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.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

There was no room in God's army for the coward heart.

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of John Grimes. He has just turned fourteen, he lives in 1930's Harlem, and he's being brought up in a deeply Christian family. He has a contentious relationship with religion and his father (who, if you review the chart above, turns out not to be his biological father, little does he Know...) and the book chronicles his spiritual and developmental journey. The man John knows as his father, Gabriel, is harsh to a fault, and brutally severe about discipline, the Lord, and expectations for his family's behavior. As you can see, Señor Gabriel has, himself, been a no-good-very-bad-boy, and had not only a previous wife who passed away (whom he did not love) but also a lady-love-on-the-side whom he Arthur Dimmesdaled (by knocking her up and then refusing to acknowledge his paternity). Elizabeth, John's mother, also had a previous main squeeze, Richard, but he died under very tragic circumstances, and would have raised John and made an honest woman out of Elizabeth given the chance. Florence, Gabriel's sister, plays a supporting role in the book, serving mainly to put Mr. Awfulpants in his place. Her hubby died in the war, but only after leaving her for another woman (I know, these men need to get it toGether). The story takes place over the course of about three days, but flashes back in time to flesh out each character's nuanced history and its impact on the present. It is, in the end, a tale of love, introspection, morality, oppression, and patient triumph.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I hesitate to say that I enjoyed reading this book, as that word feels somehow inappropriate. The book was beautifully written and well-crafted, but also deeply painful. Its subject matter was dark: achingly real, and all-too-relevant roughly sixty years after its publication. I think it would be more apt to say that I treasured this reading experience; it was a gift, albeit a tough one at times to receive, and I am certainly the richer for having read it. If you haven't read it, I definitely recommend the experience, both for its poignancy and its lessons.

Here's what struck me.

Don't judge a book by its cover (no matter how lame the cover art). 
I find it highly annoying when cover art is inaccurate, or simply represents a different image of a character or setting than I had imagined (#screwyfeedbackloops). My copy of this book featured a small boy, and he looked more like an 8-year-old than a 14-year-old. I found it misleading to keep seeing his face on the cover between reads. This is a fairly common pet peeve of mine, and sometimes interferes with my ability to choose a version of the novel. TBQH, I generally prefer a cover that has simply a dark background and the title in letters.#KISS

"He knows Harlem, his people, and the language they use."
Also on the list of things I resent -- the need to drop little nuggets from critics on every inch of the book's cover and backflap. I couldn't possibly decide for myself what to think about this novel (being just a plain old Reader and all), so please, fancy-named-newspaper, tell me what to think. I'm sure some people enjoy having a sense of what to expect, but I would include this on the list of confounding inputs - only the book is the true source! The summary, the critics' reviews, even a foreword, are bastardizations, second-hand material. Again, this is just my personal opinion. On my copy, this rather insipid line was featured front and center. After reading it a few times, I kept thinking it sounded deeply racist; like, what does it mean that he 'knows Harlem', 'knows his people', 'knows their language'. Would you say I know white people and the language they use? I suppose in a way I do, but how is that a talent, or an appropriate thing to call out? It felt very otherizing about black people, and I didn't like it.

If the devil is in the details, then God is in the music.
As you may have divined from reading this blob, I am not a particularly religious person. That said, I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and pieces of the rituals are ingrained in me and dear to me. In particular, I have always loved the music of church service - the organ (looking at you, Mommy!), the hymns, and the rhythm of worship. I loved these lines about music and church:
  • "This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath." Sometimes when I'm singing hymns I feel like they come from somewhere deep within me, something older and more sacred than me and that moment.
  • "Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord." Nature and music are probably the two things that make me most want to believe in the presence of a higher being, even if they can't get me all the way there.
Daddy drinks because you cry.
We used to have this list of "Children's Book Titles You'll Never See", and our sardonic family found them deeply amusing. I found the list online (click here) because of course, everything lives on the interwebs Somewhere! Anyway, "Daddy drinks because you cry" was one of them, and I was reminded of it when Elizabeth tells Roy, "Your daddy beats you because he loves you." There was a pretty significant amount of beating in this book, and I recognize that (a) it was a different time and (b) there are some cultural differences in discipline, but (c) I was still upset. I don't like violence, and I definitely don't like the power dynamic of a parent striking their child, no matter the situation. 

I can remember lots of things.
When the book opens, it's John's birthday, and he is certain that everyone has forgotten. This reminded me of Sixteen Candles, when poor Molly Ringwald is desperately trying to get her family to remember it's her birthday, to no avail. Here's another similar scene from Poisonwood Bible: 

Rachel - teenager (to a fault), supremacist (sorry folks, that's what she is), outlier (as in, one of these Prices is not like the others)
"'Oh, it's August twentieth today, isn't it?' I asked several times out loud, looking at my watch like there was something I needed to do... I asked Adah rather loudly, 'Say, isn't today's date the twentieth of August?' She nodded that it was, and I looked around me in amazement, for there was my very own family, setting the breakfast table and making lesson plans and what not as if this were simply the next day after yesterday and note even anything as special as Thursdays back home in Bethlehem, which was always the day we had to set out the trash."

It turns out that Johnny's mother has not forgotten, and she gives him a little spending money to go out (TREAT YOSELF). The rest of the family seems pretty oblivious, though, and I felt for the little guy! All he got for brekkies was a little hominy and a bacon scrap. Not much of a birthday breakfast! Maybe he dreamed drooling of a Banana Breakfast!

It's a black and white world.
Like I mentioned before, this was a tough book to read - it puts the reader face to face with harsh truths about race, some of which are not noticeably different or better today. I know that the world is not, in fact, black and white, but Baldwin does paint in these colors from time to time, out of necessity and in speaking his characters' (and his) truth. 
  • "Before [John], then, the slope stretched upward, and above it in the brilliant sky, and beyond it, cloudy, and far away, he saw the skyline of New York. He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him... And still, on the summit of that hill he paused. He remembered the people he had seen in that city, whose eyes held no love for him. And he thought of their feet so swift and brutal, and the dark gray clothes that they wore, and how when they passed they did not see him, or if they saw him, they smirked." This was such a poignant juxtaposition of sheer joy and ostracism. It reminded me of the remarks that Laura Bloomberg gave at Breakthrough's national conference this year - she referenced a poem that one of her students wrote, a young black man, and how he looked in the mirrors at school and saw nothing, because he felt so invisible to the world. My best friend, Dennis, even expressed that he, as a gay black man, has felt invisible to the world, and he leads a rich life replete with friendships and positive relationships. I am so deeply sad that sixty years have not made a dent in this perception; there is so much work still to be done.
  • "His father said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a n*." He, John, was a n*, and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be. John had read about the things white people did to colored people; how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them - and did worse things, said his father, which the tongue could not endure to utter. He had read about coloured men being burned in the electric chair for things they had not done; how in riots they were beaten with clubs; how they were tortured in prisons; how they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired." We have made strides in some areas, to be sure, but what a passage to read on MLK day, in a year filled with Ferguson and Trayvon and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. There are layers to hatred, and bigotry, yes, but can white people be trusted any more today? I wonder sometimes.
  • "For him there was the back door, and the dark stairs, and the kitchen or the basement. This world was not for him." I was floored by this line. You could argue that I have faced the occasional barrier as a woman, or as someone who has struggled financially from time to time, or even as a person who identifies as having mental health needs, but I have never, for one instant, truly felt, in my heart of hearts, that the world was not for me. If that isn't privilege, I don't know what is. Do you feel like the world is for you?
This post is a meaty one, thanks to Baldwin's brilliance - feel free to take a break if you need one! Stretch, pet your cat, do some squats, eat a donut - whatever floats your boat! When you're ready to come back, here's a portrait of some of the cast of characters:

Roy - Favorite of the family, rabble-rouser, rough around the edges
Roy is one of the only people (aside from Florence) to stand up to his father. It doesn't exactly go well (think words like belt and welt) but it's still pretty ballsy:
"Don't you slap my mother. That's my mother. You slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I'll kill you.'
  In the moment that these words filled the room, and hung in the room like the infinitesimal moment of hanging, jagged light that precedes an explosion, John and his father were staring into each other's eyes."

Florence - Rower of her own boat, Miss IndePendent, Putter-in-placer-of-Gabriel
Do you pray? How do you pray? 
   I used to pray in the bathroom during breaks from my cello lesson. It seemed like a nice quiet time, though the lights would go off if I didn't move around from time to time.
"Florence had forgotten how to pray.
  Her mother had taught her that the way to pray was to forget everything and everyone but Jesus, to pour out of the heart, like water from a bucket, all evil thoughts, all thoughts of self, all malice for one's enemies; to come boldly, and yet more humbly than a little child, before the Giver of all good things." I prefer Anne's theory on praying: "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."

Florence got me thinking about intersectionality. If you're not familiar with the term, here's a good definition: 
intersectionality - the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage

Here's the line that struck me in particular: "There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel's - to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born." le SIIIIIGh.

Frank, Florence's husband - "It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive." oh, isn't that the truth, Florence? I know quite a few people who are destined never to arrive.

Deborah - Woman wronged, Wallflower, Wifey #1 to Mr. Meanypants
Deborah has something in common with Franny from HNH, and unfortunately it rhymes with tape. In Deborah's case, it is at the hands of white men who consider her public property:
  • "That night had robbed her of the right to be considered a woman. No man would approach her in honor because she was a living reproach, to herself and to all black women and to all black men."
  • This line - "Folks can change their ways much as they want to. But I don't care how many times you change your ways, what's in you is in you, and it's got to come out." reminded me of this line from HNH: "When someone touches you and you don't want to be touched, that's not really being touched - you got to believe me. It's not you they touch when they touch you that way; they don't really get you, you understand. You've still got you inside you." 
On the unlikely pairing of Deborah and Gabriel (I know, I was Surprised, Too):
  • "She, who had been the living proof and witness of their daily shame, and who had become their holy fool - and he, who had been the untamable despoiler of their daughters, and thief of their women, their walking prince of darkness!"
John, on his envy of Deborah:
  • "It was she who had known his father in a life where John was not, and in a country John had never seen. When he was nothing, nowhere, dust, cloud, air, and sun, and falling rain, not even thought of, said his mother, in Heaven with the angels, said his aunt, she had known his father, and shared his father's house [...] She could have told him - had he but been able from his hiding-place to ask! - how to make his father love him." This was one of my favorite lines.
Gabriel - the Big Bad - Beater (and I don't mean of the quaffle), Bully, and Believer 
Gabriel is a very odd character, and quite the enigma wrapped in a paradox wrapped in a riddle. He prides himself on his holiness, yet takes more moral missteps than anyone else in the book.
  • "Yet what frightened him, and kept him more than ever on his knees, was the knowledge that, once having fallen, nothing would be easier than to fall again." let's just say he needs stitches based on how many times he falls in this book.
  • after Roy is slashed across the forehead by a group of white men: 'You see?' came now from his father. 'It was white folks, some of them white folks you like so much that tried to cut your brother's throat.' John thought, with immediate anger and with a curious contempt for his father's inexactness, that only a blind man, however white, could possibly have been aiming at Roy's throat. 'This is what white folks does to n*s.' I love John's sassy internal retort, despite the obvious somber quality of this moment.
Esther - I'm sorry did you say Hester? No, no, it's Esther. 
Esther was one of my favorite characters in the book. Unfortunately, she dies giving birth to Gabriel's bastard son, Royal. Here are a few of her choicest lines:
  • "I reckon you don't want no whore like Esther for your wife. Esther's just for the night, for the dark, where won't nobody see you getting your holy self all dirtied up with Esther."
  • "I ain't ashamed of it - I'm ashamed of you - you done made me feel a shame I ain't never felt before."
Richard - John's bio dad, apple of Elizabeth's eye (once upon a time), undone by this world
Richard was one of my other favorite characters; packed with promise, ruined for his race.
  • Elizabeth, on first meeting Richard: "She noticed him at once because he was so sullen and only barely polite. He waited on folks, her aunt said, furiously, as though he hoped the food they bought would poison them." I loved this description. Apples for you! Bread for you! Hope you don't CHoke on it!
  • Elizabeth, to Richard: 'How come you got to know so much?
    • 'I just decided me one day that I was going to get to know everything them white bastards knew, and I was going to get to know it better than them, so could no white son-of-a-bitch nowhere never talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt, when I could read him the alphabet, back, front, and sideways. Shit - he weren't going to beat my ass, then." 
  • What the store owner says when he IDs Richard as part of a group of black boys who robbed his store and stabbed him, when Richard asserts his (rightful) innocence: 'You black bastards - you're all the same." Such a deeply upsetting series of events, and again, one that I would like to feel was squarely behind us, but I know it isn't. 
  • the night after Richard is finally released from wrongful imprisonment: "He fell asleep at last, clinging to her as though he were going down into the water for the last time. And it was the last time. That night he cut his wrists with his razor and he was found in the morning by his landlady, his eyes staring upward with no light, dead among the scarlet sheets." I was heartbroken (but unfortunately not surprised) when this was revealed. How much can we expect Richard to bear?
Elizabeth - Mother to John (and Roy, Sarah, and Ruth), Lover of Richard, Wife of Gabriel
  • "She had kept, precariously enough, what her aunt had referred to as her pearl without price while she had been with Richard down home." Love this euphemism. I will continue to guard my 'pearl without price'. Guard your carnal treasure, Rosalie!
  • On how she would respond to the white policemen who questioned her about Richard's supposed robbery: "She was entirely in their power; she would have to think faster than they could think; she would have to contain her fear and her hatred, and find out what could be done. Not for anything short of Richard's life, and not, possibly, even for that, would she have wept before them, or asked of them a kindness." I am often struck by how much additional patience and fortitude is required of people of color. I wonder if I could be so poised, if I could withhold my rage, in such moments of crises. I know that no one should have to.
  • "She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all - the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humour, had hearts like human beings too, more human hearts than theirs." May we all know that human beings of all types have human hearts, and especially as we think of those whom we have suppressed and oppressed and repressed. Let us hear the brag of their hearts: 'they are, they are, they are.'
John - Pubescent protagonist - Philosophical, Perplexing, Provocative
  • Elisha, the pastor's nephew: "Do you want to be saved, Johnny?" This reminded me of when I went to youth group with my friends the Atens, roughly a million fifteen years ago. They had me fill out this questionnaire, and along with my name, address, and age, was this question: "When were you saved?" I didn't know, as my mother later told me, that it would have sufficed to say "in Presbyterian faith, we are saved from birth", so instead made up some story about seeing Jesus by my bed one night. #sorrynotsorry
  • "People fell all over themselves to meet John Grimes. He was a poet, or a college president, or a movie star; he drank expensive whisky, and he smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes in the green package." I loved this - famous Meredith, she drinks imported coffee from Seattle, and is only seen in the fanciest of slippers. Does mine sound as cool? (Don't answer that.)
  • "This was why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John's heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father."
  • "He had made his decision. He would not be like his father, or his father's fathers. He would have another life."
    • OK - so I thought I understood the direction we were going here with John, but then in the end, he has this whole 'come to Jesus moment' and he decides he is going to be a Reverend. I was confused, and a little disappointed, tbqh. 
  • "He loved this street, not for the people or the shops but for the stone lions that guarded the great main building of the Public Library, a building filled with books and unimaginably vast, and which he had never yet dared to enter. He might, he knew, for he was a member of the branch in Harlem and was entitled to take books from any library in the city. But he had never gone in because the building was so big that it must be full of corridors and marble steps, in the maze of which he would be lost and never find the book he wanted. And then everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity." I loved that John loved books. As I've mentioned before, so many protagonists in semi-autobiographical works love books and then love writing, and John felt similar in this way, though his status as a reader and consumer of literature was obviously more complicated (and challenged) by his race.
A little library of great lines:
  • "Since he was noticed by an eye altogether alien and impersonal, he began to perceive, in wild uneasiness, his individual existence. This moment gave him, if not a weapon at least a shield; he had in himself a power that other people lacked; he could use this to save himself, to raise himself." John, on being praised by a white teacher.
  • "Dirt was in the walls and the floorboards, and triumphed beneath the sink where roaches spawned; was in the fine ridges of the pots and pans, scoured daily, burnt black on the bottom, hanging above the stove; was in the wall against which they hung and revealed itself where the paint had cracked and leaned outward in stiff squares and fragments, the paper-thin underside webbed with black. Dirt was in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove, and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall." This description of dirt reminded me of a passage from 'To the Lighthouse':
    • "So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and a basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, 'This is he' or 'This is she'."
  • on Gabriel's role as a deacon: "He was a kind of fill-in speaker, a holy handyman."
  • "The mantelpiece held, in brave confusion, phonographs, greeting cards, flowered mottoes, two silver candlesticks that held no candles, and a green metal serpent, poised to strike." I love the specificity of this line, and the idea of 'brave confusion'.
  • "You just kindly turn out that light and I'll make you to know that black's a mighty pretty color." Frank, to Florence, after telling her to stop using skin whiteners. This was almost the title for this post.
  • on Florence - "She moved in a silent ferocity of dignity which barely escaped being ludicrous." God, I love this line.
  • "He remembered only enough to be afraid every time her belly began to swell, knowing that each time the swelling began it would not end until she was taken from him, to come back with a stranger." John, on how he perceives his mother's pregnancies. 
I loved this quote that hung on the Grimes's mantle - I think it's an old Irish blessing:

Come in the evening, or come in the morning, 
Come when you're looked for, or come without warning,
A thousand welcomes you'll find here before you, 
And the oftener you come here, the more we'll adore you.

I'll leave you with my other favorite line: "We might have the joy bells ringing deep in our hearts tonight!" I hope the joy bells ring deep in your bragging rubymeated hearts tonight, and know that the oftener you come to this blob, the more I'll adore you. 

I'm off to the Devilish Prose!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Diana's thoughts on 'Fun Home'

Dear blob enthusiasts,

As promised, here are my sister Diana's thoughts on Fun Home from her read-along.

Happy Caturday, and thinking fondly of a certain horse prince cat and his unquenchable thirst for milk,
. . .

Diana's thoughts:

I liked what you wrote about reading at different paces, and it struck a chord with me when thinking about the way you approach a novel with graphics versus one with none. How, as an adult reader, rather than one who is, let's say, learning to read and requires pictures as clues to what the text means, do you make yourself follow the art as carefully as the writing? The eye is trained to process words at a certain speed by the time we achieve literacy, but does a novice graphic novel reader know how to assess the art with the same fluid motion?

I guess that I also don't completely understand the role of graphic novels in the larger context of literature. One book that you have coming up later on your list is Watchmen, which is on a primary level a reimagining of the comic book trope, and by using the same medium as comic precursors it is able to add several new layers of complexity and commentary onto an older format. It transcends the entire genre, in my opinion, but could never achieve that without capitalizing on the initial format. For that work, the graphic novel makes perfect sense. I can't quite put my finger on why Alison Bechdel felt the need to narrate her memoir. It's possible that it was simply a way for her to assemble a jumble of historical evidence (her journal, her father's letters and notes) and incorporate her own annotations after the fact without having to create a linear narrative for her readers or come to a holistic conclusion. I think that after having reread this I've gathered that she is someone who gets a little bogged down in facts and theories, and who may also find too much solace in analyzing the written word. While she could have taken this great research and contemplation to arrive at an understanding of her relationship with her father, maybe she was only able, psychologically, emotionally, to process her evaluation of these written correspondences, not the larger picture. I'm not saying she was lazy, but that she may lack the neural aptitude to connect the dots. To add to what you said about Bechdel's father's possible pedophilic actions, I would submit that any empathic, thoughtful human being would be disgusted or at least deeply worried at the thought that someone in their family could be invovled in such a thing. Bechdel really doesn't give us a single hint to an emotional response, which raises suspicions, for me, about her ability to garner a deeper social understanding of her family.

To wrap up my thoughts, I would just say that I find a lot of the book intriguing, raising parallels to my own life that I have mulled over since finishing reading, and for that reason alone I can't say that the book is without merit. Anything that leaves a mark on me past the final minutes of its completion deserves some respect. In the end, though, I have to say that my greatest compliments will always go to writers who create intelligent and also emotionally forceful works, and not one passage in Fun Home stirred my heart or soul. It's fully possible that the Broadway musical version of this work brought more energy and life to the piece than the original, and perhaps that is worth a look.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Fun Home is a graphic novel/memoir that chronicles the life of the author and her nuanced relationship with her father, her sexuality, and her sense of self. We learn about Alison's unique family, her adolescence, her father's suicide (which is *almost* certainly a suicide, I know, #confusingmuch?), and struggle through the complex emotions this induces in Alison as she tries to make sense of them. It is clear that her tale is not a story with a fixed outcome, a ribbon that can be tied neatly into a clean bow, but rather a tangled, mysterious, and often painful exploration of family, relationships, intimacy, and identity.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

To be honest, I did not love this book. I won't go so far as to say that I hated it (I know Grandma doesn't like that word), but it definitely rubbed me the wrong way in some parts. That said, now that I've had a few weeks to think on it, I see some glimmers of beauty in it, and recognize why it was acclaimed by others. I don't know whether to recommend it to you or not (not knowing you personally, dear reader, I wouldn't want to PreSUme), but it is certainly an interesting read, and one that doesn't take long, being a graphic novel and all (NB: graphic as in comic - minds out of the gutter, now).

My sister Diana read it a second time as a readalong, so I may share her thoughts (as well as her thoughts on HNH (ahem, slightly belated #busymedschoollife)) at a later time, should she care to share them with all of you. Here's what struck me as I read it:

And the rowers keep on rowing, showing no signs that they are slowing...
I haven't read many graphic novels (I think it might be limited to Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and this) so I felt like I might have been missing something important about how you're supposed to read one. I am, as you may imagine, a rather fast reader by now, and ripped through this in about 3 hours. I wondered when I finished whether I had paid enough attention to the images and given them their due merit, but I'm not sure how to read differently. I guess it's sort of like thinking about how you drive, or ride a bike, or play the cello - how do you all of a sudden learn how to do it in a new way, when your body has become used to the rhythm of perpetual motion? I remember how hard it was to even attempt learning a new bow holding technique for the cello after roughly ten years, and that's just the bow! (you see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet!) Anyway, I was just marinating on this, and didn't really come up with any clear answers. I think there's something to be said for graphic novel authors not just creating the words, but the images, though in some ways I wasn't sure that the comic was the best medium for this tale. Curious to hear others' thoughts if anyone else has read this, or other graphic novels. I thought the quote on the right was very à propos.

Likenesses in droves...

It is not uncommon for a reader to identify with the narrator; in fact, I think these points of identification are generally what forge the deepest connections between book and reader. This book, however, seemed to contain a sort of freakish amount of these commonalities for me. Here are a few:
  • While our relationships are not at all the same, there was a great deal that rang true in her descriptions of her father, and how he behaved around his family. These were eerily familiar: 
    • "Dad considered us free labor, extensions of his own body, like precision robot arms." I still remember holding up drywall to the ceiling as a little girl, and wishing that my arms were thicker and stronger and belonged to a boy.
    • "I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture."
    • Her parents are both teachers, Dad teaches English.
    • Importance of Being Earnest - her mom plays Lady Bracknell in a local production, and there's quite a bit of family line practicing and quoting. My sisters and I tried to stage a dramatic performance of this when we were younger, and it's one of my mother's favorites.  
    • On her father's attitude toward the family: "He liked the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children."
    • Her parents (for different reasons than mine) had a marriage lacking in intimacy, which ended in divorce. 
    • Her 'urbane' father opts to live in a provincial hamlet, keeping his sphere of travel quite contained.
    • Her dad is an avid gardener, and they even mention a crabapple tree. It used to be my job (with my sisters) to pick up the crabapples from the back yard so my dad could feed them to the deer. 
    • Her dad's creepy Camus existentialism/absurdity of death fixation - let's just say The Stranger was more like Stranger Danger for little ole' moi. Where was my Kimmy Schmidt Stranger Danger Ranger?
    • Their house is filled to the brim with books.
    • The family grows up in good ole' PA, the Keystone State. 
  • None of these things on their own seem that strange (after all, loads of people must have crabapple trees in their yards), but it felt like a strikingly large collection after I wrote them all down.
Ne touchez pas mon Proust! [in other words, Hands off my Marcel!]
In case you are new to reading my blobbety blob, I'll let you in on a little secret: there are a few things I can't stand in life:

(a) the sound of couples making out in public [sorry! it's true! it's just so squishy and gross!]
(2) violence [of any kind, but particularly torture] and
(d) literary criticism.

I recognize the irony of this, considering I majored in Comparative Literature at Haverford, but part of why I started this blog was to reclaim my experience of books, and to rebuild those intimate, personal sparks that are shared only between reader and author, and that are so often bastardized and influenced by what other people tell you to think about a book, or think you should know before you read one. Sometimes this can be a challenge (looking at you, Ulysses) and sometimes this means I will miss things (like, for instance, the entire anti-communist subtext of Animal Farm) but what it does for me is provides a momentary union with the text, stripped of societal barriers or artificially constructed boundaries of understanding. Alison seems to have been won over by literary criticism, and spends a great deal of her novel analyzing and providing 'agreed-upon truths' about other books, most specifically Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. As I am one of the probably thousand or so people in the world who has actually read the complete Proust, I was annoyed at her presumptive explanations of what Proust meant, especially since Proust died a little over halfway through publishing his magnum opus. We can't know what Proust was thinking or intending unless we ask him, so unless you are also a very powerful medium, Alison, maybe take it down a notch. K? #kBYYYee! Also, she used two of my least favorite words (which I think were actually designed by sneaky linguists to make intelligent people feel stupid)epistemology and tautology, so Nope. step off, now. I'll take my personal Proustian feelings and keep them in a box over here, s'il vous plaît.

Alison is a rock, Alison is an i-i-i-i-sland...
Okay, true confessions time: sometimes I have a hard time connecting with people who either don't have siblings, or people who aren't close to their siblings. It just feels hinky to me, like they must have done something wrong or not drunk enough of their 'I will heart my siblings' potion as a child. I recognize that this sounds wildly unfair, but hey! It is what it is. I thought it was super weird that Alison had not one, but two brothers, who seemed to factor as nonentities in her memoir. She later explains, "Our family was like an artists' colony. We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits." That made me feel...sad. I value creativity and all, but to me, family is all on top of one another, piled up in this big messy heap, and sometimes uncomfortably stuck together and painfully intimate. I think the difference in the sense of family identity was particularly pronounced as I was coming out of Irvingland in HNH, where the Berry family swings into the too-closely-connected/borderline codependent zone. If given the option of the two, I'll take the latter.

We're coming Out. We want the world to know, got to let it show...

So, I was totally going to link to what I think was a 'This American Life' segment that also dealt with a child coming out and their parent coming out back to them unexpectedly, but of course now I can't find it, so oh well. C'est la vie. (La vie! ahGHAHGAHGAahgahgagh. get it?) Anyway, when Alison decides to come out to her parents, she's all ready for it to be this big surprise and shock and then bAWham guess what? Her mom is like, OH PS your dad is probs gay. And there have been some questionable occurrences between him and young men. Can you say #thunderstolen?

I'm creeped out that you're not more creeped out, girl...
One of the things that bugged me about this book was the fact that Alison seemed somewhat perturbed, but not overly bothered by the allegations of assault or whatnot against her father. Maybe I was reading it wrong, but I don't think I was. And if that's the case, closeted gay or not, NOT OK. And hard for me to identify with her when she didn't seem all that weirded.

1-2-3-, OCD
OK, so I am not a psychiatrist, and I support everyone who struggles with mental illness, but I was a little confused about how the main character seemed to develop an intense OCD problem for a brief period, but then it wasn't really mentioned at all after that period of time. Maybe this is a thing, and I am just not lucky enough for it to be true for me and my version of OCD, but I kind of thought OCD was a for life kind of deal. So maybe she just glossed over it but she still lives with it, or maybe (and this is a heavily emphasized maybe, because again, I'm no expert) it was, in fact, something else? It just felt a little strange to me.

Merp - gaydar fail - not EVERYTHING is about latent homosexuality
I know I grew up under a rock and all (well, more like under a PA dutch hex sign and some buggies) but excuse me if I don't feel like everything comes back to and flows in and out of gayness. Alison drew a lot of gay themes from just about everything, from Proust, to Wilde, to Fitzgerald, to Salinger, to Hemingway, and while I am all about that LGBT love, I felt like her emphasis on the latent gay themes kind of detracted from the larger depth and brilliance that is each of those authors and their great works. I assume that just as I would not want to be identified only as a woman, or only as white, or only as straight, those authors would want themselves, and their works, to be about all of their themes and pieces of identity, not just their gayness or gay themes. I really don't want to seem anti-gay here, because I'm not, and I get that I probably missed (and still miss) a lot of nuance, but I like to think that I try not to miss the forest for the trees.

And all. That. J--aa--zzzzz...
This book felt very unresolved. I'm talking an "'is that really the end? is it over?' kind of note that clinches a jazz piece" unresolved. Which I found unsettling because (a) I like resolution (so sue me!) and (b) the character felt very old to still feel so unresolved about her father's death. It made me wonder if she would ever get that resolution, and what it would feel like to spend her whole life wondering in this land of suspended animation. But maybe (here we go, big thought, guys!) that is how I was SUPPOSED to feel. And if so, ick. [Sorry! like I said, I like a consonant tonic.]

As we have already established, there were many big words in this book, some of which are on my NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO list. Here are two that I learned (and of which I approve):

monomaniacal - fanatical, or obsessed with one cause or idea to the exclusion of other concerns

legerdemain - deception; trickery; sleight of hand [from the French for 'light of hand']

Well, I don't think this was my strongest blob entry, but then again, I think exactly zero people read my last post, so maybe it Doesn't Even Matter! I will not waste time worrying about it. ;) I'm off to Go Shout it on the Hilltop. Happy New Year! kbYEEEeeeeeeee

Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories and novels (56 and 4, respectively, to be precise) which feature the consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The great majority of these stories are told by Dr. John Watson, a close friend who assists Holmes with cases and acts as a de facto biographer and storyteller. Sherlock is a brilliant, eccentric, sometimes neurotic, but eminently lovable hero, and Watson winkles his way into the heart of the reader with his courage, his continuously offered friendship, and his steadfast willingness to let Sherlock use (and abuse) him. The tales are often similar, but never twice the same, and you earn a few morsels of detail and personality about the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street and their comings and goings with each new chronicle. The cases are full of adventure, intrigue, and, more often than not, danger, but what pulls the reader back to the next installment is not the complex chase scenes or the oft-required revolvers, but the feeling that you have been granted entry to the intimate coterie of Holmes and Watson and their marvelous world of whimsy.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear readers,
    It has been a long time since I have blobbed. Did you miss me? I was exploring the magnificent world of detection and deduction, and I savoured each and every moment. If you haven't read any Holmes, stop what you're doing (this instant! I mean it! anybody want a peanut?), hit the library or the nearest bookstore, and get yourself a copy of the collection. Your collection probably won't be complete (I'm not being snotty - I have three large tomes and between them I was still missing the last 12 stories and had to read them online - thanks, ebooks!) but that's perfectly fine! They don't really require that you read them in order, and their chronology differs from their publication order, in any case.
    I completely understand the obsession with Holmes now, and the stories were impeccably constructed, thoughtfully organized, and delightfully playful. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the collection.

Gossip Girl

The feedback loop - on Holmes (avec Watson) in his many forms
One of my fears in reading this series was that I would have the modern-day Watsons and Holmeses swimming around omnipresently in my brain, and they would cloud my imagining capacity and preclude me from creating my own images of the beloved pair.
     But never fear, blog enthusiasts - the opposite happened! My knowledge of at least three pairs of H and W did not detract from, but rather enriched my internal sketch of the famous duo. I even watched some recent "Elementary" episodes and started watching "Sherlock", which I had not begun prior to reading, and found that I was not stuck with Benedict Cumberbatch bouncing around as Holmes in my brain when I went back to reading, and I loved the various tidbits from the books that I saw effortlessly and beautifully recreated in the series.

I think this is in part because (a) recent updaters of the Doyle series have been very talented and quite thoughtful and thorough about their scripts, scenery, and casting, and (2) they have been playful in the same spirit of the series when they do choose to take liberties or expand upon Doyle's original intentions. Here are a few comments on each pairing that struck me as I read:

Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes
Jude Law as Watson
"Sherlock Holmes" and "A Game of Shadows"
- Key details about Moriarty on point (Mathematician, professor, 2nd hand man Sebastian Moran)

- Most physically accurate Mycroft (imho)

- Brilliant use of slo-mo to walk viewers through Holmes's thoughts (and epic boxing scenes)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes
Martin Freeman as Watson
- Intro meeting between Holmes and Watson is a delightfully updated version of the exact beginning to Study in Scarlet

- Hilarious details included from book (keeping correspondence stabbed with a dagger on the mantle)

- Beautiful use of text and video editing to display Holmes's deductions (ex: navigating the streets of London at hyperspeed)

Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes
Lucy Liu as Watson
-Thoughtful extrapolation of Holmes's mentioned semi-recreational, semi-addicted use of cocaine; if you haven't seen this version, Lucy Liu (as Watson) is a retired surgeon turned 'sober companion', and she first encounters Holmes and moves in with him because she is facilitating his transition out of rehab for drug use. I thought that the addiction was taking artistic license, but realized after reading the series that it was spot on. Watson is even referenced as 'helping Holmes break his habit' of using cocaine to divert himself in times of lethargy and boredom.

- I like that Watson is a woman, but they keep the relationship strictly platonic. It adds a level of nuance, but otherwise stays quite true to the construct of the pairing.

- Amusing details included here - Holmes as beekeeper, single-stick expert, boxer, and corpse defiler (for detective practice, of course).

And now, may I present to you, the cast of characters from this delightful 40-year literary romp through detective-land:

First and foremost, Holmes (in his many moods and forms):
What I love about Holmes is that he has certain highly predictable traits (his unpredictability, for example, his odd sleeping patterns, his affinity for playing violin tunes of his own creation), but these are paired with more dynamic characteristics (his flair for the dramatic, his propensity for disguise, his surprising and sporadic bursts of humility). This yields a marvelously multidimensional character that is painstakingly developed like a patchwork quilt over the course of the cases.

Holmes, the performer
Holmes is always willing to pass on the public accolades for solving difficult cases, but he does like the occasional audience. ;)
"Lestrade and I [Watson] sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes’s pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. 'Well,' said Lestrade, 'I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.'

Holmes, the hoarder
Holmes likes to be surrounded by his things, and he does not enjoy being separated from them:
"My friend’s temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrap-books, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man."

Holmes, the addict
This is a fascinating aspect to Holmes, and one that feels familiar to me. Not the addiction, per se, but the instability of the brain at rest. Those who know me well know that I thrive on activity, whether it is work or a productive form of rest (knitting, quilting, reading), and I identified with Holmes's discomfort with idleness. Watson's watchful eye to these dangerous times was deeply endearing.
"Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion’s brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes’s ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes."

Holmes, the critic
Holmes can be a bit of a meanie to Watson, but it's their thing, so I guess it's OK.
"'I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.' 'Why do you not write them yourself?' I said, with some bitterness. 'I will, my dear Watson, I will. At present I am, as you know, fairly busy, but I propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a text-book which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume.'" Oh, OK, Holmes. Suuure. ;)

Holmes, judge and jury
Occasionally, Holmes reserves the right to withhold the results of his investigations...
"Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience."

Holmes, the cryptic
Holmes is the worst best at leaving helpful notes for ickle Watsonkins. Here is one of my favorites:
"Am dining at Goldini’s Restaurant, Gloucester Road, Kensington. Please come at once and join me there. Bring with you a jemmy, a dark lantern, a chisel, and a revolver.
ahaaghahgahghaghaghagh OK. no pRoblem, Holmesy.

Holmes, the sneak
One of the dullard policemen, to Holmes:
“How do you know that?”
“I followed you.”
“I saw no one.”
“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.

Holmes, the softie
Holmes likes to pretend he only takes on cases if they are interesting/challenging enough to tempt him, but in truth, he is a big old softie. Here's a client, begging him to take on his case:
“But he would never cease talking of it—your kindness, sir, and the way in which you brought light into the darkness. I remembered his words when I was in doubt and darkness myself. I know you could if you only would.” That reminded me of this exchange from Dracula:

Van Helsing, to Mina: "There are darknesses in life, and there are lights; you are one of the lights." Holmes brings light into the darkness, just like Mina.

Holmes, the monographer (not a word? I don't care. (said Pierre))

Here is an amusing image I found of some of Holmes's monographs. He seems to always have one up his sleeve. Oh, differentiating things that are the color that rhymes with 'urple'? Have one on that. Learning to tell whether someone is lying based on their smell? Have one on that.

Holmes, the jokester
“It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal.” Enough said.

Moriarty, Holmes's evil twin:
I have to admit I was a little disappointed that Moriarty didn't have more of a starring role in the stories. I think the updated versions do an excellent job of weaving Moriarty more consistently into the storyline, as Doyle leaves this a bit dangly in the stories/novels. He uses the non-chronological nature of the stories to dive in and out of the Moriarty plotline here and there, but I wanted a more fleshed out mind-battle between Sherlock and Moriarty. Holmes is a tad obsessed with him, in a mildly disturbing way:
"But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law—and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that's the man!" OK, Holmes, let's cool your jets. He's a bad, bad man, remember?

Mycroft, a.k.a. the only other Holmes we know:
Mycroft, for those of you unfamiliar with the stories, is Holmes's brother. He is described as matching (if not surpassing) Holmes in deductive brilliance, but without any interest in the activity required to solve cases. Apparently Mycroft has only been to Baker Street twice, and Watson assumes Holmes has no family at all until one day he mentions Mycroft out of the blue. Here are a few tidbits:

"All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience."

"Possibly, Sherlock. But it is a question of getting details. Give me your details, and from an armchair I will return you an excellent expert opinion. But to run here and run there, to cross-question railway guards, and lie on my face with a lens to my eye—it is not my metier. No, you are the one man who can clear the matter up." Hahgahghag, no that would require effort. I'm good, thanks.

Watson, the stubborn
Despite Holmes's various (and often disturbing) requests, there are times when even Holmes doesn't want to endanger Watson by involving him in his harebrained schemes. Watson, to his credit, never says die:

“Well, I don’t like it; but I suppose it must be,” said I [Watson].
"When do we start?”
“You are not coming.”
“Then you are not going,” said I.
“I give you my word of honour —and I never broke it in my life—that I will take a cab straight to the police-station and give you away unless you let me share this adventure with you.”
“You can’t help me.”
“How do you know that? You can’t tell what may happen. Anyway, my resolution is taken. Other people beside you have self-respect and even reputations.” hagh!
Holmes had looked annoyed, but his brow cleared, and he clapped me on the shoulder.
“Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared the same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell. You know, Watson, I don’t mind confessing to you that I have always had an idea that I would have made a highly efficient criminal. This is the chance of my lifetime in that direction." adorbsable. bffs in crime.

Watson, the insensible
"It is not for me, my dear Watson, to stand in the way of the official police force. I leave them all the evidence which I found. The poison still remained upon the talc had they the wit to find it. Now, Watson, we will light our lamp; we will, however, take the precaution to open our window to avoid the premature decease of two deserving members of society, and you will seat yourself near that open window in an armchair unless, like a sensible man, you determine to have nothing to do with the affair. Oh, you will see it out, will you? I thought I knew my Watson." Oh, are we doing an experiment that might end in toxic death? Oh no Problem. Let's do this.

Watson, the jokester
"You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?"
"The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as—"
"My blushes, Watson!" Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
"I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public."
"A touch! A distinct touch!" cried Holmes. "You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself." aghahgahgahghagahghaghaghaghaghahgahghaghaghaghahga. best. line. ever.

Watson, the whetstone
Sometimes it's hard to assess how Watson fits with Holmes, and he can seem like a mere foil to Holmes's brilliance. I loved this description that Watson provided of their pairing: "[Holmes] was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence."

Mrs. Hudson, soon-to-be-sainted
"Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London." haghaghaghaghag. I think Sherlock might have had a tough time finding a roommate on Craigslist. ;)

Watson & Sherlock - Best. Friends. Forever.
This nugget, from the one time in the books that Watson gets grazed in the leg by a bullet:

Sherlock: "If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive."

I hope you have enjoyed this meandering journey through London sleuthery. I'll leave you with this fantastic note from H to W:

"Come at once if convenient—if inconvenient come all the same."
— S. H.

Happy holidays, and happy reading! I'm off to embark on Glee Bungalow.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Keep passing the open windows.

Dear blob-friends,

I have decided that I was, perhaps, too hasty in moving my thoughts for books 101-200 to a new forum. They will come to live here now, with their fellow friends (they are smiling smugly at me now). Here are the first few that I have completed so far.

Happy new year!

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Hotel New Hampshire is the story of the Berry family and the series of events that precede and follow their ownership of a collection of not particularly successful hotels, each of which bears the titular name. The novel takes the family from the Granite State, to Austria, to the Big Apple, and eventually to Maine. It is a story of the love - often comical, sometimes painful, yet always redeeming - that the Berry family shares, and their adventures in this frequently absurd game we call life.

For reference, the Berry family tree (forgive the gender normative color choices to indicate the sex of a character, but it seemed the simplest way to denote it - Egg isn't exactly an obvious one ;) ).

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Greetings, readers! It has been quite some time since I've written a post, and I admit I took my time with Hotel New Hampshire. It was partly because I was enjoying Irving, and partly because I was feeling a bit at sea about having completed my first list and embarking on my new one. I thought I would feel an overwhelming sense of pleasure when I finished my first list, but I felt a deep sadness at having to say goodbye to those first 100. That said, if I don't move forward, I can't make the acquaintance of other, potentially equally pleasurable novels! (And that will throw her in the path of Other Rich Men!)

My sister, Diana, did a read-along, and managed to finish right beside me, despite being treMendously busy with that whole third year med student business (birthing babies, etc. etc.) I'll post her thoughts alongside mine so you can compare.

Without further ado, onwards we go!

Primary thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. I think it's earned a place among my all-time favorites, and since this was #101 with some pretty heavy hitters, that's saying something. It's definitely a bizarre read, so if you're not inclined toward the theater of the absurd meets Wes Anderson sort of vibe (think prostitutes, incest, taxidermy, political dissidents) then this probably isn't for you. That said, I thought it was brilliant. 

Secondary thoughts: My spoiler alert system is a rather imprecise one, in case you haven't noticed, or are new to this project. I apologize if you are annoyed by this pesky trend, but admit I am unlikely to change my behavior. It can be hard to write about the book without letting you in on some of the secrets of what went down in the book. So I guess this is just to say #sorrynotsorry.

Tertiary thoughts: My plot summaries are often quite short, and rather vague. I find it more fun and less book reportish to capture the essence of a novel, rather than detail the play-by-play. Besides, it's a Breakthrough norm to 'Be crisp. Say what's core.' So there! I'm #winning.

Quaternary thoughts: Did you know what came after tertiary? I didn't. I looked it up. 

On the thoughtful and strategic use of italics
I enjoy employing various methods to ensure that the emPhasis of my words is on the right syllAble, but often find that writers shy away from such methods, either because their editors were sticks in the mud or because they felt bound by convention. In any case, I was delighted by Irving's use of the quite simple and yet so expressive technique of italicizing. Please enjoy this tidbit as an example:

                                                                    When Father decides to put down Sorrow, the family dog:
"Frank did not care for Sorrow, but even Frank seemed saddened by the death sentence.
  'I know he smells bad,' Frank said, but that's not exactly a fatal disease.'
 'In a hotel it is', Father said. 'That dog has terminal flatulence.'
 ' And he is old,' Mother said.
 'When you get old,' I told Mother and Father, 'we won't put you to sleep.'
ahghaghaghaghaghahgahgahag. I in this case is John, as he is our narrator. Wasn't that nice of him? ;) The dog in Hyperbole and a Half (featured on the left) is what I imagine Sorrow to look like, btw. 

On good old-fashioned concrete chapters
I loved that this book had such clearly delineated chapters. Each one could almost stand alone as its own mini-novella, and it made the slowpoke reading experience I opted for quite pleasurable. It not only allowed me, but encouraged me, to slow down with my reading, and take the book literally (Chris Traeger voice) one chapter at a time.

On a good old-fashioned incestual romance
Oh I'm sorry is that not a thing? Brothers and sisters aren't supposed to fall in love? Listen to Armande - don't worry so much about not supposed to! OK, well I suppose there are lots of reasons why we don't condone incest as a society, and certainly not as a widespread phenomenon, but there was a poignant kind of beauty to Franny and John's love for each other. Irving made it feel forbidden, but also almost...expected, matter-of-fact. Like why wouldn't a brother and sister who are the closest siblings in a large family who protect and care for each other not also feel something more for each other?

On families, and how despite the supreme curveballs of life, it sounds the same note
I fell hard for the Berry family. I was definitely thrown for a loop when the transition to Austria happened, but Irving kept me on board. I loved their strangeness, but also the fact that no matter how odd they seemed, they were a family, and their bond was achingly permanent.

Here are two of my favorite examples of this:
#1 - When Frank, the cymbal-playing oddball of the family, intervenes to help John save Franny from her psycho crush who is trying to force himself on her, after she has saved Frank from humiliation and bullying: "Frank clashed his damn cymbals together  (in said crush's face)- so startlingly loud that I thought an airplane was flying into another airplane above us...Frank continued to clash his cymbals together - as if this were a ritual dance that our family always practiced prior to slaughtering an enemy." ahgahgahgaghahgahgahghaghg. oh yes - the ritual Berry cymbal dance!

#2 - 
"When Lilly and Egg and Father came home from the game, Franny and I put Egg in the dumbwaiter and hauled him up and down the four-story shaft until Frank ratted on us and Father told us that the dumbwaiter would be used only for removing linen and dishes and other things - not humans - from the rooms." typical sibling shenanigans ;) 

#3 - "'You see,' Franny would explain, years later, 'we aren't eccentric; we're not bizarre. 'To each other,' Franny would say, 'we're as common as rain.' And she was right; to each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread, we were just a family. In a family, even exaggerations make perfect sense; they are always logical exaggerations, nothing more." God, I LOVE the smell of bread.

And now, I give you a brief review of les trois hôtels de New Hampshire:

#1 - Dairy, NH
- Constructed out of the remains of the Thompson Female Seminary (a school)
- Featuring the 'outhouse for elves' (think miniature toilet facilities for young children)
- Frequented by Ronda Ray & her 'dayroom' - an employee, as well as John's first, well, you know
- Complete with intercom between rooms, much to the Berry children's maniacal delight
- Rounded out by Iowa Bob lifting weights in his room, huffing and puffing away

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from numero uno:
  • Iowa Bob, to guests, on the fact that the chairs are screwed down because it used to be a school:"Just hold on to your seats! Nothing moves at the Hotel New Hampshire! We're screwed down here - for life!"
  • "Father bought Frank a bus driver's uniform, because Frank was so fond of uniforms; Frank would wear it when he played doorman at the Hotel New Hampshire. On those rare occasions when we had more than one overnight guest, Frank liked to pretend that there was always a doorman at the Hotel New Hampshire. The bus driver's uniform was the good old Dairy death-gray color; the pants and the jacket sleeves were too short for Frank, and the cap was too large, so that Frank had an ominous, seedy-funeral-parlor look to him when he let in the guests." haghagha yessssss, perfect, Frank. 'Welcome to the Hotel New Hampshire!' he practiced saying, but it always sounded as if he didn't mean it."
#2 - Vienna, Austria
- Featuring the unforgettable Freud (not the Freud, but better, imho); the man who convinces Winslow Berry to sell his first HNH and start a second one in Austria, of all places
- Guarded by Susie the Bear (note: not a real bear. human bear. much stranger.)
- Permanent home to a bevy of prostitutes and a pack of political dissidents
- Easy access to delicious coffee, with schlagobers of course

Choice telegrams from Freud to Winslow:
  • On the political dissidents:"Their typewriters bother the bear." Especially amusing when you remember that the bear is not a real bear. 
#3 - Arbuthnot, Maine
Please note: this HNH is not, in fact, a real hotel. It is a ruse imagined and perpetuated by John and the rest of the children, which is successful largely because at this point Win Berry has lost his sight. It is on the grounds of a resort hotel that Win Berry used to work at in Maine, and could be a hotel if it Wanted to. (Just like I could have been sick all night)

My favorite snippets from le troisième HNH:
  • "The third Hotel New Hampshire had lots of unpaying guests." The third HNH becomes a rape crisis center, and a general refuge for rape victims (this has to do with Susie the not-bear and her future with John). 
  • "With a degree in American literature from Vienna, I could do worse than become the caretaker of my father's illusions." I love this line. :0)
  • "Reading aloud to someone is one of this world's pleasures." This always makes me think of Jo March reading to her Aunt March, and makes me wish I had someone to read to.
  • "Occasionally, tourists get lost and find us; they see the sign and think we are a hotel. I have explained to Father a very complicated system that our 'success' in this hotel business has afforded us. When the lost tourists find us and ask for rooms, we ask them if they have reservations. They say no, of course, but invariably - looking around themselves, at the silence, at the abandoned quality of peace we have achieved at the third Hotel New Hampshire - they ask, 'But surely you have vacancies?' 'No vacancies,' we always say. No reservations, no vacancies.'' Hagh. Sometimes I feel that way about my brain. No reservations, no vacancies. Tant pis!
  • Everyone else knows that the HNH is a rape crisis center, but part of the irony is that Win Berry, the only one not in the know, is often the kindest and most helpful supporter of women who frequent the HNH. Susie the Bear/notbear often sends women to the dock to see 'the blind man and seeing eye dog #4'. The metaphor of a hotel seems to fit quite nicely into the idea of a gentle recovery from trauma. Here's Win Berry:
"A good hotel turns space and atmosphere into something generous, into something sympathetic - a good hotel makes those gestures that are like touching you, or saying a kind word to you, just when (and only when) you need it. A good hotel is always there, but it doesn't ever give you the feeling that it's breathing down your neck."

A collection of my favorite moments:
  • Exchange between Franny and John, after Franny has been gang raped:  "I got up and went to the bathroom door and asked her if there was anything I could get her. 'Thank you,' she whispered. 'Just go out and get me yesterday and most of today. I want them back.'" 
    • Junior Jonesa football player, to Franny, after she has been raped: 'When someone touches you and you don't want to be touched, that's not really being touched - you got to believe me. It's not you they touch when they touch you that way; they don't really get you, you understand. You've still got you inside you."
    • Exchange between Franny and John after they have tried to deny their feelings for each other: "'Do you still love me?' Franny asked.
      'Yes, I can't help it', I said.
      'Poor you,' said Franny.
      'Poor you, too,' I told her.'"
    • Franny, looking for her sweater: "'Egg, what did you do with my green sweater?'
       'What?' Egg said.
      'My green sweater!' Franny screamed.
       'I don't have a green sweater,' Egg said.
       'It's my green sweater!' Franny shouted. 'He dressed his bear in it yesterday - I saw it,' Franny told Mother. 'And now I can't find it.'
       'Egg, where's your bear?' Mother asked.
       'Franny doesn't have a bear,' Egg said. 'That's my bear.'
       'Where's my running hat?' I asked Mother. 'It was on the radiator in the hall last night.'
      'Egg's bear is probably wearing it,' Frank said. 'And he's out doing wind sprints.'" ahgahghaghaghaghaI love everything about this exchange. 
    Word I learned:
    weirs - a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow; an enclosure of stakes set in a stream as a trap for fish. my mother and I took a leaf-peeping train a few weeks ago (yes. leaf-peeping is a thing in NH) and it left from a place called Weirs Beach in Meredith, NH.

    In closing, I will let you in on a little secret. I am now a firm believer in the idea that a book can come to you at the just right time. This book did that for me. I picked it as a bit of a lark, knowing that my sister Diana has always been a big Garp fan, and bemusedly feeling that I ought to read the only semi-famous work of fiction I know of with New Hampshire in its title while I'm living in the land of the live free or die.

    What I found, however, was not only a beautiful work of art, but an intimate companion, and a world where the fictions could not have been more timely to match my own feelings and personal plights. The title is a reference to a sort of morbid but optimistic catchphrase the family passes on to each other from time to time -- it's an allusion to an artist who jumps out of an open window and commits suicide, but leaves a note proclaiming, "Life is serious but art is fun. It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious." I love the confusing poetry of these lines, and the idea that, even in times of great darkness, we can remind each other to simply 'Keep passing the open windows'. [2015 - Survive Alive!] Because Irving is a realist and not remotely bound to the perfect happy ending, one member of the family doesn't manage to keep passing the open windows. But the harmony in the novel's outcome and its ultimate triumph is not in the glamour of a simple and comfortable traditional happy ending, but the messy and raw, yet stunningly brilliant beauty of a complex and nuanced denouement.

    I leave you with another of my favorite passages:
    "So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone's older brother, and someone's older sister - they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear. There is always a brave, lost brother - and little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them."

    May you continue to dream vividly and often, keep passing the open windows, and find the book you need to read at the just right time. I'm off to 221B Baker Street! Cheerio!