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, November 29, 2017

Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is just that. 24 hours with a man whose life is not his own. Ivan Denisovich, known for most of the book simply as Shukhov, is serving a sentence at a hard labor camp in the Soviet Union. His crime was ambiguous at best, a farcical excuse for a harsh regime to dramatically shift the course of his life. We spend the day with Shukhov at this labor camp in Siberia and see the world through his eyes. We freeze with him in the bitter temperatures, we starve with him as he lays bricks in brutal conditions on scraps of food, we dream with him of getting warm, and we feel the bitter absurdity of his condition. What happens in the plot of the book itself is not insignificant, but rather, ancillary. It feeds the larger picture of Shukhov's world, and it paints a vivid fictional portrait of a very real phenomenon, but you don't walk away from the book thinking about which character did what; you walk away from the book with the labor camp's frosty imprint still on you, the hunger and anger and confinement still in you, wondering how humans could ever have done this to each other.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear readers, 

I have been absent for quite some time, and I really should apologize, since I finished this book several weeks ago, but between the holidays and strep throat and a national conference in Miami, my mind was elsewhere. Now that I have a little more leisure time to myself again, here are my thoughts.

This book was... striking. When I initially chose works for this second set of books, I added 'politically repressed authors' almost as an afterthought, which I realize now is a mark of the privilege of living and creating and breathing in a country that doesn't suppress speech or dissent. And while there are so MANY things wrong in this country right now, that is one right thing that we have had since we started out, and that is a true treasure. 

"One Day..." had a fascinating and tumultuous journey to publication. I don't usually read about context for a book, so I made myself wait to read about it until after I'd experienced the novel. Here's what I learned:
  • Solzhenitsyn wrote "One Day..." in 1957 after being released from exile that followed his imprisonment at a gulag (labor camp) from 1945 to 1953. The camp in the book is one Solzhenitsyn spent some time at, which was located in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
  • He was imprisoned for "writing derogatory comments in letters to friends about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin". So basically, he had an opinion, like everyone does in America today, and he spent 8 years imprisoned in a labor camp. 
  • In 1962, Solzhenitsyn sent his manuscript to 'Novy Mir', a Russian literary magazine. The editor submitted the manuscript to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish it (given that until this time, Soviet writers had not even been allowed to REFER to the camps' existence). It was passed on to Khrushchev, who ultimately authorized its publication (STILL WITH SOME CENSORSHIP). 
So not only did Solzhenitsyn take the time to write a brilliant novel, but he also twiddled his thumbs (or, more likely, wrote more brilliant stuff) while his ass-backwards country got their act together enough to allow him to publish said novel which also basically and fundamentally just wanted to TELL THE TRUTH. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. 

The rest of my thoughts, in no real order:
  • A good book can be about miserable things and still be captivating. I wrote this down in the margins soon after I started. I kept not wanting to read 'Out of Africa' not because it wasn't describing nice and often beautiful things, but because I never felt compelled to continue. A good book should compel you to keep reading it.  Not in a Dan Brown, 'page-turner and then forget everything you read' kind of way. More like a J.K. Rowling, 'sticks-with-you and makes you shift your worldview a little" kind of way. There was no MYSTERY here. The book is called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". So you knew immediately he was in a labor camp, and you knew pretty much from jump that he wasn't going anywhere. And yet, the book was stunning. It was captivating not because it was about sadness or adventure, but because it so thoughtfully and articulately and intimately shared the excruciating and nonsensical and never-ending pain brought about by politicians and despots. 
  • The feel of a Russian novel, even in translation. By my count, I've now read 8 novels by Russians, and while there's certainly a marked difference between Kafka and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there was something about this book that felt very distinctly Russian. Given that so much of this work was colloquialized, and almost slangy in nature, I think this is a huge credit to the translator for capturing this feeling.
Climate-dependent misery
I thought a lot of about what this would look like if it were happening in America today, and I couldn't quite grasp it, in part because we just don't have a place that's quite that cold! How convenient for the Soviet Union that it was so large, and that so much of it was so unspeakably cold. A few lines on the temperature:
  • If it showed forty-one below, they weren't supposed to be marched out to work. OH OK. Yes, we draw the line at forty-one below. I mean, that's just unReasonable, amirite?
  • It's warmed up a bit. Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying. This is a line from Shukhov, and he's NOT joking. He legit thinks this is pretty good weather for bricklaying. 
Labor camp manners
"Most men eat with their caps on, but they take their time, angling for gluey scraps of rotten little fish under the leaves of frost-blackened cabbage, and spitting the bones onto the table .When there's a mountain of them, somebody will sweep them off before the next gang sits down, and they will be crunched to powder underfoot.
  Spitting bones out on the floor is considered bad manners." I laughed super hard at this line and spat out some of my coffee on the airplane. It's so delightfully hilarious and desperate and grotesque all at once. It reminded me of Gollum spitting out his stolen fish in the cave. 

Camp rules are different than the outside world
"It was the sort of thing that happens only in camp: Stepan Grigorich had advised Vdovushkin to call himself a medical orderly and had given him the job. Vdovushkin was now practicing intravenous injections on ignorant prisoners and meek Lithuanians and Estonians, to whom it would never occur that a medical orderly could be nothing of the kind, but a former student of literature, arrested in his second year of university." This was a fascinating flipside view -- certainly, not helpful for the prisoners that the medical orderly had no qualifications, but an interesting reminder that in times of war or desperation or imprisonment, often opportunities arise in mysterious ways. 

Empathy/experience/re-framing the world
I wrote this note at the back of my book, and I've thought about it a lot since I finished the book. If you're a consistent reader of my blob, you'll know that I'm a big believer in the research indicating that reading increases a person's ability to experience empathy. This book was a searing reminder; when I got sick, when I felt stressed about work, when I got depressed about my seemingly never-ending debt, I saw Shukhov waiting to be searched in the frozen tundra, unable to feel his toes. When I sipped my coffee on the airplane, it became not a mediocre excuse for a beloved beverage, but an unimagined delight in a world replete with fish soup and inadequate portions. Even now as I write this blog, I feel the distinct pleasure in being warm, a feeling which, at least in my world, is so generally expected and taken for granted. 

This, friends, is the magic of books.

Here are a few examples that struck me:
  • "In the year just beginning - 1951 - Shukhov was entitled to write two letters." We so rarely even take the TIME to write letters today, and Shukhov had a limited allowance? What joy and luck we have in being able to write to anyone at any time, free from censorship or restraint.
  • "Since he'd been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village - whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kohkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting." All the men in the camp were somewhere else beforehand. And I think just about categorically, life was better beforehand. I don't know how you adjust to this new normal, or how you return to what you once had on the off chance that you survive a camp. What would you miss most if it was taken from you?
  • "Apart from sleep, an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime." This reminded me very much of the line in "Beloved" about slaves having only Sunday mornings to themselves on the plantation at Sweet Home. 
  • "No zek [prisoner] ever lays eyes on a clock or a watch. What good would it do him, anyway? All a zek needs to know is - how soon is reveille? How long till work parade? Till dinnertime? Till lights-out?" Can you imagine how you would feel if time was taken away from you? I think I would find it simultaneously freeing and unsettling. 
How can we possibly have anything in common?
Sometimes I pick up a book and think, this will be interesting, but I don't expect to have anything in common with this narrator. After all, I'm not currently imprisoned in a labor camp, I'm not Russian, I'm not a man, I'm not living in the 1940s in a politically repressed country. And then something like this line happens:
  • "'Long time since we had a blizzard! Not a single one all winter. What sort of winter is that?The gang all sighed for the blizzards they hadn't had." And just like that, Shukhov and I are of one mind, longing for a solid blizzard. 
A little new vocabulary I learned:
taiga - the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes, especially that between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and North America (you know, like that nice frozen part of Kazakhstan where this labor camp was held)

kolkhoz - a collective farm in the former Soviet Union

patronymic - a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor, typically by the addition of a prefix or suffix (i.e., Johnson, O'Brien, Ivanovich)

Referents and reverberations (A section where I place this book on a timeline of other books it reminded me of, coming both before and after it in history, and share quotes that resonate)

The Trial (1925)
"Oh, I see," said the inspector. "You've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life." Kakfa captures this absurd but crazy and very real political world, and I was reminded of it often in reading "One Day..."

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
"What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?" I thought a lot about what it must have been like for Solzhenitsyn to re-enter the world after an experience like this. I wonder how many thousands of men had to learn how to be after this insanity.

A Farewell to Arms (1929)
"Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." In today's world, communism and labor camps are just words we pause briefly on before we transition to more 'current' ideas or topics. This book injects a face and a humanity that permanizes these words and 'isms' into a very real lived experience.

Catch-22 (1961)
“History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; WHICH men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.  Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” In case you hadn't realized it, war is a fairly constant theme here, which is interesting given that this book isn't explicitly about one war or conflict. I think what resonated with me so deeply was the idea that generations of men were permanently altered; trajectories of lives shifted starkly, and little, if any, choice in the matter was to be had.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

A Clockwork Orange (1962)
"The night belonged to me and my droogs and all the rest of the nadsats, and the starry bourgeois lurked indoors drinking in the gloopy worldcasts, but the day was for the starry ones, and there always seemed to be more rozzes or millicents about during the day, too." If you've read my blob you know that I didn't LOVE this book, but I did have to admit that the 'zeks' reminded me in a pleasant way of Burgess and his lingo.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
"So it goes." This book had a quality that seemed to say, 'and so what?' Sort of like, this awful thing happened, and it was arbitrary and brutal and unfair and deeply disconcerting and also kind of life-ruining, but then also, doesn't life keep happening in the background and before and after? 

Beloved (1987)
"For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week." Not the same for a host of reasons, but this book showed a kind of enslavement that was harrowing in its own way.

Title possibilities
I often keep a running list of sentences that I think encapsulate the work and would make a good title. Here are the others I considered for this post:
  • What would you expect to find on a zek in the morning?
  • A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually. 
  • What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery.
  • You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like. 
  • Who is the convict's worst enemy? Another convict.
  • He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. 
I hope you haven't found this post too depressing, and that you've been able to experience the sense of gratitude and empathy I found after sharing Shukhov's world for a day. I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the book (albeit a bit of a heartbreaker).

Shukhov, on not letting his family send him care packages:
"He knew what those parcels cost, and you couldn't go on milking your family for ten years on end. Better to do without.
  That's what he'd decided, but whenever anybody in the gang or the hut got a parcel (somebody did almost every day) he felt a pang - why isn't it for me? And although he had strictly forbidden his wife to send anything even at Easter, and never went to look at the list on the post - except for some some rich workmate - he sometimes found himself expecting somebody to come running and say:
 'Why don't you go and get it, Shukhov? There's a parcel for you.'
 Nobody came running."

 Shukhov, Solzhenitsyn, I have a package for you. It's been decades now since you were stuck in that inhumane, absurd hellhole, and almost a decade since you left this world, but I'll send you a package filled with baked treats, and sweet meats, and everything that reminds you of home. Go and get it, Shukhov. I promise this time there's a parcel for you, friend.

Keep each other safe.
Keep faith. 
Good night.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

They have not got nine in Swaheli.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Out of Africa is a story wherein a Danish woman owns a coffee farm in Kenya and runs it for awhile, and then she doesn't anymore. There are lots of other people on the farm, some who just live there, some who work for her, and some who are her friends. The farm is pretty, but hard to maintain, and eventually the lady is forced to sell it. She must return home to Denmark, but feels like she has left her home in Africa.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Hi blobbists!

If that felt like a pretty short plot summary, it's because (a) I didn't like this book very much, and (b) not very much happened in it. Not kidding. Even when things did happen, it was sort of somehow not very interesting. Sorry, Isak, it's the truth.

I read the one page description of the author's life after I finished the book, and immediately thought, 'her life was WAY more interesting than this book!' Which I feel like means she did something wrong there. Missed opportunity. Ah well!

Here are my thoughts, some pleasant, some less so:

My book was full of notes, which got progressively angrier and more annoyed as I read further in the book. Mostly, there's a lot of "UGH" and "UNACCEPTABLE" and "THAT'S RELATIVE", but here's my favorite, a little running list I made in the back:

- Hunter - she hunts and goes on safari, and kills a bunch of lions, and I just was Not here for it. 
- Conqueror - I chose this book because so few 'classics' by women make it out there, but she is a conqueror through and through, and I couldn't forgive her for it.
- Fake single woman - her husband is MYSTERIOUSLY mentioned on page 274 and then never again. According to her bio, they split up (btws he was her second cousin and he gave her SYPHILIS - #somehusband), and then she started a love affair. But to be clear, there was no love obviously expressed in this book. I didn't know they were a romantic item until after I read that bit in the bio.
- Needed an editor - Certainly, there are so many other people I could yell at for this (JOYCE, TOLSTOY, need I go on?) and I'm glad that at least a woman was allowed the same rambling that white men were, but how about we just None of us ramble, and we 'be brief, say what's core', as we say in BT. 
- Does she have a name? - Apparently, when you google the protagonist of Out of Africa, the internet proudly proclaims that it is the Baroness Tania von Blixen, which would, I suppose, make sense as her married name, since her husband was Baron Blixen, but we would only know as much because on EXACTLY ONE PAGE we see the name "Tania". OK, young boy narrator-Proust-wannabe.
-Super un'woke' - I know it's not really fair to compare attitudes across periods of time, but even for someone who was sort of 'woke' for her time, she was SO SO SO un'woke', and it was just excruciating to read after reading A Lesson Before Dying. 
- Doesn't bother to learn much Swahili or Masai - She doesn't spend much time learning the languages of the area, which I found to be very condescending, imperialistic, and entitled. 
- Cares more about African animals than African people - She expresses concern at times for the people around her who are native to Kenya, but she seems to respect and admire the animals she hunts more than she respects the people of Kenya, which I found deeply disturbing.

Let's make some SWEEPING generalizations - All frogs love CHEESE!
She falls into the classic 'making generalizations about whole groups of people' habit quite a lot. Here are just a few examples:
  • The Somali women themselves had dignified, gentle ways, and were hospitable and gay, with a laughter like silver bells.
  • All Africans are the same in these rites. oh sure, ALL Somalis. ALL Africans. 
What does a book mean to you?
There were a few moments when I felt a kinship with Tania, or whatever her name was. These lines about reading books abroad reminded me of Lexie reading books in the Peace Corps houses, and how pleasant it was when a good one came around:
  • In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he ay have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.
NO peelers for me, please, knives will do just fine!
While I will not make sweeping generalizations about ALL Africans, I will say that there were a few moments that put me in mind of my brother-in-law, Lune, from Sénégal, and moments, particularly in the kitchen, we've shared. He often just peeled vegetables with a knife, and seemed to think peelers were somehow wasting the best parts of the vegetable. He also once asked us when he was trying to cut open a coconut if we had a machete, and when we said no, he just threw the coconut on the bricks really hard and was like, "no problem! No need!" 

There's a similar story about her teaching a boy to cook that I loved:
  • He scorned all complicated tools, as if impatient of too much independence in them, and when I gave him a machine for beating eggs he set it aside to rust, and beat whites of egg with a weeding knife that I had had to weed the lawn with, and his whites of eggs towered up like light clouds."
A darkness falls upon you
I almost resentfully felt a kinship with the main character when she was getting ready to leave Africa, and she described some moments of terror and near madness, mostly because they reminded me of how I've felt at certain points in my life, and especially in France at the end of my time there:
  • fell upon me like a darkness, and in a way I was frightened of it, as of a sort of derangement. On this Thursday in Nairobi, the nightmare unexpectedly stole upon me, and grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad." It's possible she was depressed, or suffered from mental illness, as her father commit suicide (according to her bio) but in any case, I rarely see people describing the way I experience life, even in fleeting moments, so it was nice to feel like I wasn't alone for once.
In case you haven't heard of the term, here's a quick 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.

Reading this book was a great reminder that while I chose many authors on my second list because they were underrepresented or repressed or oppressed in some facet of their being, they may also be the oppressor in another piece of their identity, as was the case here. Just good food for thought.

The Masai
While in general, I did not like to trust her descriptions of Kenyans or their traditions because I felt like she was trying to tell the story of their lives FOR them, instead of write a book about them, I did enjoy hearing about the Masai:
  • A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; -daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.
Shh! The little Swedish Censor is sweeping!
While this book was not what I would call a laugh riot, there were a few moments that I found very amusing, like this one, on her letters being censored during the war:
  • He can never have found anything the least suspicious in them, but he came, I believe, within a monotonous life, to take an interest in the people on whom they turned, and to read my letters as you read a serial in a magazine. I used to add in my own letters a few threats against our Censor, to be carried out after the end of the war, for him to read.
1, 2, 3, 5, 11, 18, 35, 36
This was my favorite exchange. She recounts trying to learn some Swahili (FINALLY) from a Swede (god forbid she learn from a Native speaker) but apparently the word 'nine' has a 'dubious ring to it' in Swedish, so this happened:

'They have not got nine in Swaheli."
   'You mean,' I said, 'that they can only count as far as eight?'
'Oh, no', he said quickly. 'They have got ten, eleven, twelve, and so on. But they have not got nine.'
   'Does that work?' I asked, wondering. 'What do they do when they come to nineteen?'
'They have not got nineteen either', he said, blushing, but very firm, 'nor ninety, nor nine hundred' - for these words in Swaheli are constructed out of the number nine, -'But apart from that they have got all our numbers.'
   'The idea of this system for a long time gave me much to think of, and for some reason a great pleasure. Here, I thought, was a people who have got originality of mind, and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral series." lollllllz. 

Yes, they have fireflies in Africa, folks, in case you weren't sure.
I loved the universality of this moment, because it reminded me of driving on Mine Road in the summertime at night, and my parents turning off the headlights for a moment so we could swim in the sea of fireflies.
  • Here in the highlands, when the long rains are over, and in the first week of June nights begin to be cold, we get the fireflies in the woods. On an evening you will see two or three of them, adventurous lonely stars floating in the clear air, rising and lowering, as if upon waves, or as if curtseying. For some reason they keep within a certain height, four or five feet, above the ground. It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years, are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little sticks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their small pale torches merrily.
New words for me
Eland - a spiral-horned African antelope that lives in open woodland and grassland. It is the largest of the antelopes.

marmiton - a chef's assistant, or a kitchen-boy. Actually a French word, I think.
Everyone's favorite troglodyte

troglodyte - (especially in prehistoric times) a person who lived in a cave; a hermit; a person who is regarded as being deliberately ignorant or old-fashioned. 

risibility - the tendency to laugh often and easily

Lines I liked
  • They had real courage: the unadulterated liking of danger, -the true answer of creation to the announcement of their lot, -the echo from the earth when heaven had spoken.
  • The air in the forest was cool like water, and filled with the scent of plants, and in the beginning of the long rains when the creepers flowered, you rode through sphere after sphere of fragrance.
  • But the real performers, the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on."
I'm off to Russia, to see Mr. Denisovitch, but I'll leave you with one final line, and you can guess what it reminded me of:

"In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Anyone? A little Sylvia, from The Bell Jar...

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am."

Love to you all, and happy reading! 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Daniel-ay's Blob-Along to 'A Lesson Before Dying'

Dear friends, 

I know I have been absent here of late. Many projects, both personal and professional, are competing for my time and attention, but I want to continue to make time for reading and for sharing my reading experiences with you all. 

I hope that the onset of fall is treating you all well, and that you have the chance to read something pleasurable in the coming days as the leaves fall and the wind picks up a chill. 

Here's a much-belated blob-along from my good friend Dan, who read A Lesson Before Dying with me, and then shared his thoughts.

A Lesson Before Dying…
I write these first thoughts upon concluding the book this afternoon. They’re quick and hasty, so please forgive any hasty construction or hasty development of my thoughts and words…

What is this “Lesson”? We spend so much time asking others for comfort, when we can’t learn to embrace the discomfort ourselves. And yet, in the end, the very end, we stand, more comforted, when we know that we should face the discomfort head on.
  • "I was not there, yet I was there."
The beginning line of the book. Grant Wiggins begins by recounting Jefferson’s trial. These words immediately reminded me so much of another line from another book “It was and it was not so … it happened and it never did” aka “Once upon a time.” … (Thanks to Wikipedia for the following)
- In Arabic: كان يا ما كان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان  There was, oh what there was (or there wasn't) in the oldest of days and ages and times...
- In Chinese: 很久很久以前... A very very long time ago…
- In Filipino: Noong unang panahon… At the beginning of time...
- In Polish: Za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers… 
- In Italian: C’era una volta… There was a time…  

And always seemingly implying, But not here, not now.

The things (lies?) we tell ourselves. And although the stories aren’t “true”, they are so very very true.

We live a contradiction, we (white) americans, we colonizers, we slavers. We see the past and pretend that stuff being in the past does not make it so now: “It was, and it IS NOT so.” But not here, not now, we tell ourselves.

These following cruel, painful, gross, disgusting words in the novel come from Jefferson’s own lawyer, and they sound like they could come from today. And they set in motion the whole purpose for the book:
  • Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?
  • To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to… [etc. etc. etc.]
  • Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
As heart-wrenching as this book was, and as it was to read your analysis, Meredeeeece, I was pleased to see how we both chose to highlight a couple of the same passages, a couple of the same feelings, and yet had found different moments that moved us as well. There’s such deep contradiction as a theme in this book, and I have a feeling of such inadequacy even commenting on it. But onward! I hope I can learn from these inadequacies, and so, towards the end of this post, I leave most of it in the author’s words. This book was supposed to be on the syllabus for my freshman English class when I was in high school. And we didn’t get to it. And I so deeply regret that the teacher didn’t get these words in front of our student eyes of privilege. We need more words by people of color in this country to be read and heard and appreciated and valued and celebrated.

A testimony to the brilliance of Ernest J. Gaines's writing were these delicate moments in the novel that were interwoven with humor, yet also dark humor. Laughter even among the pain. These often came between Grant and his love, Vivian. Hope among the darkness.
  • “When was the last time I told you I loved you?” “A second ago.” “I should say it more often,” I said.
  • “How much have you had to drink, Grant?” “A whole fucking barrel of commitment,” I said, and raised my glass.
  • Vivian smiled without opening her mouth. I kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Uh-uh,” she said. “Not in public. I have too much quality for that.”
And then there were moments where you see the daily pain and cruel psychological, institutional influence of racism. Where the white man Henri asserts his covert attempt to control the psyche of his staff:
  • But Henri Pichot had not thought it was necessary to tell him. At his age, he was still only a messenger to run errands. To learn anything, he had to attain it by stealth or through an innate sense of things around him. He nodded to me, knowing that I knew he knew why Henri Pichot wanted to see me, and he walked away, head down.
And where Henri not-so-covertly tries to degrade Grant:
  • … it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them. Well, I had to put up with that because of those in the quarter, but I damned sure would not add hurt to injury by eating at his kitchen table.
And still there were moments throughout the book where you could feel the tension of race pushed on the reader by the author himself… Moments when the character Grant would point out to the reader that he intentionally spoke “correctly” or “incorrectly” (n.b. from a white person’s perspective), in accordance with how Grant wanted to convey something to the white recipient, as if the author was also calling out to the white reader, “See! See! Look how you presume! Look how you also don’t know how to feel! Feel the tension within yourself!”

Here, a former teacher talks to Grant about the futility of teaching…but also of life?...of white people?:
  • “...You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away – peel – scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years.”
  • “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
Here, words that still ring true, and should call upon our society with shame:
  • Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?
  • … with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.
Meredeeece, you highlighted these passages, and I too was struck by these wounding words:
  • It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?
And the myth:
  • The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe.
Meredeece, your commentary on the afterlife/hereafter/God also resonated with me. These moments from the book jumped off the page to me….Here, the devastating, emotional spill from the minister:
  • That’s why you you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings – yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ’Cause reading, writing, and ’rithmatic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt – and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie.
And here, Grant’s own emotional challenges:
  • Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him – and I will not believe.
  • Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
To end:
“... And he walked straight, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.”

In thinking on today's America, on taking a knee, the NFL, friends drowning in whiteness, all of Ernest's words and Dan's reflectionson those words are worth revisiting, if only so we can see that we are not there yet. We are here, but we are not there, the place where we want to be, the America that I want to live in and be proud of. To get there, we have much work to do, and I hope you will do the work with me, blobbists. Love and leaves to all of you!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post is for Trayvon Martin. 
It is for Freddie Gray. 
It is for Walter Scott,
Philando Castile, 
Alton Sterling,
Terence Crutcher,
Keith Scott,
Christian Taylor,
Michael Brown, 
Ezell Ford, 
Eric Garner, 
Tamir Rice, 
Sandra Bland,
Rekia Boyd, 
Shereese Francis, 
Ramarley Graham, 
Manuel Loggins, Jr., 
Sean Bell, 
Kendra James, 
LaTanya Haggerty, those who I have failed to list because it is a traumatizingly large group, and every person whose name did not make this list simply because they died in silence and their injustice has yet to be named.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Bigger, Jefferson,
a young black man,
must die.

This we know from the start.

The question then, is not how
but when?

And in the time
before the shocking current
reverberates through his veins and brain
what parts of his humanity
will this world allow him
to retain?

Enter Grant Wiggins,
unwilling participant,
reluctant teacher, fellow black man,
staying, simultaneously wanting
to run away as fast as he can.

Cell block conversations,
family visits,
shared sweet potatoes -
even a radio makes its way
to Jefferson as if to say
perhaps this is a nightmare after all
and there is still time
for you
to wake up.

But the nightmare is the truth
and death is certain still, you see,
the time is fixed
we know it will be
some time between noon and three.

Shaken and shaking,
but firmly a man,
Jefferson does not sit but stand.

Heard for miles,
a humdrum horror,
sanctioned, legal, still - a scandal
Louisiana blows him out like a candle.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear blobbists, 
   I hope that this blob finds you well, or as well as can be, given the current state of affairs. I have been struggling to craft this post both because I wanted to honor the heft of its content, and because recent events left me wondering, yet again, whether we are in a desperate circle. But, as Dr. King reminds us, we must speak out, or our silence will be what our friends remember, louder even than the voices of the hateful supremacists in Charlottesville or Charleston. So here are my thoughts, simply put, aired without expectation, but with the hope that they will speak over the silence of others.

Narrators, not unreliable, but rather unwilling
Choosing Grant Wiggins as the narrator of this story was a fascinating choice, and one that confused me at first. Grant is sent to the jail to help Jefferson understand that he is 'not a hog, but a man' before he dies, a mission devised by Jefferson's nannan (godmother), seemingly his only kin. They are all living on a plantation in Louisiana, no longer slaves but tied to the land. Grant's interest in this task is minimal at best, and he undertakes the project under extreme pressure from his own aunt, Tante Lou.
  Grant's unwillingness to confront this effort had this ingenious way of mirroring how I felt about reading the book at all. Here are a few lines that illustrate this push-and-pull, this internal tension:

Grant, on wanting to spend time with Vivian, his lady, instead of going to see Jefferson:
"I didn't want to think about that cell uptown. I wanted to think about more pleasant things."

and later, when the time of Jefferson's execution is fixed:
"That's where you come in, Reverend. I'm going for a walk, a long walk in the opposite direction."

At several points (choosing to read this book, reading this book, writing this blog) all I wanted to do was talk a long walk in the opposite direction and think about more pleasant things. And while, for our own survival, and our own happiness, it's important to create space for those pleasant things (and for long walks!), I think it's equally important to climb into this challenging headspace, inhabit the discomfort of harsh realities, and, one labored breath at a time, turn and face the fictional demons that haunt our nation's painful past, listening closely, as their doppelgängers often duplicate and divide us still today.

So here's a long walk we can all pretend that we've just taken, during which we've thought of many pleasant things, 
"Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'"

And once you've decided whether pigs have wings (it's really up to you, you know!) we can, as a group, move on to that challenging headspace together.

Ok. Off we go!

Referents and reverberations
Some of my most faithful readers (A VERY SELECT FEW) will know that I have recently started a section where I speak about things that either feel as though they've informed a work or come out of it. This is not to suggest that I am drawing clear lines of connection (SOOPRIZE! I'm not omniscient!) but rather that the web linking these works was apparent to me, in my mind.

(1) To choke, to suffocate, to bear a burden.
Native Son, by Richard Wright (published in 1940)
Bigger: "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."

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in 2015)
"The [American] 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.”

A Lesson Before Dying (published in 1993, set in the 1940s)
Grant, to Vivian: "For my aunt and Irene it is the same. Who else does my aunt have? She has never been married. She raised my mother because my mother's mother, who was her sister, gave my mother to her when she was only a baby, to follow a man whom the South had run away. Just as my own mother and my own father left me with her, for greener pastures. And for Irene and for others there in the quarter, it's the same. They look at their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their brothers - all broken. They see me - and I, who grew up on that same plantation, can teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. I can give them something that neither a husband, a father, nor a grandfather ever did, so they want to hold on as long as they can. Not realizing that their holding on will break me too."

And later, Grant, to Jefferson: "I need to know what to do with my life. I'm needed here and I know it, but I feel that all I'm doing here is choking myself."

Television show Being Mary Jane, S2E6, aired in 2015
A conversation between Sheldon, a black man, and Mary Jane, a black woman, recounting his experience:

Sheldon: Did you know that étouffée in French literally translates to "suffocate?" To smother.
Mary Jane: What's your point? I'm guessing you're trying to make one.
Sheldon: My point is that black men in America today, like Brian Ellis, have been smothered literally their whole lives. Smothered as they clawed their way up the ranks. Smothered by corporate greed. Smothered by racism. By oppression. Smothered by hatred. Smothered by fear. Smothered by a system that truly never wanted to see them succeed. And why do you think that is? Jealousy. Obama's walk was inspired by Michael Jordan's dunk, was inspired by John Coltrane's solo, by Malcolm X's thoughts.
Mary Jane: Can you drive the car straight? Because I have low blood sugar.
Sheldon: Black men represent freedom, and that's what they're trying to squash.

What strikes me in these four moments is how aptly each one fits with the others. If you're concerned by the dates and the seeming lack of difference in sentiment despite the decades between them, then good. You should be. I know I am.

(2) To run, to sprint, to hasten away.
It's not surprising that given the state of emergency which is presented as potential inhabitable existence, the black man in literature is struck often with an urgent desire to flee, literally or metaphorically, whether it's in times of literal or moral slavery:

Jefferson, when he was witness to the robbery and knew he would be considered guilty of murder:
"He wanted to run, but he couldn't run. He couldn't even think. He didn't know where he was. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He couldn't remember ever getting into the car. He could remember a thing he had done all day."

Grant, on advice given to him about growing up as a black man in the south: "He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run."

in Beloved, when Paul D got help from a Cherokee tribe to run away from Sweet Home plantation:
"Follow the tree flowers to find north. Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone."

(3) To rain, to storm, to prevent adventures.
At one point in the novel, Grant's visits to Jefferson seem to have broken through, and Jefferson starts to make observations about life, from the food he's brought to the weather outside. At one point, he's speculating about the forecast, and Grant says, 
"I hope it's the kind of day you want, Jefferson."

I loved this line and its tenderness, and it reminded me of one of my favorite lines from 'To the Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf. The book's title is a reference to a potential trip to the lighthouse that James, a young boy, is to make with Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay officiously asserts that the weather will be wretched, and that the trip will have to be postponed. Mrs. Ramsay is devastated for James, and tries to keep a cautiously optimistic outlook on the weather to come. She turns to James and says, "Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing."

(4) To die, to sleep - to sleep, perchance to dream. 
Grant gives Jefferson a pencil and a notebook to record his thoughts, and this is one of his last:
"sun goin down an i kno this the las one im gon ever see but im gon see one mo sunrise cause i aint gon sleep tonite.
* * *
im gon sleep a long time after tomoro."

which reminded me of this line from Sydney Carton, who also faces execution for a crime he did not commit, though under rather different circumstances (and not by chair, but by guillotine):
"There is nothing to do until tomorrow. I can't sleep."

How much can one word hold?
Grant wants to give Jefferson a radio to listen to in his cell, something to call his own before he dies, but he can't afford to buy it by himself, so he asks for donations from the community. My favorite moment of offering is Thelma, the wife of the owner of the Rainbow Club, the local bar and café:
"When I was finished, she put a wrinkled ten-dollar bill on the counter by my plate.
 It was the kind of 'here' your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of 'here' that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of 'here' that said she wished you had it and didn't have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then 'here' it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of 'here' that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs 'here'?" So much weight for one syllable.

What comes after? Does anyone know?
I liked that Grant didn't believe in heaven. I don't say this to be incendiary, or offensive, or to suggest that I have any conception of what afterlife(or lives) do or don't exist. Simply that I appreciated that the emphasis for Grant was on reinforcing Jefferson's manhood and personhood before he died, not simply lining up a potential hereafter. The local reverend also visits Jefferson, and Grant is clear that he is not working to nullify or negate any of the reverend's message, just that he personally doesn't believe. Unfortunately for Grant (and for me) his disbelief is met with condescension, much as it is in my most recent books, but at least it is expressed honestly on Grant's part, and he is not deterred in allowing it a space in how he sees this present world and his work with Jefferson.

Who decides if and when we die?
I'm generally opposed to the death penalty, as I don't think it's our right to decide when life should end for other people, regardless of their crime. I know the issue is complex, so I will leave my thoughts at that, for now. If you were curious, though, 
  • The electric chair is 'optional' in AL, FL, SC, and VA - lethal injection is the go-to method, but the chair is still presented as a choice (lucky them).
  • The death penalty is legal in 31 United States and 58 countries in total. 
  • Twenty people (all men) were executed in the United States in 2016. Sixteen men were executed this year. Of those thirty-six, nine of them were black men.
Words I knew not then but I know now, in many cases because I did not grow up in Looosiana:
chifforobe - a piece of furniture with drawers on one side and hanging space on the other

sugarcane - a perennial tropical grass with tall stout jointed stems from which sugar is extracted. The fibrous residue can be used as fuel, in fiberboard, and for a number of other purposes. OK, so I knew LOOSELY what sugarcane was, but I didn't know it had so many uses, or that this is what it looked like!

filé - pounded or powdered sassafras leaves used to flavor and thicken soup, especially gumbo

cush-cush - a tropical American yam that produces a number of tubers on each plant (cmidbdis?)

It's close to bedtime for me now, and I am exhausted in my body and my brain, my thoughts and my soul. I will leave you with my three favorite exchanges between Grant and Jefferson.

"Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don't and can't do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. The white people out there are saying that you don't have it - that you're a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are." You have the potentials, I have the potentials, we all have the potentials. We do!

"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth - and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe. They're safe with me. I don't want them to feel safe with you anymore." Unfortunately, it's they who don't feel safe with us, but I echo this sentiment, and hope we can build a path to the future where all men and women stand and fight, particularly the ones we have repressed and oppressed and forced to kneel over the years.

Grant, speaking to Jefferson early on:
"It don't matter," I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.
"What don't matter?"
He didn't answer.
"What don't matter, Jefferson?"
"Nothing don't matter", he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.
"It matter to me, Jefferson," she said. "You matter to me."

I may not be able to undo bigotry with my words, or bring the wrongfully dead back to life, but I can exert power in this small corner of the world where I have created safety for all. I can use my power to say that I will fight injustice, I will do better to protect you and yours, and it and you matter to me, always. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Playing with time and space is a dangerous game.

A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters, and
An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Five novels which together make up the 'Time Quintet')
Spoiler Alert: Plot pudding
These books are about any number of things, not limited to, but including God, time, family, adventure, and growing up. Now that I've finished them all, their individual plots have formed a conglomerate in my brain, and I'm having a hard time pulling them apart. Here's a snapshot of what I remember from each one (as you can see, I haven't promised a summary, but rather a gelatinous understanding):

Time, somewhat wrinkledy
characters: Meg Murry and her younger brother Charles Wallace, their father, a schoolmate named Calvin, several angel/star/oldlady-people with funny names along the lines of Mrs. Whatchamacallit
locale: New England, utopian planets, dystopian planets, you know. the usual.
goal: save Mr. Murry, then CW from evil brain thing
outcome: success and safe return to grand ole' New England

Door, breezes near the
characters: Meg Murry, Calvin, Charles (sort of - it's complicated), a cherubim named Proginoskes, the principal of CW's school, Mr. Jenkins
locale: New England, Charles Wallace's mitochondria (yes. you read that right.)
goal: save CW from the evil Mr. Murry, then CW from evil Echthroi (gezundheit)
outcome: success - CW is healed!

Planet, the leaning tower of
characters: Meg Murry, Charles, a bunch of people from the past (not, like, yesterday, but more like eons ago), Calvin's mom
locale: New England, in a variety of centuries, specifically the star-watching rock in the Murry's yard
goal: stop the Cuban missile crisis by intervening in the past (basically. change some names and you've got the gist)
outcome: success. messing with the past always works out, right?

Waters, and lots of 'em
characters: Sandy and Dennys Murry (I know, who? the twin brothers of CW and Meg), Noah (as in, the ark), some unicorns, some seraphim, some evil anti-angel-type creatures
locale: New England, a desert from whence came the ark (if you go for that sort of thing)
goal: get back to New England, help build the ark (like you do when you find yourself nearby)
outcome: success, with a few horrifying sunburns along the way.

Time, suiting everyone
characters: Meg's daughter, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Murry, Polly's suitor Zachary, a bunch of druids, a bishop
locale: New England, again in both the present and a real long time ago
goal: unite warring tribes, get unstuck in the past
outcome: success, with the occasional 'whoops you almost become a blood sacrifice' moments.

There you have it, blobbists, a veritable tahPeeOHHka of a précis!
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, friends, the year of July has come and gone, and I've spent it in any number of places, all of which were too hot for my taste. I finished these books some time ago, but I was disappointed in the process of reading them, which slowed me down substantially in both the reading and the plotting of this blob. 

Nearly every person I told I was reading this series said something to the effect of, "oh, I have fond memories of A Wrinkle in Time, but I can't remember what it was really about... and then smiled off into the distance". Which describes exactly why I wanted to read the books in the first place. That, coupled with the fact that my sister Diana had a bear named Charles Wallace. I came across him the last time I was home -->

That being said, and I hate to stomp on anyone's childhood nostalgia here (mine included!), I was underwhelmed. While the construct of the books is intriguing, and I think her conceptual fantasy world is quite engaging, I could not, as an adult reader, separate out the Christian, borderline proselytizing nature of the works. We all know that fantasy and Christianity are no strangers to each other (ahem, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Pullman, even some might say, Ms. Rowling) but this felt like it reached a point where the religion was more real than the fantasy, which bothered me. 

Here are the bits that resonated with me, at any rate:

The British are coming, the British are coming
Some of you know that I aspire to write my own YA fantasy novel series, and I was only further inspired to do so when I realized that these books are the only fantasy novels I cherish by an American author (unless I'm missing someone, which is highly possible. To be clear, I'm not saying there are no American fantasy writers - that's ridiculous - just that the ones that stick out in my memory are all by.... BRITISH PEOPLE.

Here's the list I came up with:
- J.R.R.Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings)
- C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia)
- J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
- Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy, including The Golden Compass)
- Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass) (which, amusing, was referenced several times in the Time quintet, including the gifting of an unbirthday present, which I quite liked)

- Madeleine L'Engle (Time Quintet)

So clearly we need to work on our fantasy game. It's not like England is the only place we can build imaginary worlds from!

What sound what a star make in your world of fiction?
Just curious. In these books, the sound stars speak in the voice of an English horn (pictured left, think an oboe but slightly bulbous and slightly deeper in timbre). I found this delightful, because the English horn is my favorite wind instrument, and the one I would most like to play if I added on to my cello skillz. For an example of its sound, listen to the first minute or so of this exchange between the English horn and the oboe, from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. 

Nicknames, nicknames are so fun, nicknames are for everyone
What's your favorite nickname that someone has called you? I'm not sure. I like 'Mere', but only some of the time, and it depends on who the person is. I think the search is still out for a nickname that I love. Meg gets quite a few nicknames in the books, and I found them very endearing. These included Meglet, Megatron, and Megaparsec. 

Fermi's paradox - are we alone out here?
Are you familiar with Fermi's paradox? I wasn't until a few weeks ago, on one of my many work-related travels. It came up on a podcast, This American Life, I believe, and one of the producers was trying to explain why it makes him feel very down sometimes. 

Here's how the interwebs describes it: "The Fermi paradox or Fermi's paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, e.g., those given by the Drake equation, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations."

In other words, there's a really high probability we're not alone, but there's also no evidence of extraterrestrial life. So what gives? I'm not sure how it makes me feel. I don't know if lonely is quite right, but maybe more like isolated? Solitary? I know those are pretty close approximations, but I can't quite put a word to the feeling. How does it make you feel? 

I thought of it when I came across this exchange:
"You mean your planet revolves about all isolated in space? Aren't you terribly lonely? Isn't he?
'Or she. Your planet. Aren't you lonely?'
'Maybe we are, a little,' Calvin conceded. 'But it's a beautiful planet."

Religion is not invited to my fantasy party.
I don't want to dwell on this, because I've already mentioned it above. My concern with religion here is not so much that it's present, but rather that it's presented in kind of a condescending fashion. L'Engle adds an atheist in the final book, and he's looked down as someone who just "can't come around", and as an agnostic/atheist/spiritualbutnotorganizedreligion person myself, I was offended. It also felt like because she was dealing with science and space and time, she was defining biblical events as real, which is a leap for me, in that some of it is grounded in scientific fact, but not large parts of it. I think I just wanted her to take the opportunity to make the science evident in fantasy, so it was disappointing to me that she made science into a sort of side-lens for religion.

What form does evil take for you?
I've read quite a few books for this blob, and evil takes any number of forms, from Sauron to Randall Flagg, to groupthink, to Voldemort. Here's my favorite definition of evil from these works:
"What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort?" it reminded me of a dementor.

I also liked this line from Charles Wallace:
"We have to make decisions, and we can't make them if they're based on fear." and this line from Mr. Murry: "Don't be afraid to be afraid."

because they reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Dune: 
"Fear is the mind-killer."

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.
That's a Dorothy Parker line, that I love to hate, as a woman who wears glasses. I loved this moment between Calvin and Megatron:
"Calvin, to Meg: Do you know that this is the first time I've seen you without your glasses?"
'I'm blind as a bat without them. I'm near-sighted, like Father.'
'Well, you know what, you've got dream-boat eyes,' Calvin said. 'Listen, you go right on wearing your glasses. I don't think I want anybody else to see what gorgeous eyes you have."

I thought this was great, in that it both emphasized Meg's beauty AND encouraged her continued wearing of glasses (albeit as a screening mechanism against other suitors). I have been told by a few people (not men, more like Mar and Mama Monroe, and my pcp, most recently) that I have beautiful eyes, but I do kind of enjoy keeping them a secret sometimes. Also, if you can't tell someone's beautiful around or behind their glasses, then you have no business being interested.

We're not seeing other people yet. 
When Charles Wallace first meets Mrs. Whatsit, who is a star/old-lady person, he doesn't want to let Meg in on it, which I kind of love:

"Who's Mrs. Whatsit?' Meg asked.
'I think I want to be exclusive about her for a while," Charles Wallace said." shhh! she's a SECRET star person!

A parliament of owls, an unkindness of ravens, a drive of dragons, a destruction of wild cats
I have a special affinity for the names of groups of animals, so I thought I would share these samplings. The drive of dragons is featured in the second book, I believe, and I wanted to share as my fun fact when I visited my old Breakthrough site that a group of domestic cats is a litter, but a group of wild cats is known as a DESTRUCTION. How awesome is that? Other favorites:

a QUIVER of cobras
a CHARM of hummingbirds
an UNKINDNESS of ravens
a MURDER of crows
an EXULTATION of skylarks

Cocoa in the kitchen, a fire in the hearth, bread baking in the oven, a room in the attic
The best part of these books for me was the Murry's home itself, which I think was part of why I was disappointed when I realized that each book starts there, but generally takes place elsewhere (in time or location, or both). I loved the idea of the fantasy, but their house was where I wanted to cozy up and settle in. 

Here are some things that I loved in terms of setting or the Murrys:
  • The star-watching rock - this is a rock that's near their house, where they watch the stars, and also the location for many jumps in time
  • The vegetable garden - contains things such as legumes, dragons, and the occasional snake
  • Cocoa on the bunsen burner - in several scenes, a Murry family member makes cocoa on Mrs. Murry's bunsen burner, and it made me nostalgic for cups of cocoa with my mom and Wilbur's
  • New England autumn - one of the things I miss the most about New Hampshire is the spectacular fall foliage. The 'peak' of the season was always a point of much debate, but this never took away from their majestic beauty. ;)
  • Cinnamon toast - someone makes it in the Murry's kitchen - I haven't had cinnamon toast regularly since kindergarten, when Mrs. Fellin used to make it for us
  • Schubert's trout quintet - featured in the books, and a favorite of both my mom and moi-même
  • Orion's belt - picked out in the sky at a variety of ages in time, special to me because I wear it on my sleeve (literally) and it's the first constellation I remember my mom pointing out to me in the night sky
Words, wondrous words
tesseract - "the fifth dimension - add it to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around". In geometry, the tesseract is the four-dimensional analog of the cube; the tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square. See visual representation on right -->

"Oh, we don't travel at the speed of anything," Mrs. Whatsit explained earnestly. "We tesser. Or you might say, we wrinkle."

also, a British band

anorak - a waterproof jacket, typically with a hood, of a kind originally used in polar regions

moonset - the setting of the moon below the horizon

corona (in astronomy) - the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun and other stars. The sun's corona is normally visible only during a total solar eclipse when it is seen as an irregularly shaped pearly glow surrounding the darkened disk of the moon.

contumacious (especially of a defendant's behavior) stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority - how great is the phonetic spelling? (känt(y)o͝oˈmāSHəs)

Lines I Liked:
  • I'm full of bad feeling.
  • Wild nights are my glory.
  • You don't have to understand things for them to be.
  • You don't know how lucky you are to be loved.
  • Good galaxy, no!
  • Though we travel together, we travel alone.
  • There are dissonances in the song of the stars.
Well, I want to make it to the gym before moonset, and I haven't quite mastered tessering yet, so I'll leave you with these final bits:

Proginoskes - "Perhaps you could meet me early tomorrow morning, and we can compare our night thoughts." lollolololololz.

Mrs. Murry, to Charles Wallace:"You are not going back out tonight to find if the snake, magnificent though she be, likes cocoa. Save your experimental zeal for daylight."

Save your experimental zeal for daylight, folks, and let me know if you come across any exultations of larks, or cinnamon toast, or destructions of wild cats. (or extraterrestrials!)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson [did you remember he used a pseudonym, friends? I did not.]

Spoiler Alert: Plot Poem
Alice down the rabbit hole [quite litrally, we mean]
Too tall, too small; rinse, repeat. Is this all a dream?

Cries her way to Wonderland with wild menagerie.
A caucus race is thus begun; the winner is... EVERYONE!

MaryAnn the rabbit messenger hunts for gloves and fan
Curious Alice drinks mystery drink just because she can.

Off she grows to such great heights, stymied one again
Arms in the window, lizard in the chimney; Bill's not feeling too zen.

Hookah-smoking caterpillar with mushroom domicile
Quizzles existentially, he brooks no denial.

Fish footmen for duchesses, pepper, babies, and pigs
Meetings with the Cheshire Cat; an airy grin he rigs.

Tea with a Hatter, humor a Dormouse, six the clock will chime
Riddles and rudeness, twinkles and treacle, buttering away the time.

Flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, a game of queer croquet
Tempestuous duchess, a hotheaded Queen, "off with her head!" she'll say!

Mock turtle songs and lobster quadrilles, jury's out - who stole the tarts?
Important evidence (of nothing) is given to please the Queen of Hearts.

Larger, now, the girl awakes to think on Wonderland
Real or imagined, dreamed or not, it was most awfully grand.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear Blobbists, 
   Did you like my rhyming? Alice connoisseurs may have noticed I omitted the Looking-Glass from my plot poem. If I'm being honest, I preferred the first volume by a teensy bit, and I also got tired of rhyming. ;)

If you have not read these little works, find a copy and devour them. They're bite-sized, and marvelous! Ostensibly they're children's books, but like all the best children's books, they're full of nuance for adults and witty puns and jokes no child would get. OK. Alice PSA Over!

If you're still reading (BECAUSE YOU ALREADY READ THEM, or because you ARE PLANNING TO REALLY SOON) (LIKE, TOMORROW, MAYBE) then please proceed.
I've decided to continue my new section, since this one had several...
Referents and Reverberations (I'll tell you a quote from this book, and I'll tell you a quote from another book from this blob that it reMinded me of. Sound like fun? Tbqh, I don't care what you think, the section is happening anyway. But #fingerscrossed you find it fun.)

Alice quotes:
"How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? But if I'm not the same, the next question is, 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

"I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then."

Guesses, anyone? Hint: it's a Meredith FAVORITE, and an oft-referenced tome...

"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp."

One MILLION pounds sterling to anyone who guessed PROUSTY-proust. What's that? OH, you want to be super-snooty and guess which VOLUME of Proust? OK, fine. Hint: there are seven. 

I'm thinking of a number between one and seven.... it's... THREE! The Guermantes Way. (Which, if you're a true blob fan, you might remember I accidentally read BEFORE number two. An honest mistake! If you're a FRENCH speaker, you most probably guessed it when you saw the Picture.)

OK, moving on to the next Alice quote(s):
'He said he would come in,' the White Queen went on, 'because he was looking for a hippopotamus. Now, as it happened, there wasn't such a thing in the house, that morning.'
'Is there generally?' Alice asked in an astonished tone.
'Well, only on Thursdays,' said the Queen."

lolz. OBVIOUSLY only on Thursdays, silly! and then this nugget:

"Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Together, these reminded me of someone who also had a lot of thoughts involving breakfast...

"If I start thinking about something which didn't happen I start thinking about all the other things which didn't happen. For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milk shake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea* I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn't eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn't a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn't wearing a diving suit and so on..."
*But I wouldn't have Shreddies and tea because they are both brown.

So which was it, folks? A hippopotamus or a rhinoceros when you were eating breakfast? It IS Thursday, after all!

And for our last installment in this section, this quote from Alice:
'If that there King was to wake,' added Tweedledum, 'you'd go out - bang! - just like a candle!'
'I shouldn't!' Alice exclaimed indignantly. Besides, if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?"

Which put me in mind of this quote:

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

I gave you a picture clue, so I'm not telling for this one. Look it up if you must! ;)

How are we feeling, readers? Do you need a stretch break? Why don't you do a little 'cat/cow', get your mail, or grab a cuppa, and then roll on back. Here's a silly photo to cleanse your neural palate:

Aren't cats simply the silliest creatures? Susan has taken to slumbering in my closet, because it has the lumpiest clothes. Onward we go!

A new section I've decided to call "Things which were simply a part of my growing-up vernacular, and which I only now realize are from Wonderland"

Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never ever ever ever jam today. I really think I thought this was just a thing my mom said sometimes. I had completely forgotten that it was from Alice, and I'm not sure I knew there was a real song! Mom, were you quoting her?

stuffing the Dormouse into the teapot, and stories full of treacle

Alice - pudding: Pudding - Alice. now you've been properly introduced, so of course you can't EAT the pudding!

these lines:
'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'

And now for some random thoughts...

Wit and Wordplay
Carroll/Dodgson has the MOST fun with the English language in these books. I don't know if I've ever read a book that took such pleasure in my native language, and it was truly a joyful experience. One of my favorite moments in the book is this one, which comes before the caucus race and when the animals (and Alice) are all sopping wet. The mouse jumps to the rescue:

'This is the driest thing I know.' "William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English..." lololololol. Get it. DRY? dry? (slaps knee and guffaws)

Who's your friend who likes to play?
Perhaps the only thing more fantastic than Carroll's delightful wordplay is his vivid imagination. One of my favorite creatures was the 'Snap-dragon-fly':
'Look on the branch above your head, and there you'll find a Snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy.'
 'And what does it live on?' Alice asked.
'Frumenty and mince-pie,' the Gnat replied: 'and it makes its nest in a Christmas-box.'

It reminded me of BING BONG from Inside Out! (see video for more on Bong, Bing)

Tick tock, tick tock, Hook's afraid of an old dead clock...
Time is a frequent topic of discussion in the books, and there's even one section that had a pretty trippy 'Arrival'-style discussion of the future happening in the present and such. Here's my other favorite time-related quip:

The Mad Hatter: 'I dare say you never even spoke of Time!'
 'Perhaps not,' Alice cautiously replied; 'but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.'
'Ah! That accounts for it,' said the Hatter. 'He won't stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!" are you on good terms with Time, blobbists? What time would you make it, if you could?

What are you, after all?
Many of the creatures Alice encounters ask her what she is, and she is accused of being a great many other things (my favorite of which is a serpent). One creature asks her: 

'Are you a child or a teetotum?' and if, at this moment, you are thinking to yourself, WHAT, praytell, is a teetotum, and/or did Monsieur Carroll make that up? 

THIS (see left) is a teetotum. It is apparently a top. Not necessarily twelve-sided, though this one is, but generally containing some sort of numbered sides to determine a winner. 

Please let me know if you knew this word and I will give you BONUS POINTS ON THE NEXT QUIZ. 

This exchange reminded me of one of my favorite moments in the movie 'Stranger Than Fiction', when Dustin Hoffman says, "Aren't you relieved to know you're not a golem?"

And if you are NOW wondering what a golem is,
"In Jewish folklore, a golem (/ˈɡoʊləm/ GOH-ləm; Hebrew: גולם‎‎) is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (specifically clay or mud)."
OK everyone. Time for that POP QUIZ! (No, I didn't forget that you Might have gotten bonus points for knowing teetotum!)

Real or not real? Are the items below references to real things, Carroll-isms, or a bit of both?

jabberwocky - Carroll-ism, though now a term that extends beyond Alice, imho. Also, the only poem I know in full (don't worry, family, I've STOPPED trying to rememberize the Raven)

Lory - a bit of both. Here are side-by-side pictures of the Lory in Alice and a lory IRL.

caucus race - real words, turned into Carroll-ism. According to CLW (or LC) "all participants have to run in circles until an arbitrary end is called and everyone is declared a winner". my kind of race.

treacle - I honestly didn't know if this was a real thing. Apparently it's just the British term for molasses. 

un-birthdays - Carrollism [BUT CAN THEY BE REAL THO] - "three hundred sixty-four days when you might get presents because it is Not your birthday." So obviously we should be doing this. 

Clap backs from Wonderland
In honor of the sassiness of these novels, I am including a new section. For those unfamiliar with the term, here is a definition of 'clap back': 

Frog footman:
"How am I to get in?" asked Alice again, in a louder tone.
'Are you to get in at all?' said the Footman. 'That's the first question, you know.'"

The Rose, in the garden of live flowers:
"This sounded a very good reason, and Alice was quite pleased to know it. 'I never thought of that before!' she said.
 'It's my opinion that you never think at all,' the Rose said, in a rather severe tone."

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare
"You should say what you mean.'
'I do.' Alice hastily replied; 'at least - at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing, you know.'
'Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. 'Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!'

'Really, now you ask me,' said Alice, very much confused, 'I don't think--"
'Then you shouldn't talk,' said the Hatter.'

The Dormouse
"'I wish you wouldn't squeeze so,' said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to Alice. 'I can hardly breathe.'
 'I can't help it,' said Alice very meekly: 'I'm growing.'
'You've no right to grow here,' said the Dormouse.
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Alice more boldly: you know you're growing too.'
'Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,' said the Dormouse: 'not in that ridiculous fashion."

"It's no use your talking about waking him, when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.'
'I am real!' said Alice, and began to cry.
'You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying."

Humpty Dumpty
'What does the name Alice mean?'
'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully.
'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: my name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."

The Red Queen
'Do you know Languages? What's the French for fiddle-de-dee?'
'Fiddle-de-dee's not English,' Alice replied gravely.
'Who ever said it was?'

Phrases we should all say more often:
  • As sure as ferrets are ferrets. so many possible uses!
  • Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you're at! that's the Suzuki song, right?!
  • I'm doubtful about the temper of your flamingo. I'm gonna start saying this to everyone.
  • 'I shouldn't know you again if we did meet, you're so exactly like other people.' this seems like a great option after a failed first date, or perhaps to an ex, upon conscious uncoupling.
  • You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch! a possible alternative to 'Who is John Galt?'
Well, I certainly hope you've enjoyed this rollicking romp through Wonderland, and (final plug) if you haven't read these because you "think you know the story from pop culture", GO READ them, plzzzz.

I will leave you with my three favorite quotes.

"We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near."
I often feel like an old child, who constantly frets to find her bedtime near! Do you, blobbists?

The Unicorn, to Alice:
"This is a child? I always thought they were fabulous monsters. 
If you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"
Such a great exchange. If you believe in me blob readers, I'll believe in you! Deal?

"In that direction lives a Hatter: and in that direction lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.'
 'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice. 
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here."

Enjoy your late summer evening, watch the temper of your flamingo, clap back when you can, and only eat jam TOMORROW and YESTERDAY. Have fun among the mad people, from one mad person (and one mad cat) to another.