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.

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!