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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My mother is a fish.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
As I Lay Dying is the story of a family's ill-fated attempt to bury their matriarch, Addie. In what feels a bit like a blighted game of Oregon Trail, the Bundren family tries their level best to transport Addie's body ("just produce a corpse, roll er old bones down to the office") to Jefferson, Mississippi, to be buried near her ancestors. The trip includes (but is by no means limited to) a broken leg, a barn fire, stalking buzzards, failed abortion attempts, a couple of drownded mules, an unsuccessful attempt to ford a stream, and quite a few confused and confounded neighbors who are Just Trying to Help, OK Bundrens? In the end, Addie is successfully planted six feet under and Anse Bundren, her husband, happily purchases himself a brand spankin' new set of teeth. Oh, and he seems to find himself a new lady in no time flat. SOOPRIZE! Please feel free to review the complex notes that I've included below for your perusing pleasure.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

My attempt at a Bundren family tree -->

Here are some of my favorite tidbits:
"Addie - titular corpse"
"Anse - no teeth"
"Cash - broken leg - same one twice"
"Jewel - different dad?"
"Dewey Dell - preggo; asked for abortion meds; no dice"
"Lafe - DD's baby daddy?"
"Dewey Dell - girl"
"Jewel - boy"

This was an interesting reading experience. I'm not sure I would say that I enjoyed the book, although I am glad I read it. I found it more coherent than The Sound and the Fury, and in reading the plot summary online after writing mine, was pleased to see that I had, in fact, captured all the salient points. That said, I consider myself a smart reader and rather a literary detective (86 classics in, fankuberymuch), and I was still only about 75% sure about what happened. So I feel for the less experienced/less dedicated reader who may feel only 25% sure of the sequence of events! The story is told in semi-stream of consciousness (which we all know is my FAVE) and each chapter features a different narrator (keeps you Guessing!). The one thing it has going for it is that the order is pretty much chronological, so at least we keep moving forward for most of the novel, rather than jumping about (and bursting into song). At least the Bundrens, unlike Billy Pilgrim, have not come unstuck in time. 

Here are a few of my thoughts, in no real order...

Title Error
The title is apparently a reference to Homer's (or you know, whoever Homer was or wasn't, or whatever collection of people constitute 'Homer') Odyssey. How (or whether) exactly we're supposed to know that is unclear. That said, I think the title is misleading - Addie, the titular corpse, is dead for 95% of the book. So I'd like to vote for a name change to As I Lay Dead. Who's with me?

Pa/Anse Bundren
First of all, let's just take a moment and mourn the fact that the name Anse hasn't lasted through the ages. OK, moment over. Anse was my favorite character because he's a 'love to hate' kind of guy. He's basically worse than useless without his wife, which is simultaneously adorable and infuriating. Here are a few snippets to paint the picture of Anse:

- "Pa leans above the bed in the twilight, his humped silhouette partaking of that owl-like quality of awry-feathered, disgruntled outrage within which lurks a wisdom too profound or too inert for even thought." Whenever someone is described as humped, I'm reminded of a time when my best friend Dennis and I went to Boathouse Row together. We got separated, and I didn't have my phone, so as twilight set in, I frantically planned how I would provide a description of Dennis to the authorities. In telling him this story later, he said he did the same thing. Here's how our recap went:

Dennis: So how were you going to describe me?
Me: Tall, about 5'11, with tight capri jeans, sandals, and short dredlocks, African-American, with a tight T-shirt. How would you describe me?
Dennis: Well, I was going to say you have glasses, you're wearing running clothes, and you hunch a little.
Me: Oh, awesome. So they would be looking for a stylish gay dude and a HUNCHBACK.

- "He touches the quilt as he saw Dewey Dell do, trying to smoothe it up to the chin, but disarranging it instead. He tries to smoothe it again, clumsily, his hand awkward as a claw, smoothing at the wrinkles which he made and which continue to emerge beneath his hand with perverse ubiquity, so that at last he desists, his hand falling to his side and stroking itself again, palm and back, on his thigh." I loved this image, particularly the depiction of Anse's hand as a claw. It's simultaneously tender and amusing, which is basically the book in a nutshell.

-"Anse meets us at the door. He has shaved, but not good. There is a long cut on his jaw, and he is wearing his Sunday pants and a white shirt with the neck-band buttoned." Whenever I read older books, I am struck by how similar things are after decades of difference. If a man's wife died today, we still might expect him to show up clumsily shaved with a cut on his face. 

-"'If ever was such a misfortunate man,' pa says. He looms tall above us as we squat; he looks like a figure carved clumsily from tough wood by a drunken caricaturist."

- Upon finally arriving in Jefferson with the body: "We forgot our spade, too."

- Peabody, the doctor, when he finally treats Cash's broken leg: 
"God amighty, why didn't Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family...Where is Anse, anyway? What's he up to now?
  'He's takin back them spades he borrowed.'
'That's right. Of course he'd have to borrow a spade to bury his wife with. Unless he could borrow a hole in the ground. Too bad you all didn't put him in it too." Haghaghahgah. This was my favorite line in the book, because it encapsulates everyone in the community (and likely the reader)'s feelings about Anse and his attitude toward his family.

Let's do it Miss Havisham style
Addie is buried in her wedding dress, which made me think of crazy old Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Granted, it was probably common to be buried in your wedding dress, as it was likely the nicest piece of clothing many people owned. It still just felt delightfully dramatic. In Addie's only chapter, she shares this snippet of her father's philosophy: "The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." Charming, right? Dad of the year!

My mother is a fish.
"Pa shaves every day now because my mother is a fish." Vardaman, the youngest child, starts saying his mother is a fish because he kills a fish the same day his mother dies. I think (big emphasis here on I think, not I know) that this is a metaphor for death; that the boy processes death in the only way he knows how, which is to compare a once living thing (his mother) to a now dead thing (the fish). I could be WAY off base here, though, so don't quote me. ;) If you've read this one and you have other ideas, please share!

More sayings I want to add to my vocabulary:
- "We wouldn't discommode you." The Bundrens love to say this to the neighbors. As in, we're traveling around with this rotting corpse and it stinks and we don't have any money and we're pennypinchers anyway but PLEASE, REally, we're OK, we don't need your help. I wouldn't want to discommode you!
- At one point, we flash back to Jewel falling asleep all the time at work on the farm. His brother's suspect that "rutting" is the cause. After he is gone many nights for very long periods of time, Darl says, "She's sure a stayer. I used to admire her, but I downright respect her now." I found this hilarious and gross all at once. That said, I think we should all start guessing that 'rutting' is the problem whenever anyone is gone too long. Oh, Bob didn't come back from the grocery store yet? Rutting. Definitely rutting. ;) 

The novel opens with Cash constructing his mother's coffin as she is passing away. There are many different depictions of the sound and the bizarreness of him working on it right outside her window. This is one of my favorites lines: "Pa goes to the house. The rain rushes suddenly down, without thunder, without warning of any sort; he is swept onto the porch upon the edge of it and in an instant Cash is wet to the skin. Yet the motion of the saw has not faltered, as though it and the arm functioned in a tranquil conviction that rain was an illusion of the mind."

When a word is just a word
Addie's chapter includes some philosophizing on words and their meanings. I liked this piece on the relevance (or irrelevance) of naming: "He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn't matter." What do you think? Do we need the word love to feel love? 

The Literary Detective is On The Case!
As I mentioned previously (and as my sister can attest) this book involved a good deal of guesswork. I was particularly proud of myself for figuring out Addie's affair, and was struck by this sentence describing its end: "Then it was over. Over in the sense that he was gone and I knew that, see him again though I would, I would never again see him coming swift and secret to me in the woods dressed in sin like a gallant garment already blowing aside with the speed of his secret coming."

Mildly mystifying maternal math
At one point, Addie says, "I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel." I know that means she was trying to make up for having an illegitimate child, but I'm Prrettty sure that's not how it works, Addie. ;)

The foot that was once purple has now turned a sort of blackish in color...
"Cash's leg and foot turned black." Poor Cash gets the raw end of the deal with his broken leg to begin with (during the ford-streaming - btw did I mention Cash can't swim? I know, #brilliantplan) but then his super smart family decides it's a great idea to try to set his leg by whipping up some homemade cement. How could that plan possibly go wrong? 

In Which We Learn Some New Words:
brogans - a course, stout leather shoe reaching to the ankle [As in, do my brogans go with this prom dress, or should I have gone for the wedges?]

peakling - jkidding - I just looked this up and it's a Faulknerian fantasy word. Don't bother adding it to your vocabulary!

hale - (of a person, esp. an elder one) strong and healthy [As in, Gandalf is such a hale fellow that he can still take down a Balrog now and again! haghaghagh #tolkiennerd]

scoriation - a sloppily cut groove, furrow, or trench, characterized by the presence of refuse material from which it was cut [As in, did you see the scoriation on that tree in Fern Gully? The Hexus must be coming!]

reeves - ropes threaded through a ring or other aperture [As in, not even the reeves on the fence could keep Rocinante from galloping away from Don Quixote!]

stanchion - an upright bar, post, or frame forming a support or barrier [As in, maybe a stanchion would have helped that miserable attempt to ford the stream.]

proscenium - the part of a theater stage in front of the curtain [As in, Judy should stop leaving her cupcakes on the proscenium or the actors will all trip when the show starts!] 

Passages I Found Particularly Pleasing:
  • "Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks."
  • "He spits with decorous and deliberate precision into the pocked dust below the porch."
  • "I enter the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices. As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head."
  • "The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads; the light has turned copper: in the eye portentous, in the nose sulphurous, smelling of lightning."
  • "Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again."
Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.
You probably know by now that I enjoy literary discussions and philosophies on sanity. Here's another to add to the bunch: "Sometimes I aint so sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It's like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it." Pretty sure I'm somewhere smack dab between pure crazy and pure sane. ;)

See you later, you cwazy cupcakes! And now for your entertainment I present... Cupcake Bargaining.

Onwards to the Toxinlumber Torah! Happy August, friends. :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Name of the Rose takes place in fourteenth century Italy, chronicling a bizarre series of deaths at a rural monastery and their unlikely cause. Brother William is a British monk who has played a key role in the Inquisition, and his Sherlock Holmes-esque use of logic and deduction makes him the perfect man to investigate the murders at the abbey. He brings along a green novice, Brother Adso, who narrates the tale for us. After the initial death of a troubled monk, Adelmo, six more deaths ensue, and each one seems more cryptic than the last. The abbey houses a heavily guarded library, which turns out to be a labyrinth with a secret access point through a crypt (I KNOW, CREEPY much?). In the end, we discover that the murders were all part of an attempt to protect a secret book, a supposed sequel of sorts to Aristotle's Poetics, but William and Adso's efforts to recover the tome are in vain. The murderer eats the (what we now realize are) poisoned pages of the book when his secret is unraveled, and a misstep in the ensuing chase knocks over a lamp and sets the library (and eventually the whole abbey) ablaze (whoopsydaisy!). Adso and William leave the next day, and the book closes with Adso returning after many years to collect the morsels of books that remain in the ashen ruins.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I first read this book in my "Introduction to Comparative Literature" class in freshman year with Professor Maud McInerney at Haverford College, which played an integral role in me choosing to major in Comp Lit. Professor McInerney was hands down my favorite professor in college, so in retrospect, my affection for this book may have been influenced by my affinity for Maud. At any rate, it held up fairly well, though I found the diatribes on papal politics and various factions of friars to be distracting and dull this time around. We read it in Intro to Comp Lit as a sort of encyclopedia with piles of layers, and we read each chapter slowly and with hefty annotations, which made it kind of like a group treasure hunt. Normally, I don't enjoy reading books like that, and as a rule for this blog (and life) I ask books to stand alone, so that wasn't an option here. In this book's case, though, I think that's definitely the way to go. If you have a chance to read it with a class, or are willing to spend a good chunk of time looking things up on your own, then I say go for it! If not, be prepared to sift through a good deal of history, Latin, and confusing terminology and just shake your head and move on through.

It's all Greek to me.
I have mixed feelings on the use of other languages in books. On the one hand, knowing French and some Latin, understanding snippets in those languages makes me feel like I'm part of an exclusive club. On the other hand, I hate that writing in other languages intentionally excludes readers who don't know those languages. Mommy, I know you love Latin, and you read and understand a good deal of it; however, Mr. Eco, Latin is not high on the list of known languages for the 20th/21st century reading populace (even in your home country of Italy), so do you think you could do us a solid and at least provide translation footnotes? Eh?

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? 
"Only the librarian has, in addition to that knowledge, the right to move through the labyrinth of the books, he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them, he alone is responsible for their safekeeping." I loved the mystique of the librarian, and the idea that someone the mainstream casts as a pretty safe, stodgy sort of breed held such immense and incredible power over knowledge back then.

William's thoughts on torture:
"Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions...Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him. Let me tell you, the white heat of truth comes from another flame." I am staunchly against torture, but I found the (fabricated and fictional, but historically informed) philosophy on its usage in the Inquisition to be enlightening and surprisingly multidimensional.

Maybe Adso has sleep apnea, too!
Adso describes how he feels after a daytime nap in this way: "I felt dull and somnolent, for daytime sleep is like the sin of the flesh: the more you have the more you want, and yet you feel unhappy, sated, and unsated at the same time." Adso, are you in my head? This is how I feel every time I nap during the day. (And basically every morning when I wake up. #sleepapnea #ibrokeupwithmybipap). The only other person who has effectively captured this feeling is Mike Birbiglia, in describing Sleepy Carl, his early morning alter-ego. ;)

Here are some phrases I came across that I think we should make more of an effort to use in casual conversation:
- "I fear some new calamity!" I'm thinking some good uses would be when someone takes too long to come back from the restroom when you're eating out, or when you can't find your cat in her usual snuggle spots. Not "Where could she be?", but, "I fear some new CalaMity!" Doesn't it have a fantastic ring to it? 

- "Have you already become accustomed to this den of madmen?" The abbot says this to William about the abbey. I think it would be easily applicable to getting comfortable hanging out with a bunch of rowdy dudes, or the like -  Not "Aren't these guys a bunch of weirdos?" or "Can you believe this crowd?" but "Have you already become accustomed to this den of madmen?"

- "We must imagine all possible orders, and all disorders." William says this to Adso with meaningful emphasis. This would be a great one for when you see your neighbors haven't gotten home from vacation yet, or uncharacteristically forgot to mow their lawn. Your friend says, "Maybe there was an incident", or perhaps "Could something be up?" and you look them right in the eye and say, "We must imagine all possible orders, and all disorders."

- "I am losing faith in the human race; I see plots and conspiracies on every side." This is a real gem. You walk in to the break room at work, a coworker you don't particularly like who's a bit of a nervous nelly strolls up and cheerily says, "How was your weekend?" and you counter with, "I am losing faith in the human race; I see plots and conspiracies on every side" and stroll out of the room with your microwaved oatmeal in hand. haghaghaghaghaghag

- "You are the Devil, and like the Devil, you live in darkness." So many possibilities! Why settle for a traditional comeback when you can accuse someone of being the Devil and living in darkness? Also a great option for yelling at nonverbal creatures. We have a beetle infestation in our kitchen cabinets, and this would be a great line to whisper at one before I smash its obnoxious little scuttling body into a paper towel. I think it would hit the point home of who's really boss (even though between you and me it's obviously the beetles since the Raid isn't helping and they keep coming back).

William and his green-colored glazzies
William, being a bit ahead of the times and all, is trendsetting for the other monks by rolling up for his investigation with some sweet lenses. When they get stolen, he has the glazier try to make him some new ones, which leads to this moment: "William was grumbling, irritated because so far the most satisfactory lens was an emerald color, and, as he said, he did not want parchments to seem meadows to him." I thought this was hilarious because it reminded me of when I go strawberry picking with my mom and I have to remind her to take her sunglasses off before she picks, because otherwise all the strawberries she picks will be underripe. She's like, "Oh, all the strawberries in my row are fanTASTic, and I say, "Take off your sunglasses, Mom!" ;)

The intricate interwoven conversations of books
I loved this line of Adso's about realizing that books speak to and about each other: "Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves." One of the most enriching things about this blog experience has been deepening my understanding of that inter-book conversation. I think when I was younger I thought it was exclusive, or snobby, for one book to reference other, (often longer and harder to read) books. But now I realize it's not only an inevitability, but a treasure, that books are not stand alone objects, but intricate references to each other over the deep and diverse history of the written word. Readers have the unique opportunity to steep themselves in this complex and rich conversation by continuing to seek out books and finding the connections between them.

Things are not always what they seem.
"William was deeply humiliated. I tried to comfort him; I told him that for three days he had been looking for a text in Greek and it was natural in the course of his examination for him to discard all books not in Greek. And he answered that it is certainly human to make mistakes, but there are some human beings who make more than others, and they are called fools, and he was one of them, and he wondered whether it was worth the effort to study in Paris and Oxford if one was then incapable of thinking that manuscripts are also bound in groups, a fact even novices know, except stupid ones like me, and a pair of clowns like the two of us would be a great success at fairs, and that was what we should do instead of trying to solve mysteries, especially when we were up against people far more clever than we." I loved this part because (a) it's funny that William is so hard on himself and Adso and (b) it reminded me of a story I heard recently on NPR, on Fresh Air. Terry Gross was interviewing a woman who had traveled to Mali just after the Islamic extremists were expelled by the French. The woman, a reporter, told a story of how she walked into a building that had been an Islamic stronghold, and ignored all the papers in Arabic, because she didn't know the language. She went back to her hotel later and told a fellow reporter, a Lebanese woman, this story, and the woman pointed out that anything in Arabic was in fact priceless, as those writings definitively belonged to the Islamic extremists because the rest of Mali functions in written French. The reporter ended up going back to the headquarters and finding essential pieces of the story (from accounting reports to letters between heads of the Taliban) that helped her to piece together what had previously been considered a black hole in history.

One day, perhaps this is all that will remain.
"At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books." Adso's collection of the remaining 'library' at the monastery ruins reminds me that paper is not permanent, and one day only fragments will remain of our beloved written fictions. I wonder what our remaining library will contain, and what treasures will be lost and gained over the course of time?

Words this book taught me:
glabrous - free from hair or down; smooth [As in, my cat Suzy would be glabrous if I shaved off all her beautiful calico fur.]

balneary - a bathing room [As in, must I go to the balneary to take a shower, or is it appropriate to throw water on myself anywhere I please?]

apostasy - the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief [As in, there's nothing like the Tea Party to inspire some apostasy in the conservative ranks.]

ossarium - a place or receptacle for the bones of the dead [As in, the secret entrance to the labyrinth library is just through the ossarium (ha. ha. ha HORRIFYING.)

palimpsest - a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain; fig. something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form [As in, I wish you would stop scribbling recipes for tofu on my palimpsest - you can barely even read the AmAzing poems I wrote when I was seven years old.]

"Snow, dear Adso, is an admirable parchment on which men's bodies leave very legible writing. But this palimpsest is badly scraped, and perhaps we will read nothing interesting on it."

catarrh - excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane [As in, I wish you would remember to use your NetiPot more often because that catarrh really makes your throat clearing unBEARABLE.]

meed - a deserved share or reward [As in, A super-late Spanish style dinner is a meed that awaits me upon completion of this blog post. Or alternatively, Suzy Chubsters thinks she should get a meed every day just for existing and sleeping like a champion cat.]

scapular - a short monastic cloak covering the shoulders [As in, Adso likes to tuck things under his scapular that he doesn't want the other monks to see, like his Twizzlers and Snickers bars. Just in case you were wondering, like everything else hipster, hilarious, and random, scapulars like this one on the left are available for sale on Etsy. Get your scapular today, folks!]

hebetude - the state of being dull or lethargic [As in, Meredith post-another crazy Breakthrough summer exhibits extreme hebetude and she LIKES IT like that.]

adamantine - unbreakable [As in, my love for vocabulary words and teaching them to you is ADAMANTINE. Aren't you just LOVING THIS SECTION and its seeming neverending quality? ;)]

ecpyrosis - the periodic resolution of all things into fire [As in, I sincerely hope my personal library never experiences an ecpyrosis like the one at the end of this book. Keep those matches away from Suzy!]

Passages I particularly liked:
  • "I grow old as the world does, waiting to be lost in the bottomless pit of silent and deserted divinity." 
  • "It was barely the first faint herald of a winter daybreak, but it was enough, and the dim penumbra now replacing the night's darkness in the nave was enough to relieve my heart."
  • "Everything happened in a few moments, as if for centuries those ancient pages had been yearning for arson and were rejoicing in the sudden satisfaction of an immemorial thirst for ecpyrosis."
  • "For these men devoted to writing, the library was at once the celestial Jerusalem and an unground world on the border between terra incognita and Hades. They were dominated by the library, by its promises and by its prohibitions."
I'll leave you with a few of my favorite exchanges between student and teacher on the merits of learning and knowledge:

Adso: "Why do you want to know?"
William: "Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do."

William: "Very well, it's his house; but by tomorrow morning I must know. I must."
Adso: "You must? Who obliges you now?"
William: "No one ever obliges us to know, Adso. We must, that is all, even if we comprehend imperfectly."

I challenge you all to continue knowing and trying to know more in the constant yearning for understanding and comprehension of this muddled and complex world of ours. Keep your friends close, and your personal library even closer! As T.S. Eliot put it, "The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man."

Happy August breezes to you all, and onwards to While I Lounged Expiring. Join me if you dare!