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.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I shall witness for Bigger Thomas.

Native Son by Richard Wright

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Dear Blobbists, in a constant effort to mix things up, I have decided to present the plot of this novel in the form of a poem. Bigger = Bigger Thomas, the 20-year-old African-American male protagonist.

Bigger feeling stuck
Bigger offered a job
Bigger accepts

Bigger meets the white Daltons
Learns about Communism
Drives for daughter Mary

Bigger eats with Mary and boyfriend Jan
Bigger hates how they make him feel
Bigger brings Mary home
She's too drunk
To keep her quiet
Suffocation (accidental)

Bigger burns the body
(and chops the parts that need it)
Bigger says nothing

Bigger gets cocky and tries a ransom note
Bigger found out
Bigger on the run

Bigger kills his girl Bessie
To keep his secret

Bigger gets caught

Bigger defended by Communists
Bigger resentful, raging, alone

Bigger is tried
Bigger is killed.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Sometimes you read a book and you feel happy. Sometimes you read a book and you wish for more. And sometimes, in rare cases and in the right circumstances, you read a book and it changes you. 

This was one of those books. 

I read this book in stops and starts, and at times I felt like I was in a fugue state or an alternate reality. The intensity of emotion, the parallels with today's race relations, and the sheer brilliance of Wright's writing held me hostage for the handful of days it took me to finish the work. It was hard to read, acutely painful, on a number of levels. All that being said, if you haven't read it, please consider picking up a copy, or at least read this post in full to get an inkling of it.

I will not apologize for the lengthiness of this post. Race relations in America deserve a prominent place at the literary table, in the resistance, and on my blog. I will also not apologize for the black and whiteness of this post. While I recognize that race relations in America include a much larger set of groups with various interactions and prejudices and problems than simply those two groups, Wright's work focuses with laser precision on people with the color of his skin, and so, for this post, I will follow suit. Without further ado, here are my thoughts.

I don't like to read introductions or extra information about books. I was, however, struck by this line from Arnold Rampersad's introduction to my edition:
"The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright's urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation."
It's certainly a beautiful line, but what struck me was its similarity to this line from Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 "Between the World and Me", a novel told as a letter to his son about race in America:
"When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies."
Are you dreaming now? Were you dreaming, but awoke? I think I alternate between dream-world and 'woke-world', and I am intimately conscious of the luxury of this choice. 

Before we dive into the novel's plot a little more, here are a few lines I think speak eloquently to this struggle:
  • "Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America." -Arnold Rampersad
  • "We must deal here with a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination; so fraught with tragic consequences as to make us rather not want to look at it or think of it; so old that we would rather try to view it as an order of nature and strive with uneasy conscience and false moral fervor to keep it so." -Max, Bigger's attorney
  • "Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights."
How does it feel to be a captive in your own country? Are there ways in which you feel you're a captive, readers?

Wright organizes the novel into three parts - Fear, Flight, and Fate. I've kept his sections and collected quotes that best articulate those themes. I've also added a few themes of my own.


  • "His courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness." I read this line over and over and over.
  • "This boy represents but a tiny aspect of a problem whose reality sprawls over a third of this nation. Kill him! Burn the life out of him! And still when the delicate and unconscious machinery of race relations slips, there will be murder again."
  • "You cannot kill this man, Your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!"
  • "This was not his world; he had been foolish in thinking that he would have liked it." Bigger, on coming into the white world to drive for the Daltons. For some reason it made me think of this line from Ender's Game - "We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
  • "He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led."
  • "He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape." Traveling this journey with Bigger was troubling because I wanted to evaluate his actions on a scale of morality, but each decision and each action was so tied up in the history of his very existence and the socialization of his person that it became harder and harder to examine them through a lens of right and wrong. This is not to say that his actions are to be sanctioned, but rather that their impetus and drivers were much bigger than Bigger.
  • "His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this."
  • "He was tensely eager to stay and see how it would all end, even if that end swallowed him in blackness."
  • "'Didn't you know that the penalty for killing that white woman would be death?' 'Yeah, I knew it. But I felt like she was killing me, so I didn't care."
  • "It did not seem strange that the papers ought to be full of him now, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story." This is another theme in the book - the idea that only by violating convention could Bigger make himself visible, create his own liberty. It was striking in its suitability.
In my last post, I spoke about hate, and how it's a sentiment I try to avoid, given its severity. That being said, I'm intentionally including it here because there is no other word for what Wright describes and what Bigger is feeling. I think it's essential that we recognize hate in this form, and the ways in which white people and America as a society have engendered this hatred. 
"Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail."
"He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having. How could he do that? The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill." Sometimes I wonder (and this is dark, dear blobbists, so fair warning) how a people who have been so wronged by their country and their fellow citizens can even breathe through their emotions. At Breakthrough, we speak from the "I" perspective, so I will not pretend to know anything other than my own feelings, but I know that my rage and my fear and my sadness are but a fraction of what I could feel were I born with a different color of skin.
"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."
I mention these lines in particular because, while in some ways, things are dramatically better or different than they were when Wright wrote this, in other ways things are much the same. I say this not to be pessimistic or dismissive of the various efforts and battles to get to where we are, but rather to draw attention to the work to be done.

I was struck several times by how often and explicitly Wright refers to the color of his characters. I realized that in part, this drew attention to how often and how unconsciously I assume characters are white. In reading these various lines -"the black mother", "the brown daughter", "his black body", "their black fingers", "blackly naked" - I was reminded of a discussion I had with my friend Dennis, a writer currently working on his own brilliant novel at the MacDowell Colony. (#soproud) 

We were talking about writing and race, and Dennis brought up an interview he'd heard with Toni Morrison where she spoke about race and how she wrote about it in ParadiseMorrison said that she started with race (The novel opens with the line "They shoot the white girl first. . . ") and then erased it by never revealing who the white girl is. I thought of how often we ascribe race to characters without thinking, based on arbitrary or logical descriptors, our own biases, our own natural proclivities, our own identities. What race do you assume characters are?

I was struck by one noticeable change in reading Bigger's opinions on race. Before he goes to work for the Daltons, he spends time with a friend of his and they 'play white'. They poke fun at the formal way white people talk, the kinds of things they say, the power they wield. In particular, playing white involves pretending to be the President of the United States. In reading this section, I was pleased to think that this particular example would no longer work. Though, alas, it could still be a game where we 'play men'.

"It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black." Do you feel that you can lose yourself to find yourself, readers? What holds you back?

As a woman (and a feminist) I feel it is my duty to point out that while Wright eloquently depicts the struggles of being a black man in America, in doing so he frequently tramples on black women. I don't want to oversimplify this, because I think there are a lot of complicating factors when we look at the crossroads of race and gender, particularly within a severely oppressed and repressed race. That being said, here were a few lines with which I took umbrage:
  • "A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away." oh REALLY? fine, then. leave without us.
  • "That's a woman, always. You want to know something, then you run like a rabbit." oh yes. we're just a bunch of Ridiculous Rabbits, we women.
  • "All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain't got no happiness. I ain't never had none. I just work. I'm black and I work and don't bother nobody..." This is a line from Bessie, and it reminded me a great deal of Beyoncé's Lemonade and the exploration of female blackness. Bessie REALLY drew the short straw in this book (and in life) and I felt for her.
Referents and Reverberations 
(This is a new section I'm including when the spirit moves me. It refers to when a work reminds me of other works that came before or followed suit. I've made this version a guessing game - see if you can guess the novel based on the cropped cover art and the quotes I chose from Native Son to match!)

Year of Publication: 1866

"Could people tell he had done something wrong by the way he acted?"

"During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind."

ANSWER: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Year of Publication: 1932

"The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score."

ANSWER: Light in August by William Faulkner

Year of Publication: 1937

"Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they ever done? Perhaps they had not done anything."

ANSWER: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Native Son by Richard Wright - 1940 
(Just to help you place it on the timeline)

Year of Publication: 1942

"He was not so much in a stupor, as in the grip of a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything."

"Was this the all, the meaning, the end?"

ANSWER: The Stranger by Albert Camus

Year of Publication: 1952

"Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength."

 ANSWER: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Year of Publication: 1960

"What's the use? When folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born. I'm black. I don't have to do nothing for 'em to get me."

ANSWER: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

That line reminded me of this exchange, an all-time favorite I've referenced many times on this blob: 

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Clara the Clairvoyant could interpret dreams.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The House of the Spirits is an epic tale of romance and rebellion, revolution and reconciliation. It chronicles the lives of Clara Del Valle and Esteban Trueba, an unlikely couple who weather disasters (both natural and personal) throughout their lengthy union. With Clara and Esteban, we experience Marxism and dictatorship, juntas and coups, the supernatural and the banal. As in any good magical realism epic, we follow several generations, and while the setting changes (in time and temperament) the core of the story is fundamentally unchanged. Allende explores love in all forms - lustful love, young love, guerrilla love, familial love, and love for your country.

Just to give you a sense of how intricate (and confusing) some of the relationships are in the book, I've included a family tree from someone's Prezi (don't worry, Prezis make me nauseous (or is it nauseated, grandma?) so I just included a screenshot). Anyway, it gives you an overall idea. ;)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I did not like this book when I started it. Tbqh, I didn't like it halfway through, or even nearing the end. Having completed it, my opinion is confuffled. That's the word I've decided to use, since all the others I wanted Weren't Quite Right. 

I do feel like the ending gave me a better sense of the whole narrative arc, and reading a bit about Chile and Allende herself after finishing made the work come into focus for me. I'll just come out and say it, so you can stop wondering: I hated the narrator. I loved the women in the book, and they were each unique, and fascinating, and compelling, flawed in all the right and wrong ways. The narrator, in what felt like an odd choice to me, was Esteban Trueba, the patriarch-to-be, lecherous, conservative, irascible, and (imho) downright unlikable. I don't understand if this is a literary thing that I just don't get (because we know it's happened before - Raskolnikov, Meursault) but I found it particularly odd given that Allende wrote such strong and empowered female characters but chose for her storyteller to be a male oppressor-of-sorts. 

Anyway, that's just my dos pesos. Onwards to the rest of my thoughts, as usual in no real order.

I've been thinking quite a lot about how best to resist in this bizarre waking nightmare of reality. I've protested and donated, worked to inform myself and support those most affected when I can, but when it comes down to it, I think the best resistance is deeply personal. In designing my second list, I was setting out to resist the status quo, deciding for myself and my readers what qualifies as 'classic'. So I return to my reading with renewed vigor, believing, as always, that fiction reveals truths that reality obscures. 

These lines struck me as I read:
  • "But now I have begun to question my own hatred." Alba, Esteban's granddaughter, is taken by the junta (SPOILED! #sorrynotsorry) and even though she has every right to hate her captors, after she is freed she struggles to find the same venom in her heart. It made me think of the "Hate has no home here" signs I've seen in my neighborhood and across the country, and reminded me of my grandma - "Don't say hate, Meredith, it's such a strong word." Continue to resist I will and must, but hate I simply cannot.
  • "After that terrible Tuesday, Alba had to rearrange her feelings in order to continue living." I think many of us have had to do some feelings rearranging to make it through these last few months, some communities and persons far more than others. I'd like to take a moment to celebrate everyone who's persevered despite persecution, and applaud those individuals and groups who are fighting the good fight.
  • "Unfortunately she turned out to be an idealist, a family disease."  I love this line, as a fellow idealist in a diseased family. ;)
Since this novel is so family-centered, I'd like to paint you a portrait of the cast of characters. Here are my favorite tidbits to give you a snapshot (or should I say daguerreotype?) of each one:

Clara the Clairvoyant
"Clara lived in a universe of her own invention, protected from life's inclement weather."
"She dressed in white, because she had decided that it was the only color that did not change her aura." This made me think of a character on Numbers who only consumes white food, and also of Christopher Boone and his Battenberg cake. 
"At six she had discovered the magic books in the enchanted trunks of her legendary Great-Uncle Marcos and had fully entered the world-without-return of the imagination."
Nívea, the matriarch of the Del Valles, on Rosa
"She preferred not to torment her daughter with earthly demands, for she had a premonition that her daughter was a heavenly being, and that she was not destined to last very long in the vulgar traffic of this world." Rosa is Esteban's intended bride, Clara's older sister.
Uncle Marcos, explorer, voracious reader, adventurer extraordinaire
"Uncle Marcos's manners were those of a cannibal, as Severo put it. He spent the whole night making incomprehensible movements in the drawing room; later they turned out to be exercises designed to perfect the mind's control over the body and to improve digestion. He performed alchemy experiments in the kitchen, filling the house with fetid smoke and ruining pots and pans with solid substances that stuck to their bottoms and were impossible to remove."
"He sold his organ to a blind man and left the parrot to Clara, but Nana secretly poisoned it with an overdose of cod-liver oil, because no one could stand its lusty glance, its fleas, and its harsh, tuneless hawking of paper fortunes, sawdust balls, and powders for impotence." ahgahghaghagha.
"Marcos spent two weeks assembling the contents according to an instruction manual written in English, which he was able to decipher thanks to his invincible imagination and a small dictionary." zeugma! my favorite!
I loved Uncle Marcos and the almost lionizing presence he had over his family. He's featured only briefly in their early lives, but he leaves an indelible mark, much like my Uncle Chris.

Rosa the Beautiful, Clara the Clairvoyant, Beautiful Laura with the Long Blonde Hair
Many characters get epithets, which made me think of my grandma, who had a similar tendency to extended nomenclature. ;)

Nana, servant to the Del Valles, caretaker of children, creature of the night
When Clara stops speaking in her youth: "Nana had the idea that a good fright might make the child speak, and spent nine years inventing all sorts of desperate strategies for frightening Clara, the end result of which was to immunize the girl forever against terror and surprise. Nana dressed up as a headless pirate, as the executioner of the Tower of London, as a werewolf or a horned devil, depending on her inspiration of the moment and on the ideas she got while flipping through the pages of certain horror magazines. She had acquired the habit of gliding silently through the hallways and jumping in the dark, howling through the doorways, and hiding live animals between her sheets, but none of this elicited so much as a peep from the little girl. At times Clara lost her patience. She would throw herself on the floor, kicking and shouting, but without pronouncing a single word in any recognizable tongue; or she would scrawl on the tiny blackboard that never left her side, setting down the worst insults she could think of to say to the poor woman, who would weep disconsolately in the kitchen. 'It's for your own good, my little angel!' Nana would sob, wrapped in a bloody sheet, her face blackened with burnt cork." This was one of my favorite scenes in the whole book. :0)
The Mora Sisters (and Practical Magic - you put de lime in de coconut...)
I haven't mentioned much of it, but there's quite a bit of the mystical and magical in this novel. The Mora Sisters have magical powers, and they connect with the Del Valle ladies at several points throughout the story: "One Friday afternoon, three translucent ladies knocked at the door to the big house on the corner. They had eyes like sea mist, covered their heads with old-fashioned flowered hats, and were bathed in a strong scent of wild violets, which infiltrated all the rooms and left the house smelling of flowers for days after their visit."
Esteban Trueba, on the occult:"He maintained that magic, like cooking and religion, was a particularly feminine affair."
Férula, Esteban's sister, selfless, sad, and eventually sent away
Clara, to Férula, after she has gone away:"Férula, how I've needed your help to look after the family, you know I'm no good at domestic matters, the boys are terrible but Blanca is a lovely child, and the hydrangeas that you planted with your own two hands in Tres Marías turned out beautiful, some are blue because I put some copper coins in the fertilizer, it's a secret of nature, and every time I arrange them in a vase I think of you, but I also think of you when there aren't any hydrangeas, I always think of you, Férula, because the truth is that since you left no one has ever loved me as you did." Férula really grew on me, and I hated Esteban for kicking her out. I loved the line about the hydrangeas, because my mom told me about this as a child, and I thought it was the most magical thing in the world. Tres Marias is the family home for Esteban et al. and I liked that it made me think of Rosehaven, our erstwhile family farm.
Blanca, daughter of Clara and Esteban, mother to Alba, lover of Pedro Garcia
On Blanca's propensity for sculpting: "Blanca began to create tiny figures for the family's Christmas manger, not only the Three Kings and the shepherds, but a whole crowd of every kind of people and every type of animal - African camels and zebras, American iguanas and Asian tigers - without worrying about the exact fauna of Bethlehem. Afterward she added imaginary animals, gluing half an elephant to half a crocodile. Clara decided that if craziness can repeat itself in a family, then there must be a genetic memory that prevents it from being swallowed by oblivion." They continue to refer to her 'incredible crèches full of monsters', which I found hilarious. It also reminded me of years when our cats inhabit the crèche, or the suspicious absence of a certain baby's fingers...
Alba, daughter of Blanca, and Uncle Jaime, son of Esteban, twin to Nicolas, sister to Blanca
"Together they had invented certain imaginary games to entertain themselves on rainy afternoons. 'Bring on the elephant!' Uncle Jaime would command. Alba would go out and return pulling an imaginary pachyderm on an invisible rope. They could spend a good half hour giving him the herbs elephants like to eat, bathing his skin with mud to protect it from the harsh effects of bad weather, and polishing his ivory tusks while they heatedly discussed the advantages and disadvantages of living in the jungle." This was another uncle/niece relationship I found endearing, and I especially loved that Alba plays the cello, since my own epic Uncle Chris bought me my first and current cello.
And now for something completely different. I'm often struck by what a book reminds me of, and this book was no exception. Here is a nonexclusive list for your enjoyment. Do you need a break first? Here's a silly picture to look at while you take a break and stretch, pet your porcupine, have a cuppa:
Image result for silly cat pictures

All right, enough of that, let's get on with it!

Books this book reminded me of:
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Marquez" - "They say that I arrived covered with dust, without a hat, filthy and bearded, thirsty and furious, shouting for my bride."
  • To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf - on Esteban reviving Tres Marías - "The entire house was carpeted with a thick layer of grass, dust, and dried-out leaves. It smelled like a tomb." I thought of this line: "The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed."
  • Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel García Marquez - "Marcos thought no woman in her right mind could remain impassive before a barrel-organ serenade." This screamed Florentino Ariza to me ;) Which is funny, because I just researched their publication dates, and Florentino wasn't even out in the world yet when this was published. 
  • À la recherche du temps perdu - Marcel Proust
  • "I would have loved her without interruption almost till infinity." This sounds like something Swann would say about Odette. ;)
  • "I write that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously - as the three Mora sisters said, who could see the spirits of all eras mingled in space." "Are there perhaps other worlds more real than the waking world?" There's a little Vonnegut here, too - "I asked myself about the present - how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy - Pedro and Blanca reminded me of Tess and Angel, at least in the good old days: "They spent that summer oscillating between childhood, which still held them in its clasp, and their awakening as man and woman. There were times when they ran like little children, stirring up the chickens and exciting the cows, drinking their fill of fresh milk and winding up with foam mustaches, stealing fresh-baked bread straight from the oven and clambering up trees to build secret houses. At other times they hid in the forest's thickest, most secret recesses, making beds of leaves and pretending that they were married, caressing each other until they fell asleep exhausted."
  • Hotel New Hampshire - John Irving - Barrabás and Sorrow, reanimated brothers from another mother: "Esteban pointed to the place where Clara was standing. It was the special surprise he had prepared for her. Clara looked down and gave a frightful cry; she was standing on the black back of Barrabás, who lay there split down the middle, transformed into a rug. His head was still intact and his two glass eyes stared up at her with the helpless look that is the specialty of taxidermists. Her husband managed to catch her before she fell to the floor in a dead faint. 'I told you she wasn't going to like it,' said Férula." lololololol. When will these families learn that taxidermy is Not a universally pleasing concept?
  • Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes - "The worst thing is to be afraid of fear." I was completely blown away by the bravery of several characters, particularly following the coup and in the years of the junta's reign. I loved this line, and it felt like something DQ would say.
  • Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - "The books from Jaime's den were piled in the courtyard, doused with gasoline, and set on fire in an infamous pyre that was fed with the magic books from the enchanted trunks of Great-Uncle Marcos, the remaining copies of Nicolás's esoteric treatise, the leather-bound set of the complete works of Marx, and even Trueba's opera scores, producing a scandalous bonfire that filled the neighborhood with smoke and that, in normal times, would have brought fire trucks from every direction." So upsetting! Montag, come help!
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway - "Soldiers are not made to shine in times of peace." "Things like this never happened here." - The closest referent I felt in reading about the unnamed, but ostensibly Chile-like country where this novel was set, was Spain during the Civil War, and the unforgettable scene of reckoning in FWTBT. 
Do you need another break! What a long entry for someone who Didn't Really Like the Book, eh? Well, have another silly picture:

Last bit! 

Words, Words, Wonderful Words I did not know before but now I DO!

camellia an evergreen eastern Asian shrub related to the tea plant, grown for its showy flowers and shiny leaves

Une petite collection de daguerréotypes portrait collection daguerreotype 39 photo photographie histoire featuredcordillera - a system or group of parallel mountain ranges together with the intervening plateaus and other features, especially in the Andes or the Rockies

daguerreotype - a photograph taken by an early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor (I like to imagine that's Uncle Marcos)

frou frou - a rustling noise made by someone walking in a dress; frills or other ornamentation, particularly of women's clothes (not to be confused with Imogen Heap's band)

patina - a green or brown film on the surface of bronze or similar metals, produced by oxidation over a long period; a gloss or sheen on wooden furniture produced by age and polishing; an impression or appearance of something (Did you guys ever play 'clean the pennies' as a kid? I know I did.)

Tyrolean - relating to or characteristic of the Austrian state of Tyrol or its inhabitants (Sure sure sure. Good ole' Tyrol! You know, everyone knows that. I found this gem of a picture when I googled "Tyrolean" in image search.)

zarzuela - a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance

I'll leave you with a few final favorite lines:
"She was one of those stoical, practical women of our country. The kind of woman who's the pillar of many other lives. It was then I understood that the days of Colonel García and all those like him are numbered, because they have not been able to destroy the spirit of these women." The days of the Cheeto/Talking Yam are numbered, and we Nasty Women Will Persist. We know the future is female.
"For Alba, the most important person in the house and the strongest presence in her life was her grandmother. She was the motor that drove the magic universe." Grandma Rose, you are my inspiration, my lifeblood, my memory, and my heart. I read for you.
Onwards to Indigenous Daughter, or something of that ilk. Read, resist, and love, blobbists. À plus!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Thoughts of Nobody, in particular, re: Oliver Twist

My dear blobbists,

I knew it had been a long time since I blobbed, but I hadn't realized it had been SO long! My delay in blobbing has to do with several factors, in no particular order:
(1) My challenging relationship with the narrator of The House of the Spirits
(2) The weather
(3) A not insignificant amount of travel required for both work and personal reasons
(4) Generalized reading malaise (an ailment unfortunately all-too-common for me, aligning distinctly with my overall mood)
(5) Moving my possessions and my self to Philadelphia

In any case, here I am, back and ready to re-devote myself to my LEGIONS Of Readers. Expect a blob later on The House of the Spirits, but to tide you over on this rainy evening, here is my long-promised blob-along from Mr. Daniel-ay, my dear friend who read Oliver Twist along with me.

SPOILER ALERT: He didn't like it. His thoughts though, are quite aMOOSEing, imho. Enjoy!

The Thoughts of Nobody, in particular, re:Oliver Twist

Dear estimable blobbist Meredeeeeeeeeece,

True confessions first. I don't like Charles Dickens; I never really have. I imagine that my first experience with Dickens must have been A Christmas Carol, although I have never read the text itself. I am acquainted with the story in three measures: i. generic public reputation, ii. the stage production, iii. the Muppet movie. And in truth I have never cared for any of it, unfortunately, for reasons too complicated to explain. Unfortunately. What a word. It so encapsulates both the theme of my past with Dickens, my present, and, I imagine, my future. But I get ahead of myself.

Like yourself, estimable blobbist Meredeeeeeece, the origin of my textual experience with Dickens began with Hard Times! It was followed by A Tale of Two Cities, and finally Great Expectations. All of them during my adolescence. And all of them severely disliked. Of the hundreds of thousands of Dickens's words I've read (a paltry percentage, by the way) hardly any of them have stuck. I can't remember a thing about Hard Times. For A Tale of Two Cities, it's the too-famous-to-list-here opening line and an abundance of "Jacques". And for Great Expectations it's something about fire? Idk.

I want to like Dickens, I really do, but unfortunately I simply cannot. He seems to be such a stalwart in literature, with influences that continue to seep into common culture, whether we recognize them or not. And I was hoping that by taking up reading Oliver Twist now as an adult, it might ignite a new appreciation for Dickens. A simple story, a popular story...perhaps a nice way to dip my foot back in. Unfortunately...

Oliver's ailings were neither slight nor few.
— So begins Chapter 32, with Oliver now under the care of Rose, et al. In essence, this is the story of the life of Oliver Twist, and the story of me reading Oliver Twist. I embarked upon my journey by delicately reading every word, scouring the text, attempting to absorb every image. At first I was thinking the text was all going to be a genius construction of minutiae that subtly foreshadow and yet obscure information until a great reveal. But it's much more like a sledgehammer of foreshadowing, obscurity, and superfluity. If the narrator is so omniscient, it gets very very annoying to spend the whole of a chapter being introduced to and interacting with a "stranger", only to have the stranger be soon revealed, without much fanfare or really surprise. I constantly thought to myself, What's the point of all this other than to deliberately goad and frustrate the reader? Maybe some readers enjoy that frustration as part of the experience of the story. This one doesn't. I would often scan ahead several pages to find out who this stranger was, then go back, feeling no great loss of experience at having known who this stranger was the whole time.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment, but probably within the first quarter of the book I grew infuriated by the often lengthy build of paragraphs and paragraphs of superfluous information to a single reveal of the next point of plot-advancement. This leads to my second confession: I began speed reading through great swaths of chapters when I somehow sensed a narrative shift where the plot came to a screeching halt and the words became irrelevant. Don't get me wrong, dear blob readers, I don't need nor expect every moment to be plot-driven. I do greatly love the crafting of words, in and of it itself, but I found only fleeting moments of appreciation for Dickens's words themselves. There are other authors for whom I willingly and lovingly read and reread every sentence as I go along, adoring the meticulous, marvelous, and breath-taking construction.

I will acknowledge that there were a couple of times where I was quite struck by an eloquence, beauty, and humor in Dickens's words. I have recorded them below. But first, I will now list two examples where my annoyance reared its ugly head, and I felt obliged to take note as such:
  • Chapter 36: Is a very short one, and may appear of no great importance in its place. But it should be read, notwithstanding, as a sequel to the last, and a key to one that will follow when its time arrives. 
— BARF. Ok So thanks for telling me this, Charles. Can I call you "Charles"? In fact, as a reader, it's pretty much my default assumption that EVERYTHING is relevant to the story. But yeah, this pretty much affirms my glossing over a lot of what you wrote. Were you trying to be funny here? Cause I wasn't amused. I feel like you're the Dan Brown of times past...
  • [...] he mended his rate of walking, and proceeded at a considerable increase of speed, toward their place of destination. 
— That's a lot of words... Let me rephrase: "He sped up toward their destination." I've heard tell that you were paid by installment, Charles. I was inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. But this really does feel like "filler".

Now, as promised I will list out the moments I did enjoy. They made me laugh, or smile, or reflect, or tremble, or marvel, or weep. (But, they were few and far between.):
  • We know that when the young, the beautiful, and good, are visited with sickness, their pure spirits insensibly turn toward their bright home of lasting rest; we know, Heaven help us, that the best and fairest of our kind, too, often fade in blooming. [...] Who could hope, when the distant world to which she was akin, half opened to her view, that she would return to the sorry and calamity of this! 
— Harry, recounting his fear of losing his love, Rose.
  • "Why, you're quite a literary character, sir!" said Mrs. Mann.
— This is in reference to how Mr. Bumble, the beadle, went about naming the orphans alphabetically. Clever, Charles, clever. (In fact, I found Mr. Bumble to be the most interesting character in the whole story. He seemed the least one-dimensional of everyone.)
  • Mr. Bumble walked on with long strides; little Oliver, firmly grasping his gold-laced cuff, trotted beside him, inquiring at the end of every quarter of a mile whether they were "nearly there."
— I'm glad to know that "Are we there yet?" is so timeless.
  • But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's soul; his heart was waterproof.
— Mr. Bumble, at his own wife crying. Thankfully, Mrs. Bumble became quite a force later on!
  • The blessing was from a young child's lips, but it was the first that Oliver had ever heard invoked upon his head; and through the struggles and sufferings, and troubles and changes, of his after life, he never once forgot it. 
— Oliver's young friend Dick blessed him as Oliver ran away to London. Dick's life was, unfortunately, not to be as blessed as Oliver's.
  • "A beadle! A parish beadle, or I'll eat my head."
— a favorite saying of Mr. Grimwig. This was pretty funny. It was also funny the second time. Maybe the third too. And certainly all of us are inclined to have a storage of words that we like to utilize over and over again. By all means, let Grimwig keep saying it. But, Charles, you have to stop TELLING us about how much Grimwig enjoyed saying "or I'll eat my head." We get it. We have eyes. We can see. We haven't forgotten. It's funny. Stop patting yourself on the back for inventing such words... Ok ok. I'm done.
  • It was market morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above.
— Oliver heading out into London with Mr. Sikes. This imagery was spectacular. I wish Dickens had stopped there. But he went on. And on. And on and on:
  • All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.
— Snooooooozefest. ... Actually, that what I needed! A snooze button for reading Dickens! Wake me up when it gets interesting again.

In conclusion, I'm glad that I have finally completed a read-along with you, estimable blobbist Meredeeeeeeece, after many starts and fits and failures. (War and Peace, Gravity's Rainbow, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) I feel like I have made some poor choices, but I'm glad to have accomplished Oliver Twist. And I share many of your similar feelings about the characters failing to live up to their hype. Perhaps it was the wrong choice to attempt to return to Dickens. Yet I still have David Copperfield sitting upon my bookshelf per your suggestion. But I'll need some time. Not sure how much. It might be never, to be perfectly honest. I'd like to think I gave Dickens a fair chance with Oliver Twist, but I can't say for sure. He didn't impress, unfortunately.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Take heed, Oliver, take heed!

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The story where Oliver is abandoned, then found by thieves, then made to steal, then saved, then recaptured, then saved again, then finally saved for good. I could give you more details, but then it would basically be like reading the book. Is that what you want? OK fine, I'll give you a few more details - there are some nice people (Rose Maylie, who turns out to be Oliver's auntie (SOOPRIZE!), Mr. Brownlow, a very kind old gentleman, Dr. Losberne, Nancy) and some no good very bad people (Fagin, Bill Sikes, Monks). Oliver is always endeavouring to be good and to be loved, and after LOTS of people get in the way of this, he finally triumphs.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

My dear blobbists, have you MISSED me?!?! I think question marks followed by exclamation points are hilariously dramatic. That is why I have used two pairs of them. For extra emPHAsis.

Well, if you're wondering what I've been up to (and even if you're not), I recently relocated to the city of brotherly love (or sisterly, if you were part of yesterday's worldwide action, like I was). I started a new job, which allows/requires me to work from home, which is both delightful and challenging. In any case, between the move, the holidays, and the new job, reading has taken a back burner for a few months. But now it will reclaim the FRONT burner spot (which, on my new stove, is designated as a 'POWER' burner, not to be confused with the back 'accusimmer' burners. I'm still getting used to this hilarious distinction).

Without further ado, let me jump into Dickens with you and tell you how it made me feel.

Those of you who know me personally know that I'm a pretty big Dickens fan. The first Dickens I read was Hard Times, which doesn't even make my ranking of his novels now, but his brilliance came to captivate me later in life. You must understand that I came to OT with a fair amount of expectation and hype; I mean, after all, the whole "Please sir, I want some more" is AWFULLY famous. [Sidebar: Writing OT keeps making me think of The OA. Is anyone watching it in addition to me and Nobody? If you are, what do you think?!?! I have so many thoughts and feels.]

It was (gasp!) not my favorite Dickens. There were pieces of it that reminded me why I like Dickens so much as a writer, but I kept wanting Oliver to grow UP! Not like, he's being so immature, grow up, but more like, Get older and become more of a real character, would you? He managed to stay the same age for all 400-odd pages, and I found that Very Dull Indeed. Perhaps my opinion is tainted by my affection for the bildungsroman heavyhitters Great Expectations and David Copperfield (in which, SPOILER ALERT, both boys GROW UP!) but I felt like it wasn't that unreasonable a thing to hope for. I'm just not that into 9-year-olds. #sorrynotsorry

All this being said, you know I believe that all books have merit, and this book still had many marvelous moments. Here are my thoughts.

A Ranking of the Dickens I have read thus far:
(4) Oliver Twist
(3) A Tale of Two Cities
(2) Great Expectations
(1) David Copperfield

There you have it, folks. imho, DC is best because it is so heavily autobiographical (write what you know!) but that's just my two pence. I also have quite a few on my proverbial (not literal) list to read: -- Pickwick Papers (obviously because of Little Women), Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which I always think was written by Poe). Do you have a favorite Dickens, dear blobbists? Do tell. I'm dying to know.

Dickensian writing style
What I love about Dickens is that he has a very distinctive style. Some people probably find this deeply bothersome, but I really enjoy his verbosity and his curious wit. Here's a list of my favorite Dickens-isms that make an appearance in OT:

  • being brought up 'by hand' - this one is classic Dickens, and applies to several protagonists I can think of (Davy C, Pip, Oliver). I honestly didn't know what it meant until just now (it has to do with using a wet-nurse or spoon/bottle feeding a child because there's no access to the mom's milk) but it also just has a great feeling to it, don't you think? 
  • great names [Mr. Bumble, Mr. Grimwig, Oliver Twist, the artful Dodger]
  • Here's my favorite Bumble-ism: 'Mrs. Corney, what is this, ma'am? Has anything happened, ma'am? Pray answer me; I'm on - on-' Mr. Bumble in his alarm could not immediately think of the word 'tenterhooks', so he said 'broken bottles'." aghaghaghaghaghagh lolllllzzzz
  • fantastic wernacular [I inwented it! The wicious boys. The millingtary.]
  • all-knowing and quippy narrator - 
  • ex: "It is the custom on the stage in all good, murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes in as regular alternation as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon."
  • "Indeed, there is so much to do, that I have no room for digressions, even if I possessed the inclination."
  • classic and serendipitous twists of fate - even though the book takes place in a rather large country (England) and a sizable city (London), lots of people's lives just Happen to be intertwined. Like, Whoops! Mr. Brownlow just Happens to have been Oliver's dad's biffle. And Oliver just HAPPENS to end up living with the Maylies when SOOPRIZE, Rose is his auntie.
  • dark sarcasm and censure of society - It's not Dickens without it. ;)
On naming Oliver
"How comes he to have any name at all?"
The beadle drew himself up with great pride, and said, 'I inwented it.'
'You, Mr. Bumble!'
'I, Mrs. Mann. We name our foundlin's in alphabetical order. The last was a S - Swubble: I named him. This was a T, - Twist: I named him. The next one as comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z." I think we're all thankful that Oliver didn't become an Unwin or a Vilkins. Some name for a protagonist! Did you almost have any other names, dear readers? Framboise, perhaps? or Dmitri?

When Oliver almost gets apprenticed (but thank heavens, Doesn't) to a chimneysweep
"Young boys have been smothered in chimneys, before now...'
'Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen'lm'n, and there's nothink like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down vith a run; it's humane, too, gen'lm'n, acouse, even if they've stuck in the chimbley, roastin' their feet makes 'em struggle to hextricate theirselves." Spellcheck is very displeased with that passage. Oh, I'm Sorry, you don't understand early 19th century British wernacular? Silly computer!

When Oliver thinks he's being Hansel and Gretel'd
"In pursuance of this determination, little Oliver, to his excessive astonishment, was released from bondage, and ordered to put himself into a clean shirt. He had hardly achieved this very unusual gymnastic performance, when Mr. Bumble brought him with his own hands, a basin of gruel, and the holiday allowance of two ounces and a quarter of bread; at sight of which Oliver began to cry very piteously, thinking, not unnaturally, that the board must have determined to kill him for some useful purpose, or they never would have begun to fatten him up in this way." It would be funny if it wasn't so sad!

On Fagin being called "the Jew"
Fagin, for those virgin Twist-ites, is a nasty old man ringleader for a band of young boy thieves. He's a creepy character, and a decent villain, but I couldn't get over the fact that Dickens calls him simply 'the Jew' for most of the book. Apparently he censored it out later on, but it's still in the original editions. It made me very uncomfortable, and I'm sure that's true for many people.

Wives and husbands
One of the things I love about reading 'classics' is when you chance upon something that feels so deeply universal, like, for instance, bickering between a couple. Here's one of my favorite moments between the coffinmaker that Oliver is apprenticed to (I KNOW I didn't mention it - that's because it is a very SAD part of Oliver's already sad existence) and his wife:

'Oh, don't tell me what you were going to say,' interposed Mrs. Sowerberry. 'I am nobody; don't consult me, pray. I don't want to intrude upon your secrets.' And, as Mrs. Sowerberry said this, she gave an hysterical laugh, which threatened violent consequences.' ahgahgaghaghaghaghaga

When Oliver beats Noah up because he makes a 'your mom' joke
Yes. This happens. Noah works with the coffinmaker. Just as in the above, I was amused to see that boys have been fighting about your mom jokes for at least two centuries. Although let's be real, this feels like it could be biblically old. 

It was a happy time.
I thought maybe you all would like to know if anything HAPPY happens in OT. Guess what? It does! Here are two of my favorite lines from when Oliver gets connected to the lovely Mrs. Maylie/Rose bunch:
  • "'The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, or of its thoughts or hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved, may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but, beneath all this there lingers in the least reflective mind a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before in some remote and distant time, which calls up solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it." 
  • "The rose and honey-suckle clung to the cottage walls the ivy crept round the trunks of the trees, and the garden-flowers perfumed the air with delicious odours." These two lines reminded me of The Bell Jar, and Esther's inability to choose between the country or the city. Now that I'm back in the city, I like the action, and walking, but I miss nature, and I long for the fields. 

The Artful Dodger  (aka Jack Dawkins)
I wanted to like the Artful Dodger more, since he has a pretty big literary hype as a character. That said, I didn't feel like I really knew him (and his motivations) well enough to like him as much as I wanted to. I do like the image of him dressed in a suit like a baby gentleman, and his wily (and illicit) ways. Here's when he first meets Oliver, who has been walking for miles upon miles and is basically death walking: 
"Come, you want grub, and you shall have it. I'm at low-water-mark - only one bob and a magpie; but, as far as it goes, I'll fork out and stump. Up with you on your pins. There: now then, morrice.' Savvy? ;)

Doctor Losberne
He is a good friend to Rose and Mrs. Maylie, and also one of my favorite characters. Here's what I think is the best Dr. L moment, when he responds to the fact that Oliver and his crew have just tried to rob Rose and Mrs. Maylie (Don't worry, Oliver was Under Duress!)

"Under such circumstances; dear, dear - so unexpected - in the silence of night too!" The doctor seemed especially troubled by the fact of the robbery having been unexpected, and attempted in the night time, as if it were the established custom of gentlemen in the housebreaking way to transact business at noon, and to make an appointment by the twopenny post a day or two previous." ghaghaghaghaghag lollllllllz.

Where Tinkerbell is waiting
Dickens has a great line that made me think of the Tinkerbell line in Hook. I thought I had already referenced that on this blob, and sure enough, Prousty-Proust has the original stake to the claim. 

"Although Oliver had roused himself from sleep, he was not thoroughly awake. There is a drowsy, heavy state, between sleeping and waking, when you dream more in five minutes with your eyes half open, and yourself half conscious of everything that is passing around you, than you would in five nights with your eyes fast closed, and your senses wrapt in perfect unconsciousness. At such times, a mortal knows just enough of what his mind is doing to form some glimmering conception of its mighty powers, its bounding from earth and spurning time and space, when freed from the irksome restraint of its corporeal associate." I like to think of special lost friends waiting for us here, don't you?

New Words Which are Not, In Point of Fact, New At All, but rather, are New to Me:
beadle - sometimes spelled "bedel" - an official of a church or synagogue who may usher, keep order, make reports, and assist in religious functions; or a minor official who carries out various civil, educational, or ceremonial duties. In our case, the latter, and also, the office for Mr. Bumble. Just to be clear, NOT, therefore, the same meaning as that bluish creature on the left. Also not be confused with these gents on the right. 

saturnine (which I often mix up with sartorial) - gloomy, moody, mysterious [like Suzy, if woken in the middle of a Sunday afternoon nap!]

denizen - an inhabitant or occupant of a particular place [I don't know why, but this one always throws me for a loop. Maybe it makes me think Denzel? or jewel-like? I just never remember that it means what it means. [I do not think this words means what you think it means. Inconceivable!]]

harridan - a strict, bossy, or belligerent old woman. [are we referring to a NAAAAAASTY woman?]

rapacity - aggressive greed [like, Scrooge was known for his RAPACITY?]

myrmidon - I'm sure MOMMYKINS knows what this one means! Cut to Kitty, explaining, "a member of a warlike Thessalian people led by Achilles at the siege of Troy, OR a hired ruffian or unscrupulous subordinate." So, NOT the same as a mermaid. Got it.

As usual, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite passages. Here are some snippets from the first happy stage of Oliver's life, when he is rescued by Mr. Brownlow and his housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin:

"After tea she began to teach Oliver cribbage, which he learnt as quickly as she could teach, and at which game they played, with great interest and gravity, until it was time for the invalid to have some warm wine and water, with a slice of dry toast, and to go cosily to bed." Fancy a round, mommy? Do we have all the pegs?

Mr. Brownlow, to Oliver
"How should you like to grow up a clever man, and write books, eh?"
'I think I would rather read them, sir.' I'm torn! I do SO like reading them, but more and more I feel compelled to write one. A balance of the two, perhaps, is the ticket, in equal or similar proportion. 

And here's a line from Mrs. Corney, who is playing her to-be husband like a fiddle: 

"What's wrong? Oh nothing, I am a foolish, excitable, weak creature."

I got out there yesterday with those other foolish, excitable, weak creatures, and the harridans, and the all around NAAAAAAAASTY women like Ashley Judd and Janelle Monae and Nina Donovan. If you haven't seen Ashley's recitation at the Women's March, here it is for your viewing pleasure. I'll wait while you watch it.

Good job. Now I'm off to The Domicile of the Spooks. While you wait on Broken Bottles for my next blob, stay safe, love one another, and stay NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASTY.