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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the "love story" of Henry and Clare. Henry travels through time (against his will and beyond his control) and Clare is his all-consuming true love. They have a long path to getting together (she knows him well before he knows her - it's confusing, trust me) but then they are together and they are happy, blissfully happy. And then they are miserable. Well, technically they're still mostly happy, but a lot of terrible things happen to them, and then Henry dies. But not before he has his feet amputated. They manage to have a child, Alba, who is also a time traveler, and Alba continues to see Henry (though it is the pre-dead Henry, not a futuristic ghost) in her time travels. Clare continues to exist and sees Henry one last time when she is super-duper old.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Okay, so first of all, my apologies to those of you who may have read this book and really enjoyed it. To be fair, I was with you the first time around. It's rare that I like a book less the second time I read it (while I am a discerning reader, there are often tidbits I miss on the first take) but this was one of those rare cases.

My thoughts - my apologies that it's rather negative:

-Too one-dimensional
It's highly possible that I'm biased here, because I've never been in love. But I like to think that I exist as a person before this potential epic love, and I like to think that I'll exist after I'm part of a duo. Henry and Clare sort of just don't exist outside of each other, and I found that, frankly, boring. I didn't really believe in the side characters (Gomez, Charisse, Ingrid, etc) because I never got any background on them and never felt their thoughts or feelings. Which basically made the entire book ride on Henry and Clare, and for me, that made it flop.

-Clare defined as "not-Henry"
I don't consider myself an ardent feminist, but I have told many of my friends and family that I have no wish to be defined as Mrs. Someone Else. I must admit that titling the book, "The Time Traveler's Wife", felt a bit like calling it "Clare, the anti-heroine". It's supposedly from her perspective, but we get equal narration from Henry and Clare's point of view, and in the end, even though according to the quote on the jacket it's "A soaring celebration of the victory of love over time" (Thanks, Chicago Tribune - feel free to let me know what copy You were reading) Clare basically sits around waiting for Henry to return. For forty years. This doesn't seem much like giving Clare a chance at her own identity.

-The relationship between Henry and Henry
Just to mix things up, this is one of the parts of the book I really liked. (Although I could have done without the "isn't it so great that we can do you-know-what when we're with each other as adolescents" section.) It gave me a chance to see Henry build a relationship with someone OTHER than Clare, although ironically, it isn't really a relationship with someone else since it's actually Himself.

-Too depressing
-SPOILER ALERT: I know I'm supposed to do this part up above, but here's a list of just a few of the things that happen in this book: Henry's mom is decapitated in front of him when he is 6, Clare's mom's manic depressive and later dies of pancreatic cancer, Henry's dad's an alcoholic, Henry's ex-girlfriend commits suicide in front of him, Henry loses his feet (as in they are amputated, not misplaced), Henry knows he will die ahead of time, Clare has 5 miscarriages, all of which are disturbing and graphic, Clare ends up left behind when Henry dies. And that's NOT a complete list. I firmly believe that a book has no requirement to be happy to be of good quality, but there IS such a thing as too much tragedy.

-Reads like a screenplay
This book put it all on the table.  It didn't leave any mystery, any hint of wonder. Maybe this bothered me so much because it came on the heels of Heart of Darkness, a book that's sort of about nothing and everything all at once. It colored in all the lines and didn't leave any space to imagine or question.

-Stilted dialogue
If you want to have a book that's dialogue-heavy, the dialogue has be to be genuine. I have to believe that the characters would talk like that (I have to believe Anyone would talk like that) and I just didn't. There were inconsistencies, and a lot of the classic "people don't really talk like that" lines. I found it off-putting.

-Not careful enough with details
Again, I'm biased here because I happen to be a cellist and have a long history in stringed instruments. But if you're going to make instrumentalists semi-major characters (Alicia, Clare's sister, is a cellist; Henry's dad is a professional violinist) then at least get your facts straight. At one point, Henry suggests that he wouldn't give Alicia's tape to his dad because his dad doesn't really teach. But this makes no sense because Henry's dad is a violinist, and I've never known a violinist to teach a cellist. Violinists who teach violists/vice versa, maybe. But at the highest levels of string training? Nope. A cellist teaches a cellist.

-I don't believe you as Clare and I don't believe you as Henry
The book is told in dual narration from Clare and Henry. But going along with the dialogue comments above, I just don't find them believable. It's very hard to write as a man if you're a woman, and I don't think the author really pulled it off. I also didn't get the sense that we had any special window into Clare (even though the book was ostensibly Her Story).

-On need to conceive to be "normal"
I found it REALLY frustrating that the second half of the book's Tragic storyline is all about Clare's miscarriages. Not because miscarriages are not tragic - they 100% are. But in the case of Henry and Clare, when Henry asks if she will consider adoption after another violent and life-threatening miscarriage of Clare's, she demands that she wants at least One Normal Thing in her life, and is that really too much to ask. I just don't think that every Normal woman gets to conceive like that - snap your fingers, and ta da! Plenty of women have to use multiple rounds of in vitro, or supplemental hormones, or have missed their biological window and/or choose to adopt. Some of my very best friends are adopted and I think their mothers would be highly offended to hear Clare's depiction of its "abnormality". Biological conception is only "normal" because we say so; it isn't the only way to a loving family.

-Quotes as a crutch
Lots of writers (especially newer ones) like to use quotations, and I completely understand the draw. I write a whole blog about my favorite lines in books and I know what it's like to fall in love with a sentence, or a phrase, or a poem. In Watership Down, Richard Adams chooses quotes with a razor-like precision. He finds just the right line between foreshadowing and mystery, and he uses them before every chapter. Here, the quotes felt like a crutch - I found more beauty in the words Niffenegger chose than in the words she wrote herself.

-Suzuki crack
I was already starting to build a mental list of concerns I had at this point in the book, but the last straw was when Henry's dad makes a crack about letting a Suzuki "idiot" teach Alba to play violin. Most of my Devoted Readers know that I learned to play from the Suzuki method, as did my two older sisters. I have many fond memories of Suzuki tape sing-alongs and still carry the books in my cello case. My teachers from Suzuki camp still loom large in my mind, and while learning to read music came after memorization, the skills I gained from Suzuki and the communal joy of playing that it afforded me were well worth the wait.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, but I went through the whole book and there isn't a single "sentence I particularly liked". You could argue that by inciting such a vitriolic response, the book came closer to earning a spot as a classic than The Da Vinci Code. Or you could not.

Forward to Monsieur Chauzalier. C'est ça, n'est-ce pas? Non. Peut-être c'est Mademoiselle Laidevienty. Je ne sais pas!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ah, but it was something at least to have a choice of nightmares.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Heart of Darkness is about Marlowe's adventures in a new land and the mysteries that lie behind the shadows.  Marlowe relates the story of his trip from Britain to Africa to his fellow sailors one night at sea. He is ostensibly sent on a mission to find ivory, but he finds the "Company" to be quite disorganized, and his trip turns into a manhunt/rescue mission to find the elusive Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz worked for the Company, and was infamous both for his queerness and his ability to find enormous amounts of ivory. Marlowe takes a rickety steamboat into the heart of the jungle and narrowly escapes death (a few times) to bring Mr. Kurtz out from his hideaway. Kurtz has a mysterious power over the natives and the British seamen, and he's worshipped as a sort of idol. He is reluctantly "rescued" from his jungle hut, but he is very ill, and he dies on the steamer's return trip up the river. Marlowe feels a kinship with Kurtz, though even he doesn't entirely understand why. He protects Kurtz's things and takes them back to England. Marlowe's last act in the story is to visit Kurtz's intended, who is still in mourning for Kurtz though it's been nearly a year since his death. Marlowe gives her some of Kurtz's belongings and tells her that he loved her to the last, calling out her name in his last breath. In reality, Kurtz had whispered quietly to the darkness, "The horror! The horror!"
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed reading this one. At first, I thought it was a very eloquent horror story, but as my friend Laura suggested, its effect sort of grew on me. It's a short one - practically a novella - my copy is a mere 76 pages, barely enough space for a good character description for Proust ;) If you're looking for a spooky but stimulating pre-Halloween read, go grab a copy!

Some of my ponderings, in no particular order:

-So obviously I have concerns with imperialists coming to change/steal from the native lands, but I will admit that his descriptions of what it's like to come upon a land that feels as if it is entirely new are breathtaking.
--"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings." 
We can't go back to an untouched world, but what must it be like to travel in places (few and far between though they may be now) like this that still exist? It makes me think of the Amazon, or pockets of islands with few (if any) inhabitants. There's a certain majesty to it.

--Before Marlowe undertakes his expedition to Africa, the doctor doing his physical asks matter-of-factly, "Ever any madness in your family?" The doctor points out that madness tends to follow men into and back from Africa and he likes to study it. Marlowe thinks this is an odd question at the time, but I love that when he starts to feel a little crazy, he comments to his fellow sailors to whom he's tell the story, "I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting."

--Kurtz is a fascinating character, and I loved this retrospective comment from Marlowe:
"True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible." --What happens when we cross this threshold? Is madness all we can expect to find?

--I'm currently taking an "Ethics in Public Policy" class, and one of my recent posts was on whether we needed to explicitly outlaw cannibalism, or whether we could assume that existing laws against harming humans/desecrating bodies would cover our bases. We talked through how differently we feel about cases like the Meiwes situation in Germany of "voluntary cannibalism" vs. a rugby team that gets trapped in the Andes mountain and are forced to eat their fallen teammates to survive. Conrad has, I think, a very perceptive take on it:
"No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is, and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity?

-I wanted to throw in a smattering of phrases about Kurtz to give you a better picture of him.
--"The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."
--"He was an insoluble problem."
--"He came to them with thunder and lightning."
--"He hated all this and somehow he couldn't get away."
--"The wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion...it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating."

-My favorite moment in the book is when Kurtz appears on a stretcher and Marlowe first sees him:
"I saw him open his mouth wide - it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him." -I pictured Munch's The Scream.

-When Marlowe goes back to Britain, he finds the banality difficult to stomach. He watches people "dream their insignificant and silly dreams", and he "felt sure they could not possibly know the things I know". I feel this way sometimes about people who don't understand how bad some of our schools are. After spending two years at Fels and seeing how miserable a school can be, I have a hard time expressing to people who haven't been in schools that are fundamentally broken how terrible they are. Not terrible in the sense that the students are monsters or the teachers don't care, but that there can be places that are so forgotten, so thrown away, that everyone skims over them when they think about "urban schools" or "inner-city schools".  Two thousand schools produce 51% of the nation's 1 million dropouts each year. Two thousand Fels's full of children. It hurts my heart.
I also imagine that in a very different sense this is how some returned veterans feel; both a sense of relief to be back but a simmering rage at the seeming insignificance of the "problems" they find in the world to which they return. It's difficult to reconcile these emotions.

Sentences I particularly liked:
--"We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever but in the august light of abiding memories."

--"What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth?"

--"There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies." 

--"I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself - not for others - what no other man can ever know."

--"The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine."

--"It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places."

I'll end with one of my other favorite lines:
"We live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!"

Onwards to a contempo-classic (a generous use of the word classic, perhaps) and The Wormhole-Jumper's Uncle. Hrmm . . . did I get that right?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Watership Down is a story about the unusual flight of a small group of rabbits from their home and the many adventures they encounter along the way. Hazel is a young rabbit who trusts his friend Fiver’s eery premonitions of danger.  He tries to warn their Threarah (chief rabbit) but the Threarah dismisses them as upstarts.  Hazel and Fiver decide they must leave their warren (a community of rabbits) and a few other rabbits decide to join them. They are threatened with arrest, but manage to escape with the help of Bigwig, a former member of the Owsla (rabbit police).  They come upon another warren where the rabbits are hearty and the holes are spacious, but the rabbits are a bit queer.  It becomes clear that Hazel and his friends are stuck in this new warren, and to their horror, they discover that the rabbits are given plenty of food by men with the condition that occasionally they are snared and killed. After Bigwig is ensnared and nearly killed, Hazel and his friends make an escape.

They make a new home at Watership Down, a good ways from the strange warren and far from their original home.  One night, the rabbits are surprised to discover Captain Holly and Bluebell, two rabbits from their home, Sandleford warren. They tell a terrible story of men coming to stop up the warren’s holes and shooting any rabbits that escaped from the ground. Captain Holly and Bluebell were the only two to make it out, and he praises Hazel’s wise decision to trust Fiver after all. The rabbits settle in nicely at Watership Down, and are almost content, but they realize they have no does (female rabbits who can bear offspring). Hazel befriends a bird, Kehaar, when it is wounded and needs protection from elil (enemies). They strike an unlikely bond, and in spying for Hazel, Kehaar discovers another warren that is large and seems to have plenty of does.  Hazel sends Captain Holly off to this new warren (Efrafa) to ask if they might bring some of their extra does to Watership Down. Meanwhile, Hazel launches a somewhat hare-brained (ha.ha.) idea to free a few does from a hutch at a nearby farm that Kehaar had also seen in his flights. Hazel’s plan is dangerous, and while he frees a few does, he gets shot in the process, and but for Fiver’s second sight, would never have been found and brought back to Watership Down. Captain Holly and his crew are imprisoned at Efrafa, which turns out to be a militant-style warren where General Woundwort reigns supreme and all rabbits live a regimented and punishment-laden life. Captain Holly and the group only just manage to escape one night, and after they return to tell their story, Hazel pitches the unpopular idea that a group of them return to Efrafa to steal some does.

Bigwig becomes a spy for Hazel, allowing himself to be captured by the rabbits at Efrafa and quickly rising as an officer in their warren. He befriends a group of does and plans an escape aligned with Hazel’s forces on the outside. The escape doesn’t exactly go off as planned, and while the rabbits hatch a clever plan to hitch a ride on a boat sitting on a nearby river, General Woundwort is out for blood. Hazel and his friends are too clever for the General and they succeed in their plan, but he vows to find Bigwig and murder him personally. The rabbits eventually make it back to Watership Down and settle back to their lives of comfort, until one day Efrafan rabbits are spotted near the edge of the warren. Frantic, Hazel and the others bury themselves in their warren and await almost certain death. General Woundwort makes his way in and battles with Bigwig, but Bigwig’s cleverness and power are almost too much for the general. Hazel, with the help of Fiver, realizes he must run to the nearby farm and let loose the dog, leading the dog back to the warren and General Woundwort for his prey. The plan succeeds, but Hazel is caught by the farm’s cat and is only saved by Lucy, the farmer’s daughter. She wants to keep it, but the friendly neighborhood doctor tells her it needs to be free, and so she sets it loose and Hazel is discovered and brought back home to Watership Down. The does have many litters, Watership Down eventually sends some of its extra rabbits to build a new warren halfway between Efrafa and Watership Down, the two warrens begin to blend and forget their past grievances, and they all live hoppily ever after. (yep. That just happened.)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you’re looking for a cross between a light read and something a bit more serious, and you don’t mind animals as protagonists (and antagonists), then I’d definitely suggest you go grab a copy and dig in!

My thoughts, in no particular oder:
  • Adams uses quotes to start of each chapter, which at first I wasn’t sure I liked, but they’re so well chosen that they perfectly marry foreshadowing and intrigue. Here’s the quote from the chapter on the “queer” rabbit warren:
In the afternoon they came unto a land

In which it seemed always afternoon.

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,

Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

                                                Tennyson, The Lotus-Eaters
  • Adams also throws in some of his own rabbit language (Lapine, as he calls it). My favorite (and my mom’s favorite) is hrududu, which means any sort of man-made machine. Hazel is returned to Watership Down in one with Lucy and the doctor, and Bigwig refuses to believe that Hazel actually rode in a hrududu.
  • Adams also claims that the does can take their litters back into their bodies if there are too many rabbits, or the climate isn’t right for them to be born. I found this idea very strange. It’s not abortion, it’s absorption!
  • Kehaar was hands down one of my favorite characters. Apparently, he doesn’t speak Lapine (the rabbit language) but they can converse in a sort of meta-language. Here’s my favorite exchange between Hazel and Kehaar:
Hazel slyly suggests that the warren will die off without does.

Kehaar:   Ving, ‘e better. I fly. I fly for you. Find plenty mudders, tell you vere dey are, ya?”

Hazel expresses sadness that Kehaar can’t fly south because of his injury.

Kehaar:  “Nudder time I get mudder. Now I fly for you.”
  • Bigwig wants to get a message to Kehaar, but he can’t let Captain Chervil (of Efrafa) know what’s happening, so he tells him an old rhyme to send the bird away. This hilarity ensues:
“Let’s have a go. If it doesn’t work, we’re none the worse. Well, you run like this. Now you have to hop to this side, then to the other side, scratch with your legs, that’s right, splendid – cock your ears and then go straight on until-ah! Here we are; now then:

                “O fly away, great bird so white,

                And don’t come back until tonight.”

“There you are, you see. It did work. I think there’s more than we know to some of these old rhymes and spells.”

“Probably all that prancing about as we came up to it,” said Chervil sourly. “We must have looked completely mad.”

Passages I particularly liked:
-- “Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp. The upper edges rose into the light, a far land of wild mountains. Copper-colored, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost. Surely, when the thunder struck them again they would vibrate, tremble, and shatter, till warm shards, sharp as icicles, fell flashing from the ruins.”
--Fiver, to one of the captains of Efrafa when they attack Watership Down:
“I am sorry for you with all my heart. But you cannot blame us, for you came to kill us if you could.” This reminds me of when the Buggers tell Ender that they did not mean to murder, and when they knew, they did not come again.

Nothing fights grad school senioritis like The Liver of Insanity! Hrm, that’s not it. Perhaps it’s the Kidney of Light?