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.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
To the Lighthouse follows one family's stay at a vacation house by the sea. It begins when the children are young and the parents are fairly content, and it leaps forward to a time when the children are motherless and the house is abandoned. The servants eventually restore the house to life and the family (now minus a few members) returns to a house that is simultaneously the same and not the same. The novel offers multiple perspectives on life, love, and filial feelings of reverence and resentment, and chronicles the seen and unseen impacts of the passage of time.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I thought this book was stunning. Like some other books on my list (ahem, lookin' at you, ProustyProust), it's perhaps not recommended reading for all, in that the prose can be very wordy and its sentiment is not immediately perceptible upon first reading. As my good friend Dennis pointed out (happy birthday again, boo boo!), this book is one that requires multiple visits from a reader. The trajectory of the novel only became clear to me about halfway through, and I instantly wanted to start again. I think I'll give it a bit of time, though, before I return. Besides, I still have so many other books on my list! (So much time, so little to do. Wait. Strike that. Reverse it.)

A few reflections, in no real order (heads up, this post is a tad lengthy. Woolf is a meaty author, so she deserves it!)

- No longer "à table" (Charles, tu vas prendre ta douche?)
This description comes near the beginning of the novel, and it captures so eloquently the essence of the family and their connection to the house. 
"Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no other privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley's tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; sea birds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing."

- We perish, each alone
Mr. Ramsay quotes a line from "The Castaway" by William Cowper, "we perish, each alone", ostensibly in reference to his wife's death. I couldn't figure out why that line was so familiar until I looked up the rest of the poem, and heard Hugh Grant (aka Edward Farrows) reading the poem unenthusiastically and without enough romanticism to please Marianne. (i Like him. i greatly EsteEm him.)

(emPhasis added for effect)
"No voice diVine the storm allAy'd,
No light Propitious shone("shonn");
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We Perish'd, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he."

- The house by the sea
"The whole bay spread before them and Mrs. Ramsay could not help exclaiming, "Oh, how beautiful!" For the great plateful of blue water was before her; the hoary Lighthouse, distant, austere, in the midst; and on the right, as far as the eye could see, fading and falling, in soft low pleats, the green sand dunes with the wild flowing grasses on them, which always seemed to be running away into some moon country, uninhabited of men." I love the word 'hoary'. It just Feels special when you use it. 

-Lily Briscoe, on painting
"It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child." Lily Briscoe is a side character - she's a friend of the family who stays with them at the house by the sea. She paints in her leisure hours, and though she feels she will never be the best painter out there, she's devoted to painting for the rest of her life. I thought this line captured so aptly the terror of nascent creations and the uncertainty that accompanies their birth.

- If your brain is an attic, how much can it hold?
Lily always imagines a kitchen table when she thinks of Mr. Ramsay's intelligence (it's a long story) and I loved this line about her trying to balance all of her thoughts at once. It reminded me of Sherlock's claims in 'Elementary' that the brain can only hold a finite amount of material at once and that it's therefore necessary to prioritize accordingly. 
"All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net - danced up and down in Lily's mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree, where still hung in effigy the scrubbed kitchen table, symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay's mind, until her thought which had spun quicker and quicker exploded of its own intensity; she felt released; a shot went off close at hand, and there came, flying from its fragments, frightened, effusive, tumultuous, a flock of starlings."

- What letter have you reached?
Mr. Ramsay, on his intelligence:
"It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q." I'm not at all sure that I've reached Q. Have you?

- All children, except one, grow up.
Something that always strikes me when I read these novels is the universality of certain sentiments. Decades after this book was written, every parent still wishes that their child wouldn't grow up. Even if the whole world looks different than when Virginia wrote this book, that feeling will never go away.

"Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep for ever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss."

- Are they all gone now? Are they all gone?
Mrs. Ramsay, on her need for solitude: "And that was what now she often felt the need of - to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others."

- May I share in your disaster?
Paul, another acquaintance staying with the Ramsays, has just recently proposed to a young friend of the family, Minta. Lily, who generally feels comfortable in the solitary life, is momentarily jealous of the budding joy of new love:
"It came over her too now - the emotion, the vibration, of love. How inconspicuous she felt herself by Paul's side! He, glowing, burning; she, aloof, satirical; he, bound for adventure; she, moored to the shore; he, launched, incautious; she, solitary, left out - and, ready to implore a share, if it were disaster, in his disaster..."

- Real men cry when they read a good book.
on Mr. Ramsay, as he reads a Sir Walter Scott novel:
"But now, he felt, it didn't matter a damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it - if not he, then another. This man's strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit's cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears. Raising the book a little to hide his face, he let them fall and shook his head from side to side and forgot himself completely (but not one or two reflections about morality and French novels and English novels and Scott's hands being tied but his view perhaps as true as the other view), forgot his own bothers and failures completely in poor Steenie's drowning and Muckebackit's sorrow (that was Scott at his best) and the astonishing delight and feeling of vigour that it gave him."

- When reading is like dreaming
One of my favorite scenes in the whole novel is when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, whose relationship is complicated, but affectionate, simply sit together in his study and read, each attentively drawn in to their own book. As mentioned above, Mr. Ramsay is reading Sir Walter Scott, and Mrs. Ramsay has picked up a book lying nearby.
"Mrs. Ramsay raised her head and like a person in a light sleep seemed to say that if he wanted her to wake she would, she really would, but otherwise, might she go on sleeping, just a little longer, just a little longer? She was climbing up those branches, this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another."

- Who's afraid of the dark?
"So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and a basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, "This is he" or "This is she". Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness."

- The creeping airs
I loved this description of "the airs", it was so corporeal and anthropomorphic. (a word? not sure. it is Now!)

"Nothing stirred in the drawing room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. (Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!) Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors. Almost one might imagine them, as they entered the drawing-room questioning and wondering, toying with the flap of hanging wall-paper, asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall? Then smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, Were they allies? Were they enemies? How long would they endure?"

"So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear."

- Could this be life?
While perhaps less explicit than in "The Bell Jar", the question of our purpose here on Earth and what we are meant to do with it arises in this novel. While many of the classics I've read have tinkered around the edges of the question, this one explicit asks at one point, "What is the meaning of life?" Just in case you were wondering, I don't know. I Have read a Lot of books, but I don't have the secret answer. (At least not Yet.) Sowwy! #outofluck #maybetrywikipedia?

I loved this line, particularly the bit about "no learning by heart the ways of the world":
"What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? -startling, unexpected, unknown?"

- Lily, to Mr. Ramsay, after Mrs. Ramsay has passed away:
"They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet." This was my favorite sentence in the whole book. Lily is unable to provide Mr. Ramsay with the sympathetic condolences he so ardently desires, and instead, she looks down and comments on his boots. 

"What beautiful boots!" She exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul; when he had shown her his bleeding hands, his lacerated heart, and asked her to pity them, then to say, cheerfully, "ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!" deserved, she knew, and she looked up expecting to get it, in one of his sudden roars of ill-temper, complete annihilation.
        Instead, Mr. Ramsay smiled.
They had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned, and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots." This reminded me of Fitzgerald in its visceral tenderness. Sometimes all we can talk about is the blessed island of good boots.

- Filial feelings
When the family returns to the house by the sea, Mr. Ramsay drags James and Cam off to the Lighthouse. Neither one is interested, and they both resent him for making them go. This line of Lily's struck me:
"Doggedly James said yes. Cam stumbled more wretchedly. Yes, oh, yes, they'd both be ready, they said. And it struck her, this was tragedy - not palls, dust, and the shroud; but children coerced, their spirits subdued."

- Recalling the house to life
These passages about the house falling into disrepair and being returned to life were fantastic. I wanted to share the trajectory with all of you.

"The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed."
So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
They might be coming for the summer; had left everything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them. Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and a tea-set one morning; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender and a set of steel fire-irons. George, Mrs. Bast's son, caught the rats (and who will help me catch the rats?), and cut the grass. Attended with the creaking of hinges and the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollen woodwork some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as the women, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairs now, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!
And now as if the cleaning and the scrubbing and the scything and the moving had drowned it there rose that half-heard melody, that intermittent music which the ear half catches but lets fall; a bark, a bleat; irregular, intermittent, yet somehow related; the hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass, dissevered yet somehow belonging; the jar of a dorbeetle, the squeak of a wheel, loud, low, but mysteriously related; which the ear strains to bring together and is always on the verge of harmonising, but they are never quite heard, never fully harmonised, and at last, in the evening, one after another the sounds die out, and the harmony falters, and silence falls. With the sunset sharpness was lost, and like mist rising, quiet rose, quiet spread, the wind settled; loosely the world shook itself down to sleep, darkly here without a light to it, save what came green suffused through leaves, or pale on the white flowers in the bed by the window.
At last, after days of labour within, of cutting and digging without, dusters were flicked from the windows, the windows were shut to, keys were turned all over the house; the front door was banged; it was finished."

- What do you think is the shape of loveliness?
"So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen. Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom (doesn't that sound delightful?), and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?”— scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain."

Sentences that struck me:
  • "Many things had changed since then. Many families had lost their dearest."
  • "And again she felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life."
  • "They both felt a common hilarity, excited by the moving waves."
  • "Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified."
  • "In the failing light they all looked sharp-edged and ethereal and divided by great distances."
  • "Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers."
The title of this post is a reference to the potential trip to the Lighthouse that James was to make with Mrs. Ramsay when the novel opens. Mr. Ramsay officiously asserts that the weather will be wretched, and that the trip will have to be postponed. Mrs. Ramsay is devastated for James, and tries to keep a cautiously optimistic outlook on the weather to come. 

May you all wake up tomorrow and find the sun shining and the birds singing. Remember that, whatever the reason, whatever the purpose, we remain. And while we do, let us rejoice. 

Happy holidays, and onwards to For Whom the Timpani Gongs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Fight Club is a tale of one man's journey toward enlightenment and down a path of revolt and destruction. An unnamed protagonist takes on a second personality when he sleeps, and this new personality, Tyler Durden, launches first a series of underground fight clubs and later a plan for mischief that evolves into a full-scale war of inducing mayhem in everyday life. Our unnamed protagonist eventually gets wise to his body-sharing predicament, and tries (unsuccessfully) to tame Tyler's wily and often rather wicked ways. In the end, the best he can seem to do is put Tyler in a sort of hibernation as he exists in (what I think is) a mental ward. Determined to keep the world (and the woman he loves, Marla) safe from Tyler, his daytime self chooses to accept his medically altered state which, in turn, keeps Tyler at bay. (At least for now. dun dun Dun!!)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This was not my first time reading Fight Club. I liked it a very little bit less than the first time I read it, but I still found it to be a (mostly) enjoyable read. I do think it's a bit of a 'man's book for men' read (see below for more thoughts on this) but the sarcasm and wit are undeniable, if the violence a bit extreme for my taste. A few ponderings, in no order:

- On the battle for self-help groups:
Not-Tyler starts going to self-help groups (for diseases he does not have) after one of his doctors suggests attending an insomnia self-help group. He finds a sense of fulfillment at these groups, and proceeds to cycle through groups for various serious illnesses each day of the week. He first meets Marla, his eventual lover, at one of these groups. Here's his first thought when he sees her there (and knows she's faking it, too):

"This is the one real thing in my life, and you're wrecking it." I love this line. The 'real' thing in his life is going to self-help groups for illnesses he doesn't have. haghaghagh.

Here's the conversation they have when he tries to get Marla to leave:
Not Tyler: "Then we can split the week, I say. Marla can have bone disease, brain parasites, and tuberculosis. I'll keep testicular cancer, blood parasites, and organic brain dementia."
Marla: "What about ascending bowel cancers?"
Not Tyler: "The girl has done her homework."

ahghaghaghaghagha. what about PoinTED sticks? have we done cherries? Whole AND segmented!

- Insomnia
"Three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience."

Esther's first inklings of her breakdown start with insomnia in The Bell Jar, so I thought it was interesting that Not-Tyler has a similar first symptom. I have a chronic sleep disorder, so I know what it's like to feel tired, but I can't IMAGINE going 3 weeks without sleep. Can you? 

"This is how it is with insomnia. Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy. The insomnia distance of everything, you can't touch anything and nothing can touch you."

- Lists and why we (or at least I) love them
Generally speaking, I'm a big fan of lists in books. I like the precision of them. This article gets at why we love lists - I like this line in particular: "Lists create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption - a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale." Goooo, green smoothies! Get Real, Get Raw!

Here's a list for you to enjoy: The Rules of Fight Club

1. The first rule of fight club is you don't talk about fight club.
2. The second rule of fight club is you don't talk about fight club.
3. Only two guys to a fight. 
4. One fight at a time.
5. Fights are without shirts or shoes.
6. Fights go on as long as they have to.
7. If this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight. 

Based on these rules, I don't think I'll be seeking out a fight club anytime soon. I'd rather not watch, and I'd rather not fight. MMkay? Thanks. Oh, and I'd like to keep on my shirt. 

Marla's one of my favorite characters, though I felt she was underdeveloped compared to Tyler/Not-Tyler. She has a flare for the dramatic, as is evidenced by the conversation that Tyler accidentally has with Marla when Not-Tyler refuses to answer the phone:

Tyler: So she was staying home tonight, right?
Marla: She was doing the big death thing. I should get a move on if I wanted to watch.

Not-Tyler: They've never met so Tyler thinks it's a bad thing that Marla is about to die. haghahg. I know, suicide is no joke, but I found this line pretty funny. I also love that she calls it "the big death thing". 

- Man's book
A woman stopped me on the metro to say how much she enjoyed this book, and told me that her friends told her it was a man's book, but she disagreed. I'm not sure where I fall. I think the threat (and sometimes actualization of that threat) of cutting off men's privates is squarely in the "dude's greatest fears" category, and while it's never stated outright, the implicit 8th rule of fight club seems to be "Men only." Granted, a male female fight under most circumstances would be pretty skewed, but I couldn't help but notice the total exclusion of women from the storyline (with the exception of Marla, whose character, as I mentioned previously, felt underdeveloped compared to the men). That said, I don't think all books need to be written for both genders - likely there are only a handful of men who LOVE Jane Austen, and I would guess that far more men love Ulysses than women (these are just Guesses, people, so don't get offended if you fall in the opposite category ;0)) - but I think especially in the 21st century, a decently balanced gender representation would be nice, while not required. At the very least, a bit more development of Marla would have pleased me.

-Project Mayhem vs. terrorism
Part of why I couldn't appreciate the 'Project Mayhem' piece of Tyler's plans was that it felt so obviously akin to terrorism. This book was published in 1996, so while the threat of terrorism was present, it was nowhere near so palpable and widely disseminated as it is today. Reading this section might have felt less unpleasant and more fictional then, but it felt a bit too real for my taste in today's world. Case in point:
"They all know what to do. It's part of Project Mayhem. No one guy understands the whole plan, but each guy is trained to do one simple task perfectly." oh, OK, so basically a terrorist cell? awesome.

Another list, for your brain's pleasure - Project Mayhem Weekly Schedule:
Arson meets on Monday.
Assault on Tuesday.
Mischief meets on Wednesday.
And Misinformation meets on Thursday.
Organized Chaos. The Bureaucracy of Anarchy. You figure it out.
Support groups. Sort of.

- Project Mayhem, in a nutshell
While, as I mentioned, I had some concerns about the fictional/real-world side of Project Mayhem, I did enjoy these quotes:

"We wanted to blast the world free of history"
"It's Project Mayhem that's going to save the world."
"A prematurely induced dark age."

- I am Joe's Overwhelming Sense of Apathy
One of my favorite recurring themes is a reference Not-Tyler makes to a book of medical descriptions that captions photos with lines like, "I am Joe's Swollen Foot" and the like. Here are a few of my favorites: 

After Not-Tyler has been printing Fight Club rules at work and showing up repeatedly with his face bashed in:
They're building a case against me (at work).
I am Joe's Complete Lack of Surprise.
I've been behaving miserably. haghaghahgahg. 

After Not-Tyler is spurned by Tyler (when he doesn't realize they're the same person) in favor of Marla:
I am Joe's Enraged, Inflamed Sense of Rejection.

- Who do we wake up to each morning?
I love the title of this blog - it reminded me of a passage from Proust:

from The Guermantes Way (Volume 3 of Remembrance of Things Past)
"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp." I know, META, right? ;) Let's see who we wake up as tomorrow!

As you know, I read this book out of order (WhOOPS!) so I'm moving on To the Darkroom. Happy snow day to those in the Northeast, and happy Tuesday to everyone else!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Bell Jar is concerned with the inner workings of the mind and the darkness that lies within. It chronicles Esther Greenwood's descent into depression during one dark summer, and begins to hint at the possibility of her recovery near the end. Esther finds herself in New York City, working as an intern for a ladies' magazine, and after a series of minor setbacks and strange occurrences, she withdraws from her life and the world around her. After Esther receives some less than stellar mental health care, she continues to struggle, and she attempts to end her life through various means. She is ultimately unsuccessful, and following her last effort, she is committed to an asylum. She receives a series of injections, as well as a second round of shock treatments, and after a few more adventures, hesitantly advocates to return to her previous life. The book closes at her exit interview from the asylum, and we are left to wonder where Esther's life (and mood) will go from here.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I was nervous to read this book. Those of you who know me well likely know that I went through a similar experience several years ago. I discovered I suffered from anxiety and depression and felt blindsided and overwhelmed by it when I was in France, studying abroad. Like Esther, I was lost, and I struggled to find my way through what was still, hands down, one of the most difficult times of my life. Luckily, I had a strong and loving family to support me through it, as well as decent resources within my study abroad program to begin to understand what was going on. Still, even in this 21st century, it took me nearly 7 years to get to a good, solid place with my symptoms, and it's a challenge I deal with each and every day. I cannot imagine what it would have been like trying to seek out mental health care in the 1960's, what with the stigma and lack of clear medical knowledge around antidepressants, antipsychotics, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc. Mental health concerns run in my family, and I know my grandmother dealt with some unpleasant medications in her time. Given all of that context, I'm impressed that the book had as cautiously optimistic an end as it did, though it was admittedly not a cheery, triumphant conclusion. My mother once told me she'd read this book a number of times, and that we all face the dark side of existence at some point in our lives, looking death in the face and realizing it is a common end for every human. I worried that with my obsessive personality, I, too, might fixate on this book, and be stuck inside it and somehow transported back to that lost self from seven years ago.

I'm happy to report that that did not happen. I can't say I loved every minute of the book (it's Quite dark, for those who've never read it and somehow hadn't guessed from the above description and comments (were you even Paying Attention? ;) ) but I enjoyed the overall experience of reading it, and I think it is an Essential book to have in our collective literature. Sylvia expresses an unbelievably difficult thing to describe, and she does it eloquently, and with tenderness and empathy. I'm sorry to say I think she writes it as well as she does because she experienced it, and her own life came to an untimely end. I wonder - if Sylvia had been around today, would she have gotten better care? Been more hopeful about her end of maintaining your personal mental health? Had more opportunities as an independent woman to stave off her depression? But life is filled with what ifs, and we can never know for sure. All I do know for sure is that if Sylvia hadn't felt some measure of what Esther felt, she would never have been able to write this book, and that would have been a true tragedy.

- On the sadness of finishing a really great poem
"I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fir tree."

-Balalaika, instrument of seduction
My sister, Diana, pointed this part out to me, but when I came to it, I was surprised to realize I was already familiar with the passage. I went through a phase in high school where I plastered my closet doors and walls with quotes from various books I was reading, and I'm sure this was one of them, which is strange considering I had never read (or heard of) this book in high school. Mysterious! At any rate, here it is :)

"When Constantin asked if I would like to come up to his apartment to hear some balalaika records I smiled to myself. My mother had always told me never under any circumstances to go with a man to a man's rooms after an evening out, it could mean only the one thing.
  'I am very fond of balalaika music,' I said." heh heh heh. naughty Esther! ;)

- Country vs. City
I loved this exchange between Esther and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Billy:
"'Remember how you asked me where I like to live best, the country or the city?'
 'And you said...'
'And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?" there's more to this conversation, but I loved this response. I spend most of my time waffling between wanting a ranch with horses and a huge garden and cats and wanting a city townhouse in walking distance from all of my favorite foods from various countries and accessible to events and museums and concerts and art. I want one. I want two. I want two!

- The most accurate depiction of depression I've ever read
What struck me most about this book was how intimate Sylvia's portrayal of Esther's suffering ended up being. I felt so connected to Esther, in large part because I'd experienced similar feelings, but also because she was really the only character we cared about for the whole course of the book. These lines below might not seem as perceptive if they were written in a book from the last decade, given that depression is a much more widely understood disease (though we still have a Ways to go, folks). But for her time, and writing as a woman, Esther's simple thoughts rang so true for me. They get at the pernicious quality of depression, and the way it seeps into and poisons every thought, even the ones that used to seem so obvious and routine. 

"I couldn't see the point of getting up.
I had nothing to look forward to."

"It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it."

- Soooo well disguised, Esther. OBviously not you, Sylvia ;)
Esther writes a novel (or starts to) at one point in the book: 
"A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther, too. It seemed a lucky thing." do you know what Else has six letters? Sylvia. 

One of the first symptoms Sylvia notices is that she can't sleep. This goes on for a seemingly interminable number of days. Since I read Fight Club before this one (by Accident - Whoopsy-Daisy!) I found this particularly interesting, given that Tyler/Not-Tyler notices his insomnia before any other part of his psychotic break. Funny how little we think of the importance of sleep, and how integral a role it plays in our lives. 

- Expectations vs. Reality
One of the most poignant moments in the book for me was when Esther went to her first psychiatrist. She explains her expectations:
"I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying "Ah!" in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn't, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.
   Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn't sleep and why I couldn't read and why I couldn't eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
   And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.

And the reality:
"But Doctor Gordon wasn't like that at all.
"For some reason the photo [on his desk] made me furious.
 I didn't see why it should be turned half toward me unless Doctor Gordon was trying to show me right away that he was married to some glamorous woman and I'd better not get any funny ideas.
   Then I thought, how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card?"

I thought about this moment a lot, and how important that very first visit can be. Speaking to someone about your feelings, your deepest thoughts, can be absolutely terrifying, and the success or failure of the visit depends namely on the actions and climate your psychiatrist creates and your (chosen) response to that climate. It's so easy to say, "This is terrible. I hate this. This person could never understand." and shut down completely. I realized none of my therapists or psychiatrists have ever had personal or family photos in their offices, and I wonder if this isn't why. To keep things like this from happening. I was utterly heartbroken for Esther, and I knew exactly how she felt.

- Mental health is a two-way street
I often explain to people who aren't very familiar with mental health care, or therapy, or the like, how important it is to realize that it's a two-way street. Your therapist or psychiatrist (two Different things, FYI - therapists can do behavioral therapy, but can't prescribe medicine; psychiatrists can prescribe medicine but are less likely to speak to you at length about your feelings. this is one of my Major pet peeves, sorry for the interruption!) only knows what you decide to tell him/her. You are ultimately in control of how successful your care and treatment are. It's a partnership. 

Sylvia got at this quite eloquently with this scene. Esther wrote a note to a friend and realized her handwriting was all over the place and borderline unreadable, but she thought the experience was strange, so she saved it:

"I knew I couldn't send a letter like that, so I tore it up in little pieces and put them in my pocketbook, next to my all-purpose compact, in case the psychiatrist asked to see them.
   But of course Doctor Gordon didn't ask to see them, as I hadn't mentioned them, and I began to feel pleased at my cleverness. I thought I only need tell him what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture he had of me by hiding this and revealing that, all the while he thought he was so smart." A good psychiatrist knows how to get at things like this so you don't feel like you have to work so hard to share your deepest thoughts, but Esther quickly sees the sneaky side of the mental health partnership dilemma.

- Wherever you go, there it is.
The other thing that makes depression such a dastardly demon is that it can follow you anywhere. 
"Wherever I sat - the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air."

- Shock treatments
Esther receives shock treatments (some more "pleasant" (aka less horrifying) than others) and at the asylum, she goes through a routine each day of wondering if she'll be targeted:

"Each morning, when I heard the nurse knock with my tray, an immense relief flooded through me, because I knew I was out of danger for that day. I didn't see how Doctor Nolan could tell you went to sleep during a shock treatment if she'd never had a shock treatment herself. How did she know the person didn't just look as if he was asleep, while all the time, inside, he was feeling the blue volts and the noise?" Shock treatments seem absolutely barbaric to me, although I know that in limited cases they are used today. They used to be used without consent (well into the later part of the 20th century) and I researched them a bit when I was reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. At any rate, I found this morning ritual of fear to be so tangible, and so painful.

- Uncertainty of security
"How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"

Okay, I know this has been a fairly morbid post, but here's my last depressing thought on depression. Mental health is a constant fight. It doesn't go away and leave you safe and sound in the way that a bad cold might, or even a broken leg. It stays with you, and part of healing and dealing is learning to be comfortable with the idea that it ebbs and flows, and what's most important is knowing your network of support, both professional and personal, and having a plan of action for the ebb tides. "

Stimulating sentences:
  • "By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat."
  • "I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
  • "I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life."
  • "I picked up my pocketbook and started back over the cold stones to where my shoes kept their vigil in the violet light."
  • "I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people's eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth."
I'll close with what I found to be one of the more uplifting lines from the ending. Esther's friend, Joan, is not so lucky as Esther, and doesn't survive to the book's conclusion. As Esther contemplates this and struggles to deal with it, she pauses and has the following thought:

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. 
I am, I am, I am."

Listen to the brag of your hearts, readers, and remember that you are, you are, you are.

Expect a post on Fight Club in the next few days, and if you're in the Northeast, enjoy the snow!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Old Man and the Sea is a tale of heroism, an epic battle, and the tender affection between a young boy and a very old man as they fish the seas of the Gulf Stream. The old man, Santiago, taught the young boy, Manolin, to fish, but when our story starts, Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a fish, so Manolin's parents had him switch to working with another (luckier) fisherman. As implied, the story tells the tale of the old man, and it chronicles his solitary journey to the brink of civilized waters. He snares a fantastic marlin and proceeds to use his long-honed skills and limitless patience to capture and kill the fish. In the end, the distance Santiago traveled to find the fish outdoes him, though, and the carcass of the fish, once worth a fortune and a glorious prize, is decimated by intermittent shark attacks on his return journey, rendering it useless. Santiago, exhausted from the ordeal, stumbles home to his tiny shack, where Manolin brings him coffee and watches him sleep as they make promises and plans to fish the wide seas together once more. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed this book. I was a little surprised to learn that it had won a Pulitzer (only because I enjoyed A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises a bit more than this one) but it was a very pleasurable read, and it epitomized Hemingway's terse prose and sparse yet powerful imagery. 

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

- The boy
The relationship between the old man and the young boy was exquisitely written. There was a loving tenderness and a selfless quality to both men, and their poverty, while it was evident, did not define either of them. Here's one of my favorite exchanges where they're discussing 'the American baseball'. (The story takes place in Cuba).

Manolin:    'Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?'
Santiago:   'I think they are equal.'
Manolin:    'And the best fisherman is you.'
Santiago:    'No. I know others better.'
Manolin:   'Qué va. There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.'

- The fishing life ≠ for me
As I read this novel, I got to thinking that I probably wouldn't be able to hack it in the fishing profession.

Reasons I would make a terrible fisher(wo)man:
  • Sleep apnea (I'd fall asleep waiting for the fish to succumb, and then Tra la! Off sneaks the fish!)
  • Not a morning perso(see above reason. At one point after Santiago's been out to sea for at least  2 or 3 hours, he happily glances at the horizon to watch the sun come up. Something's wrong with the order of waking up and sunrise, there, my friend!)
  • Sunburn (for those that haven't seen me, my skin is paler than pale [if she can't find one smaller than small, then she can't go to the Butterfly Ball!] and I have been known to turn Red like Tomato)
  • Don't like raw fish (even when they're part of sushi (I know, le sigh! I've tried!) and Santiago subsists on nothing else during his journey)
  • Bore easily (as I get older, I find my attention span is shorter and shorter. It took me three days to finish this blog! I certainly don't think I could keep my attention on one fish for 36 hours.)
  • Not good at fighting sharks (at least in Santiago's case, this seems to be a requirement. I don't feel confident in this area At All. Especially with limited equipment like half a broken oar. Maybe if I was Really angry, or if I had a killer harpoon or something. Although hunting any animal, even a vicious shark, doesn't really appeal to me.)
- How I would like to be woken up (for those who don't know me, or my version of Sleepy Karl, or just for future reference):
Even though they don't fish together when the book starts, the old man still comes to wake the young boy so they can prepare for the day. I loved the way the old man woke him up:
"The boy was asleep on a cot in the first room and the old man could see him clearly with the light that came in from the dying moon (like I said, it's way too early). He took hold of one foot gently and held it until the boy woke and turned and looked at him. The old man nodded and the boy took his trousers from the chair by the bed and, sitting on the bed, pulled them on.
   The old man went out the door and the boy came after him. He was sleepy and the old man put his arm across his shoulders and said, 'I am sorry.'" (this is the always the appropriate sentiment after waking me up, no matter what time of morning (or early afternoon) it is.)

- Hooking the unknown
Part of what makes Santiago's battle with the fish so epic is that when he hooks the fish (and I would imagine this is often the case in fishing) Santiago can't tell how big he is. He stands guard and wraps the line around himself and endures aches and pains and near starvation for a fish he hasn't even seen! How's that for delayed gratification? Dear children, you may receive your Christmas presents a month early, but only if you don't look at them until December. haghaghaghaghahgagh. Can you imagine?
Santiago:"I wish I could see him. I wish I could see him only once to know what I have against me."

- Stay at my house, by all means
Santiago's only companion during his solitary excursion is, very briefly, a bird. Here's the adorable conversation he makes with it:
"'Take a good rest, small bird. Then go in and take your chance like any man or bird or fish."
'Stay at my house if you like, bird. I am sorry I cannot hoist the sail and take you in with the small breeze that is rising. But I am with a friend.' (aka, the fish. in case you hadn't put that together. for a second, I was all, Oh, Another Bird? Where? And then I thought, DUH, Meredith, he means the fish.)

- Gallstones the size of Golf Balls!
The fish is two feet longer than the skiff, and the old man estimates it's more than a thousand pounds. I'm just going to let that sink in as you imagine a man, some rope, and essentially his bare hands, against a half ton fish.

- Equality of battle, sense of honor
I have mixed feelings about hunting and fishing (I understand the necessity/pleasure, but also feel like I would have a hard time doing it unless push really came to shove) and fishing in particular always seemed a little mean to me. I've never liked imagining someone walking up to me, sticking a metal hook in my jaw, and then yanking hard. But fish aren't people, and I know in many ways it's very different and perhaps more humane than sundry other ways of killing animals. And I still mostly like eating animals, so I just need to suck it up, I guess. But I liked that Hemingway (who I know full well was an avid hunter) recognized the honor of the battle, particularly between such a large and lovely fish and such a patient and venerable fisherman. Here's one of Santiago's musings during their battle:

"You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing that you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who."

- Nothing gold can stay
"It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers." 
It was heartbreaking to read the sharks attacking Santiago's fish over and over and over, but at the same time, he truly felt that he had overstepped his boundaries in going so far to seek out the fish. It felt to me like when my mom really wanted something at the store and finally got up the nerve to buy it, but was thwarted. Once it was an umbrella that you got for free with a perfume. She hates perfume generally, but she wanted the umbrella. She also rarely spends money, which makes her wanting something more special in my eyes. Anyway, it was part of a special sale, and I still remember her telling me that she had just decided to go and buy the perfume, but when she got to the store, the sale was over and the umbrellas were gone. Such a simple thing seemed so sad to me. I wanted to be able to shower her with those umbrellas. I still want to. Santiago losing the fish was not perhaps so sad as how quickly he wished he had never hooked it at all. I wanted the fish for Santiago, and I wanted his 84 previous days of not having caught a fish to be justified in some way. I suppose that's what makes the story so lasting. But it still broke my heart. 

Passages I particularly liked:
  • Scars on Santiago's body: "But none of these scars were fresh. There was as old as erosions in a fishless desert."
  • "In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming."
  • "The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep."
  • Santiago, on the fish: "His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world."  
  • "Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty." I wish I could see this fish. Not just another marlin like the one described, but really see Santiago and the fish high in the air.
  • "I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars."
I'll leave you with this last tidbit from Santiago as he heads back with the fish to land:

"They were sailing together lashed side by side and the old man thought, let the fish bring me in it if pleases him. I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm."

It reminded me of the line in Ender's Game from the Queen of the Buggers, after Ender has successfully (and unwittingly) destroyed their race:

"We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."

I have a bit of a confession to make to all you Devoted readers out there. I know, Gasp! I accidentally already read Fight Club after I finished The Old Man and the Sea, even though The Bell Jar was supposed to be next. I had bought the next few books in advance, and in my head I thought Fight Club came next. (It's supposed to come After The Bell Jar. I took it OUT of the Tulku...) I'll still blog in order (DOn't Fret! I know you were Worried about That!) but just wanted to be honest with my lovely blog enthusiasts. Off I scamper to The Maraca Tin. Join me if you will!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Now we're the grown-ups we were in such a hurry to become.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
A Prayer for Owen Meany is a story of love, friendship, predestination, and the triumphs and pitfalls of growing up. It follows two young boys, Johnny Wheelwright (our narrator) and Owen Meany, as they navigate their way from adolescence to adulthood in a small New Hampshire town. Due to a bizarre series of circumstances, Owen comes to believe his place on earth serves a very specific purpose, and the other realms of the plot conspire to bring us to the inevitable outcome of this belief. The backdrop of the novel spans from the early days of television to the Vietnam war era and beyond, and Owen's fervid obsession with his destiny is intricately tied to each historic event. Owen signs up to serve in the military, but his plans to travel to Vietnam for combat are thwarted, and it is on home soil that his prophetic dream of his final moments takes place. Each piece of Owen's identity plays an explicit role in his heroic death. In the end, Johnny is left wondering who he is without Owen, and ardently wishing that he (and the rest of the world) could have Owen back.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I first read this book when I was a senior in high school, in Mrs. Brown's AP Literature and Composition class (I still miss the excitement of creating an identity for my portfolios - the Clark twins once broke into Mrs. Brown's car and left a tape in her cassette deck that told her to look under her seat to find their portfolio. Mildly disconcerting, but SO COOL!). I remember really enjoying the book then, and admittedly, I liked it much less this time around. I don't know if it's that I'm more critical having read more books now, or if I was more impressionable at the age when I first read it, but either way, I was disappointed on this reading. It's fairly rare that I like a book less on second reading, but it happens, and my devoted readers will know it's happened before with books on this blog. In any case, I do enjoy Irving as an author on the whole, and wouldn't recommend that you avoid him entirely simply because I don't highly recommend this particular work. (The World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire come highly recommended by Diana, if you're interested.) A few of my thoughts, in no real order...

-Irving, to the world: "May I please have a megaphone?"
I think a large part of why I didn't enjoy this book was that it felt like a thinly veiled attempt to give Irving an opportunity to trumpet his personal views to the world. It's nearly impossible for an author not to share some of his beliefs and opinions with his readers, intentionally or not, but in my view, good authors are able to do this in a way that doesn't feel preachy or obvious. Irving rolled out all the contentious subjects you can think of (religion, politics, literature) and took a huge swing at them, with a fairly see-through attempt to use Owen and Johnny as his mouthpiece. Maybe if I had agreed with some of his vitriolic opinions I wouldn't have been so annoyed, but in addition to feeling that Irving was just using his characters to share his own ideas, I also disagreed with most of them.  Didn't make for the best connection with his narrator. Next time you want to complain about politics, Irving, just write an op-ed!

-Grandmothers, and the relativity of their logic
I liked Johnny's grandmother, in large part because she reminded me of my own grandmother. Here's a line I loved:
"If she wore cocktail dresses when she labored in her rose garden, they were cocktail dresses that she no longer intended to wear to cocktail parties. Even in her rose garden, she did not want to be seen underdressed. If the dresses got too dirty from gardening, she threw them out. When my mother suggested to her that she might have them cleaned, my grandmother said, "What? And have those people at the cleaners wonder what I was doing in a dress to make it that dirty?"
   From my grandmother I learned that logic is relative."

-The trouble with church
While I disagreed with much of Irving's (ahem, Owen and Johnny's) feelings about religion, I did like this line about church. (NB: The capitals are courtesy of Irving - whenever Owen speaks, it's written in all capitals.)

-"Did you copy that? Copycat." 
So I didn't mention this in the plot summary, as it was a fairly bare-bones version of events, but one of the larger plot points centers around Johnny not knowing the identity of his father. His mother claims she had a fling on a train, but Owen and Johnny are convinced that Johnny's father was present at the baseball game where Johnny's mother was accidentally killed, and they spend much of the later part of the novel trying to remember all of the faces in the bleacher seats. In the end, rather anticlimactically, Johnny's father is a sort of loser of a preacher, Reverend Merrill. I found this to be particularly dull, considering that the illegitimate child in The Scarlet Letter (another New England tale) is also fathered by the Reverend (Arthur Dimmesdale). I know it's not like there's a monopoly on illegitimate fathers, but it seemed a little cliché to me. There were so many other options, Irving! Why not the mailman, or the next-door neighbor?

-Love, and a bit wiv an armadillo
One of my favorite parts of the book was the stuffed armadillo that Dan (Johnny's eventual stepfather) brings to Johnny the first time he meets him. Here are a few of my favorite armadillo-themed passages:

Dan: "You must be Johnny. I know you can be trusted with an important package. It's not for you, it's not for anyone your age. But I'm trusting you to put it somewhere where it can't be stepped on - and out of the way of any pets, if you have pets. You mustn't let a pet near it. And whatever you do, don't open it. Just tell me if it moves." hagh. fanTastic way to meet someone. Next time I meet someone new, I'll know to bring them a stuffed armadillo in a brown paper bag. SooPrize!

"When Owen would sleep in the other twin bed in my room, with the night table between us, we would carefully arrange the armadillo under the bedside lamp; in exact profile to both of us, the creature stared at the feet of our beds."

Owen, to Johnny: "FROM WHAT YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR COUSINS, I DON'T THINK YOU SHOULD TAKE THE ARMADILLO TO SAWYER DEPOT. It had never occurred to me to take the armadillo with me, but Owen had clearly given some though to the potential tragedy of such a journey. "YOU MIGHT FORGET IT ON THE TRAIN. OR THAT DOG OF THEIRS MIGHT CHEW ON IT. WHAT'S THE DOG'S NAME?"
  "Yes, you're right."
   "Probably not."
  "I never thought of that."
 "WELL, IT WOULD BE VERY SAFE WITH ME." adorable. I love the idea of Owen taking home the treasured armadillo and snuggling it into his room.

-Owen meets the ruffian cousins
"WELL, I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT WHAT WE COULD DO. THE RIVER IS FROZEN, SO THE SKATING IS VERY GOOD, AND I KNOW YOU ENJOY VERY ACTIVE THINGS LIKE THAT - THAT YOU ENJOY THINGS LIKE SPEED AND DANGER AND COLD WEATHER. SO SKATING IS ONE IDEA. AND EVEN THOUGH THE RIVER IS FROZEN, I'M SURE THERE ARE CRACKS SOMEWHERE, AND EVEN PLACES WHERE THERE ARE HOLES OF OPEN WATER - I FELL IN ONE LAST YEAR. I'M NOT SUCH A GOOD SKATER, BUT I'D BE HAPPY TO GO WITH YOU, EVEN THOUGH I'M GETTING OVER A COLD, SO I SUPPOSE I SHOULDN'T BE OUTSIDE FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME IN THIS WEATHER." This was such a great scene because Owen was really nervous to meet the crazy cousins. I didn't mention it, but Owen is extremely diminutive (just 5 feet tall) and rather delicate, and Johnny's cousins are rabble-rousing crazy cats. Johnny is shocked by their reaction to Owen, and I just loved the way Owen jumped right in the first time he met them and called their bluff.

-It's called foreshadowing, not "beat-you-over-the-head"-shadowing
Part of my annoyance with this book stemmed from the fact that Irving was, as I put it to Diana, 'more heavy-handed than Dickens with his foreshadowing'. And let me tell you, that's Saying Something. It's one thing to know from the beginning of the book that Owen will die, but Every Single Event was something we Already Knew Was Going to Happen. Hello, Irving, where's the element of surprise?

-Johnny, on losing his mother
"When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time - the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone."

In her later years, Johnny's grandmother starts to struggle with remembering things, and she wreaks some pretty serious havoc on her various servants. I loved this passage in particular:

"Grandmother hid her wigs so that these luckless ladies could not find them; then she would abuse these fools for misplacing her vital headpieces.
 'Do you actually expect me to wander the world as if I were an addlepated bald woman escaped from the circus?' she would say.
  'Missus Wheelwright - where did you put your wigs?' the women would ask her.
  'Are you actually accusing me of intentionally desiring to look like the lunatic victim of a nuclear disaster?' my grandmother would ask them. 'I would rather be murdered by a maniac than be bald!'
  More wigs were bought; most - but by no means all - of the old wigs were found. When Grandmother especially disliked a wig, she would retire it in the rose garden by submerging it in the birdbath.
   And when the Poggios continued to send total strangers to her door - intent on startling her - Harriet Wheelwright responded by startling them in return. She would dart to open the door for them - sprinting ahead of Ethel or Ethel's replacements - and she would greet the terrified delivery boys by snatching her wig off her head and shrieking at them while she was bald." ahghaghaghaghaghaghagha. Remind me to start stuffing unwanted items in the birdbath, Mom! And next time I have a bad hair day and someone dares to comment on it, I'll have to remember to retort, "Are you actually accusing me of intentionally desiring to look like the lunatic victim of a nuclear disaster?" ahghaghaghaghaghaghahg.

Sentences that struck me:
  • My grandmother said that Owen resembled an embryonic fox.
  • I suddenly realized what small towns are. They are places where you grow up with the peculiar - you live next to the strange and the unlikely for so long that everything and everyone become commonplace. 
  • There was not a night when my mother lay in her bed unable to see the comforting figure of the dressmaker's dummy; it was not only her confederate against the darkness, it was her double.
  • Even faintly sordid silliness excited us if it put us in contact with love.
Owen, to Johnny, on why reading is a gift:

Onwards to The Young Boy and the Pond. Join me if you feel inspired! Find the courage to live the way of life you love. Enjoy the crunching of leaves, the pumpkin-spiced beverages, and the crisp air on your cheeks while you can. Winter is on its way!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What does this mad myth signify?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Love in the Time of Cholera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an unconventional* love story. We follow the lives of several pairings of lovers, blending their perspectives on life, death, love, and everything in between. The Prague Spring and Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia provide the backdrop to our story, and its personal and political ramifications play out in the lives of the characters. Kundera paints a contemplative portrait of existence, and his protagonists illustrate his metaphysical musings.

* As in Cholera, love flows not simply from one person to another but from one, to another, to a third, back to the first, and so on and so on. Below is a breakdown of the various marriages and affairs by pairing:

{Tereza + [Tomas} + {Sabina] + [Franz} + Marie-Claude]
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed this novel, though I wasn't sure what I would think of it at first. My sister, Diana, was less than whelmed by it, and we traditionally have similar tastes, but as always, I tried to open my mind and heart to the book, and when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. Kundera strikes a tender balance between the philosophical treatise and traditional novel, and his characters flesh out his mental quandaries in a way that I found organic and beautiful. Like Cholera, I'd suggest patience with this one if you're planning to read or have read and didn't get through. It took time for me to feel out the flow of it, and its rhythm was not immediately apparent.

- On this life being our only go-round
"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." Kundera comes back to this theme with some frequency. I loved the idea that we can't weigh our lives against other versions of them, or make changes and try again, because this is the only one we have. 

- On compassion
"Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes." Tomas is tortured by Tereza's bad dreams at one point, and realizes that he could withstand violence against the rest of the country and the world (to his horror) but her grief and pain from her dreams is unbearable.

- Reading a book is the best first move
"He had an open book on his table. In Tereza's eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood." Tereza falls for Tomas when he's the only one reading at the restaurant she works at. I loved this moment because more often than not, I'm the one with my nose in a book. Maybe all I need to do to find my Tomas is read at restaurants more often! ;)

- On cutting novels some slack and seeing the small things in our own lives more
"It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty." Kundera points out that while novels seem to be rife with coincidences and fortuitous events, our own lives possess them as well, and in our need to see novels as fiction, we preclude ourselves from seeing the chance moments in our own lives. Open your eyes to these moments more - maybe you'll be surprised by their poignancy!

- On the Russian invasion
-- "Photographers...preserve the face of violence for the distant future." I loved this line - Tereza and Sabina are both photographers, and they record the events of the Prague Spring and Russian invasion. In today's world, photographs are an assumed artifact of our existence; they provide incontrovertible proof of an event's occurrence. What would we believe more deeply from 200 or 2,000 years ago if we had photographs of everything? Might those photographs keep us from repeating mistakes?
-- "The Russian invasion was not only a tragedy; it was a carnival of hate filled with a curious (and no longer explicable) euphoria."
-- "It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has become an ally of the secret police. We do not know how to lie." The political upheaval of Prague was intertwined with the characters' lives in an understated, yet fascinating way. I thought this line was a perfect illustration of Kundera's self-reflective narration and this pairing of the personal and political.

- Living abroad
"Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood." I found this such a poignant depiction of living in another country - when I lived in France, I felt much like Tereza after she moved to Switzerland. I've often bemoaned the fact that among other things, I lost my sense of humor - I wasn't fluent enough in French to be funny, or tell a humorous story. It's a tenuous balance, blending the joy of experiencing such newness and feeling so removed from the familiar.

- 'Words Misunderstood'
Kundera includes a "words misunderstood" section to describe the disconnect in Franz and Sabina's relationship. It was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Here's an example:

  • Sabina: "When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles. It looks as though the dead are dancing at a children's ball... No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery...against a backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby." This is how I feel about cemeteries. I still remember Père Lachaise in Paris and its meandering elegance, the gatekeeper for the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Modigliani, and Proust.
  • Franz: "For Franz, a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones."
Later, after they've separated, Sabina comes to see Franz's point of view on things more, and Kundera writes:
"Perhaps if they had stayed together longer, Sabina and Franz would have begun to understand the words they used. Gradually, timorously, their vocabularies would have come together, like bashful lovers, and the music of one would have begun to intersect with the music of the other." What an exquisite sentence.

- Karenin (love, and a bit wiv a dog)
Hands down, the most heartbreaking moment (SPOILER ALERT! I know, it's out of place - Sorry!) was when Karenin, Tomas and Tereza's dog, dies. They euthanize him at home, and the last few weeks they share with him as he's dying are heartrending. Here are a few of my favorite lines about him (actually, he's a she, but they decide that Karenin is the most appropriate fit for him from Anna K, which Tereza was reading at the time. I don't know anyone that gives a pet the wrong gendered name (AHEM. Harvey.):

- "Lately, Tereza realized, she positively enjoyed being welcomed into the day by Karenin. Waking up was sheer delight for him: he always showed a naïve and simple amusement at the discovery that he was back on earth; he was sincerely pleased. She, on the other hand, awoke with great reluctance, with a desire to stave off the day by keeping her eyes closed." This is exactly how I feel about my cat, Suzy. She's delighted to get up each day, if for no other reason than to badger me into consciousness, while I (and my chronic sleep apnea) feel a bit more like this Brad Pitt line from Ocean's Twelve: "Are you suicidal?" "Only in the morning."

- "Her home was Karenin, not Tomas. Who would wind the clock of their days when he was gone?" When Tomas and Tereza were getting ready to put Karenin down (Tomas is a doctor until he's forced to abandon his career due to persecution by the secret police), it reminded me of a time I took Suzy to the vet about a year ago. I was sitting in the waiting room with her in her travel carrier, and when I looked across the lobby, I saw a couple holding their cat in their laps. I was confused, and immediately thought that maybe they were a new-agey couple, and that they felt the carrier was too confining for their kitty. I didn't think much more of it, and went in with Suzy for her appointment. When I came out toting Suzy, the couple was standing next to the receptionist and weeping. Their arms were empty. Only then did I realize that they didn't bring a carrier because they were bringing their cat to be put down. On the way back home, I told Suzy profusely how much I loved her, and how sorry I felt for that couple. I also promptly told my rooommate, Josh, how great it was that that would never be a problem with Suzy because she was Never Going to Die. (#isn'tdenialthebest?) I Could tell you that I didn't weep uncontrollably when Karenin died. I could Also tell you I have three heads and a million dollars in the bank.

- On characters
Like Proust, Kundera pontificates about writing while he's writing. Some people probably find this very pretentious, but I find it's the moment when I feel most connected to an author. Here are a few of my favorite moments like this from the book:
--"Characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about."
--"The characters in my novels are all my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented."

Sentences that struck me:
  • "Tomas lived under the hypnotic spell cast by the excruciating beauty of Tereza's dreams."
  • "Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love."
  • "The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It's unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern." -- in other words, "Beauty by mistake."
  • "What does it mean to live in truth?"
In the last scene of the book, we experience the night before Tomas and Tereza die. (Sorry, I know I'm spoiling all over the place. It's no use crying over spoiled spoiler alerts, now is it?) We know they're going to die because we've already heard the news earlier in the novel, and Tereza suspects that their end is near. It was one of my favorite moments in the novel, so I'll leave you with it.

"On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas's shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and the odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together."

Onwards to Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, pumpkins and midnight margaritas! I'll be back with An Invocation for Lewis Nicepants. Adieu!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Little by little the fragrance of Fermina Daza became less frequent and less intense, and at last it remained only in white gardenias.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Love in the Time of Cholera is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It spans decades (over half a century, in fact) and tells both of the all-consuming passion of the bloom of young love and the more subdued, but no less powerful magnetism of companionship and shared lifetimes. We follow the lives of Fermina Daza, a young daughter of a sketchy businessman in South America, Florentino Ariza, the eclectic son of a notions merchant, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a second-generation aristocrat and enterprising doctor. The book begins with the death of Dr. Urbino after nearly 50 years of marriage to Fermina Daza, and traces back to the love affair between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza that predates her marriage, and begins anew after her husband's death. Love emerges in both classic and entirely unexpected ways, in various iterations and permutations. The end result is not, therefore, a straightforward, linear tale of two lovers, but a stunning portrayal of love in all its forms.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I loved this book. If you know me personally and you've chatted with me while I was reading the earlier stages of the book, you know that I wasn't wild about it when I first started it. But, much like Hemingway's novels, the book crept up on me. The language was undeniably magnificent, and the imagery sublime, but it wasn't until over halfway through that I felt the poignant tenderness of Florentino Ariza's unswerving passion for Fermina Daza, and her complicated path of maturity and journey to motherhood and beyond. If you haven't read it, I'd highly recommend it. I do recommend you enter into the book with an open mind, and perhaps even more importantly, a good dose of patience.

- Dr. Urbino's library (#iwantit)
"But no other room displayed the meticulous solemnity of the library, the sanctuary of Dr. Urbino until old age carried him off. There, all around his father's walnut desk and the tufted leather easy chairs, he had lined the walls and even the windows with shelves behind glass doors, and had arranged in an almost demented order the three thousand volumes bound in identical calfskin with his initials in gold on the spines. Unlike the other rooms, which were at the mercy of noise and foul winds from the port, the library always enjoyed the tranquillity and fragrance of an abbey." As a side-note, Florentino Ariza is also an avid reader, but since he isn't as well off as Dr. Urbino until much later in his life, it says Florentino lovingly sewed his novels into cardboard covers. What a sweetheart. <3 adorable="" i="">

- Universality
I am always most struck by the moments in books that seem piercingly relevant to life today. Dr. Urbino and Fermina Daza have a big fight after several very calm years of marriage, and, as is often the case, the fight is not over anything substantial, but in fact, over whether or not Fermina Daza had remembered to restock the soap. I loved the moment when, after an extended period of being confined to another room each night, Dr. Urbino falls asleep on their bed, and when Fermina Daza tries to shake him awake and send him off, he finally relents, and just mumbles, "Let me stay here, there was soap." :)

- Florentino Ariza, when he sees Fermina Daza on Christmas Eve
"In the din of fireworks and native drums, of colored lights in the doorways and the clamor of the crowd yearning for peace, Florentino Ariza wandered like a sleepwalker until dawn, watching the fiesta through his tears, dazed by the hallucination that it was he and not God who had been born that night."

- Love without speaking (Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza (the first time around)
"It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them. Never in that delirious spring, or in the following year, did they have the opportunity to speak to each other."Can you imagine falling in love with someone in this day and age and not being able to speak to them for over a year? 

- Soul crushing agony - when young Fermina Daza rejects young Florentino Ariza
"Now, instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment. In an instant the magnitude of her own mistake was revealed to her, and she asked herself, appalled, how she could have nurtured such a chimera in her heart for so long and with so much ferocity. She just managed to think: My God, poor man! Florentino Ariza smiled, tried to say something, tried to follow her, but she erased him from her life with a wave of her hand."  and later, "Today when I saw you, I realized that what is between us is nothing more than an illusion." I died a little in my heart when this happened. I knew the passion of their youthful amour was too effusive to last, but I never expected her to totally rescind her affection! 

- 51 years, 9 months, and 4 days
is how long Florentino Ariza waits to re-confess his love for Fermina Daza. I'm not sure there's anything in my life I would wait 51 years for. Maybe if you told me I could have a million dollars in 51 years, or a super-fantastic house, or a multi-year vacation across the globe. But still, I'm not sure. 51 years is a Long, Long time.

- Fermina Daza's cousin, Hildebranda, on meeting the newly spurned Florentino Ariza
"He is ugly and sad, but he is all love." possibly my favorite description of a protagonist ever.

Florentino Ariza's appearance: "The only area in which he persisted in defying time and fashion was in his somber attire, his anachronistic frock coats, his unique hat, the poet's string ties from his mother's notions shop, his sinister umbrella." I could just picture Florentino Ariza, standing in today's relentless rain, staring back at me and clutching his sinister umbrella.

- Letters from Florentino
"This was the period when he spent his free time int he Arcade of the Scribes, helping unlettered lovers to write their scented love notes, in order to unburden his heart of all the words of love that he could not use in customs reports." Florentino has too much love to know what to do with, so he starts writing love letters for other people. Amusingly enough, this leads to him writing both sides of some love affairs:
 "and so it was that he became involved in a feverish correspondence with himself."hehe, oh, Florentino. such a romantic!

- Florentino, on a love letter wooing Fermina Daza after the death of her husband
"It had to be a mad dream, one that would give her the courage she would need to discard the prejudices of a class that had not always been hers but had become hers more than anyone's. It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself."

- Love is love at any age. Take that, Ofelia!
Ofelia Urbino Daza (Fermina Daza and Dr. Urbino's daughter), to her brother, on her mother's late blooming affection for Florentino Ariza: "Love is ridiculous at our age, but at theirs it is revolting."

Fermina Daza's response: "The only thing that hurts me is that I do not have the strength to give you the beating you deserve for being insolent and evil-minded. But you will leave this house right now, and I swear to you on my mother's grave that you will not set foot in it again as long as I live." that's right, Fermina Daza! you tell her!

- On Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza
Fermina Daza, and Florentino's hope that she may have room to love him after all his waiting: "She began to speak of her dead husband in the present tense, as if he were alive, and Florentino Ariza knew then that for her, too, the time had come to ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind without a master."

- Don't worry, it's not cholera - it's love
When Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza finally get together (in their seventies), they sail on a riverboat full of companions. The trip to their destination is fine (they're in the early stages of companionship), but they're horrified by the public nature of the audience they would need to share their love with on their return, so Florentino Ariza, who runs the riverboat company, tells the captain to fly the boat home with a cholera flag (which suggests the ship is quarantined, and would require only Florentino Ariza, Fermina Daza, and critical crew members on the ship).
- "If such things were done for so many immoral, even contemptible reasons, Florentino Ariza could not see why it would not be legitimate to do them for love."
- "During the day they played cards, ate until they were bursting, took gritty siestas that left them exhausted, and as soon as the sun was down the orchestra began to play, and they had anisette with salmon until they could eat and drink no more." sounds perfect to me!

My favorite passage in the whole book, on Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza together (at last) in their seventies:
"It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death."

Particularly Pleasing Passages
  • "In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air."
  • on Florentino Ariza's serenades: "One of his favorite spots was the paupers' cemetery, exposed to the sun and the rain on an indigent hill, where turkey buzzards dozed and the music achieved a supernatural resonance. Later he learned to recognize the direction of the winds, and in this way he was certain that his melody carried as far as it had to."
  • on daily life at a brothel where Florentino made an unusual number of friends (just regular friends, readers - he had plenty of special friends while he waited for Fermina Daza, but oddly enough not at the brothel): "It was a daily fiesta that lasted until dusk, when the naked women marched, singing, toward the bathrooms, asked to borrow soap, toothbrushes, scissors, cut each other's hair, dressed in borrowed clothes, painted themselves like lugubrious clowns, and went out to hunt the first prey of the night. Then life in the house became impersonal and dehumanized, and it was impossible to share in it without paying."
  • on Fermina Daza and her father's return home from their journey: "Fermina Daza was no longer the only child, both spoiled and tyrannized by her father, but the lady and mistress of an empire of dust and cobwebs that could be saved only by the strength of invincible love."
  • Dr. Juvenal Urbino, trying to fall asleep the night after his return 'home' from school in Paris: "He was tormented by the hallucinating screams of the madwomen in the Divine Shepherdess Asylum next door, the harsh dripping from the water jar into the washbasin which resonated throughout the house, the long-legged steps of the curlew wandering in his bedroom, his congenital fear of the dark, and the invisible presence of his dead father in the vast sleeping mansion."
  • "Then there was such a diaphanous silence that despite the disorder of the birds and the syllables of water on stone, one could hear the desolate breath of the sea."
  • "From time to time, fragments of fugitive voices escaped through open balconies, bedroom confidences, sobs of love magnified by phantasmal acoustics and the hot fragrance of jasmine in the narrow, sleeping streets."
  • on Fermina Daza and Dr. Urbino's marriage: "Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy."
  • "The wind from the Caribbean blew in the windows along with the racket made by the birds, and Fermina Daza felt in her blood the wild beating of her free will."
May you feel your free will beating in your blood and feel the wind at your back. Onwards to The Intolerable Heaviness of Existence. Join me if you please!