, after meeting him in Ilium. When Billy is first in the war (before he becomes a POW) he travels with a man named Roland Weary, who very disgruntedly (whatever, I want it to be a word so it is) and begrudgingly (aha! I stumbled on a real word!) drags Billy along through the battle field, despite Billy's constant stream of "Leave me behind"'s. The book ends just after Dresden has been bombed and Billy (along with the other POWs) is set free and helps begin to clean up the city after the disaster.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Excuse me if that plot summary was rather frenetic and scatter-brained. The book, after all, is written that way. That's not to say that it doesn't have a great point or climax (in fact it has several) but just that they don't necessarily come in a traditional order within the "accepted" literary structure.

I really enjoyed this book. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it when I was a teenager - some of the humor is quite dark, and some of the jokes are pretty raunchy for a Bible belt teenager - so I'm glad that I read it now and not then, and that I get to make up my mind about it as an adult reader.

I admit this book also read like something of a novella after War and Peace and Les Misérables. A mere 275 pages? Practically a tone poem! Here are my thoughts on the book, in no particular order and in fact, perhaps in an intentionally different order than I experienced them:

- Vonnegut has one of those narrator voices that just sticks to you like glue. Maybe it helps that the beginning of the book feels like he's telling it directly to you (which he sort of is) or maybe it's more of a contemporary narrative voice (although Joyce has a similar way about him and he's definitely before Vonnegut) but I just felt like it wasn't even really Billy pulling me along in the tale, it was the nameless, unidentified narrator.

- "So it goes" is the catchphrase of this novel. It generally follows something completely horrific or tragic. I guess this is the satire - treating the horrific as the banal - although I admit sometimes this type of humor escapes me. I circled it in my book every time. I'm not sure why. I knew it was coming, and I knew what it was supposed to mean, but I circled it each time anyway. Maybe to give each seemingly unimportant moment more meaning. Maybe because I like circling things.

- Vonnegut's narration in the beginning reminded me very much of Stephen King's style of narrating in his book On Writing. I haven't read any other Stephen King novels (I do think one is on this list) but I loved loved loved On Writing when I read it as a senior in high school. I wonder if King was a Vonnegut fan. One of the funniest moments in this intro is when Vonnegut says he laid out the story of Slaughterhouse-Five with his daughter's crayons on a piece of wallpaper. "One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle." In some ways, I found this mini-novel beginning to be even more enjoyable than the rest of the story. I'm not sure why Vonnegut chose to start it off that way - maybe to help the reader to understand that while his protagonist was comical in some ways, and the story was funny in some ways, the situation was real and the events were serious and had a disturbing impact. I don't know. Sometimes I don't like to get too into the why, and I just like to enjoy what is.

- Vonnegut likes to play with time. Billy's life is told to us in fragments, but even the beginning of the book skips and stops and starts. I love this line - "And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

- In case you were wondering, the name of the book comes from the place Billy Pilgrim and the other prisoners are eventually taken to. They are supposed to do hard labor in the old slaughterhouse, and they're told to memorize their address in case they get lost or need to find their way back. Slaughterhouse-Five.

- Billy is innocent and confused, bewildered by war and his surroundings; he represents the iconic child-soldier Vonnegut wants us to realize was actually fighting World War II. I don't know whether Vonnegut was that child-soldier, too, or if he just found himself surrounded by them, but I think it's definitely still true today that the men and women we allow to fight and die for us are so much younger than we think they are.

- Vonnegut describes Dresden post-bombing as the "face of the moon". I can imagine feeling that the wreckage didn't resemble anything previously witnessed on earth.

- Billy's dad tells him to keep the shortened form of his name into adulthood because (1) it will help people to remember him and (2) it will make him seem slightly magical, since there aren't any other grown Billys around. ("My dad's Billw. I'm billwy!")
- There are many more magnificent moments (like my alliteration?) in this book, and I want you to discover them for yourself (if you haven't already) so I won't keep detailing them here. I will share a few of my favorite sentences, though.

- "Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans."
- "There was an old typewriter in the rumpus room."
- "Barbara celebrated frustration by clapping her hands."
- "It jazzed and jangled Billy's skin without thawing the ice in the marrow of his long bones."
- "A moment went by, and then every cell in Billy's body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause."

This book felt a bit like a Glee-style mash-up. Here are the books I felt either fed into or out of this book:

-The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (which I have started 3 times and still haven't finished)
-The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (which has a similarly off-putting time-jumping aspect to it)
-Ulysses by James Joyce (which basically defined the "stream of consciousness" idea)
-Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (a later satirical war book that I also felt I understood about 70% as well as I wanted to)

Well, I'm off to the antebellum deep south for a much earlier war during my last few days before I'm inundated with policy lessons and statistics graphs. Time for "Lost with the Hurricane." Or was it, "Away with the Breeze"? Oh, you know what I mean.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If I did not know that you were so good, I should be afraid of you.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Les Misérables is a story about love, redemption, revenge, devotion, loyalty, commitment, and yes, misery. It takes place in France during the years from 1815-1832. The story centers around two main characters: Jean Valjean and Cosette. Jean Valjean is a convict who was imprisoned in the galleys for stealing bread to feed his family. He attempts to escape from prison several times, and each attempt adds more years to his sentence. After spending somewhere between 30 and 40 years in jail, he receives unexpected kindness from a man named Monsieur Bienvenu. Jean Valjean steals candlesticks from Monsieur Bienvenu, but after receiving forgiveness and even having Monsieur Bienvenu cover for him with the police, Jean Valjean decides to turn his life around. He slowly but surely develops a great fortune in manufacturing, and he becomes a well-respected mayor in a small town. Cosette's mother, Fantine, a lower-class woman who is abandoned by her lover/Cosette's father, ends up working in the same town where Jean Valjean is the mayor. Fantine leaves Cosette in the care of an innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers, because Fantine can't care for Cosette and work to keep her clothed and fed at the same time. Fantine sends money to the Thénardiers to support Cosette's existence, but the Thénardiers abuse Cosette and milk Fantine for all she has. Fantine eventually gets very ill and is fired. Here's where the story gets complicated. Javert, the police chief in Jean Valjean's town, suspects that Jean Valjean is really an escaped convict. Meanwhile, Jean Valjean is known to his town as Monsieur Madeleine. Javert tries to arrest Fantine for being on the street and being disorderly, but Jean Valjean takes her in. Javert tells JvJ (we'll abbreviate from here on out) that he knows who he is. JvJ denies it. Then Javert tells JvJ (a little later) that he's found the real JvJ, and that he is going to Paris to try this real JvJ for his crimes. JvJ now has a crisis of conscience, and decides that even though he's turned his life around, he can't let an innocent man go down for his crimes, so he leaves the very ill Fantine in the care of his servants and heads to Paris. He tells the court that he is JvJ, and at first they don't believe him, but two witnesses corroborate that he is the real JvJ, and after JvJ gets back to town, Javert comes to arrest him. JvJ asks for just a few days to go and retrieve Cosette (as he as at this point realized the Thénardiers are not good guardians, and Fantine has died when Javert comes to arrest JvJ) but Javert laughs at him and arrests him just the same. JvJ breaks out of the city prison and manages to get to Paris and take his large fortune out of the bank and hide it (but we don't know where). JvJ then gets retaken and ends up back in the galleys. During a crazy event on the galley ship, JvJ is presumed dead. At this point, he finds Cosette, takes her from the Thénardiers (who are NOT pleased to have lost their source of income and their little slave) and he travels to Paris with her. They live a very small existence in a very hidden, very poor corner of Paris, until JvJ recognizes Javert (who didn't believe JvJ was dead and was still hunting for him) and they manage to escape into a nunnery. They stay there for awhile and live a very private existence, after which they move on to a slightly nicer area. They are still very secretive, and can't be too obvious. At this point, they've become Monsieur and Mademoiselle Fauchelevent, the name of a man who took them in at the nunnery. Now Marius enters the story, a young boy who falls madly in love with Cosette after seeing her in the Jardin de Luxembourg, walking with JvJ. He basically stalks them for awhile, and eventually he and Cosette end up having a very tame nighttime-rendezvous-in-the-garden relationship. A situation happens where Marius is living next to the Thénardiers and the Thénardiers try to milk JvJ for all he's worth and trap him but Marius intervenes with the help of Javert and the Thénardiers all go to jail except Éponine, Azelma, and Gavroche, their kids. Éponine is in love with Marius, but he just wants her help finding Cosette, and she helps him track her down. Thénardier escapes from prison and inadvertently tries to rob JvJ (doesn't know it is him) but Éponine, who has been watching Cosette and Marius each night, threatens to get her father caught, and he has to go away. Eventually Éponine gets upset about their relationship, and she sends JvJ a secret note telling him to "Remove immediately." JvJ freaks out, thinks his identity has been compromised, and immediately takes Cosette to a different place and prepares to move them to London. Marius had heard that they were going to go, and he planned to follow, but they move so quickly that he hasn't time to find out where they're going. Totally in despair, he joins up with his friends who are launching the June Rebellion, a very short and ill-fated attempt by some students to re-launch the republic of France and revolt against the current power. JvJ finds out that Cosette is in love with Marius and freaks out, because he has basically lived only for Cosette for the last 15 years or so. He thinks about killing Marius, but ends up going to the building where Marius is fighting and helping out. Javert ends up getting taken hostage by Marius's friends because they think he is a spy. Éponine resurfaces dressed as a boy at the rebellion and tells Marius she loves him as she dies from a bullet meant for Marius. Marius still basically has a death wish since he thinks he's lost Cosette, and he ends up with some pretty serious injuries. Eventually, all of Marius's friends die. JvJ is charged with killing the spy (Javert) and he takes him outside where no one can see. He sets Javert free, tells him that after the scuffle is over he can be found at such and such an address and Javert can come to arrest him (which confuses Javert) and then takes a shot in the air; everyone thinks he has killed Javert, but Javert escapes. JvJ escapes with a possibly dead Marius to the sewers of Paris. Unsure of whether Marius is dead or alive, but now committed to returning his body to his grandfather (with whom Marius is estranged, as they fought over French politics), JvJ trudges miles and miles through the sewers, not knowing whether or not he is going the right way or whether Marius is dead or alive. He eventually reaches the end of the sewer, where, as it turns out Thénardier is hiding. Thénardier does not recognize JvJ, but thinks he has killed Marius and is trying to dispose of the body. He has a secret key for the sewer grate, but he knows that Javert is on the other side, as he had been caught in the act of trying to steal something and jumped into the sewer to escape. Thénardier tricks JvJ into giving him all of Marius's money, and he tears off a piece of Marius's coat as he's looking for more money. He then unlocks the grate. JvJ emerges triumphantly, only to find himself face to face with Javert. He tells Javert he is his prisoner, but begs Javert to let him take Marius to his grandfather's house. Javert assents, and the two men take Marius to his family. Marius is in very poor health for several months, but eventually recovers. JvJ then asks one more favor of Javert - to let him go home. Javert assents, and when JvJ looks down to see if Javert is waiting to take him to prison, Javert is gone. Javert has a crisis of conscience, because JvJ has saved his life, and he doesn't know what to do if he can't uphold the law and arrest him, and he ends up drowning himself in the Seine. JvJ visits Marius each day, and eventually Marius makes up with his grandfather and gets engaged to Cosette. They get married, and all is about to end happily ever after, but JvJ reveals to Marius that he is a convict. Marius (who has this whole time been looking for his mysterious savior from the sewers - he doesn't know it was JvJ, and JvJ hasn't told him) is horrified, and JvJ basically offers to sacrifice spending time with them and living with them because if he were to get caught one day while out with them in public, it would ruin their reputation and horrify Cosette. Marius tells JvJ he can come to visit her each day, so JvJ visits each day, but will only be seen in secret, in the basement. Marius refuses to accept JvJ's enormous fortune, which JvJ bequeaths to them, because he thinks that JvJ has stolen it from a man named Monsieur Madeleine. Eventually, JvJ stops coming entirely, because he thinks it is best, and he falls quite ill due to severe depression. Thénardier resurfaces and tries to tell Marius that JvJ is an assassin and an impostor(telling him the story of the sewer and showing him the ripped off bit of jacket and talking about him calling himself Monsieur Madeleine) but Marius finally realizes that JvJ is the one who saved him and that he didn't rob Monsieur Madeleine, he was Monsieur Madeleine. He immediately takes Cosette to see JvJ (she has been asking after him, wondering where he is) and they apologize profusely for abandoning him. He is ecstatic at their return, but too ill to recover, and after telling them how best to maximize their fortune, he dies with Cosette and Marius at his side.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! This plot was quite tricky! This book was a really interesting reading experience. I hated about the first 250 pages, and I thought the book was going to be about nothing but misery and despair. Every character introduced had some sob story, and I just didn't feel any connection with the characters. I didn't think JvJ was a bad guy, but I really had no interest in what happened to him. I almost stopped reading the book.

I didn't, however, as my blog stipulates a 'cover-to-cover' effort, and I am so glad I didn't! The book had a stark turnaround for me, and I went from total lack of interest to not being able to put it down. The various stories finally came together, and the June Rebellion and a few other events brought the action to a climax. I suddenly found myself quite concerned about Marius, Cosette, and JvJ's fates, and when Javert had his crisis of conscience, I was seriously moved.

By the time I got to JvJ's sacrifice and his slow decline, I was tearing through each page, waiting and hoping for Marius to find out the truth! In the end, I certainly understood why the book was titled Les Misérables, but each character's misery was to a proper degree and made sense with the rest of the story and in balance with the eventual bliss of Marius, Cosette, and Marius's family.

This was truly an excellent novel in every sense of the word. The characters were well drawn, the plot was moving, and the descriptions and sentences themselves were beautifully constructed. Victor Hugo, I am well pleased!

The title of this post is a line Cosette says to JvJ during one of their meetings in the basement. I think it perfectly sums up JvJ's character in the book; he is frightening in a lot of ways - powerful, an amazing impostor who leads a double life for most of his life, frighteningly strong, fiercely protective of Cosette - but as we come to know him throughout the book, we are bombarded again and again by his good deeds and his humility after each one.

Other phrases in contention for the title:
"Should I spare myself more than others?" - this is what JvJ asks himself as he decides whether or not to go to Paris and admit he is the real JvJ, but it is also a question he asks himself over and over again. He saves Marius when he really wants to kill him, because he knows he loves Cosette and she loves him, and he stops seeing Cosette and cuts himself out of her life to protect her, even though it literally kills him.

"I am going, since I am not arrested. I have many things to do." - JvJ says this after revealing he is the true JvJ and no one believes him at first. I think this is a great moment; JvJ is like, seriously? no one believes me? okay, fine, I've got shit to do. Peace!

"The highest justice is conscience" - Javert says this early in the novel, and it's really what he struggles with as he decides whether to arrest JvJ or kill himself.

"Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers." - JvJ goes into the battle planning to kill Marius, but he ends up leaving it with Marius on his back and trudging through the nastiest muck for hours and hours across the underground network of Paris to save him. He finds this fraternity with Marius during the battle.

"I should not come often. I would not stay long." - JvJ says this to Marius after he asks if he can come to visit Cosette. It is so painfully sweet. JvJ has just offered to give up the one thing he cares most about in the world, and he can barely bring himself to ask to visit, so he says, beseechingly, that he would only come for a moment every once in a while. This is so tender, it broke my heart.

"I will wait here for you." - These are Javert's last words to JvJ, and ones he ends up going back on. His departure and eventual suicide was one of the book's really big surprises for me. I was shocked when he threw himself into the Seine, and I thought Hugo's description of Javert's mental anguish was exquisite.

Some scenes you should really re-read or pay close attention to if you haven't read it:
-The crazy way that JvJ gets into the nunnery (there's a buried alive scene - it's NUTSo!)
-Marius' borderline stalking of Cosette (I think it would seriously be considered restraining-order-worthy in current days, but it's sort of adorable here) and how he comes to think her name is Ursula. (hiLarious)
-The crazy scene with the Thénardiers trying to take JvJ prisoner. Really well written.
-The scene where Marius reconciles with his grandfather. It is adorable and endearing and one of the happiest moments I've ever read in literature. So cute! (By Jove! I decree Joy!)
-June Rebellion battle scene - Marius is crazy in this, but it is so intricate and complex and rife with emotion and turmoil. Really really good stuff. Reminded me of Helm's Deep in the Two Towers (yes, I know, LOTR nerd, so sue me!)

Hugo really is a lyricist. He has an incredible way with words that I found riveting. Reminiscent of Steinbeck, though I admit I found Hugo's plot more interesting. Here are a few examples I really enjoyed, keeping in mind that I read this in translation, so some kudos is definitely due to the translator and Hugo's words may be even better in the original French:

-Jean Valjean had one of those rare smiles which came over him like the aurora in a winter sky.
-A certain oscillation shook the whole horizon of his brain, a strange internal moving-day.
-The evening had that serenity which buries the sorrows of man under a strangely dreary yet eternal joy.

Cosette's character has a fascinating trajectory. She goes from being this unloved and unlovable wretch to a loved but homely foundling, to a captivating beauty, to a devoted lover and a borderline spoiled rich girl who's still really good at heart. I loved this whole journey of hers and not knowing where exactly she'd end up on the spectrum of poor and rich, good and bad.

I like that JvJ takes Cosette out of the nunnery, despite the fact that, like many fathers, he'd rather keep her away from men forever, because, as he says, "This child had a right to know what life is before renouncing it." This is so true, and I often feel that things are foisted on children before they're old enough to make their own decisions about it (religion, for one). I really respected JvJ as a parent after this moment.

I'll end with some of JvJ's last words to Cosette and Marius - "There is scarcely anything in the world but that; to love one another." So go about your lives, read this book if you haven't (can't speak to the musical, so cast that aside for now and check out the original) and love one another.

Off to read the killing fields 17. Or is it animal death 21? Oh right, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I am convinced that we Russians must die or conquer.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Dear blog-lovers,

Sorry for the extended absence! I've been busy applying to grad school and finding a place to live in DC, but now that I've got most of my ducks in a row, I thought I'd finally type up the blog for War and Peace, which I finished a few months ago.

I decided to include my handwritten notes, as well as my extremely complicated character web, rather than type up a plot summary. Enjoy!

True confession - my copy of War and Peace is a stolen library book. My grandfather, Gail Rose, borrowed it from the Fort Shafter Library in 1942, during World War II, and he read the book while he was stationed in East Asia. My aunt told me that her father told her there were a lot of lines to wait in on the boat. ;)

I find it delightful and somewhat ironic that my copy of the book was read by someone who was actually in a war at the time. Not that I think wars are delightful (quite the contrary) but I think it's interesting from a literary standpoint.

I'm going to share a few quotes that I really enjoyed, but first, here are a few of my random thoughts.

-I was surprised at how much of War and Peace is still painfully relevant today. The themes of death and love are pretty obviously timeless, but the power play between countries, the quest for dominance, the overwhelming patriotism, the importance of family, and the effects of class difference on everyday life are all nestled into the story as well. Tolstoy truly made characters that feel like they could exist three hundred years in the past or three hundred years in the future. Sure, their trappings would be somewhat changed, but their souls, their essences as characters, would remain unchanged.

-The advantage of writing such a very long book is that you really get to see the characters grow and change. Too often we read books with one-dimensional heros and heroines, who go through (at most) one major event in the course of the novel. But here, we see the characters grow up, we see them make mistakes and fall flat on their faces, and we watch them find the courage and the strength to remake themselves and begin anew. Almost nothing in the book turns out as you think it will.

-I found a lot of familiar themes from Anna K in this novel. Lenin's transformation is quite similar to Pierre's, and Natasha's trajectory is not so very far from Anna's. There is the same wild passion that borders on the brink of imminent danger, and the quick tugs of characters pulling each other back from the edge.

-I felt a very soulful connection to my grandfather while reading this book. I never met him, but I've heard many stories, and particularly during the section where Pierre decides to become a gentleman farmer, I wondered if that passage put a tiny bug in my grandfather's ear to have a farm one day. Perhaps it was just in his genes - his family were country folk to begin with, but it's wild to think that a book could have changed the course of his life and mine, and now I'm reading the book 69 years later and sharing that experience with him.

-Tolstoy truly is a marvel. He marries careful prose with delicate descriptions and an inner momentum that keeps the 1300+ page novel propelling you to the last page. In glancing back through my copy, I remembered my feelings for each character, my constant hope that Pierre would find true happiness, that Natasha would grow up and see life for what it really is, that Mary would stand up to her nasty father and make herself happy for once. Unlike in 100 years of Solitude, where the characters grow old and die and the next generation (renamed for the first generation) continues the story, this novel identifies a handful of characters (there are many on the web, but only a few that really count) and it sticks with them, through thick and thin.

Here's a nugget:

"Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French - all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors - that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history."

- I was also amazed at how close (and yes, I know it's dramatized some, but still) Napoleon came to taking over the entire continent and all of Russia. I'm learning more and more about Napoleon through these novels, and he was clearly a very influential man.

-Tolstoy digs into philosophy quite a bit in this novel, which was again reminiscent of Anna K. "Who is right and who is wrong? No one! But if you are alive - live: tomorrow you'll die as I might have died an hour ago. And is it worth tormenting oneself, when one has only a moment of life in comparison with eternity?"

-"What is bad? What is good? What should one love and what hate? What does one live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What power governs all?" Just like the themes of love and death and strife, these philosophical questions probe at ideas we still haven't resolved or come to any common ground on.

At one point, a soldier says, "Our business is to do our duty, to fight and not to think! (And to drink, another soldier adds)." The soldiers were marched around like puppets, and the Emperors were the puppeteers. Today's wars are drastically different from war in the 19th century, but there are still and always will be the puppets and the puppeteers.

I really loved reading this book. There were times where I wasn't sure I would finish it, but I knew when I did it wouldn't let me down. The pages are falling out, and my grandfather's copy has been bandaged with some duct tape, but I plan to pass the book on (scribbled notes and all) to another generation, for the themes, the characters, and the story will be relevant for a long time to come.

Onwards to the sorrowful. Or is the Joyous? Oh, that's right, it's Les Misérables.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Well begun is half-done.

Dearest blog enthusiasts (if you still exist!),

I wanted to update you to let you know that I have not abandoned my blog. I'm merely working my way through War and Peace, and while it is not actually the longest book I have had on my list so far, I am quite busy, so it is taking me some time.

You will be pleased to know, though, that I am half done with the novel! I have officially reached the 676th page and am now simply riding the storyline down a nice, long hill to the end. :)

It is excellent, and definitely worth the time it takes to read, which is pleasant. Hurrah for Tolstoy and sunny days good for reading.

Back to Moscow, Petersburg, Natasha, Anatole, intrigue, and war.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stars and shadows ain't good to see by.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Huck Finn begins in Missouri with a boy who doesn't want to be "sivilized", a slave who doesn't want to be sold down the river, and a mean drunk of a father. Huck's being raised by Miss Watson and the "old widow" in St. Petersburg, Missouri. His father left town at the end of Tom Sawyer, the precursor to this novel, but he returns at the beginning of Huck Finn when he finds out Huck has come into some money. Huck's dad steals him away from the widow and Miss Watson and they go off to a little cabin by the Mississippi. Huck is mostly happy, though his father is a raging alcoholic, because Huck likes to live off the land, and enjoys catching fish for dinner and not needing to be "sivilized". After a few too many rip-roaring beatings from his dad, however, Huck hatches a plot to run away. He slaughters a pig they have taken and drags the blood everywhere to make it look like someone has come in and murdered Huck. He steals off on a raft he found a few days earlier that he has loaded up with food, and he hides out in Jackson Island. He chances upon Jim, Miss Watson's slave, who has run away because he heard Miss Watson talking about selling him down south, and the two become friends. They soon find out that Jim has been accused of killing Huck, however, and begin their escape. They plan to head to Cairo, Ohio, where Jim can buy his freedom, but realize after some time that they are, in fact, heading south. They have a series of crazy adventures along the way, including a trip onto and off of a floating house, a series of cons with the "Duke" and the "Dauphin", a run-in with a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud, and Jim's eventual capture by none other than relatives of Tom Sawyer! Huck pretends to be Tom when he realizes who they are, and when Tom arrives, he pretends to be his own brother, Sid, and they hatch a plan to help Jim escape. After hatching a ridiculous number of incredibly complex plots to help Jim escape, Tom and Huck execute a hapless plot to free Jim that ends with Jim getting recaptured and Tom getting shot in the leg. Tom and Huck's true identities are revealed, and Tom makes a full recovery, only to inform everyone that Jim has been free for two months because Miss Watson felt so bad for threatening to sell him down river that she freed him in her will. Tom and Huck head back to St. Petersburg, but Huck doubts he will stay for long, because he doesn't want to be "sivilized" again.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

-As exciting as the end of the book is, the real denouement comes when Huck realizes that he'd rather go to hell than give Jim up as a runaway slave. He feels torn for a large portion of the novel about helping Jim, as his "morality" has taught him that he should not break the law and shouldn't help a slave to run away from someone who has helped him (Huck) in the past. My ever-astute grandmother pointed this out in an email to me just a few weeks ago, saying, "Weren't you proud of Huck when he decides that even if he was to be sent to hell itself, he was not going to turn in Jim as an escaped slave? That was a heroic decision." I was, indeed, proud of Huck at that moment.

-My grandmother also asked me what I thought of the new attempts to "sanitize" Huck Finn by removing the "n-word" and replacing it with the word slave. I think we need books like Huck Finn to remind us of what our past contained. I found this book challenging to read, and after spending years asking students not to use the "n-word" in our "safe spaces" in their schools out of respect for my request not to give "permission" or "license" to people to use it who would use it in a derogatory way, it was quite hard to come across the word again and again and in the way that it was originally intended. But that difficulty that I experienced while reading is one that I think we must all continue to challenge ourselves to experience. Racism still exists; discrimination still exists; African-Americans are still facing the repercussions of slavery, and they are still working to pull themselves up socio-economically, and these are issues we CANNOT forget. If it causes us some discomfort, then good - let us lean into the discomfort, and remind ourselves that we must not forget our past and we must continue to work hard to forge the kind of future that we believe in.

-Huck is an amazing liar. He has an innate ability to prevaricate on the spot, which serves him well in various situations, like when he disguises himself as a girl (though his lie doesn't succeed in that case), or when he calls himself George Jackson when he gets caught up in the Grangerford-Sheperdson family feud, or when he becomes Tom Sawyer, his good friend, to help save Jim. At one point, he gets so caught up in his sundry disguises that he forgets his name. Ever crafty, he bets his new friend Buck that he can't spell his name, and gets him to reveal his pseudonym. (Buck's spelling needs work, though - "Yep, I can, G-E-O-R-G-E J-A-X-O-N.")

-Twain has a flair for descriptions, and says at one point that it "looked late, and smelt late." He follows up, saying, "You know what I mean - I don't know the words to put it in." I know what you mean, Mr. Clemens. There's a night smell, and a just after the rain smell, and a winter and a fall smell.

-When Huck tries to masquerade as a girl to get information on Jim's escape and where he's suspected to be hiding, Judith Loftus calls him out on his lie. She calls him out in the following summary: "You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you, child, when you set out to thread a needle don't hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it; hold the needle still and poke the thread at it... And when you throw at a rat or anything, hitch yourself up a tip-toe and fetch your hand up over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot... And, mind you, when a girl tries to catch anything in her lap she throws her knees apart; she don't clap them together, the way you did when you catched the lump of lead. Why, I spotted you for a boy when you was threading the needle; and I contrived the other things just to make certain." Smart lady. :0)

-Huck experiences a short-lived joy with the Grangerfords before an all-out war ensues. I loved the way Twain described the Colonel - "He was sunshine most always - I mean he made it seem like good weather."

-Tom's plans for Jim's escape are frustratingly perverse. At first, they seem comical (we must use knives instead of shovels to dig a hole under Jim's hut), then ill-advised (we must deliver Jim a pie with a rope ladder baked in it so that he can escape from his hut. which is on the ground level.), then downright infuriating (we have to tell everyone that someone is planning to help Jim escape before we actually escape with him). The irony of Jim being free to begin with is bittersweet; Jim is free, which is great, but Huck also feels validated in having questioned Tom's morality in being so willing to help free a runaway slave. (Jim was free the whole time, which Tom knew, so Tom was only willing to help because he knew Jim was free to begin with.)

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I found the plot to be a bit dull in the middle (with the Duke and the Dauphin and their various escapades) but the beginning and end were delightful.

I'm off (finally!) to lose myself in a classically circuitous canon of Russian lit, that famous favorite, Battles and Tranquility. Oh wait, that's not right, it's Combat and Restfulness. Something like that, you get the picture.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The yellow butterflies would invade the house at dusk.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This tale of magical realism takes place in the town of Macondo. Macondo is founded by Ursula Iguaran and Jose Arcadio Buendia. They leave their original town because Jose Arcadio kills a man (Prudencio Aguilar) and they are haunted by his spirit. So they set off into the wilderness, followed by a few of Jose's friends, and they found Macondo. Jose Arcadio and Ursula have three children: Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio (confusing, right?) and Amaranta. The novel follows each of these characters and their eventual descendants as well as the town itself, over the course of one hundred years. (Thus the title.) The story is full of too many twists and turns to name them all, but common themes over the generations include attraction to inappropriate family relations (aka incest), war, procreation, sex with whores, fortune telling, moments of magic, both seemingly real and seemingly fantastical, love, hate, happiness, sorrow, and solitude. The story takes us through the lives of three more levels of Arcadios and an extreme amount of Aurelianos (20, to be precise) and ends up with the last 2 family members, Aureliano and Amaranta Ursula, having a torrid love affair (they are aunt and nephew, in case you were wondering) and giving birth to a child, who they decide to name, CAN YOU GUESS? Aureliano. Yes. Amaranta dies in childbirth and Aureliano finally deciphers the code the gypsy/wizard Melquiades has left (which was written in Sanskrit, of course) and reads his family's history as well as the future, which foretells that Macondo will cease to exist and that his child, Aureliano, will be dragged away by ants. Which happens. Um, yeah. Everyone else dies in the book some way or another, like I said, too many generations to give you all the specifics. If you have to answer a quiz on it, I'd guess (a) Aureliano (b) Jose Arcadio (c) incest or (d) all the above.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This was an interesting read, though I must admit that I greatly enjoyed the first 150 pages or so and then was both bored and annoyed that the story continued on through so many generations. I understand that some cultures reuse names with great frequency, not just reusing a family name over generations, but having 4 or 5 or 20 Aurelianos and Jose Arcadios just got REALLY frustrating. And it didn't help that Marquez would claim that because they shared a name, they all had these shared traits, which only further made all of them blend together.


- The descriptions in this book are truly exquisite. Definitely reminded me of Steinbeck's sentences in East of Eden. Here's one for you to enjoy:

"They got into a small carriage that looked like an enormous bat, drawn by an asthmatic horse, and they went through the desolate city in the endless streets of which, split by saltiness, there was the sound of a piano lesson just like the one that Fernanda heard during the siestas of her adolescence."

- Magical realism. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, in this novel it plays out as sort of extended willing suspension of disbelief. The events of the novel take place in a grounded village, with human beings, and amidst very "real" events like wars and births and deaths, but some things are stretched, or merely exist, without explanation or question. For instance, some people in the novel live to be 150 years old, flying carpets are featured in one part of the story, and the dead frequently resurface as important characters in the novel. This leads to a sort of stylized reality, which gives Marquez the freedom to discuss nitty gritty events that I'm sure actually happened in Colombia, but to intermingle them with fantasy and place them in a land that exists ostensibly out of time and outside of a natural, known geographical location.

- Sort of in the same vein as magical realism, Marquez included several characters who suffered from manias of sorts. They were described in a sort of comical way, or in a sort of frantically amusing way, but they were symptomatic of real problems, which I thought was interesting. For example, one character, Rebeca, when she is first adopted by the Buendias, eats dirt and the whitewash paint off the walls of the house. She won't eat real food, and the family has to try several tactics before they are able to rid her of the habit. But as time goes on and stressors play a role in her life, Rebeca returns to eating dirt and whitewash. This reminds me of real-life manias like people who compulsively eat toilet paper, or their own hair. Each moment of "magical reality" made me wonder where Marquez's inspiration derived from and whether the origin was real or imaginary.

- Some of the interactions between family members reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited). I enjoyed the comic simplicity and the sort of loaded balance between extremely heavy emotions and events and trivial conversation.

- The totally bizarre occurrences, as well as the eloquently miserable ones, like the banana plague, the insomnia plague, Rebeca rotting in her house but being surrounded by yellow flowers, the yellow butterflies that follow Mauricio Babilonia, Pietro Crespi, a pianola man, and his love for Rebeca, then Amaranta, and his tragic demise, and many more.


- Some of the relationships are sort of gross. When Aureliano falls for a girl in town named Remedios, who is 9 (he's somewhere in his 30s at this point, I think), it felt a little too Humbert Humbert for me. She marries him when she's 13, and dies at fourteen with a baby in her belly. Gives me the heeby jeebies to think about being married, let alone pregnant, at that age. Also, several (and I mean, SEVERAL) family members engage in relationships with cousins, adopted siblings, and aunts/nephews.

- By the time we got to the later generations, I literally couldn't keep the characters straight. Aureliano Buendia goes off to war and has 17 sons named Aureliano, all of whom are systematically murdered by the government. Each character, however, gets developed, but then simultaneously sort of detaches from everyone else. Ursula, the matriarch, is my favorite character, and keeps whipping everyone into shape well into her early 100s, even though she goes blind and manages to hide it from everyone. But so many of the other characters pull away from life, or pursue love with an intensity that leads to death (either their own or their lover's) that it becomes hard to remember who you actually cared about or felt an affinity for in the story. Macondo goes from being a town that has not seen death in its early days, to a town that sees the death of all 35 of the Buendias.

- There was very little dialogue in this book. I don't feel that books have to have dialogue to intrigue me, but the lack of dialogue meant that I was quite literally told the story by the author, which means I don't really have a chance to create my own feelings or understandings about characters based on their words and interactions, and I have to trust what the author is dictating to me. Not my favorite style of writing or reading.

I didn't really understand the way solitude featured in the novel. Marquez referred more and more often to solitude as the book progressed, but the characters who were feeling this solitude were constantly surrounded by the rest of the Buendia family. I understand that one can feel completely alone even when surrounded by others, but I guess I sort of expected someone to actually be alone when they were feeling the solitude. I also didn't really understand how it was relevant to the story.

Ultimately, this was a book I really enjoyed the first half of, and which I'm pretty sure I only understood half as well as Marquez would have liked. If you've read it and feel you have thoughts or opinions to share, please feel free - I'm certainly open to anyone else's interpretations and ideas.

I'm off to the deep south, slave days, and unusual friendships.