Friday, September 26, 2008

Poetry Friday

For years...like, since I was in h.s., (wow, I guess I should soon be saying "decades," not years)...I have been collecting poems. They're on scraps of paper...some yellowing now...stuffed in a little poetry anthology that I got probably 12 years ago out of a bargain bin somewhere. It's interesting to look back at these poems...obviously I copied them from their source because they meant something to me, though for some, that meaning has long been forgotten. The poem I have selected for today was on top of the poem pile, and I think I remember what it meant.

You Are At the Bottom of My Mind
by Iain Mac a' Ghobhainn (aka Iain Crichton Smith)

Without my knowing it you are at the bottom of my mind
like a visitor to the bottom of the sea
with his helmet and his two large eyes,
and I do not rightly know your appearance or your manner
after five years of showers
of time pouring between me and you:
nameless mountains of water pouring
between me hauling you on board
and your appearance and manner in my weak hands.
You went astray
among the mysterious plants of the sea-bed
in the gree half-light without love,

and you will never rise to the surface
through my hands are hauling ceaselessly,
and I do not know your way at all,
you in the half-light of your sleep
haunting the bed of the sea without ceasing
and I hauling and hauling on the surface.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dance update

"I missed my wife."

I've been reading A Dance to the Music of Time for 10 months or so now. I've been reading it for so long that I don't remember if I started it last November or December. For those of you who don't know: Dance consists of four movements, each made up of three novels that were published over the course of a few decades, each about 250 pages = 4 x 3 x 250= a long damn book. I struggled with it at first, but have come to enjoy it. I have, however, been fairly lax about reading it lately, so I am egregiously behind on my schedule for it. I've picked back up a little in the last week...renewing my nightly date with Nick Jenkins. He and I haven't talked in awhile...we need to find our "connection" again.

In chapter 3 of book #7, Nick is granted a brief military leave to visit his wife Isobel, who was then about to give birth. He returns to his post at the end of that chapter. I was wondering when - if ever - Nick was going to tell me whether or not his wife had the baby...as he is notorious for keeping mum on his own life while telling me all about everybody elses. So, I was shocked - shocked I tell you! - when in the first page or two of chapter 4, he tells us that she did have the baby, a boy, and that mother and son were doing well. And then - almost giving me a heart attack (not really, I being hyperbolous - is that a word?) he says what I quoted above - "I missed my wife." Though Nick expressed some feeling regarding the Jean Templer affair, this was the first time he had expressed any emotion at all about his Isobel. Now, I'm just waiting for Widmerpool to show up, as he always does. Everytime the doorbell rings, I think - could it be? So far it hasn't been, but I know he's lurking around here somewhere...

This book is a behomoth, but I'll be honest - I'll miss Nick Jenkins when he's gone. I've really grown to like the chap. But it's ok...I've still got six months or so with him!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Poetry Friday

Today, some short poems by D.H. Lawrence

"And Oh--That The Man I Am Might Cease To Be--"

No, now I wish the sunshine would stop.
and the white shining houses, and the gay red flowers on the balconies
and the bluish mountains beyond, would be crushed out
between two valves of darkness;
the darkness falling, the darkness rising, with muffled sound
obliterating everything.

I wish that whatever props up the walls of light
would fall, and darkness would come hurling heavily down,
and it would be thick black dark for ever.
Not sleep, which is grey with dreams,
nor death, which quivers with birth,
but heavy, sealing darkness, silence, all immovable.

What is sleep?
It goes over me, like a shadow over a hill,
but it does not alter me, nor help me.
And death would ache still, I am sure;
it would be lambent, uneasy.
I wish it would be completely dark everywhere,
inside me, and out, heavily dark
utterly.

Self Pity

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Boredom, Ennui, Depression

And boredom, ennui, depression
are long slow vibrations of pain
that possess the whole body
and cannot be localised.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Some Philly Photos

About six months ago, I got this fabulous 8.0 mega pixel digital camera with a 10x zoom. Needless to say, I'm still figuring out how to work. Here are some good photos I took this weekend. They look much better in their original size, though.











The chandeliers at Le Bec Fin











William Penn keeps watch over a hazy Philadelphia day











Amazing statues in the Logan Square fountain

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poetry Friday

Since I'm in Philly for the weekend, I thought a poem about a famous Philadelphia resident, Benjamin Franklin, would be appropriate. Ben Franklin is a favorite adopted Pennsylvanian, and I think he would have been a fun(ny) guy to meet. My favorite Franklin story is of the time when he and John Adams had to share a room (and of course bed) with each other. Adams was sick, and Franklin insisted that having the window open would be good for the illness. Adams believed the cold air would make it worse. I have always had a picture in my mind of Adams and Franklin in their pjs, one jumping out of bed to shut the window, and once he got into bed, the other got up and opened it. This would turn into some kind of Laurel & Hardy routine of both of them standing there, clonking each other on the head.

My husband tells me that a former professor once told him that during the Consitutional Convention, Franklin would go out drinking at the end of the day, and he would get a little too talkative, so other conventioners had to accompany him in order to make sure he kept his mouth shut about what they were doing. I have never seen this in print, though. But it's another interesting picture of ol'Ben. Washington or someone saying, ok, ok Ben...I think you've had enough claret. Now for the poem:


On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin by Philip Freneau

Thus, some tall tree that long hath stood
The glory of its native wood,
By storms destroyed, or length of years,
Demands the tribute of our tears.

The pile, that took long time to raise,
To dust returns by slow decays:
But, when its destined years are o'er,
We must regret the loss the more.

So long accustomed to your aid,
The world laments your exit made;
So long befriended by your art,
Philosopher, 'tis hard to part!–

When monarchs tumble to the ground,
Successors easily are found:
But, matchless Franklin! what a few
Can hope to rival such as you,
Who seized from kings their sceptered pride,
And turned the lightning darts aside.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is one of those books that you can’t reveal too much about, because to do so would be to ruin the surprise entirely. This novel, and Ishiguro as an author showed up mysteriously on a few lists…I say mysteriously because there are those books that are on my collection of lists that it’s obvious why they’re on there, due to the collective opinion about a particular work (my own opinion notwithstanding). The Color Purple, for instance. I hated it when I read it in h.s., but everyone seems to agree it belongs on a list. Never Let Me Go is one of those that I missed the buzz on. It’s not really in the Canon, even of contemporary lit, or at least the Canon as I see it. It’s not talked about endlessly, featured on Oprah, that guy from the Catholic League wasn’t on TV yelling about it, etc. It was just little blips on the radar screen, and there were enough blips that I had to investigate.

The other reason why I picked up this book was the immense praise given to it by Sheila, over at Sheila Variations…She’s my favorite blogger, especially when she’s writing about films and fiction. Her post led me to a few other bloggers, all talking about how good it was, the emotional impact, etc. It seemed time to give it a try.

I like to research books that I’m reading, or going to read. This usually involves a search through the NY Times online database, Time magazine, etc. As I said above, this is a book that you shouldn’t know too much about before reading. I have found that reviews of Never Let Me Go typically have a paragraph or two describing the novel, which is followed by something like this: “If you haven’t read this book, stop reading now. I’m serious – stop reading.” Well, that’s like telling me not to press the red button. I hate surprises, and I often get more enjoyment out of knowing what is going to happen…anticipating things that way than trying to figure out what is going to happen. It’s easier on my nerves. Like the curious cat that I am, I read the reviews, not heeding the warnings…so I knew what was going on pretty early in the book. This might have been to the detriment of my enjoyment of the novel...I don’t know. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. It just didn’t have the emotional force for me as it did for others. My intent was to try to write this review without having to tempt those who, like me, can’t stop reading, even if it is for my own good, but the more that I thought about what I liked and disliked about this novel…where it took me…the more I realized that there were simply things that I HAD to bring up, and I can’t bring them up without giving stuff away. Here’s your warning: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK…STOP READING THIS. SERIOUSLY. Go pick up the book at the bookstore, or the library or off your shelf, read it, and then come back. I’ll still be here.

On to the review: Things are strange in this novel. The first paragraph introduces us to Kathy, a 30-something "carer." What the hell is a carer? Must be something British, I thought, and kept going. Then it comes out that she's taking care of people making "donations" and it's clear it's some sort of hospital work. Donations of what? Blood? Bone marrow? Kind people giving organs to relatives and strangers to save their lives? Isiguro doesn't say...yet. Then we come to learn that Kathy attended some odd boarding school called Hailsham. But it doesn't seem that there was anything external of the school for her - no parents are mentioned, no life outside the school. The adults there…they aren’t teachers. They’re “guardians.” Each of the “students” have weekly doctors visits. There doesn’t appear to be any math or science classes. They read books, and do a lot of art, but there isn’t much else. What is going on?

Kathy as a narrator has a conversational style...like you're sitting next to her at a bar one night (a very long night, in which many alcoholic beverages are being consumed). But it's not a lively night, in which there is laughing and general noisiness. No - it's not that type of bar. It's a quiet bar, where patrons can get slowly drunk and commiserate. The story unfolds slowly, though she gives you clues… “Well, we’ll come back to that when I talk about Norfolk…” You're on a downward spiral, in which in the upper part, you are given some events at several different points in time, and the further down you go, the more is filled in...What is really happening in this world is revealed so casually, that if you were sitting on the barstool next to Kathy listening to her story, you would have to say, “wo wo wo, go back – what did you just say?” The more she revealed, you might give Kathy the “ah, yeah, ok…what are you talking about?” look that you would give someone you suspect is mentally ill. But that’s because we don’t live in her world. If we did, there would be nothing out of the ordinary in her story. It’s the tale of Kathy growing up in this boarding school with her friends Ruth and Tommy, and what happens after they leave the school…to begin their work as carers and then donators – very ho hum to her. Kathy is distant to us. We don’t know her and she doesn’t show us much emotion. She tells us a sad story, but it doesn’t seem that she gets sad about it herself. She’s accepted it…but not after the fact, as in come to terms with it – it was accepted as it happened.

The creepy thing about this novel is that it takes place in a world which, on the surface, is ours. It’s contemporary Britain. This isn’t the future. If it weren’t for some of the language, which gives away that something is not really right…somehow this place is different than it should be if it really were contemporary Britain…you wouldn’t realize anything was up. The details (which are scant in the beginning) about carers, donations, the students artwork, etc.…you realize something is off. It isn’t until about 100 pages in or so that Ishiguro reveals at least part of what is actually going on. The NY Times review that said it doesn’t come across as a “cheesy set from “The Twilight Zone” but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” I agree. This was pretty much the only part of the novel that freaked me out…that it was contemporary…that it was only a little warped version of our own society. What if this is actually going on already? What if this these people are being created right now somewhere, and coming into society…and yet no one knows? It is almost like that strange fear I had of aliens when I was a kid…that they could be here, walking around, existing as our friends, or co-workers, and we could not know it. There is an inherent fear, an inherent “taken-aback-ness” about clones…especially people clones. Are they fully human? This natural fear within ourselves of that is central to the novel. To think of it abstractly, theoretically, of course a clone would be just as human as non-clones…the only difference being the way they are made. There isn’t any inherent fear about the children that result from IVF, for example. But to think about it concretely, actually that there might be a clone out there, walking around – a copy of a human as opposed to a real human (whatever that might mean)…there is a natural…disgust…almost. There’s an “Other-ness” to them…and as humans, we often don’t like “others.”

Only one part of the novel irritated me: the long explanation of the artwork at the end of the novel. It was kind of cheesy, I thought – a little stilted. It was the complete explanation of everything at the end of movies, books, etc., in which everything is laid out on the table for the protagonist to see. In The Maltese Falcon (the movie…I don’t remember if it was in the book)…when they’re all around and talking about who stole the bird from who, and who shot who, and who plunked who over the head…it works. This reminded me instead of the way everything is laid out in The Da Vinci Code…but with less italics and exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!! And better writing!!!!!!!!!!! But that’s ok. It was kind of necessary, because of the narration technique and boundaries of the novel which Ishiguro imposes. If it had been otherwise…if an explanation wouldn’t have been given, some things would have had to have been left up in the air: were deferrals possible? Why did they take the artwork? Why did Hailsham close? The novel still would have worked, but the picture would have been vaguer…because in the end, we learn pretty much that there is no hope for Kathy and Tommy. Without the explanation, it would have been fog, not blackness.

The one thing that I got confused on was the “completing.” When it was first brought up, that someone “completed” on their second donation or something, I assumed that meant that they died. But near the end of the novel, when Tommy is on his fourth donation, and he discusses “completing” it is suggested that no one really knows what happens when you complete, and that there might be subsequent donations, of which the donor is or is not aware of. Does the fourth donation take away some kind of consciousness, so that they are kept alive on life support to give other organs? There was only a paragraph in which it was discussed…and there was no more about it.

I suspect – no, I know – that there are so many other stories that could be told of this world – of Kathy’s world, from different perspectives, angles, everything, that Ishiguro (or others) could start some kind of cottage industry, like the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings people have. What about the normals? The people who live their everyday lives in this world in which these donations and cloning are happening? What about the scientists, the history of this place? What about the guardians? There are other boarding schools, at which many unmentionable things occur – what about those students? Did any of the students ever try to escape – to pass as a normal? All that would be interesting. But I really respect Ishiguro for staying away from it. At my book club discussion of The Road, some clubbers were upset at McCarthy for not giving us enough details. For example, what caused that disaster? They spent, like, a half hour discussing whether it was a nuclear disaster, a volcano, an asteroid, or a variety of other possibilities. They wanted to KNOW. Well, so did I, but my opinion is that we have to work within the boundaries that the author imposes. Same thing with Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro tells his story within a specific boundary, and that’s all we get. No newspaper headlines, no TV news, no talking about what is going on outside of Kathy’s story. And Kathy isn’t telling us this story to shock us…the narrative technique assumes that we know all about this stuff…about cloning, and donations, etc. This is the world they were born into, and there is no horror in it for her...nothing out of the ordinary. Ishiguro easily could have slipped in more details, more explanations…but it would have external to Kathy’s story. Because she assumes that we’re part of her world…that we know this stuff…there would be no need to tell us about how they came into being, about why they didn’t escape, how the cloning began, etc. That story would be as unnecessary as for an WWII veteran to tell someone else why WWII started, and why America was involved, etc. And Ishiguro limited himself in that way, and I think that the outcome was a better novel than if there had been more details.

I've been keeping track since last year of men who write books about women in the first-person, and how they capture the female experience. This "research" of mine came up when I read Eugenides' Middlesex and thought that it had been a little off, but not bad...not bad like Memoirs of a Geisha, in which the portrayal, the voice of female experience was just pathetic. Ishiguro has done better even better than Eugenides, though the prose is distant and really could have been from the male perspective…it would have made no difference to the story.

I liked Never Let Me Go enough…out of the three or four novels that I was reading concurrently, this is the one I sought out over the others. The pacing was excellent, the prose more than decent, the story compelling. But I didn’t think that it was as great as other reviewers and bloggers have said it was. I kept waiting for the big emotional impact…the thing that would really draw me into it, and it just wasn’t there. This could be due to a number of factors, including the facts that I don’t heed “SPOILER! READ NO FURTHER!” warnings. It could be due to the narrator’s distance – because Kathy is so nonchalant about it all, I failed to really get involved in it. I don’t know the reason I wasn’t able to really connect. But it was good. I could see this as a book that in time, I will come to appreciate more. It would warrant a 3.5 out of 5 for me, if I was rating…but I’m not surprised that others REALLY enjoyed it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Poetry Friday

Ok people. I came up with something new...it's called Poetry Friday! I know you're excited.

I used to love poetry. Not to mean that I don't anymore, I just stopped reading it somewhere along the line. So, in an effort to get back to poetry, I will be posting a poem here every Friday.

I once gave the following poem to someone very special in my life when he was leaving to go home, and was (still is) a possibility that I might never see him again. Our "time in the sun" so to speak is well past, but we're still in contact, and over the years, he has proven (to my surprise, honestly) to be a faithful and thoughtful friend. It's a beautiful poem...I hope you like it. First the original German:

Wo Bist Du Itzt by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792)

Wo bist du itzt, mein unvergesslich Mädchen,
Wo singst du itzt?
Wo lacht die Flur, wo triumphiert das Städtchen,
Das dich besitzt?

Seit du entfernt, will keine Sonne scheinen,
Und es vereint
Der Himmel sich, dir zärtlich nachzuweinen,
Mit deinem Freund.

All unsre Lust ist fort mit dir gezogen,
Still überall
Ist Stadt und Fed. Dir nach ist sie geflogen,
Die Nachtigall.

O komm zurück! Schon rufen Hirt und Herden
Dich bang herbei.
Komm bald zurück! Sonst wird es Winter weden
Im Monat Mai.

*******************************************
Now, the translation:

Where Are You Now

Where are you now, my unforgettable maiden,
Where do you sing now?
Where smiles the field, where does the small town triumph
Which possess you?

Since you are gone, no sun will shine
And Heaven itself,
To weep after you tenderly,
Unites with your friend.

All our happiness has gone with you,
Quiet everywhere
Is town and field. It followed you in flight -
The nightingale.

Oh do return! Already herds and shepherds
Recall you anxiously.
Oh, come back soon! Else there will be winter
In the month of May.