Sunday, August 31, 2008

Library Additions

My (at least) biannual pilgrimage to State College's used bookstore proved fairly fruitful. I picked up the following books:
  • Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg
  • Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld
  • Journey to the End of the Night - Celine
  • Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light - Ivan Klima
  • A Model Childhood - Christa Wolf (also published as Patterns of Childhood)
  • Kaddish for a Child Not Born - Irme Kertesz

After checking out, and looking lovingly at the pile in the bag (it's like taking a puppy home some times)...I realized that all of them except Smilla are about war, and all except Smilla and Celine are about Germany/The Holocaust. This on top of Loving, Dance to the Music of Time being about Nick in the Army in WWII, and also reading The Zookeeper's Wife...could I get more immersed in the goings-on in Europe during the 1930s/1940s? I'm not sure what's taking me there right now.

I'm most excited about Kaddish... it's really short and looks AMAZING. This year I also picked up Kertesz's Fateless (or Fatelessness depending on if you're getting an American or British edition) but haven't read it yet (surprise surprise). I might start reading it tonight.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Loving by Henry Green is about the goings-on between the servants and masters in a castle in Ireland during WWII. It's a pretty simple tale, but there isn't much plot. There's a sort of love triangle between the butler, Charlie, his "man" (aka assistant) Albert, and a chamber maid, Edith, a missing ring, fear of the I.R.A., a drunken cook, an affair between the master's (Mrs. Tennant) daughter-in-law and Capt. Davenport while Mr. Jack (Mrs. Tennant's son) is off doing the army thing... it's more scenes and vignettes of what's happening as opposed to any traditional plot with a climax, denouement, etc.

There were some interesting things in Loving that I don't think I've come across yet in any other novels: firstly, there are two characters named Albert - there is Charlie's man Albert, and then the drunken cook's nephew Albert comes to stay to get away from the London bombings. Secondly, there is a character, Paddy, who nobody can understand except the other chamber maid, Kate. So all the servants will be sitting at dinner, and Paddy will say something. But you only know he said something because Charlie will ask, "What did he say?" and then Kate translates. Also, some of the transition from one "scene" to the next is done almost like in a movie. There isn't any real break in the action (I don't mean literally, action - there isn't any of that); instead, it goes something like this: there is a scene of the servants doing their thing in the castle, and in order to transition to Mrs. Tennant and daughter-in-law walking the grounds, Green will say (paraphrasing here): "While this was going on, Mrs. Tennant..." as if the scene in the castle fades out and we see them walking around. Sometimes this caught me off guard (I wasn't paying attention), and I would think - now where did Mrs. Tennant come from? Why does it now seem like they're out in the yard? So I would have to go back, and then I would realize that Green had subtly transitioned from one conversation to another.

Charlie is an odd character, and you can't really tell what his motives are... in the beginning, the original butler (Eldon) is dying, and Charlie really couldn't care less (well, neither can any of the other servants, but that's beside the point). Charlie is too busy trying to take over for Eldon. He seems kind of sleazy and none of the other servants like or trust him (except Edith). So, when he first starts making passes at her, you can't really tell if he's serious. Even in the end, you can't really tell...he says things that make you think he doesn't really care about Edith, but maybe he's just playing a game to get her to like him back...or maybe he's just a player (or is that spelled playa?). Edith is equally ambiguous. She seems all right most of the time, but then she wants to keep Mrs. Tennant's ring, (which she finds, then it goes missing again). It seemed out of character. I guess most - ok all - of the characters are pretty ambiguous in that way.

An interesting synchronicity is going on with my reading right now...I am currently in the Valley of Bones part of Dance to the Music of Time, in which Nick Jenkins, enrolled in the Army, is sent with his company to Northern Ireland (this is during WWII also). All of the characters in Loving are British nationals (or almost all of the characters - I couldn't figure out if Paddy was Irish) , and there is a big to-do about the IRA, fear of the IRA, fear of the Germans invading, fear for loved ones who may be being bombed, etc. Are they better to stay in Ireland, with all the Irish thugs out to get them and the threat of the Germans invading, or should they go back to England, abandoning the castle? In Dance, as I just mentioned, we're also in Ireland, but from a different perspective...but there's still the fear there. Someone gets attacked while walking to the barracks during a military exercise and has his guns stolen, and it is suggested that it was Irish nationals. It's interesting to see this side of things...I haven't run into stories about the British in Ireland during the war before.

It turns out that Henry Green was a comtemporary, friend, and former classmate of Powell and also Evelyn Waugh. It appears that Green had a colorful life - kind of unexpected, as Loving wasn't every colorful IMO. In conversation, he preferred gossip to serious subjects (not unexpectedly), was known as a ladies man, and eventually became an alcoholic. While at Oxford, he shunned intellectual pursuits in favor of going to the movies twice a day and "scorned his tutor, the bluff, hearty C.S. Lewis." Green also apparently had a cruel streak, and a girlfriend once told him, "Hurting - that should be the title of your next novel."

He was popular among his contemporaries and later authors. W.D. Auden called him "the best English novelist alive" (though he is no longer, since he is no longer alive); Eudora Welty stated that his work had "an intenstiy greater than that of any other writer of imaginative fiction today." And John Updike: "Henry Green was a novelist of such rarity, such marvellous originality, intuition, sensuality, and finish, that every fragment of his work is precious." Really, John, I don't know about that, but to each his own. My grandma always says it's good we don't all like the same things.

Loving is a pretty harmless book - sometimes amusing, short, and easy to get through. Not sure why it made the Modern Library's Top 100, but whatever...oh wait, isn't Updike on the Board? The edition of Loving that I own also contains two other books by Green: Living and Party Going. In the coming years, I will probably read both of them as well. A NY Times reviewer wrote, (of Anthony Powell) "Like Henry Green, an even better novelist, Anthony Powell was too British to catch on [in the U.S.] at first." So, if British comedies are your thing, you'd probably love it. If they annoy the piss out of you, don't bother. I'm somewhere in between. I think the following quote sums up Loving fairly well: "None of [Green's] books illustrates a philosophy, promotes a theme, or delivers a message. With him it is the richness of the felt, heard, and seen moment, often garnished with low comedy, that is the sole point - if, indeed, there is any point at all."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Book Questions!

Now updated! (September 2011)

  1. Worst books ever - Those of you who are long-term readers of my blog will expect me to unequivocally say Henry James’s The Ambassadors and be done with it. But things have become much more complicated. The Ambassadors is perhaps the most poorly executed novel that is generally considered well executed. And Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School still gets the FUBAR award. But two books have come to incur my wrath even more than The Ambassadors: The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

  2. Book-to-movie adaptations where, frankly, the movie was better - Sleepy Hollow. I thoroughly enjoy all the adaptations of this novella that I have ever seen, including the Disney version, but Irving's story is really boring. But that doesn't keep me from reading it again and again. "Maybe I'm just missing something..."

  3. Best book titles of all time - I love evocative titles...Tender is the Night, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Melancholy of Resistance, Of Human Bondage, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, etc.

  4. Books that I expected to be dirtier - Holy Terrors by Cocteau, The Lover by Duras, Intimacy by Kureishi, anything by D.H. Lawrence...the list goes on and on. I am continuously disappointed by the lack of dirt in a "dirty" book.

  5. My real guilty-pleasure reads, and not the decoys I talk openly about - I don't really have guilty-pleasure reads. I freely admit what I'm reading - I'm not ashamed. That said, I wouldn't exactly leave Delta of Venus lying around for my mother-in-law to see.

  6. Books I refused to read for a long time because too many (or the wrong) people recommended them - Life of Pi. I didn’t really like it, confirming that they were the wrong people to listen to. I only have one person currently in my life that I take book recommendations from, and that’s my step-mother-in-law. We’re fortunately on the same page a lot of times.

  7. Books I read only after seeing the movie - When I was 15, I was enamored with The English Patient. I tried to read the book, but was so confused I had to see the movie before I "got it." It was the first book that I read like that - the transition point between what I read as a child and what I would read as an adult. In general, I typically prefer to see the movie before I read a book. Some people may find this backwards, but when I do it the other way around, I can never pay attention to what happens in the movie.

  8. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Plots Gone Wild - Seriously, what the hell is going on in Foe by J.M. Coetzee?

  9. Books in which I liked the secondary characters better than the main character, - Miss Havisham from Great Expectations immediately comes to mind.

  10. Books in which I wanted to beat the main character senseless with a tire iron - Sebastian Dangerfield. Michael Henchard is a distant second.

  11. Books I read after Oprah recommended them - I have never read a book based on Oprah's recommendation. If I read a book that was recommended by Oprah, it was merely coincidence. If I saw a book that I wanted to buy, and it had one of those "Endorsed by Oprah" stickers on it (or whatever it is they say), I would look for a different edition.

  12. Books I will never read precisely because Oprah recommends them - It’s not that I wouldn’t read a book because Oprah recommended it, but it would likely make me think twice – especially her nonfiction picks.

  13. Books I only read to impress other people - Reading Ulysses was in some respect motivated by the fact that I could then say that I read it.

  14. Books I shouldn't admit made me cry like a baby - I am not ashamed to admit if a book has moved me to tears. Miracle in the Rain, by Ben Hecht, the novella that the movie of the same name was based on (my favorite of all time)...I read it in 2007 when I was riding the "Van of Misfit State Workers" for my hour+ commute to work, and I would have to stop almost every page so that I wouldn't just break down into uncontrollable sobbing. It's just the saddest, saddest story I have ever had the pleasure to come across.

  15. Books I only read for the title - Veronika Decides to Die. Great title, lame book.

  16. ooks I re-read when I have nothing else to read - I re-read because I want to, not because I have nothing else to read. Quite the opposite. The following are the top 5 chronic re-reads: The English Patient, The Awakening, On the Road, Hamlet, and The Great Gatsby

  17. Knee-jerk recommendations - depends on the person I'm recommending to, but it would probably include Confederacy of Dunces, The Great Gatsby and The Virgin Suicides. And maybe Jane Eyre, A Handmaid's Tale, Crime and Punishment, The Count of Monte Cristo, also To Kill A Mockingbird. It really depends, but those books have a general appeal. At least for people that I would bother recommending books to. If they didn't like any of them, then they shouldn’t be coming to me for recommendations.

  18. Books my teacher made me read that I really, really liked - Voices After Midnight, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Silas Marner, The Awakening, Hamlet, The Stranger, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. Many of the novels my teacher made me read have become all time favorites that I return to again and again.

  19. Books my teacher made me read that made me question the value of my education - The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor. I loved you, Dr. Cohen, you were awesome, but that book was a complete waste of my time

  20. Literary characters I've developed crushes on - Almasy from The English Patient. But that probably has to do with the fact that Ralph Fiennes played him in the movie. Also, Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. You know...I like brooding, mysterious men. But in reality, it would really creep me out to find that someone I had a crush on kept his wife locked in the attic, even if there were compelling reasons to do so.

  21. Books I actually read but got a poorer grade on the paper I wrote on the subject than my best friend who did not read the book - I was just going to write that I didn't think that this happened, but in State & Local Government class in college, we were required to read The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor. I DETESTED the book, and so did all the other students who made an attempt at it. We would complain about it before class. When it came down to having to write a paper about it, I couldn't even muster enough good stuff about it that would allow me to lie. So, I told the truth: it was a complete waste of my time to read this book. When the papers came back, I had gotten a B on it, and Dr. Cohen's comments were essentially that I was the only person who didn't like the book. I'm sure some others in the class got higher grades for lying, and I'm sure some only watched the movie. Traitors.

  22. Books I read because the author looked hot - Um, I don't think that I've ever picked up a book, looked at the photo of the author and thought, hmmmm...yes. He's a good looking fellow, so he must be a good writer. In fact, most authors (males, at least) aren't that good looking. Salman Rushdie anyone? I will admit that I do think Jack Kerouac was handsome, especially in the mid-to late 1950s, about the time On the Road came out. And Rupert Brooke, the poet...totally dreamy...but completely unrelated to any opinion I have about them as writers.

  23. Books I use as a booster seat for my child - Haha, someday I'm sure Dance to the Music of Time will come in handy for that purpose.

  24. Books I love even though the last 20 pages made no damn sense - Faulkner sometimes makes no sense to me and not just in the last 20 pages, but I still love him. I just have to pay very close attention. I wouldn't have believed I would ever say that when I had to read "Barn Burning" in H.S., but whatever. Even when a chapter consists only of the following sentence, "My mother is a fish," I still love him. Sometimes you just have to hang in there.

  25. Books I keep meaning to read, but then I see something shiny - I will go into a FRENZY to get a particular book - I will HUNT IT DOWN FRANTICALLY. Then it will sit on my shelf for 2+ years. It’s a serious problem. The latest one has been The Things They Carried.

  26. Books that were on the "To Be Read" list the longest - One Hundred Years of Solitude. I first heard of this book when I was 14 or 15 (I think 14) when MTV aired a special called "Freaks, Geeks and Weirdos" or some such title. Of course, this was a program for me! I watched it every time they showed it. On that special, there was a girl who was shown reading that book. I went out and bought it. That was 15 years ago. I started it when I was in college but didn't make it very far. Someday, maybe I'll get to it!

  27. Books I hated having to read in school, but now love - All of English literature. Mr. Cox made it so horrible, it took me almost a decade to get over it.

  28. Books which, when it comes right down to it, I would have no problem burning - I’ve struggled with my own naturally judgmental nature, love of high-brow lit and concern for the “dumbing” of America versus my feelings that just reading period is important, not necessarily what you read. Unless you’re a crazy who will kill people over what you read, but if you are one of them, you will likely find some excuse to kill people over, be it a book or not. Anyhoo. In the past I have stated chick lit may be a candidate for burning. That was an uninformed generalization of books marketed towards women, and should have specifically been targeted against so-called Shoe Porn. But the better angels have prevailed, especially after I thought long and hard about the Koran burning crisis we had last year. I support the right to burn books as a form of protest if someone is so inclined, but burning books also has a specific connotation (like totalitarianism), and involves the destruction of knowledge, which I am against. So, I suppose, shoe porn can stay.

  29. Books I pretend to like so people won't think I'm a snob, or books I pretend to like so I won't hurt your feelings - If you recommend a book to me, and I don't like it, I will be nice about it. To each his own. But I won't pretend that I liked it. And I’m not afraid of appearing snobbish – or even, dare I say it? elitist about books. I’m a nerd and I read cerebral, intellectual books. Learn to deal with your own insecurities, as I have learned to deal with mine.

  30. Books with covers so embarrassing you can't read them in public - I wouldn't say the cover is embarrassing, but I am afraid of reading them in public because people might recognize the title and know what I'm reading. Vox, Story of O, Fanny Hill, etc. Some books are best kept behind closed doors.

  31. Books that gave you a hangover - Ulysses

  32. Books you are sorry you didn't read decades ago - I wish that it hadn't taken me so long to find ancient Greek and Roman literature (Homer, Virgil, etc.).

  33. Books I have read at least four times - The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, On the Road, The English Patient, The Awakening

  34. Books that should be made into movies - No Exit. Oh wait, it was - Beetlejuice.

  35. Books that I have physically torn up because they were so bad - After I finished Eat, Pray, Love, I noticed that some of the pages were falling out. I'm not sure if that was due to my throwing it around with the intention of hurting it or just poor construction. And The Ginger Man went in the garbage as soon as I finished it, since that’s where it belonged.

  36. Books that people need to STFU about already - This was from a few years ago, but The Da Vinci Code. He writes fiction. He does not have insight into worldwide, eon spanning mass conspiracies. The whole vampire and zombie thing is getting a bit old as well. Seriously, i totally missed the bus with the zombie thing. Where did that come from?

  37. Movies that would have been better as books - This isn't because they would have been better as books, but because I would have liked to read the book they were based on, or a book like the movie: Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Does anyone write books like the movies Lynch makes?

  38. Books that make me wish I could have lunch with the author - obviously I wish that I could have met Jack Kerouac, and Joseph Campbell. I would also love to have lunch with some bold women writers - Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Kate Chopin, Rebecca West, and Jeannette Winterson. I would love to hear about their lives. I also wish I could have met H.G. Wells since he seems so colorful. Actually, the more that I think about it, I'd like to have lunch with a lot of writers.

  39. Books that have had an impact on me and changed me or the way I think in some fundamental way - There have been a few. The first was On the Road. I read that when I was 16...absolute perfect timing. It changed my life. Then came The Awakening. I adored it when I had to read it for AP English in 12th grade, but when I was 23, and in a horrible marriage, I finally got REALLY got it. And I thought to myself - I don't have to be in this relationship. And fortunately I had more choices than Edna. Then came Joseph Campbell, which really started with a documentary on PBS, not a book, but I got a book then and devoured it. It made complete sense, and has really influenced by "religious" thinking over the last 5 years.

  40. Books I only read because they're on every must-read list in existence, didn't like at the time, but later grew to appreciate - Don Quixote. I liked it, but didn't understand why it was considered the greatest of all time. I think I get it now.

  41. Books I keep re-reading, but only after enough time has passed that I've forgotten the ending (which means I must not like them THAT much and should therefore not even bother) - Peyton Place.

  42. Books you've returned to the bookstore because they blew - I should have returned Water for Elephants.

  43. Books that I was sad to finish because I'd never get to read them again for the first time - To Kill a Mockingbird. Even as a 13 year old, I got how important and damn good it was.

  44. Books a man has given me that made me swear to NEVER go on another date with him EVER again - This has never actually happened to me, but I can pretend for a minute: Books that reveal an inherent lack of understanding for my reading habits, my taste, and my sense of personality (sarcastic, pessimistic, brooding, off-beat). That pretty much covers it.

  45. Books I have hated so much I have alienated nice people (who for some reason have incredibly poor taste to like these books) - The Ginger Man. This may have something to do with the fact that I said in my review that only assholes like it. I stand by that statement.

  46. Books you feel compelled to own in two versions (a beat-up paperback you read over and over and a handsome leather version you keep on the shelf) - I have 2 copies of The Great Gatsby for that reason, though my nicer one isn't a handsome leather version, just a clean paperback copy. I don't know if I thought they were going to stop printing it or what that I bought two.

  47. Food that makes you think of a specific book/character/author every time you eat it - I've never eaten it (yet), but in The Mayor of Casterbridge, they are always going on about frumenty. It appears to be some type of sweet pudding type thing with wheat, and is sometimes served with venison. I have a recipe hanging on the refrigerator door...I intended to make it every winter but always forget. Maybe this year.

  48. Books you've put notes in (or added to existing notes) warning other readers not to bother - You know, I never thought of that.

  49. Books that are so terrible, either in style or content, that they inspire you to turn them over or put another book in front or on top of them at bookstores in a guerrilla-style effort to keep others from reading them - I never thought of that either, but I should.

  50. Books too depressing to finish - There is no such thing

  51. Books with WAY too many characters - Most Russian literature. Also, Dance to the Music of Time. When readers require a guidebook to keep track of them all, there are too many.

  52. Books bought for me by loved ones - People don't usually buy me books unless I give them a list because they are afraid of getting me a book I already have or one that I wouldn't like. Which, in the case of most people who would buy me books, is probably true. But in most instances, I would much rather someone buy me one book that I happen to already have (especially if it’s one I liked!) but that they took the time to find on their own than get ten books from someone that they just chose off a list.

  53. Stupid books that I have read and forgotten but would totally read a again (despite the fact that they are, as I've already mentioned, stupid) - I really hated Catcher in the Rye when I read it in h.s., but I'll probably give it another try in the next few years. Same thing with Heart of Darkness...I just didn't get it when I read it when I was 17 or 18. Now that I'm more into Conrad...and understand the dedication it sometimes takes to get through his novels, I might be more inclined to like it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Half Way Point

When I knew that Ulysses was coming up, I began to prepare. I felt like Rocky getting ready to take on whoever it is that Rocky fights...Dolf Lundgren or whoever that one guy was. I don't know - I never watched Rocky. But I wanted to get it (Ulysses that is, not Rocky). I wanted to be one of those people who says, "Yeah, I read it. It was awesome." I even considered purchasing the $20 or $30 guidebooks or the Annotated edition.

I started out in earnest. If Joyce used a Latin phrase, I would look up its meaning, and write it in the margin. I read his little episode guide or whatever he called it...where it lists the title for each episode (which is not included in the books), each episodes appropriate theme, color, body organ, etc (yes, Joyce assigned each episode a body organ). I wanted to understand...I desparately wanted to come out of this feeling like I had just gone through something important. I would have dived in and come out being able to say I made it through, and yes, I got it.

That initial enthusiasm lasted, oh, I think until the third episode, where Stephen is on the beach. Oh my. All this extra stuff, the chapter summaries and analysis, the suggestions, the reviews episode by episode were only making me feel dumber. I would read what was supposed to have gone on in the episode, and go back and try to find where that actually happened...did I miss the clue? At times it felt like the summaries were written about a different edition, and I had the one for Chinese mensa members or something...or else that the summaries were written about a different book entirely.

So, I gave up. I'm still sometimes reading the chapter summaries when I feel like it, but for the most part, I've decided to do it old school. After all, those people who read it when it was first published didn't have any guidebooks, and they still got it. Right? Maybe I'm not as smart as they were. Maybe they were pretending to get it so that they wouldn't feel stupid (like I suspect everyone who has read this and considers it great may be doing). Whatever...I don't care anymore.

I've heard that a reader of this book is rewarded by multiple readings. I guess those people like a challenge. They get knocked down, but they get up again. Not me, man. Though I did say once that I would rather read Ulysses again than the Ambassadors (and I still mean it), I believe that I will only be given that horrible choice in hell, or in some unimaginably cruel future in which an evil government has decided to burn all books except those two (oh the humanities! - maybe that will be the sign of the Antichrist?) right now I'm not too worried about it. As of today, I am predicting that I will read Proust's In Search of Lost Time before I read Ulysses again. And I think that I have myself scheduled to read that in, oh about 2058...

But then again, I have disliked books before only to get to the last 10 pages and love it. I was wrong about Dance to the Music of Time. I was wrong about Things Fall Apart. Will I be wrong about Ulysses? Seeing as how I still have almost 400 pages left, I really hope so. It would give me much more hope for Finnegan's Wake.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oxen of the Sun

From Ulysses Oxen of the Sun episode:

Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus.

Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.

Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa!

Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction. For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there unilluminated as not to perceive that as no nature's boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves every most just citizen to become the exhortator and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that thither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution's menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?

Seriously, am I supposed to understand what the hell this means? I can't figure out if Joyce really wants/intends readers to get what he's writing about, or whether it's some elaborate trick he played on us all...making us believe that somewhere in there, there is meaning, when in fact there isn't. And we...or, people who like Joyce, or want to like Joyce or something, have been wasting the last 80+ years trying to decipher this monster, when there is nothing to decipher.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

“Time is not a healer. I have lost the ease of being inside my own skin.”

I bought The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway two years ago and have been afraid to read it. Somewhere I read - and I have no idea where - that it is such a depressing book that you have to watch your own sanity when you are reading it. In addition, there are certain books that I can't read at certain times because of plot elements. Besides the seasonal trends in my reading, I have rules. For example, I cannot read a book about someone whose boyfriend/fiance/husband dies while my own husband is away, or getting ready to go away. I'm superstitious like that. And that is exactly what happens in this book.

When the miscarriage occurred, I felt lost...where do I turn? Of course, to me, that question usually implies "What book can I read now to make myself feel better?" Feel better doesn't necessarily mean happy - as the choice of this book at this point should illustrate - but rather something to help you get through. I wasn't ready yet for Kerouac...he will come later. I immediately reached for what is probably the book that I anticipate to the most depressing on my shelf...and that would be Galloway's.

The actual events of The Trick is to Keep Breathing are fairly simple. Joy Stone, a 27-year-old drama teacher in Scotland goes on a vacation with Michael, her live-in boyfriend (who is separated from his wife Norah), where he drowns in a pool. This part of the story is only given in brief flashbacks. What actually goes on in the course of the novel is Joy struggling with coming to terms with his death, and going through a deep depression in the mean time, during which she is hospitalized briefly.

Make no mistake: this novel is bleak. What Joy is going through is real and raw. But it is the most accurate depiction of what really happens in depression that I recall coming across in a novel.

The text is fragmented, and becomes more so as Joy becomes more fragmented herself. Just how fragmented, you may ask? One morning, I thought that I would read a little before I went to work. I picked it up, opened it to the spot where the bookmark had been and started reading. After about 10 minutes, it was time to leave. I looked at what page number that I was on and realized that I couldn't have just read 30+ pages from where I had stopped the night before. It wasn't until then that I realized that I had put the bookmark in the wrong place...about 20 pages ahead of where I actually was in the novel. But that isn't a testiment to the novel itself, but Joy's state of mind: what does it matter if B happened before A, or if A happened first? Time is passing, but it doesn't matter in what order. It's all fractured and thoughts flow from one to the next without connection:

[writing letter] “The photograph you asked for is enclosed. I’m sorry it looks so terrible: polaroids never show me at my best.”

I write HAHA so she knows it’s a joke to be on the safe side then look at the photo near the edge of the table. I took it facing the mirror because I couldn’t work the self-timer. The camera bludgeons off half my face and the flash whites out the rest. My arms are looped over my head to reach the shutter and hold the thing in place. It looks like a spider devouring a light bulb. The only visible eye is shut from the glare. It doesn’t look like anybody. It doesn’t look like

Outside there is scaffolding and a strip of moon. Pockmarks of rain on the glass. Alter the focus and you see eyes. They blink when I do but it proves nothing. There’s no of telling if it’s really

Last Sunday night…

But that's the way things are when you're in this place - nothing is connected. Trivial things become the focus, because what else is there? When the trivial things aren't the center, you realize nothing is in the center:
What will I do while I’m lasting, Marianne? What will I do?

The day Marianne left, I found a note pinned to the kitchen wall. It was there when I came back from the station without her along with some books of poems, addresses, a foreign phone number, money and a bottle of gin. The gin and the money went long since. The note is still there.

Listen to the radio
Watch TV
Have a bath
Listen to records
Write letters or visit
Go for a walk
Go out for a meal
Phone someone nice

I hear every radio programme at least twice. I can recite the news by the time I go to bed. Besides I have to move around while I’m listening. This is not an occupation on its own.

TV is tricky: the news is depressing and the programmes sometimes worse. I hate adverts. They are full of thin women doing exercises and smiling all the time. They make me guilty.

The water takes ages for a bath. I hate waiting.

It’s asking for trouble to listen to music alone.

I already read everything. I read poems and plays and novels and newspapers and comic books and magazines. I read tins in supermarkets and leaflets that come through the door, unsolicited mail. None of it lasts long and it doesn’t give me answers. Reading too fast is not soothing.

Writing is problematic. I cover paper with words as fast as painting. Sometimes it’s indecipherable and I throw it away.

Visiting is awkward. The place I live is an annexe of nowhere and besides, I don’t like to wish myself on anyone.

Walking is awful. I do that when I want to feel worse. I always run.

Sewing and going for a meal. Tricky juxtaposition.

I’m getting worried though. Some of the things I do worry me. I want things I can’t have, trivial things. I want cards. I want cartoon characters and trite verses wishing me well. I see Michael in buses and cars and walks past the road outside the window. Visiting times are terrible. I can’t get the hang of not wondering what to knit him for Christmas.

The difference is minding. I mind the resultant moral dilemma of having no answers. I never forget the f*&%$*g questions. They’re always there, accusing me of having no answers yet. If there are no answers there is no point: a terror of absurdity.
This is exactly what depression is. You can't escape from inside your own head - something that is repeated again and again in the novel. In the end, Joy realizes (in the midst of a potential suicide attempt), that though she doesn't particularly want to live, she also doesn't want to die. So, what can you do? You have to figure out how to live, and that usually starts with the simple things: Listen to the radio, Watch TV, Have a bath, listen to records, etc. Somewhere, after a serach of the internet for anything written about this book, I came across someone who reviewed it on their blog and wondered what it is that makes Joy bother to get up in the morning at all. In the text, Joy states at one time: "No matter how often I think I can't stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don't fall, I don't foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It's the same for all of us. You can't get out of the inside of your own head. Soemthing keeps you going. Something always does." I've been there, at that point, many times in my life. More and more burdens, more and more shitty things happening, and I think: I'm at the end of my rope. I can't take anything more. And then, more comes and you take it. You don't particularly want to live, but you don't want the alternative either.

As I mentioned, I haven't been able to find many articles or reviews of this book...not in the NY Times, the London Times Literary Supplement, etc. Most of what comes up from a search has to do with the Garbage song of the same name. This is surprising because it won some awards in Scotland (Galloway's homeland) and was shortlisted for some more internationally known awards. It's also a damn good book about a woman's experience with depression and is just as relevant, insteresting, distressing, whatnot as Girl, Interupted, which obviously deals with a similar (though true) experience. I have often returned to Girl, Interupted when I find myself in a hole...I've read it at least three or four times. When you're down in it, it's best to have someone with you - and not someone who is going to tell you "oh I've been there, it'll get better" or "just get over it," or whatever else people might say. With books, you are able to find your own thoughts in a text...which is good because often depression takes away your thoughts, or your ability to articulate them, even in your own head. All you have is an emotion without words.

Personally, I didn't find the book overly depressing, but then again I read Holocaust literature for "fun" so my opinion might be skewed. Others with more cheerful dispositions might have a completely different experience. But it was definately exactly what I needed. The trick is to keep breathing. Everything else will come when it's time.

P.S. NOTE FOR ROBBY V: There is a lot of gin drinking in this book. I, however, did not join in as I don't care for gin. :-)

Friday, August 8, 2008

August Update

I'm at a strange place in my life. Sometimes I'm torn on this blog as to how much of my personal life to post...on the one hand, I feel like it has no real relevance here and it's best to keep those to spheres completely separate...or as separate as possible. On the other hand, what is going on in my life greatly influences what I read and my general reading habits.

I have been sick for the last month. Of course it comes during Ulysses. It was supposed to be a happy husband and I were expecting. But they lie when they tell it's "morning sickness" because I was sick ALL THE TIME, and for a week survived on chocolate poptarts, macaroni and cheese and baked potatoes. Then, mac & cheese started to make me sick so I switched to spaghetti. I couldn't read at all. This is why I needed something comforting, something easy. I finished Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit last Friday while sitting in my doctor's waiting room. An hour later, I knew that I had had a miscarriage. The next day, I spent a few hours in bed and finished the second movement of Dance to the Music of now I'm officially half way through it. Over the weekend I picked up Loving by Henry Green, which is ok so far and Once and Future King, which I don't really care for yet (I'm only on Chapter 2), but we'll see where it goes. On Wednesday I had a medical procedure done at the hospital, so for right now other than the big purple bruise on my wrist from the IV, I'm physically recovered or recovering. But I think that it will take a long time to recover emotionally. This has been a rough month, and now it's over, but I don't want it to be.

Yesterday, I picked up The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway. I bought this book two years ago and have been afraid to read it. Somewhere, I read or heard someone say that it's not a book to read when you're at all feeling down, because it is A DEPRESSING BOOK. But seriously, do they expect someone to read such a book when they're happy? I like it thus far. I can tell it will be bleak. But bleak is a place where I am at right now, and I'm sure it will be nice to have Galloway for company.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I adore Jeanette Winterson. I came to her through an interview I had seen on a Bill Moyers' PBS special called "Faith and Reason." The program wasn't really about either faith or least the episodes I saw, which focused a lot on mythology and the role that it can play in our lives today. This was probably around the same time that I had become interested in Joseph Campbell. Winterson had recently written a retelling of the Atlas myth called Weight (which I own but have not yet read). I immediately fell in love with Winterson. I printed out the transcript for the show and kept it on my kitchen table for a long time. What a life she had! Winterson is someone who understands the importance of reading...she understands what it can mean in a person's life, and that was evident in the Moyers interview:

My mother was terrified of any secular influences entering our lives. My father is illiterate and every day my mother used to read to us from the King James Bible and only six books were allowed in the house. The Bible was one, and the other five were books about the Bible.

Although in our house books weren't allowed, because I had a job on the market stool I began to buy books with the money that I was earning and smuggle them in secretly and hide them under the bed. Now anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 77 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. And this is what I did. And over time, my bed began to rise visibly. And it was rather like The Princess & The Pea.

And one night when I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor, my mother came in, because she had a suspicious nature. And she saw a corner of the book poking out from under the counter pen. And she tugged at it, and this was a disastrous choice, because it was by D.H. Lawrence and it was WOMEN IN LOVE. She knew that Lawrence was a Satanist and a pornographer, because my mother was an intelligent woman. She had simply barricaded books out of her life, and they had to be barricaded out of our lives. And when challenged with her defense, she always used to say, "Well, the trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late." How true.

The books came tumbling down and me on the top of them onto the floor. Mrs. Winterson gathered up the piles of books, and she threw them out of my bedroom window and into the back yard. And then she went and got the paraffin stove, emptied the contents onto the pile of books and set fire to them.

And I learned then that whatever is on the outside can be taken away. Whatever it is that you think of as precious can be destroyed by somebody else. That none of it is safe. That there is always a moment when the things that we love, the things where we put our trust can be taken away, unless they're on the inside. And that's why I still memorize text, because if it's on the inside, they can't take it away from you, because nobody knows what's there. And I think that one of the reasons that tyrants hate books, ban them, burn them is not simply what they contain though that's often the obvious reason, but what they represent. Because reading is an act of free will, and it's a private act. It's an intimate dialogue between you and the text. And in there is all kinds of possibility.

I knew that this was an author I had to seek out.

My first encounter with Winterson's writing was Written on the Body. I was completely blown away by the power of that novel and the author's writing. It was like a punch in face. Winterson is known for being arrogant and confident about herself and her writing. She has declared herself heir to Virginia Woolf. She has nominated her own books for literary prizes and she has declared herself her favorite living author. Usually, that would get on my nerves. But I believe that Winterson has good reason to be so confident. She is a very powerful, gifted writer, and one of my favorites that is currently writing.

So, when this not feeling well thing came around, and the only book that I had to read was Ulysses, which gives me headaches on its own, I knew that I needed something in between... something that wouldn't be too difficult to read, but something that I could enjoy...something comforting, that I could curl up with in bed and not feel overwhelmed or lonely. And there is Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, starting up at me from the pile. I picked it up, took it into bed, read the first paragraph and thought, yes...this is what I needed.

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.

She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.

Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms); Next Door; Sex (in its many forms); Slugs

Friends were: God; Our dog; Auntie Madge; The Novels of Charlotte Bronte; Slug pellets

and me, at first. I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World. She had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn't that she couldn't do it, more that she didn't want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the next est thing and arranged for a foundling. That was me.

For some reason, Oranges evoked for me the same landscape as Charlie Bucket's house in Willy Wonka. This poor, industrial wasteland, where the streets are nothing but mud, and the sky is always gray or orange-ish. It is always fall or winter, and the Winterson's live in a shack at the end of the road. There is nothing in the book that describes the place as that (except for the outdoor plumbing), but that is what it evoked for me. Bleakness. And on top of this bleakness is Jeanette, like a fireball.

Oranges isn't exactly autobiography. It's a way of using yourself and the past to create a fiction around all of that. She is telling stories...but there's no reason for us to believe that they are entirely true, even in a book cast as a memoir. (Winterson's mother was mad about her portrayal in Oranges because she said it wasn't true. Wintersons' response was, "Who said it was supposed to be true?"). The story is interspersed with fairy tales to show how Jeanette is dealing with her problem: her family is crazy Pentecostal religious, and she is a lesbian.

Winterson is fabulous in this book, as she was with Written on the Body. She is forceful and aggressive, both personally and in her writing. A quotation:

As it is, I can't settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me...Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the original, written on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have...

There is just something about the prose that knocks you over. The punch in the face.

Winterson takes her work very seriously. It's not just writing to can tell by the way that she talks about the importance of reading and the role that books played in her life that she has reason to take her craft seriously. I will leave you with some Winterson quotes, from her website:

"Opening a book often opens a door."

"The books we love say something about us, and about our friends. Scanning someone's bookshelf can tell you as much as reading their diary. The quickest way to intimacy is not to share a bed or a holiday, but to share a book."

"What is certain is that we could no more be parted from the books we love than be parted from ourselves. It's not even a question of re-reading them often. I like to touch their spines from time to time, or pull out a page here and there, and just look at it for pleasure. When I'm in a mess, I go to my books, and out of the fairly large number I like to have around me, there are a few that are as close as any living friend. "What shall I do?" I ask, and there is always an answer, though not always the answer I want."

"The best comfort, as ever, is wide reading, so that when you need that poem, it is already there."