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, September 12, 2015

'Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." - Soren Kierkegaard

My dearest blog enthusiasts,

I must make a confession. I have been putting off writing this reflection post that I promised you. On the one hand, I felt as though there were so many things to say (perhaps Too Many things to say in one space!) and on the other hand, I dreaded the seeming finality of writing a closing post. This project has become very dear to me, and it seemed sad to close the book on it (GET IT? ha Ha. ha Hagh.) Aaaand, we're back.

The obsessive part of my brain also had me convinced that I had to read every single one of my posts, in order, before I could possibly accurately reflect on the entire project. And while I enjoyed reviewing the posts that I did, I floundered around #17 or #18, I think somewhere between Huxley's Brave New World and Joyce's Ulysses.

So forgive me for 'going rogue' from my own persnickety brain and writing this without reading each post in consecutive succession, but also for delaying the denouement. Neither was fair to you, dear audience, and both would stand in the way of my new blog project, 101 and Beyond (this is a link, for those of you lacking in tech savvy), where I will tackle a new set of one hundred books, this time of my choosing. [Update - 10.23.16 - I merged that blog with this one, as very few of my very few followers made the transition. So 101 and Beyond is on this same site - hooray!] Feel free to hop over to that blog to check it out, and join me for one, will you? I'd like it to be more collaborative, and the list is designed to feature classics that missed the first list (ahem, imho) as well as classics (or books that could at least loosely be described as such) that were written by authors underrepresented on the first list. Some examples include:
-- Classics by authors of color (particularly African-American authors, but this extends to Latino/Latina authors, Native American authors, international authors from countries other than Russia (sorry T, D, N, and B, no offense!), aboriginal authors, etc.)
-- Less 'conventional' classics, like classic graphic novels (as in featuring cartoon graphics, not the other variety - though that would be fun, too! ;))
-- Classics by women (no offense to Jane, Sylvia, Charlotte, Emily, Virginia, Mary Ann, Harper, Ayn, or the rest of the ladies repped on the first list, but let's be honest, (A) They're almost all white (we had Toni on there, and that is IT) and (B) a whole LOT of them are from Britain. Which is Great, no offense to our erstwhile colonial overlords, but let's EXPAND shall we? The world is way bigger than white America and Great Britain, and (C) Even with the excellent ladies who managed to squeak their way into the literary 'canon' that was this list (with fake male names if necessary (looking at you, Mary Ann/George Eliot)), there's nowhere near an equal representation, and the types of stories told can have a tendency to lack a modern woman's perspective.
-- Classics by queer authors, and/or about queer subjects (as in GLBT, not odd, though again, FUN!) -- we had a fair amount of latent tension here and there, and some light and mildly kinky gay BDSM in good ole' Proust (thanks, Marcel!) but other than that, Preeetty low in this category. And Proust was gay himself, but not even really out and certainly not out as a character. So there was clearly room for expansion in this direction, too.
-- Classics by politically repressed/banned/hidden authors - this might seem like an odd choice, but political repression still has a lingering effect on what makes it to our collective consciousness (hello, had Anyone heard of The Master and Margarita before I read it for the blog, other than my Yalie sister Diana?). So I'm throwing in some Rushdie, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, and works like Suite Française).

Perhaps at this point you are asking that classic follow-up question - WHY? Why should we expand the definition of the canon? Aside from my personal argument that the world is made up of millions of unique stories, and a wealth of stories should be displayed, esteemed, remembered, and read, rather than just the one that was the most powerful, or the most influential, or the most common, or the most privileged to be published, consider this note that I jotted down almost a year ago and left on my bedside table for when the time was right:

It is so important what we choose to write, but also most especially what we choose to read and revere. For the books we deem classics are the legacy we leave for generations to come. And our selection of these classics and what is and isn't a 'classic novel' determines not only what we choose to remember as a society but also what we choose to forget. So never stop reading, never stop evaluating, and never stop challenging what the world tells you you should be reading. 

Well put, past Meredith, Bravo! (pats self on back enthusiastically and high fives her cat)

Enough about the new project, now back to this one. A few thoughts, as usual in no particular order:

I started this blog six years ago. I was 23, working for Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia, borrowing computers from roommates and friends to write my posts because I'd spilled something red and sticky on my own, and (little did I know...) about to become the owner of a delightfully rotund homeless calico cat. I was actively employed and engaged with the world, but I felt a hole in my life, as though a piece was missing, and decided to embark on a literary adventure.

Books had never failed me in the past. I remember gliding past beautiful chateaux in France on our family trip when I was ten and refusing to pull myself out of Narnia and tea with Mr. Tumnus to admire their majesty. I recall the ease of pulling a book into my lap from any room in our house, be it the bathroom, the bedroom, or the den. And I still feel the electricity of my Introduction to Comparative Literature class at Haverford, when I learned that a major existed wherein I could combine my love of reading books with my affinity for French and we collectively excavated the layers of meaning in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Why not try books again then, I thought?

There was also a deeper, and somewhat darker, reason for the project; a part of me wanted to reclaim my enjoyment of solitary reading. As I've mentioned multiple times on this blog, I suffer from anxiety, depression, and OCD, and when I started this project, my handle on my collective symptoms was not stellar. I led a happy and productive life, but struggled most acutely in times when I was truly left to myself. I am happy to report that over the course of the past six years, I have been fortunate enough to find an eclectic batch of therapists, spirit guides, and psychiatrists to help me parse out my own particularities, and find the right cocktail of medications to help me celebrate and live the best version of me. But I also found my way in the literature itself; I waged mental battle with books that I thought would be very hard for me to read, like The Bell Jar, which deals heavily with suicide and depression, or The Stranger (L'Étranger), which I was assigned to read when my mental health problems first came to a crisis in France. I came out of each novel not only alive, but thriving from the empowerment of survival, and excited to report about these struggles to my readers. The list, though somewhat contrived and arbitrary, put me face-to-face with my darkest demons, and allowed me to access the most vulnerable pieces of my soul.

On a more practical level, I did a few other things over the course of this blog. I found out I have sleep apnea, wore a Darth Vader mask for a while, came to hate the Darth Vader mask and threw it under my bed, and decided that coffee and a reasonable attitude toward 'sleep hygiene' would be a more appropriate approach at this juncture. I took the LSATs, applied to law school twice, got rejected from law school twice (166, you're useless to me now!), decided law school wasn't the right fit anyway, and got a Master's in Public Policy from Georgetown. I moved from Philly, to DC, to Philly again, and then to the far off land of New Hampshire, famed for its foliage, fisher cats, politics, peepers, and large tick population. My cat, Suzy Chubsters, got older (and decidedly rounder) but no less adorable. I got four tattoos, three of which are literary themed, and one of which is quite large and dedicated to this blog. I also lost the thirty-five or so pounds I put on during my time in AmeriCorps, worked to create a healthier lifestyle for myself, and, geeknerd/non-athlete though I will always consider myself, I signed up for and successfully ran a 10k. Oh, and I have been fortunate enough to navigate my way to several incredible institutions (DCPS, Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia encore une fois, and now Breakthrough Manchester at the Derryfield School) and eventually to a job that I love that helps put young people with few resources on the path to college and inspires slightly older young people to pursue careers in education or simply explore and experience the issues related to educational equity (and inequity) in this beautiful nation of ours.

I have changed and grown immensely, but in the same token, I am pleased to report that I am, at my core, the same. I am a girl who loves books; books that come in many sizes and shapes, books that take you from Maycomb County, Alabama to the Grey Havens, to the Spanish Civil War, and everywhere in between.

This blog never 'took off', so to speak, and at its peak, had maybe a thousand views in a month. But that intimate group of readers allowed me to share this project and reading journey with the ones I love most in this world - my close friends and my dear family. My grandmother, Doris Lyon Rose, was my most devoted fan, and despite the fact that she remembered being a little girl who lost her shoe the night that Lindbergh landed in Paris, she managed to turn on her computer, connect to the internet, and open her email to access my 'blob' as she accidentally referred to it. She dutifully read each of my posts and wrote careful, thoughtful, and intelligent responses to each one, asking probing questions and touching on expansive themes. She was a very great reader, and an amazing woman, and I will always cherish our last conversation before she passed. She asked me what I was reading, and when I told her the next post was on Huckleberry Finn (#25), she asked me what my opinion was on new versions having the 'n-word' censored out, and reminded me to think critically and often about challenging issues such as that one. The rest of my family gave me gifts of books, read along with me, and even staged dramatic readings of my latest selection on long road trips. My solitary sojourn became a shared investment in our communal love of literature.

And for those of you who feel that fiction is nothing more than a collection of fables, let me remind you of a few pertinent details:
- (1) I, and my fellow reading enthusiasts, have the empathy thing on LOCK.
- and (2) "Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

In thinking about what this means, allow me (again) to defer to past Meredith, who wrote this down a few months ago, on the flipside of the note mentioned earlier:

In the end, it doesn't matter if the stories they tell are true, because these stories, these fictions, outlast the events of their origins. A great novel like Beloved leaves an imprint on its readers, and that imprint has the power to shape and inform the collective memory of what slavery means to America's history and America's present. It is often not the plot of a story that strikes us in later years, but the intricacies of romance or the relationships between family members that remain surprisingly relevant decades and even centuries later and worlds apart from the authors who penned the words. 

I approached each book with the knowledge that I would finish it (barring death, of course, or some unlucky accident of the brain) and this shaped the way that I came to read. Each book was a conversation started that demanded to be finished; I could walk away for a time, but never permanently, and this meant that I became acquainted with all kinds of books and all kinds of characters, some of whom were old and familiar friends (like lovely Anne with an 'e' Shirley and fierce Dagny Taggart) and some of whom were peculiar, not socially accepted, or downright dislikable (ahem, Humbert Humbert, good ole' Raskolnikov, and mopey Meursault). I learned to see the beauty in brevity and a string of quick, piercing sentences from Hemingway, but also the power of lyrical prose from V. Woolf, J. Steinbeck, and Monsieur M. Proust. I toyed with my own post structure to mimic the authors' playfulness with the idea of 'normal' and categorized in primes to please Christopher Boone and indexed my entries to honor my Zemblan king.

I was often struck by how touched the protagonists were by books themselves, and what an important role they played in saving or re-ordering their lives. From Davy (Trotwood) Copperfield's book refuge in Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, to Proust's YBN who refused to restrict his reading to Sundays, to Elizabeth Bennet's 'substantial improvement of her mind by extensive reading', or Montag's discovery of the 'something there' in books, the 'big takeaway' I have earned from this project is that same life-saving, dramatic discovery of the deep, resounding, personal and permanent impact of literature.

As usual, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes that perfectly encapsulate my feelings as I draw this blog to a close.

From the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha:

"There is no book so bad that it does not have something good in it." Each classic may not have earned a place in my hall of favorites, but each one brought me to a better understanding of myself and of the world.

And from Scout, daring daughter of Atticus and sassy sister of Jem:

"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." When I started this blog, I thought I might have lost reading forever. And it was at that moment, and in that trial, that I realized the immensity of what reading means to me. This blog journey has been a challenge, a gift, and above all, a triumph.

May you all find, rediscover, or enrich your experience of literature, and may you find the same solace, beauty, and inner peace that I did as you find the wonder in words.

"Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night."

Friday, August 21, 2015

Infamy was babbling around her in the public market place.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Scarlet Letter is the tale of Hester Prynne, a woman scorned by her Puritanical peers for committing that oldest of sins, adultery, and having a child from aforementioned sin. The book opens with Hester being forced to stand on the town scaffold with baby Pearl in hand, wearing an embroidered scarlet "A" on her chest (for adulterer, not adorbsable) and refusing to tell the town muckety-mucks who the baby daddy is. The rest of the book follows Hester in the years after that moment, chronicling her transition to becoming a 'Sister of Charity' and an invaluable member of the community. Hester wears the letter on her bosom until the day she dies, Pearl grows into a fine healthy and rich woman, and it turns out the baby daddy is Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's most revered and anGelic spiritual guide (SOOPRize!). Roger Chillingworth, Hester's hubby who had disappeared into the wilderness (literally) spends most of the novel trying to psychologically torture Dimmesdale, after mysteriously showing up in town and making Hester pinky swear that she won't tell anyone who He is. Hester manages to live a fairly full life despite being burdened with POUNDS of secrets from lovers and hubbies, but she never seems to remarry or have more children or do anything other than be a 'sister of charity'. Which is fine, I suppose - charity is good! Oh, and Dimmy confesses he's the baby daddy on the scaffold in public after a dramatic sermon, and then promptly exPires. Out of revenge fantasies, Chillingworth kicks it soon after. Hester continues helping people until she, three, expires.THE END.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well folks, we've reached the last book on the list! I'm going to write some more retrospective deep thoughts about this whole blog process after I've had a bit of time to reflect, so this post will just focus on The Scarlet Letter. I read this book once before, and I recall liking it quite a bit, which surprised me, as I didn't particularly enjoy it this go round. I didn't have a terribly negative reading experience, but it wasn't thrilling, or particularly lyrical, or poignantly moving for me.

Introduction, shmintroduction
This book opened with an incredibly obnoxious informative and super helpful and necessary introduction. It went on for about 40 pages about Customs Houses and how they are structured, which then seemed to have NOTHING to do with the rest of the book. There was one loose little story tie where the narrator found a raggedy old letter "A" in a drawer and was all, GEE WHAT COULD THIS BE, I WONDER what the story is here..... and then the story finally Started! I don't know what Hawthorne was thinking but he seriously could have used some editing love there.

Cruel and unusual punishment, much?
When Hester's crime is first announced and the town higher ups are discussing what to do, someone throws out this nugget: "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die." This is quickly followed up with: "A blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine!" AHH, Puritanical New England of yore. how we Don't miss you. Not that adultery is on my day calendar or anything, but still for Realz!? Pretty extreme. I thought the "A" was intense, but I guess it's better than Off with her Head!

What's in a Name?
One thing this book does have going for it is the names - Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl -- aren't they great? They really give a spirit and sense to each of the characters, which is good because they're the ONLY characters we get. 

Since there are only four big kahunas, why don't I introduce them to you? Drum roll, please!

Hester Prynne, our scarlet letter wearer and woman scorned by society:
  • "In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind." how lonely! I'm impressed with how well Hester bears up under the 'A', especially given how friendless she is. I'm not at all sure I would do as well.
  • "The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her - so much power to do and power to sympathize - that many people refused to interpret the scarlet "A" by its original signification. They said that it meant "Able"; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength." That's right, Hester - you turn that frown upside-down!
  • "Those who had before known her and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped." can't wear this lady down. She's strong with a capital S!
  • "Speak; and give your child a father!"
  •     'I Will not speak! And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!" I don't really know why Hester won't give up old Dimmy (he certainly doesn't seem like he's particularly worth protecting, imho) but it is pretty badass just the same. 
Roger Chillingworth, original hubster, devious revenge-seeker, sometime doctor-man:
  • "So Roger Chillingworth - the man of skill, the kind and friendly physician - strove to go deep into his patient's bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern." Creepy, right? ;) I'll just have the Regular physical, please, no special prying or delving required.
  • "A secret enemy had been continually by his side, under the semblance of a friend and helper, and had availed himself of the opportunities thus afforded for tampering with the delicate springs of Mr. Dimmesdale's nature." oh, poor Dimmy's springs! Very Delicate! Not to be tampered with!
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, silent partner in 'A' for Adultery, all-around nervous nelly:
  • "In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge." 
  • "No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." True! Hard to know who you are. Might tear all the skin off your face and be someone else underneath!
Oh-so-Perceptive Pearl, product of 'A' for Adultery, smartest hen in the henhouse:
  • "Hester, to Pearl: 'Wilt thou not love him? Come! he longs to greet thee!'  'Doth he love us?' said Pearl, looking with acute intelligence into her mother's face. 'Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?'' Pearl is acutely aware of Dimmy's willingness to greet them in the privacy of the woods but NOT in the publicality (a word? perhaps not - I care not) of the town square. I thought this was a very sneaky technique of Hawthorne's, making Pearl know the secret all along in her precocious child wisdom. 
The Scarlet 'A' as a red jacket
  • "It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe." I loved this line about the way that the 'A' evolves over time. It reminded me of how I felt wearing my City Year uniform after a time. Here's a quote I wrote during the Poisonwood Bible blog about it:
"I really identified with Leah and her desire to feel the guilt and responsibility of whiteness but move forward with the culture of her husband and family at the same time. In my work with Breakthrough and City Year in Philadelphia, I often wanted to shed my whiteness, or find a way to obscure it. I knew how charged it was, and how difficult it could be for my students and their families to see anything but my whiteness when I walked into a room. Sometimes I still miss my City Year uniform, in all of its droopy pajama-esque unprofessional glory, because I felt like it announced that I was a helper with good intentions first, and a white woman second. Now I have to build that image for myself without the simple luxury of sliding on a red jacket." Weirdly, Hester's 'A' becomes a badge she can wear into dark and challenging situations, and which provides her a sort of benevolent protection.  

Lastly, a bit of Hawthornian Vocabulary
besom - a broom made of twigs tied around a stick (I found a mildly disturbing number of Wicca websites offering to sell me one)

chirography - handwriting, esp. as distinct from typography (I am growing to like my handwriting more and more with time, and treasure the handwriting of others, particularly those I care for. Do you?)

lucubrations - study or meditation

town beadle - a ceremonial officer of a church, college, or similar institution (not to be confused with the town beagle. he mostly just sleeps all day.)

eldritch - weird and sinister or ghostly (um, this word is AWESOME. can we use it all the time now? Something Eldritch this way comes! (Not now, Aldwich, we're working!)

asperity - harshness of tone or manner

nugatory - of no value or importance; useless or futile (apparently sleep is nugatory for me at this juncture in vacation. #notreally #cantstopwontstop)

escutcheon - a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms (as in, Suzy, please bear mine escutcheon as we process down to the party so that everyone can know our auspicious provenance)

As always, it's been a pleasure. More final thoughts to come, but now I'm off to the land of Nod so I can prepare for my party tomorrow! If you're in town, come around. :)

Monday, August 17, 2015

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial - I believe we are lost.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
All Quiet on the Western Front is a story of what war does to a singular person and a generation of men: the camaraderie, the tragedy, and the seeming insensibility of it all. It follows Paul Bäumer, a young German recruit in World War I, and his fellow conscriptors as they navigate the trajectory of war, sometimes finding themselves directly on the front lines, and other times guarding supply dumps or 'rejuvenating' at camp or on leave. We see the intimacy of their bond, as well as their feelings of impotence and uncertainty at what would come next if they were to survive the war. The tale is tinged with sadness but also moments of pure joy, laughter, and the kinship born of that most enduring of bonds -- friendship.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Just one (pht!) book left! Can you bewieve it? I can hardly believe it. But I'm hosting a party at my mother's house to celebrate the end of the list later this week, so I'd better get to reading The Crimson Epistle or whatever it's called. 

I read this book once before, for my Western Civilization class freshman year at Haverford. I seem to recall liking it then, but I must admit I loved it this time around. It is poetic, lyrical, tender, thoughtful, nuanced, and exquisitely painful to read. It chronicles a deeply dark time in the history of man, and does so with care, perspective, and sweetness.

If you haven't read it (and don't mind crying here and there in the dark parts), go grab a copy! It's definitely a masterpiece, imho, and deserves a permanent place in our designation of 'classics'. 

Here are my thoughts, in no real order:

I have a nose for tasty treats, perfectly done pies, and excellent books
I loved this description of the head of Paul's band of men:
"Stanislaus Katczinsky, the leader of our group, shrewd, cunning, and hard-bitten, forty years of age, with a face of the soil, blue eyes, bent shoulders, and a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs." What do you have a remarkable nose for? 

On being a lost generation, unmoored
The philosophical examination of what it means to be thrown into war before you've even really become yourself was both brilliant and heartbreaking. Here are a few snippets to capture the idea:
  • "All the older men are linked up with their previous life. They have wives, children, occupations, and interests, they have a background which is so strong that the war cannot obliterate it [...] Kantorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land."
  • "The war has ruined us for everything. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."
  • "What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?"
The geese are getting fat
One of my favorite scenes in the book takes place when Kat and Paul sneak out and kill a goose, feasting on it just they two in the dead of night.
"We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have. We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room; flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common - now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak."

On losing Kemmerich, a boyhood friend
Unsurprisingly, many people don't make it out of this book alive. Each death has its own weight and sorrow to it, but for me, the most painful was when Paul sat at his friend Kemmerich's bedside during his final hours. Paul is at a loss, and a child himself, so he tries to cheer up his friend by describing an alternate ending to his story. 
"Perhaps you will go to the convalescent home at Klosterberg, among the villas, Franz. Then you can look out from the window across the fields to the two trees on the horizon. It is the loveliest time of year now, when the corn ripens; at evening the fields in the sunlight look like mother-of-pearl. And the lane of poplars by the Klosterbach, where we used to catch stickle-backs! You can build an aquarium again and keep fish in it, and you can go without asking anyone, you can even play the piano if you want to." It reminded me of (I know, sue me) a very tender scene in Vampire Diaries where Damon creates a beautiful dreamworld for Rose, a fellow vampire, to visualize an escape from the pain of her final day on earth. 

Trench warfare
My only real connection to trench warfare is Mr. Mulholland's game in HS social studies, so I was pretty taken aback to read the visceral descriptions and harrowing truths of its reality in this novel. Here are two moments that stood out to me:
  • "To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever."
  • "Once [in the trenches] I fall fast asleep. Then wakening suddenly with a start I do not know where I am. I see the stars, I see the rockets, and for a moment have the impression that I have fallen asleep at a garden fête. I don't know whether it is morning or evening, I lie in the pale cradle of the twilight, and listen for soft words which will come, soft and near - am I crying? I put my hand to my eyes, it is so fantastic, am I a child?"
War as a creature that grows uglier and meaner
In reading this list of novels, I've come across quite a few wars, in different time periods, locales, and perspectives, from the Spanish Civil War, to the World Wars, to conflict in Afghanistan, to the Civil War - the list goes on and on. What I found remarkable (and disturbing) was the evolution of the concept, and how war shifts and metastasizes, like a tumor on the world. Here are a few moments that are emblematic of this particular conflict:

-- Gas - "The gas still creeps over the ground and sinks into all hollows. Like a big, soft jellyfish it floats into our shell-hole and lolls there obscenely."

-- Kill or be killed - "We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend against annihilation [...] If we don't destroy them, they will destroy us."

-- Throwing one large group of men at another at a 'front' line: "We see time pass in the colourless faces of the dying, we cram food into us, we run, we throw, we shoot, we kill, we lie about, we are feeble and spent, and nothing supports us but the knowledge that there are still feebler, still more spent, still more helpless ones there who, with staring eyes, look upon us as gods that escape death many times."

Army leave, a curse and a kindness
When Paul gets leave to go home to his mother and sister, he isn't sure he wants to go. At first, I was confused by this, but now I realize how agonizing it would be to go home to security, safety, and a totally different world away from the war, and then have to throw yourself back into the foray. Here are some of the scenes from Paul's leave:
  • Paul, to himself, on first getting his leave notice:"Shall I meet all these fellows again?"
  • "I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and rifle. I hold them as tight as I can, but I cannot take another step, the staircase fades before my eyes, I support myself with the butt of my rifle against my feet and clench my teeth fiercely, but I cannot speak a word, my sister's call has made me powerless, I can do nothing, I struggle to make myself laugh, to speak, but no word comes, and so I stand on the steps, miserable, helpless, paralysed, and against my will the tears run down my cheeks." I just wanted to reach out and hug Paul in this moment.
  • "I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval... I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world."
  • "What is leave? -A pause that only makes everything after it so much worse. Already the sense of parting begins to intrude itself."
  • "I ought never to have come here. Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless - I will never be able to be so again."
Love, and a bit of card play
One of my favorite scenes in the book takes place when Paul has been injured a first time, and is convalescing in an army hospital. There are many men in each room (at least 8, I think) and most of them are wholly immobile. They strike up a truly amicable spirit toward each other, and offer to help out when this challenging situation arises -- one of the men is supposed to have a visit from his wife, but just before she arrives, he gets a fever, and is required to stay in bed. These hijinks ensue ;)

"Here lies the carpenter Johann Lewandowski, a soldier shot to a cripple, and there is his wife; who knows when he will see her again? He wants to have her, and he should have her, good.
  Lewandowski can only lie on his side, so one of us props a couple of pillows against his side, Albert gets the child to hold, we all turn round a bit, the black mantilla disappears under the bed-clothes, we make a great clatter and play skat noisily.
  In the process we almost forget Lewandowski. The business is over. We now feel ourselves like one big family, the woman is happy, and Lewandowski lies there sweating and beaming." I know maybe I should be weirded out, but it was a tender and conspiratorial moment in light of such a dark time.

Authors make the best readers
In reviewing my posts to prepare for my party, I was struck by how many beautiful passages there are in these novels about... you guessed it, novels! Writers clearly are not simply creators - they share a deep affinity for and devotion to that most beautiful and sacrosanct of activities - reading. It makes sense, but it still catches me a bit off-guard, to think of a great writer being touched and moved by books in the same way that his or her readers are moved by his/her creations. On leave, Paul tries to reach out to literature to rekindle himself:
  • "I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatiences of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth."
And in what was, for me, the saddest moment of the book, this follows:

"Words, Words, Words - they do not reach me.
Slowly I place the books back in the shelves.
Quietly, I go out of the room." How destitute I would be if written words ever failed to reach me.

Who starts a war?
Again, this is not a particularly new argument, but I think it's one worth continuing to hit home. Here are some of Paul's friends arguing about how wars get started:

"Mostly by one country badly offending one another."
 'A country? I don't follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.'
  'Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg? I don't mean that at all. One people offends the other -"
 'Then I haven't any business here at all. I don't feel myself offended."
 'Well, let me tell you, it doesn't apply to tramps like you.'
 "Then I can be going home right away!" Particularly in the past, but still on occasion in our current sphere, wars are started over big things but also small things, things that seem insignificant after thousands and millions of lives are lost and exponentially more are affected, ruined, or forever changed.

At one point, Paul calls comradeship the "best thing to come out of the war". This scene occurs just after Paul has been stranded behind enemy lines for days and finally hears his friends' voices as he stumbles back upon their trenches:
"At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had almost been destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.
  I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness; -I belong to them and they to me."

Paul, on killing a man up close after he jumped into his shell-hole 
"Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late." This reminded me of a few similar thoughts on killing:

For Whom the Bell Tolls  (Roberto, to himself:)
"Don't you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes.
   But you mustn't believe in killing. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man's life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people."

Jessica, Paul Atreides' mother, after Paul has killed a man, Jamis: "He has killed a man in clear superiority of mind and muscle. He must not grow to enjoy such a victory."

Ender's Game
  •  Queen of the buggers, to Ender: "We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
A little wartime pancakes feast
As I mentioned, the main characters in this book are shifted in various proximity to and distance from the front. At one point, they are assigned to guard a supply dump in a mostly abandoned town, and Paul is assigned to pancake duty for their feast. This scene was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, and reminded me of the Banana Breakfast in Gravity's Rainbow.
  • "They keep dropping closer and closer all round us; still we cannot leave the grub in the lurch. A couple of splinters whizz through the top of the kitchen window. The roast is ready. But frying the pancakes is getting difficult. The explosions come so fast that the splinters strike again and again against the wall of the house and sweep in through the window. Whenever I hear a shell coming I drop down on one knee with the pan and the pancakes, and duck behind the wall of the window. Immediately afterwards I am up again and going on with the frying."
The Dying Room
In the convalescent hospital, medical care is so-so, and the wounds from the front are severe. After a little while, one of the wardmates tells Paul that there's a 'dying room', a place where nurses move patients who are beyond hope, and from whence patients never return. Cue this scene with Peter, one of their young fellow wardmates:

"And then little Peter begins to get worse. His temperature chart looks bad, and one day the flat trolley stands beside his bed. 'Where to?' he asks.
  'To the bandaging ward.'
 He is lifted out. But the sister makes the mistake of removing his tunic from the hook and putting it on the trolley, too, so that she should not have to make two journeys. Peter understands immediately and tries to roll off the trolley. 'I'm stopping here!'
  They push him back. He cries out feebly with his shattered lung: 'I won't go to the Dying Room.'
  'But we are going to the bandaging ward.'
 'Then what do you want my tunic for?' he can speak no more. Hoarse, agitated, he whispers: 'Stopping here!'
  They do not answer but wheel him out. At the door he tries to raise himself up. His black curly head sways, his eyes are full of tears. 'I will come back again! I will come back again!'" I cried super hard at this scene. Poor Peter! But then, guess what? Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles - he does come back! Peter actually does make it back, and heals up! #onlyhappyending

Finally, some reasons why I would make a terrible soldier (similar to the reasons I would make a terrible fisherman, see Old Man and the Sea post)
  • Sleep apnea --"Katczinsky is right when he says it would not be such a bad war if only one could get a little more sleep. In the line we have had next to none, and fourteen days is a long time at one stretch." Oh, NO. oh Hell, no - fourteen days!? I would be a crazytown zombie by then.
  • Lack of resourcefulness -- "Kat gives no explanation. He has the bread, the rest doesn't matter. I'm sure that if he were planted down in the middle of the desert, in half an hour he would have gathered together a supper of roast meat, dates, and wine...Then he hauls out a frying pan from under his coat, and a handful of salt as well as a lump of fat from his pocket. He has thought of everything...That is Kat. If for one hour in a year something eatable were to be had in some one place only, within that hour, as if moved by a vision, he would put on his cap, go out and walk directly there, as though following a compass, and find it." I do not feel confident I could find roast meat and dates in the desert. I think most likely I would starve.
  • Rats -- "The rats here are particularly repulsive, they are so fat - the kind we all call corpse-rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails." ICK ICK ICK ICK. I think I would just run away and then probably be hung or shot or imprisoned for deserting if these rats came near me. I always think of Templeton from Charlotte's Web when I think of fat rats. Even cartoon Templeton scares me!
  • Food -- "It is a good thing we have something decent to eat at last; we still have a use for all our strength. Enough to eat is just as valuable as a good dug-out. It can save our lives; that is the reason we are so greedy for it." Limited food supply? Meredith turns into a raging beastmonster. Just ask Lex or Dinah on a road trip at the end of our rations! ;)
  • My enemy is my friend - "It is strange to see these enemies of ours so close up. They have faces that make one think - honest peasant faces, broad foreheads, broad noses, broad mouths, broad hands, and thick hair." I cannot imagine a world in which I could forget that the people I was fighting were also humans. This is the biggest failure I would have as a soldier, methinks.
Striking sentences:
  • "Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible, bursting roar."
  • On shelling: "Mighty fine fireworks if they weren't so dangerous."
  • "The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen."
  • "We have to take things as lightly as we can, so we make the most of every opportunity, and nonsense stands stark and immediate beside horror."
  • "Our hands are earth, our bodies clay and our eyes pools of rain. We do not know whether we still live."
This has been rather a somber post, so I will leave you with two pretty passages from Paul (like that alliteration?): 

"Between the meadows behind our town there stands a line of old poplars by a stream. They were visible from a great distance, and although they grew on one bank only, we called them the poplar avenue. Even as children we had a great love for them, they drew us vaguely thither, we played truant the whole day by them and listened to their rustling."

"But now the sun streams through the world, dissolving everything in its golden-red light, the train swings round one curve and then another; - far away, in a long line one behind the other, stand the poplars, unsubstantial, swaying and dark, fashioned out of shadow, light, and desire."

Sending you thoughts of pleasant poplars and embarking on my final installment, The Ruby Symbol! (#NAILEDIT)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Why change the world if the world is not watching?

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Angels and Demons is a tale of adventure that transports us from the fairly mundane world of New England academia to a high stakes scavenger hunt in ancient Vatican City where the lives of many are on the line [Never go in against a Sicilian when Death is on the Line!] Robert Langdon, a professor of art history at Harvard, is unwittingly embroiled in the turn of events, and becomes the unlikely protagonist in our tale. A series of brutal murders and brandings reignite the flame of a secret society, the Illuminati, who were borne (centuries ago) of the desire to protest the church's unwillingness to acknowledge and support scientific discoveries (read: code for stop torturing, exiling, murdering, etc., scientists who made unpalatable discoveries). The events that ensue are thrilling, bizarre, and packed with pieces of fascinating history. Robert and his lady-love, the brilliant scientist Vittoria Vetra, each have their share of near-death experiences, but all is well in the end.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was a fairly enjoyable read. Definitely better than The Da Vinci Code, imho, but not what I would call a 'classic that will stand the test of time and timely test itself.' Certainly a fun romp and a well thought out thriller, but the stuff of a few hours or a few days, and not, methinks, something that will be rooted in the annals of literature bests. That said, if you are looking for a summer read and need an adventure, definitely snag a copy and go on the ride - it is, above all, an entertaining one.

- Upside down and right side up
This book is a tad obsessed with the ambigram:

ambigram - a word, art form, or other symbolic representation whose elements retain meaning when viewed or interpreted from a different direction, perspective, or orientation.


I recognize that this is likely harder to view on a computer than it is in a book. Perhaps you have all just tried to flip your computers upside down and broken them into a million tiny pieces onto the desk, or perhaps you have given yourself a neck cramp trying to turn your head just so to view it. My apologies!

In any case, I thought it was an interesting idea, but Not As Cool As Langdon Thought it Was. 

- Iron-fisted foreshadowing
Brown seems to be a fan of the 'leave-nothing-to-the-imagination' foreshadowing, writing sentences like: "He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life."

I seemed to recall this being a pattern in books from the list, so I went back and took a peek. Here are a few other serially hyperbolic foreshadowers:

Frank Herbert, Dune:
"Heavy foreshadowing - Not of the tiptoe, but the CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP variety
Much like Mr. Dickens and Mr. Irving, Herbert seems to be a big fan of the smack you over the head kind of foreshadowing. I like to be curious about what's to come, and in my opinion, a little goes a long way. So maybe you should consider DIALING IT BACK a bit, hey?"

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
"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?"

Herman Melville, Moby Dick
"Much like in Frankenstein, this book had a great deal of heavy foreshadowing (drenching rain, sermons on death, graves at the seaside church before departure, a prophet foretelling their doom, etc.) and I just don't get it! It's a great story - why do you want to GIVE IT ALL AWAY? Save some for later, okays? 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
"Shelley is very heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, and she says things like, "Those were the last days of my life that I enjoyed happiness." I understand the idea behind foreshadowing, but at a certain point, it kind of GIVES EVERYTHING AWAY. It's like starting a story off with, 'Yesterday, I went to the doctor's and it was the last appointment I'll ever have in my life." Hello, leave a little suspense, will you?"

- Maximilian Kohler, the evil faucet villain
As is often the case in Dan Brown novels, there are a few villains and a few red-herring-villains. Mr. Kohler, as it turns out, is of the latter variety, but for quite a large stretch of the book, you feel certain he is a No-Good-Very-Bad-Man. Every time I read his name, though,  I giggled a bit, because all I could think of when I read the word 'Kohler' was faucets. I imagined Kohler plotting some evil plan to destroy the Vatican by planting faulty faucets and ruining the water supply. ;)

- Shoot for the... FINGERNAILS!
"He could not imagine her whipping out a weapon in St. Peter's Square and blowing away the kneecaps of some killer while the global media looked on." Langdon is not a particularly cool character (which I imagine is supposed to be part of his charm) and frequently makes weird references to acts of violence that are out of his academe's purview. I thought it was hilarious (and bizarre) that he kept referencing Vittoria shooting for people's kneecaps - who shoots for the kneecaps? Really - when ever in Life have you seen someone in a show or a movie sizing up their opponent and saying to themself, 'OK, I've got it. Let's aim for those kneecaps."

- Pieces of me
I frequently find strange remnants of past readers in books when I read a used copy. Usually they're slightly odd footnotes, or margin-scribbles, or dog-eared pages. I enjoy these little treasures because they make reading, which is generally a solitary experience, a shared adventure, just for a moment. This copy had a series of long black hairs. Either the reader had a habit of riffling through her hair and letting it casually fall in between the pages, or she was carefully storing hairs to keep her page. Ooh! Or perhaps she had a very long-haired cat.. or dog. The possibilities are really Endless. I kept getting confused thinking it was my hair, and then realizing that (a) I had not read that far in the book yet and (b) my hair is brown, not black. 

- The Vatican - an island unto itself
Granted, this is a work of fiction, but there were many pieces of fact that I was totally unaware of. (Like that there's a vicious secret society trying to Take Over the World! JK.) Not being Catholic, and not having ever been to Rome, I was intrigued by the various papal traditions and intricacies of Vatican City. In particular, I did not know about...
    The Swiss Guard - The Pontifical Swiss Guard is a small force maintained by the Holy See. It is responsible for the safety of the Pope, including the security of the Apostolic Palace. The Swiss Guard serves as the de facto military of Vatican City. Recruits must be Catholic, single males with Swiss citizenship who have completed basic training with the Swiss military and can obtain certificates of good conduct. Recruits must have a professional degree or high school diploma and must be between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 5 ft 8.5 inches tall. Blast. I am disqualified for So many Reasons! ;)
Conclave - a papal conclave is a meeting of the College of Cardinals convened to elect a new Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. The pope is considered by Roman Catholics to be the apostolic successor of Saint Peter and earthly head of the Roman Catholic Church. The conclave has been the procedure for choosing the pope for almost a thousand years, and is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution. That's pretty cool, if you ask me!

- Robert Langdon = cat?
Robert Langdon comes so close to death so many times that he must be a cat (get it? what with his Nine Lives and all? haghaghaghag #icrackmyselfup). His final parting gift from the Vatican for helping to thwart the evil crimes (which were not mentioned here - read it yourself if you want to know!) is one of the Illuminati brands (again, the Famous Ambigram): 

Langdon, being an art historian and obsessed with this particular 'piece of history' and all, is Thrilled with a capital T. He plays with the brand like a giddy schoolboy, and Vittoria is all, what's cooler and sexier, me or the brand? And he's all, oh, YOU of course, and I'm all, EXQUEEZE ME did we forget it's a Brand to use on Human Flesh? Not cool. Not interesting. Not neat-o, Wacco, whizbang, wizard, smashing, just GROSS. And evil. So what I would have said to Langdon in Vittoria's place is not, "What's sexier, me or the brand?", but 'Don't touch it! It's E-Vil!."

- Have a little faith
There were several interesting ponderances on faith, religion, science, and the intersection of the three in this novel. Here are a few that resonated with me:
  • "Although he studied religion for years, Langdon was not a religious man. He respected the power of faith, the benevolence of churches, the strength religion gave so many people ... and yet, for him, the intellectual suspension of disbelief that was imperative if one were truly going to 'believe' had always proved too big an obstacle for his academic mind." This is often how I feel. Much like Langdon, I often find that I 'want to believe', but struggle to take the final leap. 
  • "Faith is universal. Our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth, that which is greater than ourselves." I am sure there are many people in the world who would find this reductive reasoning offensive, but I find it has a great deal of merit. 
  • "Very little in any organized faith is truly original. Religions are not born from scratch. They grow from one another. Modern religion is a collage ... an assimilated historical record of man's quest to understand the divine." Again, likely not a happy description for some out there in the world, but the patchwork makes perfect sense to me. These passages made me respect Brown for his introspectiveness, as well as his willingness to explore a very charged and complex issue. So many of the books on this list have dealt with the question of faith, and the philosophical questions it raises. Here are a few snippets that I recall capturing the way I feel about religion and faith:
Philip, from Of Human Bondage:
"Perhaps religion is the best school of morality. It is like one of those drugs you gentlemen use in medicine which carries another in solution: it is of no efficacy in itself, but enable the other to be absorbed. You take your morality because it is combined with religion; you lose the religion and the morality stays behind."

Owen Meany, from A Prayer for Owen Meany

Me, on Levin, from Anna Karenina
"But what I liked about Levin was his honesty, his willingness to question conventional thought without fear of retribution. He wonders quite openly about the existence of God, about what happens after death, and whether his life is truly imbued with any meaning."

Anne, from Anne of Green Gables
"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I'd look up into the sky - up - up - up - into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."

With that, I leave you. Happy Sunday to you all, and may you enjoy a quiet, enjoyable, and restful remainder of your day, wherever you are and whatever you choose to do. I'm off to So Loud on the Eastern Vanguard (turn that music down!). ;) Just two (pht!) books left! 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Memory believes before knowing remembers.

Light in August by William Faulkner

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Light in August is a prolonged game of hide and seek. It follows Lena Groves, a (substantially) pregnant woman as she hunts for her ex-lover (aka 'baby-daddy') in the Deep South, Lucas Burch, who just Happened to conveniently disapparate from town when he heard about the baby-to-be. Lena eventually stumbles upon Jefferson, Mississippi, where she finds one Byron Bunch (who is smitten on the spot) who is not, in fact, the promised Lucas Burch (the bootlegging baby-daddy) she was searching for. Byron endeavors to 'do the right thing' and steer Lena in the direction of Lucas (who is now going by the name of Brown, not sketchy At All) but is unable to conceal from her the boatload of trouble that Brown is in (yes, aSide from the baby-to-be and the bootlegging -- we first encounter him dead drunk in a house on fire where a woman has been murdered - I know, #hehasproblems). Brown is eventually released from jail when it turns out it was his partner in crime, Christmas, who happens to be part black, which I mention only because it becomes important to the story, who in fact murdered the woman in the burning house. (To be clear, there was a murder and then an arson, not death by fire - I know, Très compliqué). When Byron finally gets Brown face to face with Lena and the now fully corporeal and delivered baby boy, Brown... bolts. SOOprize. He literally runs in the opposite direction, and then ends up leaping onto a moving train (#maybedorkotaughthim). Byron and Lena circle back to each other and end up on the move again, ostensibly seeking out Brown and his current whereabouts, but increasingly enjoying each other's company and waiting for the day when they will simply decide to stop looking. 
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I hesitate to say that I enjoyed reading this book, as the material was extremely dark, the side plot deeply rooted in racist thinking, and the book itself riddled with thoughts and assumptions that are hard to stomach, let alone accept and process as a reader nearly a century later. That said, I enjoyed the writing, and I think I'm coming around to Faulkner. He might even make my (non-existent, but theoretical) list of favorite authors. I think As I Lay Dying is my favorite, with The Sound and the Fury next, leaving this to trail as a distant third, but if you're looking for a messy, raw, Deep South drama with a lot of intense imagery and strange and moderately unlovable characters, have at it! (I realize I may not have sold that particularly well, but whatever! I'm not hawking Faulkner here, just stating the facts! ["i only speak da truf! i only speak Da Truf!"]

If my Pale Fire blog fell into the trap/accidentally-on-purpose ended up resembling Nabokov's style, this blob may have fallen into a similar situation re:Faulkner. To be fair, though, I wrote about half of this entry at my sister's new apt, and then the interwebs decided to thwart me and delete most of what I had written, so my stream of consciousness was interrupted. Here goes nothing!

Yes, I live in Etters, PA. No, you cannot write to me there. 
  • "Then the hamlet which at its best day had borne no name listed on Postoffice Department annals would not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs at large who pulled the buildings down and burned them in cookstoves and winter grates." This line reminded me of when I went to a summer music camp and my roommate told me she lived in a town that was so small it wasn't even on the map. She lived (lives? Kathy... I don't even remember her last name, idk) in Etters, PA, which in fact must utilize Goldsboro's post office, as it apparently does not warrant its own. Seems like a short story waiting to happen!
"I have Always dePended upon the Kindness of strangers!"

  • "She has been doing that now for almost four weeks. Behind her the four weeks, the evocation of far is a peaceful corridor paved with unflagging and tranquil faith and peopled with kind and nameless faces and voices: Lucas Burch? I dont know. I dont know of anybody by that name around here. This road? It goes to Pocahontas. He might be there. It's possible. Here's a wagon that's going a piece of the way. It will take you that far; backrolling now behind her a long monotonous succession of peaceful and undeviating changes from day to dark and dark to day again, through which she advanced in the identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons as though through a succession of creakwheeled and limpeared avatars, like something moving forever and without progress across an urn." Lena and her quest reminded me of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, minus some of Blanche's capital D-rama.
Trip-a-let, Trip-a-let, Trip-a-let

Faulkner seems to have an affinity for triplet descriptors. I found it highly pleasing. It's sort of fun (and bizarrely revolutionary, grammatically) to suggest that something could be not only x and y, but x and y and z! You'll notice one triplet in the passage above and one in each passage below: 
  • "They listened to him with something cold and astonished and dubious, since he sounded like it was the town he desired to live in and not the church and the people who composed the church, that he wanted to serve."
  • "He turned into the road at that slow and ponderous gallop, the two of them man and beast, leaning a little stiffly forward as though in some juggernautish simulation of terrific speed though the actual speed itself was absent, as if in that cold and implacable and undeviating conviction of both omnipotence and clairvoyance of which they both partook known destination and speed were not necessary."
"Long sentences are the best sentences."
  • Said no one in particular. Or me. But if there were a long sentence club, Faulkner would want to be in it. As would ProustyProust, who would probably be the president, and good old V. Woolf, and Señor Steinbeck. I would attend Some of the meetings, but let's be honest, I would probably split my time with Hemingway's short sentence set. One thing I do love about Faulkner's long sentences is that they can perfectly encapsulate one moment in time - you feel as though in reading the sentence, you've actually caught up to the activity at hand, and when the sentence closes, you are finishing the action right alongside the characters. Here is un petit exemple for you to savor:
  • "Apparently he is not looking ahead either, because he does not see the woman sitting in the ditch beside the road until the wagon has almost reached the top of the hill. In the instant in which he recognises the blue dress he cannot tell if she has ever seen the wagon at all. And no one could have known that he had ever looked at her either as, without any semblance of progress in either of them, they draw slowly together as the wagon crawls terrifically toward her in its slow palpable aura of somnolence and red dust in which the steady feet of the mules move dreamlike and punctuate by the sparse jingle of harness and the limber bobbing of jackrabbit ears, the mules still neither asleep nor awake as he halts them."
"You eat like a bird."
  • Lena has very few lines in the book, and we don't get a lot from her point of view. We get a sort of 360 view of her particular problem, which is a really fantastic Faulkner effect. That said, I enjoyed when she congratulates herself happily after eating almost nothing during one of her many 'depending on kindness of strangers' moments: "Like a lady I et. Like a lady travelling." This reminded me for some reason of the line in 'Psycho' where Norman says Marion 'eats like a bird', but then points out he's heard it is a falsity because birds eat 'rather a tremendous lot'. I'm not sure why exactly it made me think of that. ANYway, after Lena leaves the kind strangers' home, she promptly pops into a shop and uses her tiny treasure trove of money to buy herself some 'sour-deens'. Yum-O, right, Mummy?
This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York island...
  • Faulkner has a way of rooting and connecting his stories so deeply in the US that they seem to become a part of its collective fabric. I guess a lot of great authors accomplish this, but it reminded me most particularly of Steinbeck and Kerouac. (And yes, I understand that listing is out of order. NBD, guys! We're not prescriptivists here!) Here's a sampling of this tied-to-the-very-earth sort of sentiment: "Because wherever he came from and wherever he had been, a man knew that he was just living on the country, like a locust. It was as though he had been doing it for so long now that all of him had become scattered and diffused and now there was nothing left but the transparent and weightless shell blown oblivious and without destination upon whatever wind."
Byron Bunch = The Original Dwight Schrute
  • When Lena first encounters Byron, he very judiciously measures the time he is taking off from work to talk to her:
"Five minutes to rest?'
  'Five minutes from when you come in. It looks like I done already started resting. I keep my own time on Saturday evenings.'
 'And every time you stop for a minute, you keep a count of it? How will they know you stopped? A few minutes wouldn't make no difference, would it?' Aaand, it made me think of this amazing scene from the office where Jim gets back at Dwight by timing every break he takes. Please watch it. Stop what you're doing and watch it. Seriously. You'll fooll off your cHayr it's soww funny.

  • So, I don't have anything mind-blowing to say here other than, remember how prohibition happened? Well not like, remember remember, as I'm guessing my average blob reader wasn't alive and cognizant in the 1920s, but wow. Thirteen years! (it takes ElEven Jyears!) That's a long time to wait for a legal margarita, or a legal dark porter, or a legal G and T. Mmm, now I just want all of the above. 
Repeats are OK (Repeats are OK)
  • Along with his affinity for long sentences and his triplet descriptors, Faulkner likes the occasional word re-use. I feel like word repetition in close succession is generally frowned upon when we're taught how to write, so I found it refreshing to see the occasional twofer. I always say, reduce, reuse, recycle! Here's one for you: "The clean, spartan room was redolent of Sunday. In the windows the clean, darned curtains stirred faintly in a breeze smelling of turned earth and crabapple." See, it's ok for the room AND the curtains to be clean! It made me think of this norm we had at Breakthrough during orientation, "Repeats are OK (repeats are OK)" - it was supposed to reinforce the idea that since we're all processing and digesting the material together, it's fine (and in fact encouraged) to state the same thing twice or reiterate an idea. I used to love every time Jess read this norm and said in her booming teacher voice, "Repeats are OK (repeats are OK)" and then burst into raucous laughter while the fresh little teaching fellows giggled nervously and avoided eye contact.
And the peepers keep on peeping, showing no signs that they are sleeping!
  • Those in my intimate circle know the story of the peepers - suffice it to say that there are some boisterous frogs who cohabitate this stretch of the great state of NH with me, and I'm still coming around to their screeching song dulcet tones. I was reminded of the peepers by this line:
  • "When he came in sight of home all light had departed from the west. In the pasture behind the barn there was a spring: a clump of willows in the darkness smelt and heard but not seen. When he approached the fluting of young frogs ceased like so many strings cut with simultaneous scissors." Doesn't fluting sound so pretty and delicate? Maybe there are different frogs in MS. 
Secrets secrets are no fun, secrets aren't for everyone

Byron has a great line when he's telling his buddy the ex-Reverend (Loooong story) about Lena and how he just kept this one thing from her her so far: "Except that I have kept it from her that it was the man she is hunting for that told on the murderer and that he is in jail now except when he is out running with dogs the man that took him up and befriended him. I have kept that from her." Just THat. Does that even Count? Oh, Byron.

Some things will never change
  • I've mentioned this before, but sometimes what strikes me most in novels are the moments where an action or a description is so completely one with the present, despite the stretching expanse of years that separate the reader from the novel's time of origin. There's a fantastic (and bizarre) scene where Christmas is rejecting an assortment of prepared plates that Miss Burden (the murder victim/Christmas's lover/LONGSTORYDON'TASK) has left out for him and shattering them against the wall in the dark. This line stood out to me:
  • "Potatoes', he said at last, with judicial finality. 'Yes, it's potatoes,' he said, in the preoccupied and oblivious tone of a child playing alone." I loved this whole scene, but particularly this description, because I realized that children will have a preoccupied and oblivious tone for a very long time, and perhaps for ever. It just seemed so markedly precise in its sameness to today. 
- Racism and race relations
I saved this for last because I thought maybe something more brilliant or meaningful would strike me as I pondered how to address this in relation to the book. Needless to say, it didn't. But not having exactly the right words is a terrible excuse not to address it at all. So here are a few of my thoughts:
  • The n-word: It's everywhere in this novel. Which feels very jarring, as it's so taboo/verboten for white people to say. I've talked about this before on this blog, and I still think it's right not to censor it out of books from back then, but I also think it's important to note the discomfort and process it as it happens. So there. I said it. I don't like reading it, and I don't like seeing it over and over and over. I can only begin to imagine the way I would feel about it were I a black person, and were this hateful designation for my very person permanently carved into 'classics' revered by generations and guaranteed to last for lifetimes.
  • Racism and authors: I struggle constantly with the idea of how accountable to hold an author to what seem to be blatantly racist sentiments. Granted, we have to recognize that an author is a product of his/her era, but does this give them carte blanche to say the worst accepted things of the time? Or can we not use their writing as an accurate barometer because they are fictions and therefore potentially ironic or hyperbolic representations of that time? I was really lost on this one. There's an extended passage that's beautifully written but despicably racist about Christmas and his internal battle between his 'black blood and his white blood' and I finished reading it and thought, how am I supposed to feel about this? Do I respect the writing craft? Am I wrong to want to hold Faulkner accountable? Is that unfair? 
  • Police brutality/treatment of black people: I read some of the lines and interactions in this novel and thought, WOW. Have we come anywhere since 1930? Anywhere at all? But I know that's offensive to all the brilliant and dedicated people who have fought to move the needle forward since then, so I won't be that defeatist. Still, read this line and tell me you don't think of Freddie Gray:
Brown, speaking to an elderly black woman and asking her if anyone is willing to send a message to the sheriff to get his money brought to him (so he can run away in peace): 'Aint there somebody here that wants to make a dollar? Some of the boys?'
    The old woman smokes, watching him. With an aged and inscrutable midnight face she seems to contemplate him with a detachment almost godlike but not at all benign.
  'I just want somebody that can take a note to the sheriff in a hurry and --'
'The sheriff? Then you come to the wrong place. I aing ghy have none of mine monkeying around no sheriff. I done had one n* that thought he knowed a sheriff well enough to go and visit with him. He aint never come back, neither. You look somewhere else."

When in doubt, think of Atticus Finch
But with all that talk about race and whether we've moved the needle, I feel obligated to say that I am an optimist at heart, and a fighter to the end, so I'll encourage us all to take a page out of Atticus's book. I thought of this exchange between Scout and Atticus when Byron decides to go after Brown/Burch when he runs out on the baby (the second time):

TKAM scene --
Scout: 'Atticus, are we going to win it?'
Atticus: 'No, honey.'
Scout: 'Then why-'
Atticus: 'Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

LiA scene -- 
"The desire of this moment is more than desire: it is conviction quiet and assured; before he is aware that his brain has telegraphed his hand he has turned the mule from the road and is galloping along the ridge which parallels the running man's course when he entered the woods...
"'You're bigger than me,' Byron thought. 'But I don't care. You've had every other advantage of me. And I dont care about that neither. You've done throwed away twice inside of nine months what I aint had in thirtyfive years. And now I'm going to get the hell beat out of me and I dont care about that, neither."

Faulkner's Vocab Lesson:

- melodeon - a small organ popular in the 19th century, similar to the harmonium [isn't it cute? don't you just want to sit down and try to play it?]

- larkspur - an annual Mediterranean plant of the buttercup family that bears spikes of spurred flowers; closely related to the delphiniums [ah, yes, the delphiniums cousin plant! sounds familiar...]

- tagend - miscellaneous or random bit [surely you don't require a picture for this one]

- galluses - suspenders for trousers [I found a picture, but it doesn't fit very nicely, and I think you can muster up an image yourself ;)]

A few passages I particularly liked:
  • "From a distance, quite faint though quite clear, he can hear the sonorous waves of massed voices from the church: a sound at once austere and rich, abject and proud, swelling and falling in the quiet summer darkness like a harmonic tide." I used to love walking around in West Philly on Sunday mornings, because you could always catch the strains of hymns drifting from various churches out to the street.
  • "The house squatted in the moonlight, dark, profound, a little treacherous." This made me think of '124 was spiteful.' Maybe there's an 'upset houses' club they can join together!
  • "Lena on the cot watched the white scar beside his mouth vanish completely, as if the ebb of blood behind it had snatched the scar in passing like a rag from a clothesline." Isn't this a great line? Probably my favorite line in the book.
  • "Sometimes it would seem to Hightower that he would actually hale Byron into the house by a judicious application of pure breath, as though Byron wore a sail." Okay, I lied. This is my favorite line.
  • "As though each time they returned to the orderly room they dressed themselves anew in suave and austerely splendid scraps of his dream."
I'll leave you with a few of my favorite summer-related passages. I have written this post in the fading heat of Memorial Day, to the accompaniment of blaze-less (or rather, blaze-invisible-to-me) fireworks (which, for the record, simply sound like oddly spaced cannon booms) thumping in the darkness. 
  • Christmas, upon arriving back 'home' at his adoptive parents' farm:"The grass was aloud, alive with crickets. Against the dewgray earth and the dark bands of trees fireflies drifted and faded, erratic and random. A mockingbird sang in a tree beside the house. Behind him, in the woods beyond the spring, two whippoorwills whistled. Beyond them, as though beyond some ultimate horizon of summer, a hound howled."
  • Reverend Hightower: "He hears now only the myriad and interminable insects, leaning in the window, breathing the hot still rich maculate smell of the earth, thinking of how when he was young, a youth, he had loved darkness, of walking or sitting alone among trees at night."
There's a great line in the novel about 'the week and its whatever disasters, the next week and its whatever disasters'. It had a sort of lighthearted cynicism that I enjoyed. As though yes, every week is not without its little disasters, but then the next week comes, and the week after that, and we move past them, and learn from them, and mitigate them when and where we can. So happy Memorial Day, readers, and best of luck with this week and its whatever disasters - tackle them as best you can! 

I'm moving onwards to Demons and Angels. Just three more on this list to tackle! (repeats are OK) (repeats are OK)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

He shall give Rome fiddlers and fear and fire.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This novel, written by a British guy in the 1930s, claims to be an 'autobiography' of Tiberius Claudius, who ruled Rome in early A.D. It includes - lots of marrying and divorcing, battling and dying, accusing and executing, conspiring and poisoning, 'honorable' suicide-committing, superstitioning and divining, scheming and banishing, conniving and surviving. There you have it, folks!
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Greetings, dear readers! Have any of you read this one? I had not read it, nor even heard of it, before this list. I must say I think that is likely for the best. This one, imho, did not stand to timely test itself. I'm sorry, did you not get that reference? Go watch 'Win a Date with Tad Hamilton'. It's only a work of cinematic genius. 

This post will be brief (sorry for stating it - I hate when people start their speeches off with 'my remarks will be brief') so perhaps some of you will actually read it all. (Ahem. Cough. Pale Fire. Cough.)

Here's a snapshot of the cast of characters:

Germanicus, beloved by the Roman populace, Claudius (our 'hero''s brother)
  •  "Most people with whom he came into contact were flattered by his high estimate of their moral character and tended in their dealings with him to live up to it. If he were ever to find himself at the mercy of a downright wicked character, this generosity of heart would of course be his undoing; but on the other hand if any man had any good in him Germanicus always seemed to bring it out." Doesn't that sound lovely? He, of course, was murdered. As it turns out, by his own son. #classicancientRomanproblems
Tiberius, OH I'm SORRY, are you confused? This is the OTHER Tiberius. Not to be confused with Tiberius Claudius. Just imagine we're reading a Russian novel again, mmk?
  • "He used often to invite people to dine with him whom he particularly mistrusted and stare at them throughout the meal as if trying to read their secret thoughts: which shook the self-possession of all but very few. If they looked alarmed he read it as a proof of guilt. If they met his eye steadily he read it as an even stronger proof of guilt, with insolence added." haghaghaghahghag. 
Livia, former wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius, grandmother to Tiberius Claudius, general all-around Bad Bad Bad lady

  • "Nobody really liked her: malignity commands respect, not liking. She had a faculty for making ordinary easy-going people feel acutely conscious in her presence of their intellectual and moral shortcomings." A real winner, that Livia! 
  • On her 'affection' for Claudius - "My grandmother seldom spoke to me and when she did it was contemptuously and without looking at me, mostly to say, 'Get out of this room, child, I want to be in it.'"" Ah, yes. What wonderful grandmotherly feelings!
  • "Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus." Augustus, save some room for later!
Caligula, Germanicus's son and future (crazy pants mcgee) emperor of Rome
  • "I always knew it would happen. I never felt anything but Divine." On 'becoming a god'.
  • "He stood in my way. He tried to discipline me - me, a young God, imagine it! So I frightened him to death."On why he killed his own father, the lovely aforementioned Germanicus. 
  • Claudius, to Caligula, after finding out that Caligula has decided to become a god: "This is the most glorious hour of my life. Allow me to retire and sacrifice to you at once, with my remaining strength. The divine air you exhale is too strong for my mortal nostrils. I am nearly fainting." aghaghahghagahghag. 
Clau-Clau-Claudius (OK, he does have a stutter, but that is a joke on a joke of how he writes about himself sometimes, so I'm not poking fun at it, but at him poking fun of himself! That still seems bad. Whatever. You know what I mean!)
  • "I was a very sickly child - 'a very battleground of diseases', the doctors said - and perhaps only lived because the diseases could not agree as to which should have the honour of carrying me off." Hahgahgahgh. Would you like to do the honor, TB? No, no, you have it, typhoid. 
  • On his tutor trying to rid him of his stutter: "Athenodorus made me declaim with my mouth full of pebbles". This reminded me of the scene in 'My Fair Lady' where Professor Enry Iggins tries to make Eliza Doolittle read a poem with her mouth full of pebbles, which doesn't go very well, especially after she swallows one! 
  • Among his many attributes, Claudius is described as 'deaf - but only on one side'. Sound like anyone else we know, friends? ;) Now just make sure you're on her good side!
  • On multi-tasking: "I like having two tasks going at the same time: when I tire of one I turn to the other." Claudius's main role in the book is not emperor (this happens at the very end, and really only by accident) but historian. He makes the above remark in reference to working on his Etruscan history at the same time as his Carthaginian history. I am the same way, Claudie! Is it ok if I call you Claudie? I have been memorizing the US Presidents in order while I work on projects, just to keep my brain sharp! I've got Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, JQ Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, W.H. Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor. That's over 25%! Do you know who comes next?
  • How Claudius eventually becomes emperor - a pair of soldiers find him in a corner of a room, and one says to the other: "Who's this old gentleman? He doesn't look dangerous." clearly emperor material! What else do you need? The bar is pretty low after crazypants Caligula, after all.

Pop geography quiz...
Where is Carthage? Do you know? I had to look it up. I thought it was in Greece, or thereabouts. Nope - Tunisia. Africa! Man, Rome's empire extended far back in the day.

Brushing up on your Violent Vocab
tyrannicide - the killing of a tyrant
parricide - the killing of a parent or other near relative (sound FAMILIAR, caliggy?)
suicide - the action of killing oneself intentionally (WAYYYY too many people offed themselves in this book. Apparently it was 'the only honorable thing' once you had been accused of a crime. Still, I found it deeply disturbing.)

I'll leave you with these two closing lines about Claudius:

A friend describing Claudius: "He is loyal to three things - to his friends, to Rome, and to the truth."

Claudius, on becoming emperor: "No, you would never guess what was passing through my mind. I was thinking, 'So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now."

Ahaghahgahgha. Now, if only I could become Empress so I could make people read my blob entries.... I'll have to get on that. Are there any "Empress for dummies" books on sale right now at B and N? ;)

Onwards to Illumination in July. Nailed it!