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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

She rests at last beneath the starry skies.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This book follows Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu on a twisted path to codes, murder, the nebulous world of academia, and unexpected (and highly controversial) truths. Robert Langdon is a Harvard Professor and specialist in Symbology (the study of symbols) who's called to a murder scene in the Paris Louvre in the middle of the night. The victim is Jacques Saunière, a curator at the museum, and as he slowly dies from a bullet wound to the stomach, he displays his body in a bizarre fashion and leaves a trail of clues for Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist (who HAPPENS to be his estranged granddaughter!) to discover an essential puzzle piece to a mystery that has plagued historians for CENTURIES. There are far too many twists for me to reveal them here (and I wouldn't want to ruin them for you if you haven't read it!) but Robert Langdon and Sophie follow the clues all the way to a STUNNING conclusion. (Sneak peek - it involves the Holy Grail, Mary Magdalene, and possible descendants of Christ!) The main plotline also involves Opus Dei, a rigid Catholic sect (some members of which practice corporal mortification - aka, HURTING YOURSELF for God, everyone's fave), and an albino monk named Silas who adheres strictly to their practices. Silas and his mentor, Bishop Aringarosa, are acting on the instructions of a man who simply calls himself "The Teacher". The Teacher orders the murder of several men (including Saunière) via Silas, and it all has to do with the SECRETS that Dan Brown waits the whole book to tell you (and which I will NOT divulge to you so easily here! thought you were going to get them, didn't you!?) and their relation to a secret society named the Priory of Sion, of which many famous men were members (Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, and YOU GUESSED IT! Da Vinci).
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

As you may remember, this book was a hot topic about 9 years ago (when I was a wee high school lassie!). I remember a time when everyone who was Anyone was reading it; of course, I was NOT anyone, and at that time, I was not reading it. I did read it a bit after its heyday, and remember this reaction:
"This book is so great, I LOOOOOOVE IT!"
"Oh my gosh, NO WAY!"
"No seriously, NO WAY! No WAY."
"Okay, really? Isn't that a stretch, DB?"
"Hm. Hm. Okay. Yeah, yeah yeah."

My reaction this time around was pretty much the same. Luckily, I was able to enjoy the experience of reading it MORE by reading the middle 300 pages aloud with Diana at the Redwoods National Park and on the way back to San Francisco. Needless to say, Dan Brown is MUCH more fun when you read it in Super Dramatic Voices. I even went so far as to attempt to differentiate my British accents to show class and regional differences (which I mostly achieved by mimicking various Harry Potter characters) and Diana and I both managed to create a French-accented English for Sophie Neveu that was so thick as to be unintelligible. (Monsieuruh May-ull, how do you zay ze zuh?)

Judging from the fact that I had to go to 4 bookstores to find this book and that I remembered exactly NONE of it from reading it the first time, I have a feeling that including this book on the list of classics is generous, to say the least. We'll see if it stands the test of time, but I'm thinking the chances are slim. My guess as to why the book was so popular is that it deals with controversial and and century-old questions of religion and truth. Nothing gets people going like questions about Christ and murders to boot! In reading it a second time, though, it read like a bad screenplay for a knock-off Indiana Jones film. I will admit it was a welcomed piece of literary candy to enjoy between Melville and Joyce!

I wish I had more to say, but honestly, that's all I've got. I'm off to read A Painting of the Painter as a Wee Lad. I think I got that one right! Hope so...

Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Moby Dick is a story of vengeance, brotherhood, and single-mindedness to the point of madness.  The tale is told by Ishmael, a young man who ends up becoming part of the crew of the Pequod, the ship sailed by Captain Ahab.  Ahab is obsessed with killing the white whale (Moby Dick) who is responsible for Ahab's loss of his leg, which is now made of whale jawbone from the knee down. The crew signs on for a whaling voyage like many others of the time, planning to bring back blubber which is made into oil for lanterns and lamps; a few weeks into the voyage, though, Ahab informs the men of his quest for vengeance and his plan to seek the white whale and kill it. The men are excited by the prospect, and, with the exception of Starbuck (the 1st mate) they are on board with Ahab's plan. They encounter a few whales along the journey and successfully kill some of them, but Ahab is concerned only with finding Moby Dick. Starbuck becomes increasingly concerned about Ahab's obsession and ardently believes that if they find Moby Dick they will not return home alive. Starbuck even considers killing Ahab and taking over the ship, but something keeps him from pulling the trigger.  Queequeg (another crew member and friend of Ishmael) has a coffin constructed when he falls ill and thinks he might die. After Queequeg makes a full recovery, he requests that the coffin be remade into a lifebuoy. At last, after several months (and possibly years - time is a bit hard to discern here) the crew comes across a ship who has just attempted to kill Moby Dick. Despite the ship's warning otherwise, Ahab sets sail exactly for the suspected course of Moby Dick. They encounter the white whale, and after three days' chase, the whale crushes the Pequod and all the crew members are drowned, save one. Ishmael alone survives by clutching Queequeg's coffin.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you're not familiar with Moby Dick and you're thinking of reading it, I won't necessarily say don't, but I will say BEWARE. The book, while it contains some lovely sentences and a few really cool scenes of Ahab's increasing mania, has very little action until the end, and is very. very. long. Not long in the page number count area (only 471 in my version) but has a tendency to go on about every detail imaginable about whaling and the ship. So feel free to dive in - I enjoyed it, on the whole - but be ready.

-The book starts out with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost that I loved:
 "There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, in the deep
Stretch'd like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea."

-Much like in Frankenstein, this book had a great deal of heavy foreshadowing (drenching rain, sermons on death, graves at the seaside church before departure, a prophet foretelling their doom, etc.) and I just don't get it! It's a great story - why do you want to GIVE IT ALL AWAY? Save some for later, okays?

-Starbuck is the only crew member with a real backbone in this book, and I found his conflict fascinating. He treads carefully around Ahab, and though he disagrees (and Ahab knows it) with the mission to search for Moby Dick, he respects Captain Ahab. My favorite line is when Ahab pulls a gun on Starbuck after he suggests they make a move that is contrary to Ahab's desires. Instead of telling Ahab to watch his back, Starbuck tells him, "let Ahab beware of Ahab." His message never quite gets all the way through, but he does help keep Ahab from plunging into total madness until the bitter end.

-Like I said, the book feels long. It has 135 chapters (And an Epilogue!) and includes chapters on such things as cetology (the study of whales), the line, the dart, the crotch, the cutting in, the blanket, the monkey-rope, the cistern and buckets, pitchpoling, ambergris, stowing down and clearing up, the candles, the musket, the needle, the log and the line. If you're not familiar with some of these fishing terms, DON'T WORRY! Melville will explain them to you in MINUTE detail.

-I was struck throughout the book by how nasty a business whaling is/was. They throw spears at the whales until the whales become massive bloody corpses, and then they bore a hole in their sides and roll them over and over with a hook attached to peel off strips of their blubber while sharks attack the whale's carcass. And don't even get me started with what the men do with the rest of the whale!

-I loved Ishmael's description of the mast-head and what it's like to keep watch there:
"The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor.  For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner - for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable."
Doesn't that sound delightful?

-Ahab is totally and completely crazy! It's the best and the worst part of the book - the worst because it gets the whole crew killed in the end (except for Ishmael, who's sort of a wet blanket) and the best because it makes for the most drama and interesting character study. There are many instances where we see this in the book, but my favorites are:
(1) When we find out from Ishmael that a typical whaler carries enough water for a year or so and stops on land at least once or twice a year, and that Ahab has stocked the Pequod with enough water for four years and in the entire story, not once do they set foot on land.
(2) Ahab has a crew of Arabs stow away on the Pequod and they APPEAR at an opportune moment; the crew later realizes this is because the men wouldn't normally trust going out in a small boat with Ahab to attack a whale, and he plans to be at the head of a boat to kill Moby Dick. No one would be in his small boat crew, so he sneaks one on for himself and TA DA! they appear several months into the voyage. Amazing. ALSO, where do you hide on a boat for several Months?
(3) After he first tells the crew of his plans, Ahab goes back in his cabin and talks to himself. Even though he didn't really care if the men would be on board with his plan or not, most of them are, and he says to himself, "They think me mad - Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac. I am madness maddened!...I will dismember my dismemberer!" You tell yourself, Ahab!
(4) When other ships approach, it is common for them to pull close and swap stories and information, and if desired, for the captains to meet on one of the ships to chat. When a ship passes him by, Ahab assumes he is being slighted and it has something to do with Moby Dick. I loved the line -- "Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings." Ahab mutters to himself, "Swim away from me, do ye?" I love the image of Ahab crouched by the edge of the ship, muttering to himself and assuming that other ships are keeping secrets from him about the infamous white whale.
(5) The captain of one of the last ships that Ahab encounters has suffered a similar fate to Ahab, and has lost an arm to Moby Dick. In response to Ahab's favorite question (Hast seen the White Whale?) the captain simply holds up his whalebone arm and shouts, "See you this?" A-m-a-zing. Ahab is so excited that he leaps into the sea, only to realize that he can no longer climb into another ship (sad!); the other captain sympathetically realizes the problem and has Ahab lifted onto the ship using a whale hook. It seems like Ahab might have finally found a friend, but when the fellow commander realizes Ahab is STILL LOOKING for the white whale despite his injury, the commander assumes Ahab must be mad. (Which, in fact, he is.)

Some sentences I particularly liked:
  • Circumabulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon.
  • What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights!
  • The world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
  • Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness.
  • I believe that much of a man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are.
  • As the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul. (And yes, that is one sentence - I even cut out the first 5 semicolons!)
And, perhaps my favorite, "Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?"

I'm off to untangle the famous Michelangelo Cipher. Adieu!

Friday, May 18, 2012

How long will you like me?

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful young man, the men who idolize him, and his own path through immorality and misdeeds to self-destruction. The novel begins with Basil Hallward painting a portrait of Dorian; Dorian loves the painting, but wishes that he could stay forever beautiful and the painting would change with time, instead of the other way around. Basil's friend Lord Henry Wotton befriends Dorian and begins to influence him negatively. Dorian falls in love with a lowly actress named Sibyl Vane and proposes to her. When Dorian takes his friends Basil and Lord Henry to the theater to see Sibyl perform, however, Sibyl is terrible (when Dorian saw her in the past, she was an excellent actress). Dorian is embarrassed and furious with Sibyl, and he breaks up with her. Dorian finds out a few days later that Sibyl poisoned herself and died the night he broke things off with her. When Dorian looks at the painting, he swears he sees it change after this event, taking on a cruel sneer. Dorian begins to influence many good people around him for the worse, and several of them fall into ruin or commit suicide. Dorian becomes obsessed with the painting, and though he keeps it locked away, he frequently leaves parties and events to run home and check on the changes in the painting.  Basil confronts Dorian about his behavior and influence, at which point Dorian reveals to Basil the power of the portrait and the negative changes it has undergone. At first, Dorian is relieved to share the secret, but then he becomes horrified that Basil knows, and he stabs Basil to death before he can leave.  He gets his former friend Alan Campbell to dispose of the body (by blackmailing him) and later Campbell commits suicide. Dorian tries to escape to an opium den to forget, but leaves after seeing an acquaintance. Outside the den, he is attacked by James Vane, Sibyl's brother who swore to protect her. Dorian convinces James that he can't be the man he's looking for because he looks far too young, but after Dorian gets away, an old woman convinces James that Dorian simply hasn't aged physically, but he is the same man who led Sibyl to commit suicide.  James begins his search anew, and Dorian begins to become paranoid, thinking he sees James everywhere he goes. On a hunting trip with friends, Dorian discovers that James has accidentally been shot by a friend of his and Dorian is enormously relieved. Dorian finally decides he needs to turn over a new leaf and start being good, but when he checks the portrait to see if his good deeds reverse the negative effects, he sees that not only are the good effects not visible, but a cunning, devious look has appeared as well. Sick of his conscience and tired of feeling like a slave to the painting, Dorian tries to destroy it. Cries are heard from the street and when the servants break in, they find a much older, nearly unrecognizable Dorian lying on the floor with a knife through his heart with a pristine painting of the young Dorian looking on.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was pretty bizarre. I sort of knew the basic premise (but not the ending - that part was crazy pants!) which made it a less thrilling read, and the book is also one of those books that's really about almost nothing but a morality lesson. Which I find to be a bit tedious, personally, though Wilde's writing is quite eloquent and witty in places. Overall, though, I think I much prefer his comedies (Importance of Being Earnest, anyone?)

Some thoughts....

This book was filled with adages or truisms, mostly provided by Lord Henry. I felt like because there were so many, they started to either contradict each other or just blend together. Here's a sampling:
"The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world." (I admit I have often thought this.)
"The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it."
"Genius lasts longer than Beauty."
"Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are."
and, my favorite -- "Never trust a woman who wears mauve."

So, there were a bunch of unhealthy, Ali Larter-Beyoncé style obsessions in this book; Basil to Dorian, Lord Henry to Dorian, Dorian to Sibyl, Sibyl to Dorian, James to Dorian, the list goes on and on and on. Basil starts us off by saying things like, "I couldn't be happy if I didn't see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me" about Dorian. Ahem -- this seems a bit EXTREME, Basil. Maybe you should take it down a notch, eh? Maybe if everyone simply liked each other incrementally over time, Dorian wouldn't have snapped and murdered Basil and he wouldn't have snapped at Sibyl and made her kill herself. Just a suggestion!

-Lady Henry's entrance
Lady Henry plays an almost nonexistent role in the book, but I love the description of her character when she first enters the book:
"She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest.  She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions.  She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy.  Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church."

-Dinner at 6:30
When Dorian asks Basil and Lord Henry to meet him for dinner before they go to see Sibyl's show, he asks to meet at 6:30. Lord Henry is horrified at the time choice (he had suggested 8) and replies, "Half-past six! What an hour! It will be like having a meat-tea, or reading an English novel. It must be seven. No gentleman dines before seven." Hee hee hee. This made me think of PA Dutch country where all the restaurants start serving supper at 4 and are closed and everyone's gone home to bed by 9. Where would Lord Henry eat if he was stuck in PA Dutch country?

-James tries to warn Sibyl
When Sibyl confesses her love for Dorian (she calls him Prince Charming; she doesn't even know his real name) to James, he tries to warn her of the possible dangers of men in general and wealthy men who might want to use her. I loved the intensity of this exchange:
James: "He wants to enslave you."
Sibyl: "I shudder at the thought of being free."

-Dorian breaks it off with Sibyl
I've never been broken up with before, but I certainly hope that if/when it happens in the future, the man is kinder than Dorian. Here are a few nuggets from his breakup speech to Sibyl:
"You have killed my love." (ouch!)
"You used to stir my imagination. Now you don't even stir my curiosity." (burn!)
"I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name." (cold. ice cold!)
"You have disappointed me." (ooh, the classic parent line. i'm not angry. i'm just disaPPOINted.)
Seriously harsh, Dorian! No wonder the poor girl poisoned herself!

-San Francisco shout out
I finished this book in a Starbucks near "The Gold Dust" in San Francisco (I'm on vacation visiting my sister and my cousins!) so imagine my surprise when Wilde throws in a line about San Francisco! In reference to Basil's missing body, Lord Henry says,
"I suppose in about a fortnight we shall be told that he has been seen in San Francisco.  It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world." It IS a delightful city, Oscar! It is a lovely place to disappear to!

-Dorian tries to confess to murder but no one believes him
When Dorian casually suggests that he might have murdered Basil, Lord Henry refuses to believe him. One of my favorite lines follows from their ensuing conversation:
"Murder is always a mistake.  One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner."  Ahh, rules to live by. ;)

-The title of this post is a telling line from Dorian, and a rather haunting question he torments himself with throughout the book.

I'll leave you with this, a more hopeful line from Lord Henry to Dorian from earlier on in the novel:
"Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you!"

I'm off to continue my disappearance to San Francisco, and to sail into the sea with that famous vegan singer whose real name is coincidentally Richard (aha! just looked it up and it's not a coincidence! he's a distant relative of Melville!), to search for a big grey dolphin. Or something of that ilk.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.

L'Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
L'Étranger is the story of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria, who gets himself into some trouble after his mother dies. He goes to her funeral and is mostly blasé throughout, and after he returns to Algiers after the funeral, he starts up a relationship with a girl named Marie that he used to work with.  They go to the beach, they relax, and he is generally unbothered by his mother's passing. He has a job offer to go to Paris, but he is ambivalent; he doesn't mind his life here in Algiers. He becomes friends with his neighbor, Raymond, who tells people he is a "warehouse guard" but is in fact a pimp.  Raymond is angry because he thinks his girlfriend cheated on him, so he asks Meursault to help him write an angry letter to her. When the girlfriend comes to confront him after receiving the letter, Raymond beats up the girl, and Meursault does not call the police, even though the whole apartment complex is watching and Marie asks him to. The next day, Raymond takes Meursault and Marie to the beach to stay at a cabin with his friend Masson and his wife. They have a lovely day at the beach, but they realize that the Arab men who are relatives of Raymond's ex-girlfriend have followed them there, and there is a showdown on the beach. Raymond is hurt (cut across the face and arm) and after they get him help, Meursault returns to the beach with Raymond and Masson. Raymond takes a gun this time, and considers shooting the Arabs, but Meursault tells him he can't shoot unless the Arab pulls his knife on them. They stare at each other, but the  energy of the moment is gone, and things de-escalate. Still later that day, Meursault is walking on the beach with Raymond's gun, and, rather inexplicably, he shoots one of the Arabs who is lying on the beach by himself five times at close range, killing him. Meursault is arrested and goes to trial, where the prosecution brings up his indifference at his mother's funeral as a sign of his cold-blooded capacity for murder. A few of his friends stand by him (Raymond, Marie, Céleste, a local café owner, and Salamano, a neighbor of Meursault's) but many others testify against him, pointing out his seeming coldness and lack of compassion. Meursault is convicted and sentenced to death by guillotine.  He spends his remaining days in prison contemplating life and his former happiness; a chaplain visits him and tries to convince him of the importance of accepting God before his death, but Meursault says he doesn't believe in God.  The book ends with Meursault welcoming his execution on the day it is to take place.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I didn't like this book the first time I read it (while I was studying abroad in France) and... BIG SURPRISE! I didn't like it any better this time around. I think Meursault is so unlikable and unpleasant - he seems to have no real aspirations or feelings in the beginning, and when he talks after he's been condemned about all these previous happinesses he misses, it just rings completely false to me, because he doesn't seem happy at all before! He doesn't seem unhappy, he just seems bored and indifferent. 

And just in case you were thinking that maybe I missed some of the literary power because I read the book in English (translated from the French), worry not! I read it in French the first time and disliked it, and I read it in English the second time and disliked it. So I disliked it in not one, but TWO languages! 

A few thoughts on this (in my humble opinion) unlovable text...

-Meursault smokes a lot of cigarettes in this book, and when he's in prison and they take away his cigarettes, he seems surprised. They have to explain to him that cigarettes are a privilege and he is being punished. This felt like such a typically French moment - mais j'ai besoin de mes cigarettes! Je ne peux rien faire sans elles! It reminded me of when there was a transportation strike in Nantes while I was there (une grève, en français) and all the cars were stopped in the radial arms of a rondpoint and their horns were blaring while a single Frenchman stood staring them in the face in the middle of the street, calmly smoking a cigarette. Surely he could spare one for Meursault.

-Meursault is obsessed with talking about the weather -- his classic line during the defense is "it was because of the sun". During the moments just before the murder, Meursault mentions the sun over and over, and talks about it beating down on him and how insufferably hot it is. But what I don't get (aside from "I did because of the sun" being a COMPLETELY ridiculous excuse) is that he's lived in Algeria his whole life, it seems. So isn't he USED TO THE WEATHER by now?

-The many moments that are later used against Meursault do make him unlikable (though technically they aren't proof of the murder, as they are intended to be) -- he doesn't know his mother's age, he falls asleep at her wake, and he talks about how much better his day would be if his mother hadn't died. Later, he talks about things he loved about Maman, and I'm like, really? Because you seemed really unperturbed before when she DIED! He follows up this by saying things like, "At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead." Um, false. This is a false statement, Meursault.

-Probably the only thing that Meursault and I have in common is that we don't like Sundays. I don't mind Sundays when I'm on vacation, or when I don't have to be anywhere the next day (so sort of a fake Sunday, if you will) but in general, I always feel like there's a sand hourglass staring me down and it's spilling faster and faster as the day goes on and I'm powerless to stop it. I often find myself staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning, and even though technically Monday has begun, I'm dragging my heels, resisting its arrival.

-Salamano has a dog with whom he shares a parasitic relationship (they don't like each other, but they're used to each other) and Meursault points out that they've started to look like each other. I often think that people resemble their pets, especially their dogs. (Halley, You're a Pug! We'll call you Hot and Crusty.)

-Salamano has dinner with Meursault and serves him blood sausage. When I first arrived in Paris, I stayed with my mom's friend from when she studied abroad, Frédérique, and her husband, Olivier. Olivier made blood sausage for me for dinner that night, and after the ambiguous airplane food, I was hard pressed to force it down my throat for purposes of politeness.

-The only moment I really liked was when Meursault and Marie swim together in the ocean: 
"Marie wanted us to swim together. I got behind her to hold her around the waist. She used her arms to move us forward and I did the kicking." There was such tenderness in this moment.
-I don't really get what Marie sees in Meursault, though, and I was kind of glad when she dropped out of the book after she stopped writing to him in prison. You deserve better, Marie!

-One of my favorite lines from when Meursault is in prison: "During the last few months I've been sleeping sixteen to eighteen hours a day." Do you know what that is, Meursault? Did you guess... A sign of serious depression? DING DING DING Correct!

-The only reading material Meursault has in prison is a newspaper clipping of a story about a Czech family. The son leaves the village and goes off to make his fortune. He returns to the village many years later, rich now, and with his wife and child. He stays at his mother's hotel and shows off his money, but doesn't reveal his identity right away. His mother and sister beat him to death with a hammer in the night and rob him. After his wife comes looking for him the next day and tells his mother who the man was, the mother hangs herself and the sister throws herself down a well. Meursault's thoughts:
"On the one hand it wasn't very likely. on the other, it was perfectly natural. Anyways, I thought the traveler pretty much deserved what he got and that you should never play games." Oh Really, Meursault? So, game playing = worthy of vicious violent murder? You know what I think? I think that story is HORRIFYING. And I'm more than a little concerned about your response to it. Mmkay?

-Meursault tries to blame the murder on chance, bad luck, the sun - anything but himself. He never takes responsibility, or expresses remorse (he even says more than sorry, he feels ANNOYED). This makes it really hard to feel any sadness or compassion for him when he rots in a prison cell awaiting his execution. Like I said, I'm not a big Meursault fan.

Off I go, to eat parmesan chicken and baked sweet potatoes with my sister and brother-in-law! Yum-O, as Rachael Ray would say. ;) I look forward to perusing A Painting of Ionian Silver.

Friday, May 11, 2012

You have a very wolfy roar.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest follows Randle Patrick McMurphy during his time on a mental ward in the 1950's. He wages an epic battle with Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward, and earns the friendship, admiration, and idolization of his fellow patients.  McMurphy teaches the men how to be human again, and through a series of small (and large) rebellions against Nurse Ratched, he shows them that they can stand up for themselves once and for all. McMurphy gets ward policies changed, brings humor to a world of solemn sadness, breathes life into everyone around him (doctors and patients), takes the men on a glorious fishing trip, and even sneaks a woman onto the ward to sleep with Billy Bibbitt, one of the patients, while throwing a raucous party in the nighttime hours with the sanctioning of the evening guard.  His various actions have repercussions, though, and while McMurphy manages to make it through several bouts of electroshock "therapy" after getting into a fight with the aides over mistreatment of George, a patient afraid of dirt, his final battle with Nurse Ratched -- the Nurse shames Billy Bibbitt so severely after finding out about him spending the night with the woman on the ward that he commits suicide, and after she blames McMurphy, he attacks her and tries to strangle her -- leads to the Nurse getting McMurphy lobotomized. Mack's friend and our narrator, "Chief" Bromden, another patient on the ward, knows that McMurphy would never want to live after that, and he suffocates him with a pillow. Several of the men leave the ward voluntarily, a few are transferred, and the Chief runs off into the night.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was fantastic. I admit it was hard for me to read at times (I have an irrational fear that one day someone will discover I'm crazy and send me to a mental ward - I know, bizarre!) but it was so powerful. It dealt with extremely dark subject matter but balanced it with the charm and levity of McMurphy and then later, the patients coming to life around him. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. I apologize if you read the spoiler and ruined the ending for yourself, but it's still completely worth reading.

Some thoughts...

I read up on electroshock therapy while reading this book, and what I found was disturbing.  It was developed in 1938 by two neuropsychiatrists who found that when pigs are being prepared for slaughter and shocked in the brain, inducing a seizure, they wake up calmer and much more subdued.  The exact words used were "meek and manageable".  Research on the procedure is mixed, but the most recent literature reviews suggest that the costs far outweigh the benefits.  It can cause severe memory loss, and while in some cases it can help to treat severe depression temporarily, its effects are only short-lived.  A few frightening facts:
-70% of EST (electroshock therapy) patients are women, because they have much higher tendencies to severe depression.
-EST is still used, though in *most* cases patient consent is now required. Patient consent was not required until 2009 in the UK.
-Only about 1500 people in the US receive EST annually in recent years, whereas nearly 100,000 received it in the 1980's.
-Many patients received settlements for memory damage from EST, but only one case was successfully tried against a hospital -- Peggy Salters sued for nearly $600,000 in lost wages because she lost 30 years of her life after EST and no longer remembered the skills for how to be a nurse.
-Sylvia Plath wrote poems about her EST and its frightening effects.
-Ernest Hemingway committed suicide shortly after receiving EST at the Mayo Clinic, reportedly saying to his biographer "Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient..."

-I was struck by the knowledge as I read that there was really no possible good ending to be expected. While the men hatch plans for McMurphy to escape after his EST and before the lobotomy, I knew in my heart that he wouldn't leave. At several points, Harding (a patient) and the Chief make comments on how McMurphy can make it through, saying things like "You're safe as long as you keep control" or "He's safe as long as he can laugh."  I'm not sure whether Mack lost control or whether he could no longer laugh, but I knew he wouldn't make it out.

-The title of this post is a comment Harding makes to McMurphy when they're discussing the men on the ward: "Mr. McMurphy...my friend...I'm not a chicken, I'm a rabbit...All of us in here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees, hippity-hopping through our Walt Disney world.  Oh, don't misunderstand me, we're not in here because we're rabbits - we'd be rabbits wherever we were - we're all in here because we can't adjust to our rabbithood. We need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach us our place." Harding goes on, "Mr. Bibbitt, hop around for Mr. McMurphy here. Mr. Cheswick, show him how furry you are." I love this image, and the idea of the men as rabbits. It also reminded me of Lennie, and him wanting to tend the soft, furry little creatures. Harding tells McMurphy that he's a wolf, and when McMurphy tries to deny the analogy, Harding argues, with a grin, "You have a very wolfy roar."

-McMurphy is always challenging the ridiculous ward policies. One of my favorites is when he tries to get the cabinet unlocked early to get access to his toothpaste.  The aide argues that they can't have patients just brushing their teeth whenever they want, to which McMurphy replies, "Lordy, can you imagine? Teeth bein' brushed at six-thirty, six-twenty - who can tell? Maybe even six o'clock. Yeah, I can see your point."  When the aide continues to clean the baseboard with soap and ignores McMurphy's requests, McMurphy proceeds to stick his toothbrush into the bucket of soap, saying, "Well, I generally use paste, but this will do fine for me. I thank you. We'll look into that ward policy business later." Tee hee hee. :)

-At one point, McMurphy appears in the hallway with nothing on but a towel, greeting the nurse as "Miss Rat-shed". After she demands he change, he rips off his towel and strolls back down the hallway, in the nude. (ABUFFO!) I snorted into my book when I read this.

-McMurphy tries to get the ward policy on TV changed to allow the men to watch the World Series, but the Nurse argues that they need a majority vote. All of the verbal patients vote yes (20 in total) but Nurse Ratched argues that that doesn't constitute a majority because there are 20 non-verbal patients who didn't vote. The Chief, who claims to be deaf and dumb (but we know is not) raises his hand and breaks the tie. The nurse argues that the meeting was already over when the Chief voted, but when the time comes, McMurphy plops down in front of the TV and turns on the game.  The nurse immediately cuts the power and the screen turns to a fuzzy gray, but Mack stays planted in front of the TV, and the men come to join him, one by one. They continue this routine for all the following games, gathering round a gray screen and telling stories and jokes, pretending they can see the game, to the nurse's great dismay. I'd watch a gray screen with McMurphy any day, especially if it would annoy Nurse Rat-shed!

-One of the most difficult moments for McMurphy in the book comes when Harding reveals to him that only a handful of them are actually committed, and the majority of them are on the ward voluntarily. Mack is horrified, and he can't understand why they would choose to stay in this place; Harding reminds him that they are rabbits, and that they can't hack it in the outside world. This was such a pivotal moment in the book -- to us, Mack seems the least crazy (in fact, he got himself transferred on purpose because he was on a dismal prison work farm) and yet he is one of the few who can't leave voluntarily.

-When only one of the two women (of ill repute, shall we say? nicer than the lingo in the book) McMurphy wrangles into driving the men on the fishing trip shows up, the nurse is delighted. She tells McMurphy that they can't possibly all fit in one car, and that he'll have to leave at least half the men behind. In typical Mack style, he ignores her and proceeds to convince the doctor that he should come on the fishing trip with them! The doctor rushes out into the hallway past Nurse Ratched, explaining, "Good deal of paperwork I can get done on the boat." Amazing :)

-At first, the men are really nervous to be outside (when they leave for the fishing trip) and because they're all still in their hospital clothes, the men at the gas station start trying to scam them and make fun of them because they're mental patients. After McMurphy stands up to the gas station attendants, the patients become more confident and start bossing the attendants around and poking fun. When they pass a man on a bicycle later who asks if their uniforms are because they're part of some club, Harding replies, "No, my friend. We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psycho-ceramics, the cracked pots of mankind. Would you like me to decipher a Rorschach for you? No? You must hurry on? Ah, he's gone. Pity." Harding is my favorite :0)

-I was frequently struck by the idea that in many ways, the ward creates psychoses in the patients. They are constantly in fear of Nurse Ratched, they are forced into bizarre routines and medication schedules, and their freedom is completely constrained by the will of the nurse and the doctors. I wrote in the margins at one point, "All the forced habits that make you crazier than before." It must be a challenge to keep order and safety in a mental ward, but I sincerely hope that strides have been made to reduce psychoses and neurotic behavior, rather than increase its likelihood.

-In writing out my notes for this blog, I wrote a single line at the bottom of the page: "McMurphy makes men brave."

-The men discuss their futures on the night of the party on the ward, and McMurphy asks what will become of the men. Harding answers: "I can't speak for them.  They've still got their problems, just like all of us.  They're still sick men in lots of ways.  But at least there's that: they are sick men now. No more rabbits, Mack. Maybe they can be well men someday. I can't say."

Suzy and I are off to continue basking in the Philadelphia sunshine.  I'm off to meet a close friend in France. Or no, an acquaintance. That's not right, is it? (No, Karen. That's SO not right.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Diana did a read-along!

Here are Diana's thoughts on Frankenstein. Enjoy!

"I agree with many of your sentiments about the book. I admit that on a second reading, I found the pace a little slow, and had to drag myself through a number of the scenic interludes, where Victor traipses here and there through mountains and various European countries, trying to feel happy but NEVER succeeding (woe is me!). The parts where we do have conflict and confrontation, though, are so taut and emotional. The monster is so eloquent, and listening to his prose made me pained that he couldn't find a way to improve his appearance, as he did his intellect, in order to integrate into society. He has everything else Victor could have hoped to endow him with: compassion, kindness, intelligence, but his frame is too large and his face too inhuman. Before reading this I had never conceived of Frankenstein's monster as a pathetic or pitiable character, but his inability to connect with anyone and to suffer, isolated, his entire creation, broke my heart. Mary Shelley's original work has so much more pain and subtlety than any subsequent versions, and while later retellings center on the destruction and horror wreaked by the monster, Shelley's original really looks at the horror of the monster's creation itself, and how creating something he wasn't ready to take RESPONSIBILITY for ruins Victor's life. It's more about the father/son relationship between the creator and the created, and takes a fairly heavy-handed moralizing stance. Certainly, though, you can see why the idea has remained fascinating and terrifying for centuries."