Sunday, November 30, 2008

Music of 42nd Parallel

Just finishing up Volume 1 of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy: 42nd Parallel. Throughout the novel, there are two different interuptions in the story: Newsreels and Camera Eyes. In a future post I'll deal with the Camera Eye sections. The Newsreels are populated with actual newspaper headlines and stories along with lyrics from popular songs. Here are the songs from 42nd Parellel:
  • Newsreel I - "There's Many a Man Been Murdered in Luzon"
  • Newsreel II - "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
  • Newsreel III - "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away"
  • Newsreel IV - "My Alamo Love" (from The Tenderfoot)
  • Newsreel VI - “Moonlight Bay” written by Edward Madden & Percy Wenrich (who I am related to)
  • Newsreel VII - "Cheyenne," 1906, written by Harry Williams & Egbert Van Alstyne
  • Newsreel VIII - "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie"
  • Newsreel X - "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," 1911, written by Seymour Brown & Nat D. Ayer
  • Newsreel XI - “I’m Going to Maxim’s” (From Frank Lehár’s The Merry Widow)
  • Newsreel XII - “On the Banks of the Saskatchewan” written by C.M.S. McLellan & Ivan Caryll from The Pink Lady
  • Newsreel XIII - "I've Got Rings On My Fingers," 1909, written by Weston and Barnes & Maurice Scott; and "La Cucaracha"
  • Newsreel XIV - "Waiting For The Robert E. Lee," 1912
  • Newsreel XV - "There's A Girl in the Heart of Maryland," 1913, written by MacDonald & Carroll
  • Newsreel XVI - I couldn't find the song(s) mentioned in this newsreel. The lyrics are "I want to go to Mexico/Under the stars and stripes to fight the foe” and "And the ladies of the haren/Knew exactly how to wear ‘em/In oriental Bagdhad long ago.” This might be two songs, or it might be one.
  • Newsreel XVII - "The Curse of an Aching Heart"
  • Newsreel XVIII - "Its A Long Long Way To Tipperary," 1912, written by Jack Judge & Harry Williams
  • Newsreel XIX - "Over There," 1917, written by George M. Cohan

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Call of the Wild

I’ll be honest: I have never been interested in the writings of Jack London. It’s probably because I have always viewed him as a boys writer. A boys writer of dog stories. And I don't like dogs. I know that’s unfair to London, as he did not exclusively write dog stories. But we all have our misconceptions about certain authors.

Anyhoo, Call of the Wild – it’s about a dog in the Klondike. And pretty much reinforces my thoughts about Jack London…and doesn’t leave with the desire to seek out more of his work. I don’t say that because I thought the story was bad, or because I thought the writing was bad. But it’s essentially an adventure story that is most suited to pre-teen boys.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death in Venice

Death in Venice starts out slow. I was thinking – oh, it’s one of those art books. Nothing against art books, but I really wasn’t looking forward to spending 70 or so pages on aesthetics. Aschenbach is wandering around a cemetery and sees this guy in a straw hat and that makes him decide to take a trip to Venice. Whatever dude. But it is at his Venice hotel that he comes across Tadzio…a young Polish boy of 14 with whom he is instantly smitten. At first Aschenbach, a mid-50s-ish writer of some fame, tries to explain to himself that the attraction is merely because he is an artist, and the boy is beautiful. It’s obvious, however, that the attraction is more than to the boy’s aesthetics, though. Especially when he sits all day at the beach watching Tadzio play with the other kids and following him and his sisters through the streets of Venice. Aschenbach learns of that there is a cholera epidemic, the news of which is being suppressed by the police and the press, and decides to stay on in the city anyway in order to be near Tadzio.

The narrative captures that feeling of hypersensitivity at the beginning of attraction. When the boy enters the room, there’s the immediate electrical shock that runs through your body. There is the constant sensing of where the object is in relation to yourself, and even if you are not looking at them, you feel them there. Only issue is, of course, that this is about the attraction of a man in his 50s to a teenage boy.

Though they never speak to each other or have any contact, Aschenbach feels that Tadzio sanctions (I suppose is the word) the attraction. He knows he is being followed…he looks back and sees Aschenbach all the time. But Aschenbach sees Tadzio smile at him in those moments…which of course the older man interprets as if there were a secret between the two of them…that Tadzio is in on it to some extent.

"It was with a thrill of joy the older man perceived that the lad was not entirely unresponsive to all the tender notice lavished on him. For instance, what should move the lovely youth, nowadays when he descended to the beach, always to avoid the board walk behind the bathing-huts and saunter along the sand, passing Aschenbach's tent in front, sometimes so unnecessarily close as almost to grave his table or chair? Could the power of an emotion so beyond his own so draw, so fascinate its innocent object? Daily Aschenbach would wait for Tadzio. Then sometimes on his approach, he would pretend to be preoccupied and let the charmer pass unregarded by. But sometimes he looked up, and their glances met; when that happened both were profoundly serious. The elder's dignified and cultured mien let nothing appear of his inward state; but in Tadzio's eyes a question lay - he faltered in his step, gazed on the ground, then up again with that ineffably sweet look he had; and when he was past, something in his bearing seemed to say that only good breeding hindered him from turning round."


"Tadzio walked behind the others, he let them pass ahead in the narrow alleys, and as he sauntered slowly after, he would turn his head and assure himself with a glance of his strange, twilit grey eyes that his lover was still following. He saw him--and he did not betray him. The knowledge enraptured Aschenbach. Lured by those eyes, led on the leading-string of his own passion and folly, utterly lovesick, he stole upon the footsteps of his unseemly hope--and at the end found himself cheated."

The whole thing gave me the creepy feeling that Lolita gives me…it’s beautifully written, and you want to fall into the love story, but there is something very not right about it.

In the end, Aschenbach isn’t feeling well…obviously he has caught the cholera. He notices that bags are packed, and is told by the hotel staff that Tadzio’s family is leaving that day. Aschenbach goes out to the beach to watch him again. He believes that Tadzio is beckoning to him, inviting him outward into “the promising immensity of it all.” And then suddenly, Aschenbach dies.

Death in Venice has been voted by the folks at Triangle Publishing as THE greatest gay novel, beating out such heavy hitters as Baldwin, Proust, Genet, Woolf, Wilde, and Stein just to name a few others on the list. In the past, there has been a movement to ignore the gayness of the book, but in recent years that has changed, especially as certain biographical details about Thomas Mann and the inspiration for the novel have come to light. In Mann’s letters and diaries, it has become clear that he struggled with his own sexuality, and the story about an older man in Venice lusting after a young boy actually happened…Mann, his wife and his brother were staying in Venice in 1911 (the year before the novella was published) at the same hotel Aschenbach stayed at. It was there that Mann, age 36, became infatuated with Władysław Moes, an 11 year old Pole. I don’t know if he followed him around town, but he was definitely very attracted to the boy.

But Death in Venice – like most good literature – isn’t just about one thing. To see it purely as a gay novel, or as a “paradigmatic mast-text of homosexual eroticism” as author/critic Gilbert Adair called it, is to miss something greater in it…liked, as this articles says, seeing The Old Man and the Sea as just a novel about fishing.

I tried to find out whether there was controversy over this novella, but didn’t find any information to suggest that there was. Comparing this to Lolita, published 40 years or so later, I’m surprised there wasn’t outrage. But sometimes I think that we look back at the past with our puritanical American glasses and expect there to be outrage when there wasn’t.

This was my first encounter with Thomas Mann, though I’ve been meaning to read The Magic Mountain for years. I am very interested in author’s biographies, and Mann seems exceptionally interesting. He was known as a cold, calculating, self-absorbed man. He married his wife for her social status and is described as “oblivious” to his own children…two of them eventually committed suicide. Sounds like an crazy character, but one I’m glad I don’t know personally.

All in all, Death in Venice isn’t a bad little book. I don’t know that I would have felt that way if it had been longer. I wouldn’t say that I’m really looking forward to reading more of Mann’s works, but I’m dreading it either…I guess the jury’s still out.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

House of Mirth

I don’t really know what to say about House of Mirth. I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t dislike it either. The plot was good, the writing was good (not at all “Henry Jamesey” - see below), but I guess I’m not just into “manners novels” right now.

House of Mirth is the story of Lily Bart’s fall. She starts from pretty much the top, and ends up on the bottom. Lily Bart is 29 and unmarried. In 1905, that was a big deal. She grew up in a New York society family in which her mother and she had everything they wanted, and her father worked like a dog “down town” (I assume Wall Street) to get it.

“Lily could not recall the time when there had been money enough, and in some vague way her father seemed always to blame for the deficiency. It could certainly not be the fault of Mrs. Bart… she had been brought up in the faith that, whatever it cost, one must have a good cook, and be what Mrs. Bart called ‘decently dressed.’ Mrs. Bart's worst reproach to her husband was to ask him if he expected her to ‘live like a pig’; and his replying in the negative was always regarded as a justification for cabling to Paris for an extra dress or two, and telephoning to the jeweller that he might, after all, send home the turquoise bracelet which Mrs. Bart had looked at that morning…Lily knew people who ‘lived like pigs’…The disgusting part of it was that many of these cousins were rich, so that Lily imbibed the idea that if people lived like pigs it was from choice, and through the lack of any proper standard of conduct. This gave her a sense of reflected superiority, and she did not need Mrs. Bart's comments on the family frumps and misers to foster her naturally lively taste for splendour.

You can totally see the set-up for this story in Lily’s beginnings. Lily was brought up watching this family interplay, in which whatever her mother wanted, she got, at the expense of her husband. Her father refused her and her mother nothing. That is, until when Lily was 19 and her father lost most of their money. Shortly thereafter Mr. Bart died. After his death, Lily and her mother went from place to place – staying for extended periods of time with relatives, and then in “cheap, continental refuges.” Her mother kept away from society and her friends because, “To be poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace.”

Their last asset was Lily’s beauty. Her mother instilled in her the need to use her looks to marry for money, and that love-matches would be of no use. Lily, however, really didn’t care about marrying for money…she dreamed instead to marry an English nobleman or an Italian prince. And then her mother died and her aunt Mrs. Peniston took her in. Though Mrs. Peniston gave her money, Lily realized that she needed more than she had…she didn’t have enough money to pay her dress-makers’ bills and her gambling debts. And most of that need came from having to keep up with her friends…“keeping up with the Joneses” (see below). So, Lily saw what she needed to do: find a man with money.

Now, Lily isn’t stupid, she’s not a dingbat. She’s charming, intelligent, and knows what’s up. Today, she would probably have had some plush job and made her money herself. But in 1905, women couldn’t get jobs without admitting that they needed money, and to do so was shameful in Lily’s society. There also weren’t any plush jobs for women. If a woman in high-society wanted money, and it wasn’t inherited, she had to marry it.

First, she goes after Percy Gryce, a rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much of a clue. Then, Bertha Dorset, who is mad at Lily for spending time with her former-love-on-the-side, Seldon, tells goody-goody Percy about Lily’s gambling problem. He runs for the hills. With that prospect destroyed, Lily does what women of her position really shouldn’t do: she asks Gus Trenor, a rich married man, to help her out financially. He is more than willing to help out a woman as beautiful as she is. Of course, this is the beginning of her downfall. Gus starts to want to take advantage of the situation…he wants his thanks. Other people start to get wind of what’s going on. Seldon sees Lily leave the Trenor’s really late at night when everyone knows his wife wasn’t in town. Lily has no choice but to repay Trenor. But she doesn’t have the money. She approaches her aunt, who thinks the whole thing is a scandal. Then this snively weasel Simon Rosedale proposes to her…he knows about the situation with Trenor. Rosedale has money, but he’s an up-and-comer and has no social grace. She almost has to accept.

And then her “friend” Bertha Dorset invites her on a cruise with herself, her husband, and this other guy Ned. Lily accepts. The problem is that Bertha only invited Lily to occupy Mr. Dorset while Bertha and Ned go off and dilly-dally by themselves. Thanks in part to Bertha’s scheming, Lily comes out of the whole thing with a tarnished reputation, as people think she was dilly-dallying herself with Mr. Dorset.

She comes back to find that her aunt has died, and instead of leaving her a large sum of money, she only gets enough to cover her debt with Trenor. She decides to take Rosedale up on his proposal. But guess what – now he’s not interested…he knows he can do better than Lily. Bertha is running around spreading gossip about Lily, and now most of her former friends want nothing to do with her. Lily gets a job with a disreputable woman, but resigns to save her dignity. She gets a job in a millinery but gets fired. In the end, her inheritance comes through, she writes out the check to Trenor, and dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Lily, all the while, had the means to disgrace Bertha, but doesn’t. While Lily was living with aunt, before everything really went horribly wrong, Lily is approached by a maid has a collection of correspondence between Seldon and Bertha which Lily buys. She is encouraged by Rosedale to use it to her advantage, but she won’t. Lily is in love with Seldon, and Seldon is in love with her, but Lily doesn’t entertain the thought of ever marrying Seldon because he couldn’t provide her with the money she requires to maintain her position. Shortly before her death, she goes to Seldon. He used to believe in her, and she tells him that his belief in her was all that was keeping her going. She burns the letters in his fireplace…he never knew she had them. That evening after Lily leaves, Seldon has a change of heart and finally decides to propose to Lily. He arrives at her apartment to find her dead.

The end of House of Mirth is ambiguous. Did Lily kill herself or die of an accidental overdose? A letter recently discovered blatantly shows that Wharton wanted – at least when the letter was written – to kill herself. The letter, from Wharton to a doctor who was treating her husband, dated December 26, 1904, a month before HoM began its serialized run in Scribner’s magazine, says, “A friend of mine has made up her mind to commit suicide, & has asked me to find out…the most painless & least unpleasant method of effacing herself…I have heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her…What soporific, or nerve-calming drug, would a nervous and worried young lady in the smart set be likely to take to, & what would be its effects if deliberately taken with the intent to kill herself? I mean, how would she feel and look toward the end?” Wharton biographer, Hermione Lee thinks that Wharton might have changed her mind about having Lily bump herself off. It is probable that Wharton first intended to have her kill herself, but that by the time she came to writing the ending, she changed her mind. Another Wharton biographer, Louis Auchincloss states in response to the letter, “I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s perfectly clear what happens. Lily doesn’t mean to kill herself but risks death in a desparate bid for rest. Edith Wharton wrote to [the doctor] because she needed to find a drug that wouldn’t disfigure Lily’s beautiful body. She didn’t want that dreadful Mme Bovary thing, with the arsenic. I mean, how can you have Lily Bart die a messy death?”

The ambiguity of it is the power of the ending. There could be no other way for the book to end. The tragedy of the accidental overdose that is not present in a suicide is that Lily’s great flaw was that she was careless. Though she wasn’t stupid, she didn’t always think things through very well. Her greatest strength, however, is to be able to bounce back. In the end, the only way she really could have bounced back to get married, and had she lived through the night, she probably would have married Seldon, reclaimed her position in society, and lived happily ever after. But her flaw got in the way. When I was reading it, I didn’t get the sense that Lily was deliberately trying to kill herself. She was just so exhausted, so downtrodden, that she just wanted to sleep…she just wanted to be able to get away from her fate for just a little while. The rest that was promised by taking those few extra drops…sometimes you do that stuff instinctively. I completely know where Lily is coming from with that…I’ve been there before.

The title is confusing as well. One might come to The House of Mirth expecting a comedy. The title actually comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4 “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.” That makes a lot more sense.

While reading House of Mirth, it reminded me of two other books: Sister Carrie and Madame Bovary. Sister Carrie, I think, is the same story but in reverse. While Lily starts out on top and ends up on the bottom, Carrie starts out on the bottom and ends up on the top, mostly through taking advantage of opportunities to get money. I suppose it reminded me of Madame Bovary only because of the money issue and the death at the end. Oh and thinking about it now, the scene at the end where Lily’s friend Gerty tells Seldon to go through her things, because that’s what she would have wanted reminds of me that horrendously tender scene in Of Human Bondage when Philip receives a letter from that girl he knew from art school…was it Nancy?...she had killed herself before he got there and had left some sort of message that he was the only person she wanted to touch her.

Edith Wharton is an interesting literary figure that I wish I knew more about. She was a New York upper crust society girl herself. Her maiden name was Jones, and yes, the phrase Keeping up with the Joneses refers specifically to her family. She married Teddy Wharton. In 1913 at the age of 51, after 28 years of marriage, she divorced Teddy. Henry James had called him “cerebrally compromised,” but that might have been the pot calling the kettle black! (I cannot resist a stab at ol’ Henry whenever I get a chance.) She was an extremely prolific writer, and published at least one book per year between 1897 and 1937. House of Mirth was her first important novel….it was a sensation. It sold 30,000 copies in the first three weeks after its publication, and 140,000 copies in the first year. It was HUGE! It also caused a fury of reader’s comments in the New York Times. The publication of a review in early November 1905 lead to a reader from Newport, NY to write in:

“I have just finished The House of Mirth and hope soon to forget it. I had read the most extravagant praise of it by reviewers, but it seems to me a detestable story, detailing with microscopic minuteness the downfall and death of a beautiful and virtuous girl. Although it is claimed that many of the characters are drawn from life, I never met the prototypes of Mrs. Wharton’s motley crew in “society,” and can recall a pretty wide experience. Society ladies may resort to little female devices to outshine their rivals, but they don’t deliberately drag them down to ruin. Bertha Dorset is an imaginary murderess, as false to life as she is repugnant to good taste. Her husband is a weak fool. Seldon is a flabby sentimentalist. One is not introduced to one charming, pleasant, attractive person in over 400 pages, crowded to confusion with characters. Mrs. Wharton and her men and women are always talking to the gallery. They are always straining to say bright things, and the stilted, rapierlike Henry Jamesey style becomes wearisome. The motive of the book is low. Instead of a portrayal of society, it is an inaccurate caricature, with the most loathsome qualities always in evidence. I fail to see that the book serves any purpose except to mislead those who are outsiders. One naturally does not look for much moral tone in a novel, but The House of Mirth lacks it so completely that it is not pleasant to regard it as the product of a woman’s pen…I think the whole story produces a bad taste in the mouth, points to no moral, and as to the title, it should be changed to “The House of Lies.”

[Kristin’s editorial comment… “Society ladies may resort to little female devices to outshine their rivals, but they don’t deliberately drag them down to ruin.” HAHAHA! Now granted I don’t know many society ladies, but this really is the way the world works. But then again, I have been known to agree with Thackeray on humanity, and have often said that the world is completely comprised of Becky Sharps.] After that comment was published, people were writing in every week, responding to Newport, Newport responding back, etc. It was ridiculous. This went on until March…five months of reader responses to one book. And it wasn’t even really about the scandal of it…not like The Awakening, in which adultery was portrayed so nonchalantly. It was back and forth about its literary merit, whether the characters were true to life, why weren’t there any honorable characters, etc. Could you imagine that kind of reaction today to a book? The only books that cause sensation are The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass…and The Golden Compass controversy more surrounded the movie than the book. I have often lamented that our literary scandals now are confined to Dan Brown and James Frey. It makes me really sad.

Overall, House of Mirth certainly wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best thing I ever read. I just don’t think that I’m particularly interested by so-called Novels of Manners…from Wharton back to Austen. I give them their props, and it’s nothing against the writing, it just isn’t really for me. But I can see why House of Mirth is deserving of being on a Top 100 of the 20th century. Now Wharton’s friend Henry James?...not so much!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Visions of Gerard

Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? - Jack Kerouac

Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard who died at the age of 9 (Jack was 4 at the time) of rheumatic fever. Out of all the Kerouac novels that I’ve read, my favorites are those that deal with his life in Lowell: Maggie Cassidy, Dr. Sax, and Visions of Gerard. Kerouac loved his hometown, and his love for it comes across very clearly in his novels. You can tell that this was what Kerouac loved…this was where his heart was. There has been a lot written about Kerouac, and most biographers agree that though he left Lowell after high school, he never left Lowell emotionally. In 1963 he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to turn every known and fabled corner. A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.” Jack belonged in Lowell…that was where his happiness would be. But he never was able to find it.

Some background: Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road, in Centralville, one of the Lowell, MA neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River. Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th-early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills. By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining, as the mills began to close.

Jack was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, NH. Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher” and Gabrielle, aka Mémêre (everyone called her that), conducted the household in French (actually it was a Quebecquois patois known as joual). For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century (like it or not, he was), Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school. Even as a teenager he had difficulty understanding spoken English.

Jack was baptized Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac, supposedly in honor of his French baron ancestor. (Jack made many claims about his ancestry, most interestingly that his mother was descended from Napoleon. When asked about the truth of it, he claimed it was “mostly” true, so take it with a grain of salt…more on some of that in subsequent posts) His father also claimed that the family had an ancestral shield, “blue with gold stripes accompanied by three silver nails” with the motto “Aimer, Travailler et Souffrir,” meaning Love, Work and Suffer. I’m not sure if Kerouac took that motto to heart, or if it served as some kind of oracle, but I have never found anything that better describes Jack’s short life.

Jack’s mother played an important – some say an unhealthily, Oedipus-ly important – role in Jack’s life. (He once said his mother was the only woman he ever loved.) She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip. After Gerard’s death she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known…that and Ti Pousse – little thumb; sometimes also le gros Pipi meaning little fatty), and that continued throughout his life. While his father Leo seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in Gerard and Jack (and his sister Caroline as well, I’m sure) a religious sensibility that I find apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings. Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview. (The French Canadians in New England at the time were called “les blanc negres." Translate yourself.) Of course he went on to study Buddhism and do a lot of things that really were viewed as the antithesis of those influences, but at least in his writing, it’s clear that they are always there.

The central theme of the novel is why suffering exists. Not that the question is ever answered, but that’s the meditation. Kerouac also claimed to biographer Ann Charters that Visions of Gerard was influenced by Shakespeare’s Henry V. Not being overly familiar with the play, I can’t comment about how much those influences shine through, but later biographer Gerald Nicosia agreed that you could see some similarities, mostly in characterization.

Anyway, on to the book. This is Kerouac’s novel that most seamlessly blends dream and reality. He melds his recollections, his dreams, his visions, his mother’s anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother. As I said earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, and was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life. The story, obviously told from Jack’s point of view (though with imagined scenes of his father at work, playing poker, drinking with the guys) and so is filled with the things that a four-year-old would remember, or think was important. To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.

One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap (it wasn’t dead). He was horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures. He brought the mouse home, bandaged it up, fed it and took care of it. Soon, the cat ate it, leaving the tale behind. Gerard scolded the cat. Not in the mean way that you would expect a child to scold an animal that just ate something it shouldn’t…instead he gives the cat a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others. Gerard and Jack’s father tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat stuff smaller than us. But Gerard wants none of it. “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! –without thinking, without knowing!” There is the “heroic” tale of sickly Gerard walking to the store in the freezing cold to get aspirin for Mémêre who is laid up on the couch with a debilitating headache.

Gerard was in terrible pain from the rheumatism and Jack glosses over most of that, though it’s there…it’s just not in the forefront. This is the story of a 4-year-old and his brother, and a 4-year-old would not really notice that stuff. But Gerard – and this is part of the saintliness – suffers quietly, without complaint; despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed. “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”

Gerard oversees Jack in a way, wanting him to be good. There is the story of when Jack, sitting on the floor, stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper. Gerard scolds him, like he had scolded the cat who ate the mouse, and together they go and patch the newspaper back together, so the picture is as good as new. Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when he slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is some competition. He wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “And there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”

And then there is Gerard’s otherworldliness. He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to get him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs. He tells his little brother about the color of God. He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy who he pushed when the boy accidently knocked over something he was making. The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.” Near his death he tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven—those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven –See?” The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child…a child who understands something about the world and about heaven that those around him don’t. He tries to explain that “We’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.” Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here. All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to see it. When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard's school come as well, knealing by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boys answers.

Then Gerard dies. Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort!’ as tho it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know” I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, Our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved Ignorance of mortal brains.” After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone, and they did not return. “‘They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”

Nicosia includes some interesting stuff about Visions of Gerard in the biography. Apparently John Kingsland, whose name I never heard before, but who apparently read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s first published novel, The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of The Town and the City are included in Visions of Gerard. Nicosia also notes Kerouac’s “use of Middle English alliterative stresses” and that some of the lines read like haiku. But I don’t tend to notice that type of stuff when reading.

In 1955, shortly after the famed 6 Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson. Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but it didn’t work. The next day she jumped from the window to her death. Jack was very disturbed by this, and he returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas. Of course his mother was there too. The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future book, Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time. All of this happened before On the Road was published…remember, Kerouac wrote ELVEN books before OtR broke in September ’57.

In January 1956, Mémêre returned to New York to a funeral. It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Jack sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard. “My sister and her husband weren’t interested. They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine. It was written by hand on the kitchen table. My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light. You got to live with your family, you know. Mémêre wasn’t there. She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn. If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it. We’d have talked all night. But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…” He stated that had Mémêre been there, the book wouldn’t have been written because they just would have talked about it.

At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was synthesizing his two religions…Catholicism and Buddhism. To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not. But he continued throughout his life to maintain his belief in Catholicism, devotion to saints, etc. He was Catholic in his heart, and Jack was devout in his own way. His beliefs at the time can probably be summed up in the words he says Gerard’s "sad eyes first foretold": All is Well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.

How long it took Keroauc to write Visions of Gerard is debatable. Some books say 10 days, some 12, some say it was a lie when he said it took such a short amount of time. He wrote a letter to Gary Snyder on 1/15/56 (or thereabouts) telling him he had finished, and chronologically it appears that Mémêre had left for the funeral in January (not December), so it really couldn’t have been that long. But then again, there are two different dates to be considered: the date he finished the writing process, and the date the actual book was finished, after edits, etc. Jack talked a good game about how long it actually took him to write his novels and about how he would never alter his writing after its initial outflow, but from what I’ve read and heard, I think to some extent that was a load of crap…building up the image of himself that he wanted the world to believe.

Whatever the truth, shortly after he was apparently finished, Jack wrote a letter to his friend calling it his “best most serious sad and true book yet,” and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961 (still two years before it would be published.) By late ’56, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing. In response to requests to revise the novel, Jack told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” But by ’58, Kerouac was telling Viking that he would revise and substitute the Buddhist overtones with Catholic references if they would buy the book. He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion. He wrote, Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”

The book (along with Big Sur) was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance. When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but I don’t know if any changes were made between its original writing (which was done in pencil) and its final version. In December of that year, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen. “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…” Well, Jack cared. For all the nonchalantness of that statement, Jack couldn’t stand negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person as well. He also told Whalen that the publication of Visions of Gerard meant one less reason for him to stay alive, but he was hanging on for his mother’s sake. His drinking wasn’t just alcoholism. It was his own form of suicide, and he intended it for that purpose.

Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were bad. The New York Herald Tribune stated it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often so pridefully “sincere” that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…in someone else’s hands, it could have been moving. Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself. As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.” Sure, it’s sentimental, maybe overly so (biographer Nicosia did admit it was overwritten), but gosh, I don’t even know what to say about questioning Kerouac’s sincerity over the death of his brother. Seriously.

In a letter to fellow writer and friend John Clellon Holmes, Jack said “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it. So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.” It made me sad when I read that. Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he wanted was to be taken seriously. He was physically declining since On the Road came out, specifically because of the notoriety it brought him. He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything that he wasn’t.

By 1964, Kerouac began to TRY to separate himself from his friends, specifically Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. He no longer wanted to be associated with the things that were being laid at his feet. “…I am sick of them and all their beatnik friends. I want you to know that Visions of Gerard published last year is the beginning of my new feelings about life, strictly back to my original feelings in Lowell, of a New England French Canadian Catholic & solitary nature. What these bozos and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly “beat” credo. They have used “beat” for their own ends...” I will write more in the future about the evolution of beat to beatnik, and its commoditization, etc. He wanted to get out from under this mantel they put on him, and he just couldn’t.

Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint. But while this novel does have an overarching religious theme to it, it is a very sad tale. Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother…he worshipped and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother. "For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Duluoz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness." It appears to have been very traumatic for Jack losing Gerard, his casket in the front room. He grew frightened of the dark and of shadows and often wondered how he could get to heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother. For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”

One of Gerard’s playmates when the family lived on Beaulieu Street (where Gerard died) told an interviewer that Jack largely embellished the story of Gerard’s saintliness – he thought Gerard was a normal kid, just sickly. The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged by Mémêre…though Jack’s memories of his brother probably reinforced it. What Jack remembers is his brother’s piety, his kindness. At his death bed, Gerard was surrounded by the nuns from his parochial school, who recorded the boy’s words. Gerard had explained the crucifixion to Jack while walking around the Grotto in Lowell…a replica of the one at Lourdes.

Jack said once, “I have followed [Gerard] ever since, because I know he’s up there guiding my every step.” Jack idolized Gerard, and used his piety as a standard against which he measured his own life…and he knew he failed miserably against that standard.

I feel that I have to say this as a post-script: Kerouac is not for everyone. I know that some people just absolutely can’t stand him, and that’s fine. His first few novels are probably his most accessible because as time went on he began to experiment with spontaneous writing, which is a more stream of consciousness style. And it didn’t help that his alcoholism just got worse and worse as his infamousness and notoriety increased and as negative reviews and personal attacks increased. Some of his work is embarrassing. Some of it is genius. Most is somewhere in between. What is more important for me, to some extent, is to get what he was trying to do. In some ways, he was trying to be another James Joyce…not an imitation of Joyce but to push the boundaries of “the novel” forward, to explore new territory with it. He considered himself a jazz poet, or jazz writer, meaning he was taking cues from what was going on in jazz at the time (mainly Charlie Parker) and applying the improvisational style of bop to writing. Kerouac took his writing and himself as a writer very seriously. His work has been hugely influential – on the writing, art, music, movies, our language, etc. On the Road ushered in all of that. Kerouac did not see that as a positive, nor did most of the mainstream “squares” at the time. But the ripples are still being felt, still showing themselves in new ways. Despite this, despite how he did help usher in the hippie/1960s movement to some extent (no matter how much he HATED being “accused” of that, it’s true), which most people today probably see as having a generally positive cultural influence overall, he still isn’t really taken seriously. I’ve been reading a book called Empty Phantoms, which is interviews, magazine articles, tv appearance transcripts, etc. of Kerouac and about Kerouac, and it’s making me very angry and sad. He was DERIDED in the press…absolutely raked over the coals, both as a writer and as a person. It’s really depressing to read this stuff, knowing how it hurt him, how it lead him to drink himself to death. All he wanted to be seen as was a writer – not a cultural icon, not a voice of a generation – just a writer. But they wouldn’t let him be just a writer. More on this will come as we get further into Jack’s life, but I felt I needed to start out saying that.

"The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen of ink...because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero - Écrivez pour l'amour de son mort."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Prelude to Kerouac

Whenever my life starts to get chaotic, I turn to Keroauc. I don’t know why. It started in ’97 when my best friend died. I had purchased On the Road a few years prior…probably ’95. I had read an article about R.E.M. where they asked each band member what their favorite books were. Both Michael Stipe and Peter Buck answered On the Road. Peter Buck said he read it every year between the ages of 14 and 27. Michael Stipe said it was the only book he had ever read twice. This was when I was in love with Michael Stipe. Obviously I had to read it. When I really like someone, I want to immerse myself in their influences – music, books, art, whatever. I guess that I know I can find myself in the books I read, the movies I watch, the music I listen to…so why can’t I find other people in their books and movies and music as well? Anyway, I’m getting off track.

I tried to read On the Road a few times, and didn’t get very far. Sometimes a book needs to hit at the right moment or it’s just not going to work. I picked it up again in ’97. And that was the right place, right time. I was 16 years old, and what better book to read when you’re 16? It was perfect. I was completely blown away by everything about it. And in some way, I probably fell in love with Kerouac because I started to do the stuff that I do when I like somebody – I follow their influences. Kerouac referenced a Billie Holiday song…I had to track down the song. I had to track down Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk. I was reading the books he read, listening to the music he listened to (and raiding my grandfather's record collection in the mean time), watching the movies he saw, etc. It’s become almost a life-long project, because 11 years later, I’m still doing the same thing. I had always been a strange kid, but now I was the 16-year-old listening to jazz and reading Thomas Wolf and William S. Burroughs. On the Road, for me, became THE BOOK. It still is.

And then Amy died. We met when we were 6 or 7 and had been inseparable ever since. We were the weird kids together. We sometimes even dressed alike…yeah, even when we were 14, 15, 16 we were still coordinating outfits. "Let’s both wear the same t-shirt on the same day and paint our fingernails black…" At one point in time this might have been what everybody did, but not then. This was when Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were popular. We dated guys who were also best friends, and “cruised” around town blasting White Zombie, hanging out in cemeteries after dark, driving over the railroad tracks too fast in Jeremy’s Geo…sometimes with his younger brother in the trunk section (it was a hatchback) because there wasn’t enough room for us all.

She died, and my first impulse was to go back to On the Road. I had read it for the first time only maybe 2 months before, and already it had taken on that role in my life. It has served that role ever since.

As I started out saying, whenever there’s chaos, that’s where I go to. When things don't seem right, when things aren't going right, I always find my way back to Kerouac. When there is frustration, sadness, upheaval, there is Jack.

I started last Friday night by going to the “Kerouac” shelf – he has his own shelf – and pretty much pulling everything off…his biographies, letters, journals, books of photographs, books of essays about him, in addition to his novels. I finally have the motivation to work on a project I have been planning for a long time: read all Kerouac’s novels in chronological order of the time period in his life he was writing about - not in the order they were published, which would be a different way to look at them…the development of his life versus the development of his writing style (for better or worse).

First up: Visions of Gerard

Friday, November 7, 2008

Do the Shuffle!

This has nothing to do with books. Deal with it.

People have been doing this lately, and I wanted to join in. Below are the top 20 most frequently played songs from my mp3 player. Out of the 3,000+ songs I have on there, these are ones I listen to the most – supposedly. I’m shocked by this list. It is not at ALL what I would have thought are the Top 20 songs I listen to. I mean – where is Tiffany? Where is Billie Holiday? Where is Snoop Dog? Where is Portishead, damn it?
  1. #1 – Nelly (This I think can be explained by the fact that I sometimes set my mp3 player to play alphabetically, and this is the first song)
  2. Nothing Else Matters – Metallica
  3. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You – Frankie Valli
  4. Lovesong – The Cure
  5. Salve Regina (Gregorian Chant)
  6. Dominus (more Gregorian chant)
  7. Let’s Make A Night To Remember – Bryan Adams (ok, I’m going to admit to something that is somewhat embarrassing. I have ALL of Bryan Adams cds...I mean every single one that was ever released. I even have that stupid song he did with Barbara Streisand. And a crazy version of “All For Love” with Pavarotti. And they are all on my mp3 player. Yet, I cannot understand why out of the probably 100+ songs of his I have on this contraption, it’s THIS song that makes the list. Not Straight From the Heart. Not When the Night Comes. Not Into the Fire. No – it’s Let’s Make a Night to Remember. WTF?)
  8. Say It Right – Nelly Furtado (This one makes sense. There was a time last year when I listened it over and over and over again)
  9. Be Careful With My Heart – Ricky Martin/Madonna (completely unexpected. Please don’t get the idea that I like Ricky Martin. This is the only song I have that he had anything to do with. I SWEAR!)
  10. Lost In Your Eyes – Debbie Gibson
  11. Lovesong – Tori Amos (Her version is FABULOUS! I almost like it better than the Cure’s)
  12. Mad World – Gary Jules (Another one of the few that I understand why it’s on here. One of the most depressing songs EVER. I love it.)
  13. Pange Lingua Gloriosi (more Gregorian chant. Ok, I know I like the stuff, but seriously – 3 out of 20?)
  14. Think About You – Guns n’ Roses
  15. 911 – Wyclef Jean & Mary J. Blige (One of the greatest love songs. “Someone please call 911/Tell them I’ve just been shot down/And the bullet’s in my heart…The alleged assailaint is five foot one/And she shot me through my soul…”)
  16. I Can’t Hold Back – Survivor (I do not understand how this beat out Foreigner, The Scorpions AND Def Leppard)
  17. Like I Love You – Justin Timberlake
  18. Turn Me On – Kevin Little (I thought for sure if it would be any random dance song, it would be “Come to Me” or “Tell Me” by Diddy or whatever his name is now. I would have guessed that I listen to those a lot more than this)
  19. Visions of Paradise – Mick Jagger
  20. King Nothing – Metallica (TWO Metallica songs make the Top 20? And only ONE Bryan Adams? And NO Billie Holiday? None of my crazy 80s songs – except Debbie Gibson? I don’t understand…)

Now we’ll do the shuffle, which I think gives a much better picture of what’s on the there. Here were the first 50 songs to come up.

  1. Kill You – Eminem
  2. #9 Dream – John Lennon
  3. Beat City – Raveonettes – My Favorite Song from my Favorite Band
  4. Come A Little Bit Closer – Jay & The Americans
  5. Shitlist – L7
  6. Shomyo/Ambient Version – Buddhist chants (see, it’s not just Christian chants. I don’t discriminate)
  7. Sympathy for the Devil – Rolling Stones
  8. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans – Billie Holiday & Louis Armstrong. And yes, I do.
  9. I Had the Time Of My Life - From Dirty Dancing
  10. Stormy Weather – Billie Holiday
  11. Jack Straw – Grateful Dead
  12. Nature Boy – Nat King Cole
  13. Naked Cousin – PJ Harvey
  14. Temptation Inside Your Heart – Velvet Underground
  15. Sucker M.C.’s – Run DMC
  16. Go Home – Jacqueline Perez (from Swinging Mademoiselles - a great album of French female singers from the '60s)
  17. Police – Angelo Badalamenti (Lost Highway Soundtrack)
  18. Where Have All the Flowers Gone – Peter, Paul & Mary (CANNOT hear this song without crying)
  19. Tarantula – Smashing Pumpkins
  20. I am a rock – Simon & Garfunkel
  21. To Loki (Constant Gardener soundtrack)
  22. Drive – The Cars
  23. Estranged – Guns N’ Roses (my favorite GNR song)
  24. La Mer – Nine Inch Nails
  25. Take On Me – Ah Ha (see, this way my 80s music makes appearances)
  26. Ball & Chain – Janis Joplin
  27. What Sarah Said – Death Cab For Cutie
  28. I Walk the Line- Johnny Cash
  29. Clubland – Elvis Constello
  30. Death Is Not the End – Nick Cave
  31. Sunlight Bathes Our Home – Clinic
  32. The Unforgiven – Metallica (Metallica strikes again)
  33. Tourniquet – Marilyn Manson
  34. Twilight & Shadow – LOTR: Return of the King Soundtrack
  35. Way of the Mystic – Angel Tears (I just realized this song is used in one of my yoga dvds)
  36. The Nurse – White Stripes
  37. Let’s Get Rocked – Def Leppard (I KNEW they would make an appearance!)
  38. Soldier’s Poem – Muse
  39. Just – Radiohead
  40. Biscuit – Portishead
  41. Hey Elvis – Bryan Adams
  42. Want More – Bob Marley
  43. Swervin’ – Three 6 Mafia
  44. Got to Get You Out of My Head – Duran Duran
  45. Crimson & Clover – Tommy James & The Shondells (My personal opinion is that this is the sexiest song ever written)
  46. Dear mama – 2pac
  47. Grace – Jeff Buckley
  48. Victoria’s Escape – Corpse Bride Soundtrack
  49. Beat street – Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious 5
  50. From Me to You – Janis Ian

And in case you were wondering, I don’t bat an eye when my music selection goes from Tommy James & The Shondells, to 2Pac or from the Furious 5 to Janis Ian. Or from Marilyn Manson to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.

James Baldwin Cuts a Rug

This photo KILLS me!

Poetry Friday

A funny story: Once my 11th grade english teacher had this poetry book that he was reading from. I don't remember the specifics, but he must have been asking the class about what poets they liked, and then reading from the book. I said I liked Allen Ginsberg. The poor teacher, I don't know if he had any idea. He starts reading this poem out loud to the class, and it becomes obvious very quickly that it was not an appropriate poem to read aloud to a group of 16 year olds. The teacher was embarrassed, but we all thought it was hillarious.

I tried to figure out what poem that was. My first inclination is that it was "Sunflower Sutra," but that doesn't really have anything naughty in it. But then again, what seems scandalous when you're 16 usually is a lot less so more than a decade later. So, instead of posting what I had originally intended, which was that poem - whatever one it might be - I will share my favorite Ginsberg poem.

A Supermarket in California

     What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, forI walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headacheself-conscious looking at the full moon.
    In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I wentinto the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
    What peaches and what penumbras! Whole familiesshopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in theavocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, whatwere you doing down by the watermelons?

    I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
    I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed thepork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
    I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cansfollowing you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
    We strode down the open corridors together in oursolitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozendelicacy, and never passing the cashier.

    Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close inan hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
    (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in thesupermarket and feel absurd.)
    Will we walk all night through solitary streets? Thetrees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.

   Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of lovepast blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
   Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry andyou got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boatdisappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cherished Books

Other than family stuff – photos, old bibles, lockets, journals, my grandfather’s varsity letter, etc. – the objects that I cherish most are my books. Some have been with me for so long, I cannot imagine being separated from them, and they have become so much more than their text. For example, I LOVE The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter…(I could go on here), but I could easily change my edition for another. As I was writing that, I realized maybe that isn’t true. When I first read To Kill A Mockingbird, I was using my mom’s edition – a 1960s trade paperback with yellowed pages. Over the years, I found myself a newer copy. One year…I think it was my last semester in college, I wanted to re-read it. I absolutely could not stand it, and I recognized that it wasn’t the text, it was the edition. I couldn’t read the newer copy. So, I searched out the same edition that my mom had, and started to read that one, and it was fine. Same old book. So, in some instances I am tied to a particular edition, but not any one copy of the edition. It didn’t matter if it was my mom’s copy or the one I found…it was the same.

That is not true with some other books. They become objects. I was scanning my book shelf last night, thinking of this. Now there are some texts I couldn’t do without: The Great Gatsby, The Awakening. They are underlined and dog-eared. But for some reason, they aren’t really objects. The ones that are have something different about them…not just the underlining. Sometimes it’s the notes on the page. Sometimes it’s the history. Here’s my list:

--War Birds – Diary of an Unknown Aviator. I have never read this book, and probably never will. On the inside is written, “To Howard from Michael, 1928.” Howard and Michael were my grandfather’s older brothers. Howard would have been 16 when Michael gave him the book. He died nine years later of TB in a sanitarium, at the age of 25. There was always something romantic about that, and about the book as well.

--Faust Part 1 (Trans. By David Luke). I had to read this for a college course. Then, one night near the end of the semester, my roommates and I had a party. It was a strange day…classes had been canceled because of snow, so I started drinking at lunch. It was the last week I was going to be in college, and I had a German friend and a German roommate who were going home. We all ate tortellini and drank beer. I continued drinking the rest of the day. Then, the party. The doorbell rings, and I answer it. I knew there was this other German exchange student coming…but I had never met him. I open the door, and it was instant. “You must be Dominik.” Oh my. God knows how much we drank that night. But let’s just say that Dominik and I, by maybe 11 o'clock were sitting on the chair, holding hands and discussing Faust. We were going through the whole thing. Next to Margareta’s speech about her heart being broken or whatever, I wrote the german translation (“Meine ruh’ ist hin/Meine herz ist schwer ”…), and stuff is underlined and circled and highlighted. I did all that after that night. Suddenly, Faust meant so much more to me. I have two other translations and the German text, but it’s this one that we sat discussing that night that I could never part with.

--Kerouac by Ann Charters. This biography and I have an odd history. I graduated a semester earlier than my friends, so I went to visit them on the weekends. Mostly because Dominik (see above) was there. So, during the week I was working a professional job and on the weekends, going back to college and drinking like a fish. This book followed me throughout those few months that I was doing this. One night, I swear I went to bed (my friends had an extra room) in my pjs…everything was fine. I woke up at 5 a.m. on the bathroom floor in my underwear wrapped in a bath towel, using this book as a pillow. I have no idea how I got there. This book, along with Women of the Third Reich brought me a lot of comfort during that time, and not just as something to rest my head on.

--Bible Talks With Children, published 1889. This might seem an odd one for me to pick, and it is. It was my grandmother's, and I don’t know whose it was before her. When I was little, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house. In fact, most of my childhood memories are of being at her house playing games, watching tv, sitting on the swing, eating peanut butter sandwiches, etc. One of those memories includes reading this book at bedtime. What makes it special is that the illustrations are all wood engravings, most by Gustave Dore. I LOVE wood engravings and wood cuts…in fact, its one of my favorite forms of art. Dore, Durer, etc. FABULOUS stuff. Anyway, this book was probably the beginning of my interest in that. It’s got all the great bible stories that are appropriate for children: the murder of Abel, the expulsion of Hagar, Lot fleeing Sodom, Achan being stoned to death (one of the more memorable engravings), Death on a Pale Horse. GREAT stuff for kids to look at before they go to bed. No wonder I have so many nightmares. A lot of the engravings can be seen here. But I love it because it’s a book I associate, surprisingly in a good way, with all the time I spent with my grandparents.

The English Patient. I read this book initially because of the movie. And of course I only wanted to see the movie because Ralph Fiennes was in it. Not the type of guy 15 year olds typically dream about, but I wasn’t a typical 15 year-old. He was serious, brooding, mysterious. The English Patient was one of the first “adult” book I ever read…it marked the point of distinction between what I read as a child and what I would read as an adult. I’ve come back to it countless times since, and each time I see myself in different places in the book. When I first read it I was head over heels about someone and saw myself as Almasy…I got where he was coming from. When I was in the Dominik situation (see above), and didn’t want to admit to myself that we weren’t going to be together beyond the end of the semester (he was going back to Germany), I read it and saw us clearly as Hana and Kip. The scene at the end where Kip is back in India and has a daughter and something she does reminds him of Hana…that thought really brought me to accept the situation for what it was and move on. A few years later, I had clearly become Katherine Clifton, in a situation I don’t want to discuss here (though one that turned out much better than the one in the novel). This book has helped me through a lot of stuff. Beyond that, Ondaatje is an amazing writer, and I cannot praise this novel enough for its poetry. It’s another one that I’ve beat up, underlined, dog-eared, and otherwise made my own.

and, of course,

On the Road. I bought this book 13 years ago. It’s so beat up that I had to put packing tape all over it so the cover wouldn’t fall off. I have taken this book EVERYWHERE with me…after all, I think I’ve read it 10 times or so. The bookmark that’s in it is a candy wrapper from 12th grade (1998 probably). I got my senior pictures taken with it. It pages smell like incense because for a long time I kept all my incense on top of the book. There are notes and underlining and all the good stuff that comes with a well loved book. I don’t know where I’d be without it. Expect many more posts about Kerouac coming up...I'm working on a potentially massive project.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Charm School

I readily admit I like to watch absolute and utter crap on television...especially all the VH1 reality shows. I revel in them. It's really sad, I know, and sometimes I feel a little guilty about how much pleasure it gives me to watch these shows, but I love it.

So, the latest one is Charm School with the girls from Rock of Love, which was the Bret Michaels dating show. (Can I tell you how much it annoys me that he's Bret with only one 't'?) Anyway. They had a pervious version of Charm School with the girls from the Flavor Flav show. It's like watching Lord of the Flies, if Lord of the Flies had been about strippers instead of school boys.

Anyway, the girl that got kicked off last night, Megan, is Becky Sharp incarnate: manipulative, dishonest, opportunistic, amoral, etc.

If you watch these craptastic shows also (maybe that should be crack-tastic...because they're addictive), you have to read the blogs at VH1. They add a whole other dimension of sarcasm to the show that is really priceless. Yes, you too can download a recording "Shut up skank. You're stupid!" I know that is as important to you as it is to me.

And just a point of clarification - I don't watch The Pickup Artist. Even I have standards.

List-o-Phile Monday

I'm moving into the list. 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. There's a companion book out there, which gives a synopsis of each novel with a lot of nice pictures. It's a great reference. They have recently re-vamped the list, but I'm working off the old version. (If, for no other reason than that Suite Francaise is on the new one.) I don't have any intentions of reading everything on here, but I do know that if I read 17 per year, I will have finished it at the age of 75...which will be the year 2056. I think I'm up around the 160s in terms of how many I have read. The list is in chronological order of publication date, so today I'm posting just the ones from the "2000s," which is really only the first 5 years of the decade. As always, red/italics I have read, and I've posted links this time to ones I've written about (so they might not be red).
  1. Never Let Me Go - Kauzo Ishiguro
  2. Saturday – Ian McEwan
  3. On Beauty – Zadie Smith
  4. Slow Man – J.M. Coetzee
  5. Adjunct: An Undigest – Peter Manson
  6. The Sea – John Banville
  7. The Red Queen – Margaret Drabble
  8. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth
  9. The Master – Colm Tóibín
  10. Vanishing Point – David Markson
  11. The Lambs of London - Peter Ackroyd
  12. Dining on Stones – Iain Sinclair
  13. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  14. Drop City – T. Coraghessan Boyle
  15. The Colour – Rose Tremain
  16. Thursbitch – Alan Garner
  17. The Light of Day – Graham Swift
  18. What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
  19. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
  20. Islands – Dan Sleigh
  21. Elizabeth Costello – J.M. Coetzee
  22. London Orbital – Iain Sinclair
  23. Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry
  24. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
  25. The Double – José Saramago
  26. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
  27. Unless – Carol Shields
  28. Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
  29. The Story of Lucy Gault – William Trevor
  30. That They May Face the Rising Sun – John McGahern
  31. In the Forest – Edna O’Brien
  32. Shroud – John Banville
  33. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
  34. Youth – J.M. Coetzee
  35. Dead Air – Iain Banks
  36. Nowhere Man – Aleksandar Hemon
  37. The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster
  38. Gabriel’s Gift – Hanif Kureishi
  39. Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald
  40. Platform – Michael Houellebecq
  41. Schooling – Heather McGowan
  42. Atonement – Ian McEwan
  43. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  44. Don’t Move – Margaret Mazzantini
  45. The Body Artist – Don DeLillo
  46. Fury – Salman Rushdie
  47. At Swim, Two Boys – Jamie O’Neill
  48. Choke – Chuck Palahniuk
  49. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  50. The Feast of the Goat – Mario Vargos Llosa
  51. An Obedient Father – Akhil Sharma
  52. The Devil and Miss Prym – Paulo Coelho
  53. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost – Ismail Kadare
  54. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
  55. The Heart of Redness – Zakes Mda
  56. Under the Skin – Michel Faber
  57. Ignorance – Milan Kundera
  58. Nineteen Seventy Seven – David Peace
  59. Celestial Harmonies – Péter Esterházy
  60. City of God – E.L. Doctorow
  61. How the Dead Live – Will Self
  62. The Human Stain – Philip Roth
  63. The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  64. After the Quake – Haruki Murakami
  65. Small Remedies – Shashi Deshpande
  66. Super-Cannes – J.G. Ballard
  67. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
  68. Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates
  69. Pastoralia – George Saunders

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dance Update

Today I finished book #8 in the Dance series...A Soldiers Art. On the one hand, I cannot believe that I'm so far into it...only 4 more books left. On the other hand, I've now been reading the series for an entire year - continuously. I have no idea what I'll do with my time when I'm finially finished with it (probably) next March. This should really count for more than just one on a book list. Seriously - almost a year and a half of my life devoted to checking one book off a list. But it's turning out to be worth it.

There are many books out there that are dedicated to telling the story of one particular character over a lifetime, and many of them are quite chunky. But I am not aware of any other that is so massive as Dance...which gives Powell the time to really tell the story of a character. And I am coming to appreciate the way that Nick tells of the deaths of various people. At first it annoyed me that he was almost flippant about the loss of people close to him; now I get it...the non-event of it almost gives it more power. Once I let go of wishing Nick would tell me something about himself, I realized what Powell was doing. The last thing that we are told in Book 8 is that Barnby was shot down and killed. That's it. But in not dwelling on it, somehow Powell is able to do something that other novels have failed to do. It just hands you the bad news and walks away rather than belaboring it. It's different though, and it was tough to get used to.

The saddest part thus far was when Lovell and his wife Priscilla (Nick's sister-in-law) died within hours - maybe minutes of each other in separate bombings in London. They had been separated and Priscilla was out with her new beau. Lovell was going to "surprise" Priscilla by showing up at a party she was supposed to be attending. She didn't go. Lovell died there, she died at home. I read it in a hotel in State College and it was all I could do to keep myself from crying over it. You spend so much time with these I said, it's been a year already...and when they die, it's almost as if you knew them personally. I've said this before, but I'm going to miss this book when I finish it.