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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Take care of thyself, gentle Yahoo!

Gulliver's Travels by Taylor Jonathan Swift

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of a man (Lemuel Gulliver) recounted by another man (Richard Sympson) and OH, the places he Went. (Do you find my Geisel diverting?) Mr. Gulliver is a sea surgeon by trade, and a wanderer at heart. He has a wife and some kiddos (I couldn't tell you quite precisely how many, or of what ilk, as they are so thoroughly unCentral to this tome, cough Cough) back in Grand Ole' England, but spends most of his time either at sea, shipwrecked on unknown islands, or making frenemies with the local natives he encounters. He finds unhappy immortals and floating island-dwellers obsessed with mathematics, the most honorable horses and the meanest of mortals, and peoples Great and Tall, Teeny and Small. He waxes poetic and philosophic, he starts and stops wars, he speaks to the dead, and he loses faith in his own kind. Gulliver seems happiest away from home, not because he dislikes his country (at least not at first) but more so because he enjoys the accidental immersion in foreign cultures hitherto unseen. He truly embodies the Tolkien-ism, "Not all who wander are lost".
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Greetings, dear blobbists! Blobulation? Blobbership? Which do you prefer? Do tell. 

My feelings on Gulliver were mixed. I feel like it's one of those works that one is 'supposed' to read, which is why I put it on this list. That said, it reads more like an extended children's book for esoteric adults than a novel, imho. The various adventures give it a sort of serialized feel, and made it hard for me to gain forward reading momentum. That being said, the cultures Gulliver encounters and the theories and emotions he wrestles with are complex, nuanced, and in some cases, quite beautiful. Gulliver the protagonist is, in a way, a foil for Swift to comment on the dystopic and utopic aspects of British life at the time; which, when you think about it, is really pretty brilliant and badass.

Since the novel centers on several discrete explorations of new lands and cultures, I thought it would be most fitting to give you a snapshot of each place, so you could feel privy to Gulliver's adventures. Hold on to your crayons - we're off!

Lands encountered by Gulliver: (in alphabetical, not chronological, order. Complaints, please see Charles Kinbote)
Blefuscu (they are small, Gulliver is large - rivals of Lilliput [see below])

Godblessyou! oh I'm Sorry, I thought you sneezed. I found several of the names that Swift selected to be a bit hard to pronounce (perhaps on purpose?) and kept calling this one Blufuskew, or Blefosco. Boscov's. Not much fascinating to report here, though amusingly Gulliver does steal their entire fleet of ships with his bare hands (not his vicious rhetoric) and drag it back to Lilliput, much to the Lilliputians delight (and the Blocruspans' chagrin). 

Brobdingnag (they are large, Gulliver is small - role reversal much?)
In case you thought that this would be a good name for a country populated by honorable horses, you'd be... WRONG. Meep! Sorry. Let's move on to colors that end in 'urple', shall we? 

Here are some of my favorite snippets from B-g (let's shorten it, shall we?):
-- When Gulliver wants to read books here, he walks across them. Just strolls across from the top of the page to the bottom, moving left to right (and whistling as he goes! ok. I editorialized that bit). Can you imagine how long it would take me to read all these blob books in such a fashion? At least I'd get a good workout!
-- A scawy cat is described as being 3x larger than an ox (basically, Suzy.)
-- The queen wants Gully (a good nickname, no? it's of my design, not the queen's) to be able to get some exercise, so she builds him a tiny ocean and a boat and he rows around in it while they watch with great amusement. That is, until a large Frog accidentally finds its way into the artificial sea and Gully nearly Drownds himself. 
-- The B-gs are sad that Gully can't make more Teeny Tiny people like him, and the King expresses that he "is strongly bent to get [Gulliver] a woman of [his] own size". aghaghaghagh. A teeny gal for a teeny guy! I'm just an infinitesimal boy, standing in front of an infinitesimal girl, asking her to love him. ;)

Glubbdubbdrib (they have magicians who can conjure spirits of the dead)
oh YES, you did read that right. Gully decides to speak with the Good Old Boys: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, Pompey, Brutus, etc. In his words, "I chiefly fed mine eyes with beholding the destroyers of tyrants and usurpers, and the restorers of liberty to oppressed and injured nations." Sure, Sure, that's what I think we'd most probsably all do, Gully. He also chats with Homer and Aristotle (a LITTLE more interesting to me) but that's pretty much it. Oh, and I don't think he brings back a single lady (and I don't mean a Beyoncé-style singlelady I mean nary a one). SO #thanksfornuffin, Gully. It does raise a good question, though - who would you bring back from the dead to talk to? You can converse, as fas I can tell, nothing more. And they can't stay. I think I'd go simple, and leave the warriors and generals to Gully; I'll take my Uncle Chris and my Grandma Rose. Oh, and my Grandfather Gail - I never got to meet him.

Houyhnhnm (they resemble horses and use 'Yahoos' (scary-but-humanesque creatures) as servants)
If you thought Blofasckeu was hard to pronounce, try Hulahoop! It's a doozy, but I think I got it. The horses were very pleasant, and Gully fell for them hard. They weren't into lying, or trickery, and even though they thought Gully was a Scary-but-less-Hairy yahoo at first, they came to love him and respect him. They really make Gully re-examine his country's ways, and it makes it hard for him to transition back to England (and his FORGOTTEN wife and children, again, editorializing) in the end. Here's one of my favorite lines, from when Gulliver tries to explain why countries go to war: 
"Sometimes a war is entered upon because the enemy is too strong; and sometimes because he is too weak. Sometimes our neighbours want the things which we have, or have the things which we want; and we both fight, till they take ours, or give us theirs."
It's sad, but true. There are eight million reasons we find to war with one another, and very few seem like worthwhile reasons after the dust settles and the carnage comes to an end. 

Laputa (they like mathematics and live on a floating island)

OK, so the island pictured on the right isn't exactly what I imagined based on the book's description, but when you google 'floating island', all KINDS of cool things come up! Who knew? The Laputans were a funky bunch:
"Their heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars; interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe."
Groovy, right? Gully isn't all that into this clan, most especially because they aren't all that into him. (And he kind of thinks he's awesome.) They also spend most of their time worrying about the end of the world:
"When they meet an acquaintance in the morning, the first question is about the sun’s health, how he looked at his setting and rising, and what hopes they have to avoid the stroke of the approaching comet."
I mean, why waste time talking about other things when you can focus on the impending apocalypse? #amirite?

Lilliput (they are small, Gulliver is large - just like in good ole' Blofarscue)

You've probably heard of the Lilliputians. They're Kinda Famous these days. My favorite parts:
-- Sometimes Gully lets a few select Lilliputians dance in his hand. Adorbsable. 
-- Sometimes they play hide and seek in his hair. 
-- One time, Gully tries to put out a palatial fire by peeing on it. He thinks he's been resourceful, and then they threaten to blind him and he has to run off to Blarphesctue. Whoopsies!
-- When they first encounter Gully, they take an inventory of what they find on him. I loved this because it reminded me of the scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo asks Gollum what he has in his pocket and Gollum frantically guesses as follows: "Handses!" When that's wrong, he thinks of what he keeps in his own pockets -- "fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on." ahgahgahgah ROTFL. 

Inventory by the Lilliputians (who thankfully did NOT find any bat wings in Gully's pockets): 
"in the right coat pocket of the great man-mountain (haghaghahg) we found...
-- coarse cloth
-- silver chest full of dust
-- enormous letters
-- an engine wherewith we assume the man-mountain combs his head
-- two razors (he claims one is for his beard, the other is for his meat)
-- half silver globe that made an incessant noise like that of a water mill (it is either some unknown animal or the god that he worships) [ahgahgahgahg yes that or a WATCH. one of the three.]

Luggnagg (an island which contains immortals)
oh, did you get Excited? Immortals? What fun! OH NO NO NO. Gully gives us a little lesson here in desiring immortality. Please see exhibit A on the right - the STRULDBRUG. (it's the scary old thing, not the weirdly hyper-asian racist drawing on the left). Not everyone is immortal on Luggnagg, just the good old Durmstrangs. I mean Struldbrugs. Here's a snapshot of these lovely creatures:

-- peevish, covetous, morose; incapable of friendship; dead to all natural affection; unreliable memories
-- @ 80 years old, dead to the law
-- @ 90 years old, lose their teeth and hair, memory too poor to read
-- the language changes over time, so one generation of struldbrugs can't converse with another, leaving them as foreigners in their own country

Oh but here's my favorite: "If a struldbrug happen to marry one of his own kind, the marriage is dissolved, of course, by the courtesy of the kingdom, as soon as the younger of the two comes to be fourscore. For the law thinks it a reasonable indulgence, that those who are condemned, without any fault of their own, to a perpetual continuance in the world, should not have their misery doubled by the load of a wife." Ha. HA. HA. NOT FUNNY. satire, Shmatire, Swifty - Joke not accepted. 

Gully sums up the false desire for immortality thusly: "No tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with pleasure from such a life." So how about that immortality now, blobbists? Under what conditions might you still want to evade death? How much would you be willing to bear? How much would you give up?

Words I learned [It always makes me feel Really optimistic about the future of humankind when I learn new words from a 300-year-old book. I mean, I get that language morphs, but some of these are still in use, at least in places like the NYTimes! I should know them!]

buff jerkin - a man's short close-fitting jacket, made usually of light-colored leather, and often without sleeves, worn over the doublet in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries SUUUUpes cool. What Gully wears for basically all of his titular travels. I'mma get me one.

calenture - feverish delirium supposedly caused by the heat in the tropics - No thank you! No tropics, no calenture, no summer! I shall take none of the above!

concupiscence - strong sexual desire; lust - hm. I just plain hadn't heard of this one. It sounds sort of like it should be an animal. Or maybe it's making me think of concubine. Similar root, Mommykins?

demesne - land attached to a manor and retained for the owner's own use. not to be confused with RenESMe, the vampiric spawn of Bella and Edward in Twilight.

encomium - a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly

panegyric - I'm pretty sure both encomium and panegyric were GRE words. Ohhhhh the GRE. What a useless test. Doesn't it sound like it should be a cool new dance or something? NOPE. a public speech or published text in praise of someone or something. Oh wait that sounds SO MUCH LIKE encomium. Maybe we don't need both in this century. Blobulation, want to cast your vote?

sloop - SLOOP, there it is. SLOOP, there it is. Wait, that's not right, is it? a one-masted sailboat with a fore-and-aft mainsail and a jib

spinnet - a smaller type of harpsichord or other keyboard instrument, such as a piano or organ

I'll leave you with a few lingering questions I came up with during this reading:
Probing questions:
- Do you know how a gun works? I don't. Gully explains it to some of the various peoples, many of whom are horrified. I know there are Lots of kinds of guns and many different mechanisms, but I can't explain even one. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, but it is a fascinating (and dark) machine.

- How would you structure a government if you had your own society? Lots of these explorations are excuses for Gully to examine his own country and pontificate on its pleasures and its ills. Makes you think about how you might make your own land from scratch... I'm thinking LOTS Of cats. And cocoa. Cocoa and coffee and cats. #meforthewin

- Who would you bring back from the dead to speak to? OK. I already asked you this one. But admit it - you're still thinking about it, aren't you?

I'm off to Their Ears were Hearing Buddha. (#nailedit!) Follow me if you care! ;)