Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Thursday, 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.