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.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

I lay flat on the bank and heard the river and the rain.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
A Farewell to Arms is a story of romance, war, tenderness, brutality, and everyday life.  Frederick Henry, a.k.a. Federico, or Tenente, is an American ambulance driver serving with the Italian army (I know, #confused) in WWI.  Henry meets Miss Catherine Barkley, a Scottish nurse, during his time in the war, and they quickly become enamored of one another. Henry is wounded by a mortar shell and gets transferred to Milan to have surgery and convalesce.  Miss Barkley follows him to Milan and serves as a hospital nurse, where they carry out a somewhat secret (and somewhat not) romance.  They begin to consider themselves "married", and just when he must return to the front, Henry discovers Catherine is pregnant. He returns to war in a very different stage; the Italians are being forced into retreat by the Austrians.  Henry tries to lead his ambulance men back safely along the retreat path, but the Italians become suspicious of everyone in the chaos and Henry is taken for a German soldier. He is about to be executed for infiltrating enemy lines, but he makes a narrow escape and stows away on a train.  He reunites with Catherine in Stresa, but after a brief spate of happiness, the couple is forced to escape to Switzerland so that Henry can evade arrest for "deserting".  They are blissfully happy in Switzerland for a few months, staying in adorable chalets, eating delicious food, and drinking quite a bit (the both of them - clearly the whole alcohol is a NO-NO during pregnancy hadn't quite happened yet).  Catherine goes into labor at a hospital and Henry does his best to help her through what turns out to be a horrific first labor. After a marathon birth, they discover their son is stillborn.  Catherine, exhausted and weakened from the birth, hemorrhages and soon passes away. Henry is left walking back alone to his hotel in the rain.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

It may seem like an odd story, but I really very much enjoyed this book. If you haven't read it, I highly suggest it, though I would say be prepared to give yourself time to fall into its rhythm.  I used a metaphor of riding a horse to describe the way I felt about reading The Sun Also Rises, and it would apply quite nicely to this one as well. Hemingway doesn't dive into his novels; rather, he draws you in with these sort of concentric circles of intrigue and tenderness.  I find myself surprisingly attached to his protagonists, but in a very different way than with most novels. There's a marvelous intentionality to Hemingway's writing.

Here are a few of my favorite bits (why don't you tell me the bit you liked, and I'll tell you if I liked making that bit?) in no particular order:

- An Italian, speaking to Tenente after he is wounded. It's true - they were eating lunch when they got hit.
"Good news! You will be decorated. They want to get you the medaglia d'argento but perhaps they can only get the bronze."
  "What for?"
 "Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?"
  "No," I said. "I was blown up while we were eating cheese."

- Tenente speaking to the doctor. (Clearly not everyone gets his humor ;))
"Do you want to keep your knee, young man?"
"No," I said.
"I want it cut off," I said, so I can wear a hook on it." hagh.

-Catherine, to Henry. I suppose it's not an accident that when Henry is left alone at the end, he's walking off in the rain without her.
Catherine: "Listen to it rain."
"It's raining hard."
"And you'll always love me, won't you?"
"And the rain won't make any difference?"
"That's good. Because I'm afraid of the rain."
I don't know, darling. I've always been afraid of the rain."

This was so tender - it reminded me very much of a Fitzgerald scene where the rain stops and Gatsby tells Nick with such delight that it's stopped raining and it's a marvelous metaphor for his relationship rekindling with Daisy.

- Jaundice incident
Tenente gets in trouble with the nurses at the convalescent hospital for giving himself jaundice, because, as it turns out, he has been getting everyone who visits to sneak in alcohol for him.  The head nurse catches one of Tenente's friends sneaking out bottles from his closet. She is Horrified (which is particularly hilarious considering that he's already gotten rid of half of his stash when she finds it) and they get into an incredibly amusing argument and Tenente proudly points out one alcohol bottle shaped like a bear.

- Henry, to Catherine, upon realizing in the middle of the night that they must away to Switzerland to escape arrest:

"What is it, darling?"
"It's all right, Cat. Would you like to get dressed right away and go in a boat to Switzerland?"
"Would you?"
"No. I'd like to go back to bed."
"What is it about?"
"The barman says they are going to arrest me in the morning."
"Is the barman crazy?"
"Then please hurry, darling, and get dressed so we can start."

- The barman, who lends Catherine and Henry his rudimentary boat with which to escape:

"I don't think you'll get drowned."
"That's good."
"Go with the wind up the lake."
"All right."
"Did you leave the money for the hotel?"
"Yes. In an envelope in the room."
"All right. Good luck, Tenente."
"Good luck. We thank you many times."
"You won't thank me if you get drowned."
"What does he say?" Catherine asked.
"He says good luck."

Passages I particularly liked:
- "I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind." on getting hit with the mortar shell

- "Oh, baby, how you've come back to me. You come back serious and with a liver. I tell you this war is a bad thing." Henry's hilarious roommate and friend Rinaldi, on Henry's return from the hospital

- "I don't want to be your friend, baby. I am your friend." Rinaldi again. ;)

- "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." on the inadequacy of words to describe war

- "The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it."

- "Never mind, darling. We'll have breakfast first. You won't mind being arrested after breakfast." Catherine, after they arrive in Switzerland by rowing a rickety boat in the night to evade customs.

- "I sat back in the corner with a heavy mug of dark beer and an opened glazed-paper package of pretzels and ate the pretzels for the salty flavor and the good way they made the beer taste and read about disaster."

- "Oh darling, I want you so much I want to be you too."
    "You are. We're the same one."
    "I know it. At night we are."
    "The nights are grand."
    "I want us to be all mixed up." Catherine and Henry, on having to part

This last bit was my favorite moment in the book. Henry's describing their routine in the chalet in Switzerland:

"There was a box of wood in the hall outside the living-room and I kept up the fire from it. But we did not stay up very late. We went to bed in the dark in the big bedroom and when I was undressed I opened the windows and saw the night and the cold stars and the pine trees below the window and then got into bed as fast as I could.  It was lovely in bed with the air so cold and clear and the night outside the window."

Like I said, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Onwards and upwards, to The Death of the Radius. No, that's not it - The Demise of Diameter. DEFinitely got it that time. ;)

Monday, January 7, 2013

The air seemed to be full of dark intentions, like the forms of thoughts not yet born.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Volume 1 - The Golden Compass
Volume 2 - The Subtle Knife
Volume 3 - The Amber Spyglass

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
His Dark Materials is an epic saga about love, friendship, and the very meaning of our existence. It follows a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, on a journey of adolescence, bravery, and boundless adventure. The first installment illustrates Lyra's world, the comfort of an Oxford college not too different from the one in our world, her escapades with playmates, and her life as the ward of an elderly group of male scholars. Her worldview quickly shifts after children begin to go missing, including her best friend Roger, and she learns of mysterious other worlds and the important role of Dust. Lyra travels deep into the Arctic with an eclectic band of allies (Gyptians, an armored bear, and a Texan aeronaut) to rescue the children who, it turns out, are being stripped of their daemons (in this world, an animal extension of their soul) as part of an experiment. Lyra discovers, to her horror, that the mastermind behind the experiment is none other than her mother, Mrs. Coulter, with whom Lyra had only recently become acquainted. Many intrigues follow - in short, the children are saved, but Lyra inadvertently betrays Roger by bringing him along to rescue her father, Lord Asriel. Asriel has been doing some experimenting of his own, and at the book's climax, he opens a bridge to other worlds by severing Roger from his daemon. Lyra, horrified, uses the bridge in an attempt to get to the bottom of Dust and its role in the world, hoping to bring an end to the abuses of her fellow children and atone for betraying her friend.

The second volume introduces a slew of new characters, the most important of which is Will, a young boy who is living in a world just like ours before he slips through a window into another world where he encounters Lyra. The two children find they need each other's help to achieve their goals (Will is looking for his father, who disappeared some 10 years ago and never returned) and an uneasy alliance is born. Asriel and Mrs. Coulter continue their desperate plans to tackle Dust and revolutionize the world order and witches, angels, and physics professors join the ensemble. Will and Lyra find themselves forced to do battle for a knife with magic powers, and Will, as the knife's new bearer, finds he is able to open windows to other worlds. Will finally finds his father only to watch him die and Lyra is kidnapped by her mother a second time.

The final segment aligns our storylines, but only after some grisly deaths, grim defeats, and difficult decisions. Will saves Lyra from her mother and they hatch a plan to travel to the land of the dead.  Lyra wants to apologize to Roger and see if there isn't some way she can help him, and two spies of Asriel's, Gallivespians (aka tiny people) accompany the pair. They succeed in attaining death's dark depths and claw their way to freedom with a host of ghosts in tow.  The ghosts can never again embrace their corporeal forms, but they can become one with Dust particles in the world of the living, a fate they gladly accept.  Metatron, an angel who has replaced "the authority", or God, with dastardly plans to ruin civilization as we know it, tries to find Lyra and Will and kill them.  He is foiled unexpectedly by Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, who unite at last only to drag Metatron together to their deaths. Will and Lyra discover their love for each other in bliss, but just as they begin to celebrate their triumph, they learn that the worlds which have been opened to each other by Asriel and Will's knife and various other means must now be closed to each other forever. Dust is leaking from all of these tears in the fabric of the universe, and without Dust, life cannot go on.  Will and Lyra must settle back in their respective worlds (for daemons can survive in longevity only in the worlds that are their own) and the witches and angels seal each window tight until the universe is whole once more.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you've read this trilogy, you know that I've just summarized an incredibly complex web of plots in very broad strokes. I have a much more detailed abstract for each book written down in the margins, but I think the one I gave above gives you a better overall feel for the series. Besides, if you want to know Everything that happens, you should pick the books up and read them yourself!

I experienced a wide variety of sensations about this series as I read it, including but not limited to elation, intrigue, anger, annoyance, amusement, and sorrow. The Christian allegory and its major role in the storyline were a bit tiresome to me by the end, but I still think Pullman definitely deserves his place in the fantasy classics genre.

A few thoughts, in no special order:

-- I finished the third book on a plane back from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and I for one am glad my seat partner was sound asleep and therefore did not see me weeping awkwardly as I pretended to glance out the window. There's something magic and ethereal about finishing a book in the middle of the air over the frozen mountains of Utah - I felt like even though time seemed as if it were in limbo, my brain was soaring and I could almost touch Lyra and her windows to new worlds. At least, until the entire Penn wrestling team woke up and starting creating some intriguing noises (and smells).

-- When Lyra consults the alethiometer (haghaghag which I just realized I comPLEtely left out of the plot summary even though it's crucial to the story - Whoops!), which is basically a compass for sussing out truths, about Will after she first meets him, it tells her he is a murderer. Lyra, contrary to what I hope most of the people in the world would feel, is delighted. And I quote, "well, good. there's someone I can trust." Hee hee hee. Oh, Lyra. ;)

-- One of the characters I also swept over quite quickly (the physics professor, as it were) Dr. Mary Malone, has an encounter with "the Shadows", or dust particles, or whatever you want to call them, through a computer program, and she thinks at them and they think back in typed letters. This reminded me of how awesome Sphere was, by Michael Crichton, and the computer as a sentient being. Anyone? Anyone?

-- Mrs. Coulter lures the children away to Bolvangar in the first book by offering them sweet treats and warm "chocolatl", a type of hot cocoa. I thought instantly of the white witch in Narnia and tried to send the little children a message in my head, something to the effect of, "Nuh-UH, you do NOT want any of her Turkish Delight, thankyouverymuch!"

-- Hands down the saddest scene in the series is when Lyra comes upon a child who has been severed from his daemon.  Little Tony Makarios is clutching a piece of dried fish, calling mournfully for his "ratter", his daemon who was killed by the Gobblers. He lives only a day with Lyra and the Gyptians, and she can barely stand to be so close with his agony.

-- Quotations at the beginning of every chapter (ahem, third book, Monsieur Pullman) are *not* always a great idea. Especially if you are not as wizardly adept at using them as Richard Adams in Watership Down. I say, when in doubt, use your own words, every time.

-- Metatron? Really? God is an angel named Metatron? What is this, Transformers?

-- All told I felt like the series really hit its peak somewhere between the end of the first book and the middle of the second, but I think Pullman did a good job of finishing the series once finally got down to finishing the series and stopped introducing random new characters and waxing poetic about Christian allegory and new species with wheel legs, blah blah blah etc. etc. etc. Best takeaway (in my humble opinion) from the final installment was this: "we have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere." I don't know if I believe in heaven (and if it exists, I'm not positive I want it to be a republic!) but I think that we need to see the world we live in as the now, not a stepping stone to the endgame. People kill each other, throw literal stones at each other, malign, torture, torment, and starve each other right here in this moment in this universe. If an afterlife exists, well bully for us. But whether it does or not, our world is defined by the actions each one of us put forth each and every day. The world is what we make it, and its our responsibility to build it better.

-- Last thought in what is becoming rather a longwinded post. Mrs. Coulter tells Lord Asriel that she can't bear the thought of oblivion. She can understand a heaven or a hell, but oblivion terrifies her. I've never been frightened of oblivion. Sure, it's a bit weird that we might exist and feel and think and love and strive and suffer and then - poof! - nothingness. But there's something gentle to me about nonexistence. It doesn't lift us up, or praise our deeds, but neither does it judge or punish. It simply is. Or perhaps it simply isn't. I know that many probably don't share this sentiment, but I just wanted to explore the idea for a moment.

Passages I particularly liked:
  • Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter.
  • I am an armored bear; war is the sea I swim in and the air I breathe.
  • North and further north they ran, while the pallid noontide came and went and the twilight wrapped itself again around the world.
  • I would have forsaken the star-tingle and the music of the Aurora.
  • They flew throughout the night. The stars wheeled around them, and faded and vanished as the dawn seeped up from the east. The world burst into brilliance as the sun's rim appeared, and then they were flying through blue sky and clear air, fresh and sweet and moist.
Onwards to a final semester of studies, no more crying on airplanes (I mean it!) and snuggling with a pleasantly plump furry daemon of my own. Time for Goodbye, dear brain! [I'm certain (one thousand and fifty percent!) that this time, of all times, I got that one right. :0)]