Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Break & Watership Down

Rereading Watership Down since my book club will discuss it next week. In an unrelated note, I find myself missing the Russian names and all of the drama from Anna Karenina. Either I'm completely crazy or it affected me more deeply than I knew. Or some combination of the two, I suppose.

I first read Watership Down when I was 15 or 16, and then I saw the movie. That was the moment I learned that a film can never be as good as the book. Never.* My imagination is always going to be better than a 2-D representation (or 3-D, as current fad has it) of someone else's imagination. See the movie first, and then read the book if you must. Or read the book and see the movie with the realization that parts of it will be disappointing. My current Netflix movie is the first part of The Thorn Birds mini-series from the 80s. I know it won't be as good as the book, but sometimes it is nice to see a representation of the characters, and I would love to see the setting. Uh oh, I just Wikipedia-ed it and it wasn't filmed in Australia! See, I'm disappointed already.

*Disclaimer: I am aware that one should never use never. I admit that there may be the rare film that is better than the book, but that is probably because the book is less well-written than the screenplay. (Terribly polite way to say the book sucks, isn't it?)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Six - Treasure Island - Part Two

Robert Louis Stevenson
Image from Edinburgh Hotel Scotland

This book was a quick read because it is action packed, matey. I had to find out what happened next! And the imagery is amazing. I could see the Admiral Benbow Inn, the mist, the men, the island... and the other stuff that I won't mention because it would be spoilerific.

The pirate movies always say, “Shiver me timbers,” but in the book it’s “Shiver my timbers.” Not that I understand the timbers part. There was also “Shiver my sides,” which I can understand since your sides move when you shiver. But what are the timbers? Anyway, here’s an example of Stevenson’s magic--
I should, I think, have had nothing left me to desire but for the eyes of the coxswain as they followed me derisively about the deck and the odd smile that appeared continually on his face. It was a smile that had in it something both of pain and weakness--a haggard old man's smile; but there was, besides that, a grain of derision, a shadow of treachery, in his expression as he craftily watched, and watched, and watched me at my work.
A grain of derision! A shadow of treachery! What lovely description. And can’t you just see the salty old dog? I’m not exactly sure what salty old dog means but it seems piratey, doesn't it?

One thing I will say without giving away much is that the book contains a parrot. A sailor with a parrot, in fact. And I immediately thought of that Pink Panther movie in which Peter Sellers dresses in a sailor disguise complete with wooden leg and inflatable parrot. Arr.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Six - Treasure Island - Part One

Shiver my timbers! I'm currently reading about Long John Silver and his mates, arr. There's nothing quite like a good quest, especially one filled with famous sayings. It's a bit like Hamlet, which couldn't have been all that difficult to write. After all, Shakespeare just put together a bunch of old adages, didn't he??? Apparently Treasure Island is the book that gave us most of our pirate clich├ęs, including this song--
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest
Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Five - The Thorn Birds - Part Three

Colleen McCollough
Image from The Age

I finally read the blurb on the back of my Avon Books edition of The Thorn Birds. It says--

Colleen McCollough’s sweeping saga of dreams, struggles, dark passions, and forbidden love in the Australian Outback has enthralled readers the world over.
That description is inadequate at best. This book is also about nature vs. nurture, temptation, love vs. lust, unconditional love vs. conditional, love between adults and among siblings, maternal instincts and the lack thereof, greed, retribution, selfishness vs. selflessness, the nature of community, pride, passionate overreaction, ambition, insecurity, stubbornness, resignation, aging gracefully vs. maliciously, acceptance, the pros and cons of hard work, and even the Vatican’s reasons for not condemning Hitler at the start of WWII. And most of all it is about mistakes.

Hasn’t each of us made a mistake quite willingly even when we knew it was a mistake? How many of us have repeated our own or the mistakes of others, hoping our situation will yield different results? And how many times were our results actually different?

The book also addresses the misguided manner in which we humans try to atone for things that were never our fault, and the manner in which we think petitions will make our dreams come true. Wanting it doesn’t make it happen, and wishing it never happened can’t undo it. And when we are inclined to overreact, how good a job we do of fueling that fire! How well we tell ourselves it’s all our fault, everything is our fault, if only we had done (fill in the blank) everything would have been different.

And then there is the philosophy. From page 495 of my edition--
Each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, it’s driven to. We can know what we do wrong even before we do it, but self-knowledge can’t affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it’s the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it.
This sounds like a lovely, poignant rationalization. I do not believe that we have to self-destruct. We have to be who we are, yes, but we do not have to succumb to all of the promptings we feel. Hopefully, as we mature we stop believing that our own little song is “the most wonderful song the world has ever heard.” Dude, seriously. I mean, everyone in the world is unique, but so is everyone else. And to ask for pain—to willingly seek it—seems superfluous since life will offer us quite enough unsolicited pain, thank you very much.

Finally, from pages 672-3--
I did it all to myself, I have no one else to blame. And I cannot regret one single moment of it.
The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.
The singing bird with the thorn in his breast is programmed by instinct. We pride ourselves on being able to think and not act upon instinct alone. Yet this passage indicates that we hurt ourselves because we have to… for some measure of love, ambition, pride, money or whatever it is that we most want. These desires force us to thrust a thorn in our breasts knowing that it cannot possibly end well. Is the joy of the singing so sweet that we will bear all for it?

Perhaps the message is that we each have something that we choose to indulge. We know it is a mistake, but we do it anyway. I can’t determine if this view is fatalistic or realistic. Must we follow this one giant driving force and allow it to dominate our lives? Or do we already do this and simply refuse to acknowledge it? Were Ralph and Meggie destined to plunge the thorns? Are we all? 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book Five - The Thorn Birds - Part Two

I finished the book yesterday on the way home from a week-long business trip. There I was sitting on a plane and sobbing, using the tiny napkin under my Diet Coke to wipe away the tears.

There is so much to say about this book that it will take some time, and after being away for a week I have much catching up to do. But let me say that I was so wrong to think this book was about a Priest having an affair with a parishioner. When am I going to learn that a good book is never about simply one thing? A good book has layers just like an onion or a flaky biscuit. This one has many layers.

I'd read Colleen McCollough only once before, The Ladies Of Missalonghi. I also enjoyed that book and am now inclined to read more of her work.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Five - The Thorn Birds - Part One

Loving it! I didn't read this book for so many years because all I knew about it was that a Priest has an affair with a parishioner. Priest scandals are a bit overdone, in books and in real life, so I wasn't looking forward to this book.

But I was hooked from the first. Before the book begins, Colleen McCollough gives us this--
There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searchs for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain ... Or so says the legend.
So I'm not hoping for a happy ending here. But I am enjoying the journey! It reminds me of A Town Like Alice in that it is set in Australia, the outback this time, and the time period I've read thus far is the first part of the 20th century. The Table of Contents tell me that it will end in 1969, and I'm guessing we're following generations of the same family.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Break

I'm currently on a short break from The List. I needed to read light, familiar prose, so I reread a couple of old favorites and have started on a third. I reread The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Going On Sixteen by Betty Cavanna. The Narnia book was published in 1950 and Going On Sixteen in 1945. When I read about Narnia I like to imagine myself as either Susan or Lucy while wishing I had Peter's courage and a bit less of Edmund's obstinance. When I read Going On Sixteen, I see myself as Julie, perpetually misunderstood and comforted by the love of a dog. I believe I first read this book when I was 14 or 15, and when I turned 16 and got a dog of my own I named him Sonny in honor of this book.

Of course, my Sonny wasn't like the Sonny in the book. He wasn't quite as intelligent. In fact, within our family his nickname was "Stupid Sonny," but never mind. It didn't affect the many hours I spent dreaming of the peace and quiet of a farm and wishing I could live on one with my dog. Of course, that was before I'd ever been to a farm and realized you have to get up at daybreak and there's lots of chores and stuff to do. Plus you can't exactly hop in the car and go pick something up real quick; a trip to "town" must be planned. So it seems I now only want to live on a farm if I have the wherewithal to pay someone else to do the mowing and the planting and the harvesting and the scooping up after all of the lovely animals. I just want to enjoy the peace and quiet and pet the animals every now and then. Oh, and plant some flowers and a few vegetables every spring.

The book I'm rereading now is In With The Out Crowd by Norma Howe. This one was published in the late 80s and that's when I first read it, I believe by accident. And I loved it and had to search for quite some time to find my own copy as it is now out of print. But I think it's every bit as much an adolescent girl's classic as Going On Sixteen. After I finish this one I will begin The Thorn Birds, reading out of alphabetical order because my sister recently finished The Thorn Birds and told--er, asked--me to read that one next so we can discuss it. She said she was hooked from the very beginning, so here's hoping!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Four - Anna Karenina - Part Six

Leo & Sonya Tolstoy
Image from The American Society of Authors & Writers

I've finished Anna Karenina: Drama Queen.

Here's an imaginary conversation between Tolstoy and his wife--

Tolstoy: I want to write a book about a ‘fallen’ rich woman that people pity.

Mrs. Tolstoy: Good luck with that, Leo.

Tolstoy: Which part, the rich or the fallen?

Mrs. Tolstoy: Both. Most people in this world are not rich and couldn’t relate to her problems. Then you add the fact that she brought these problems on herself? Can’t see it working.

Tolstoy: But my dear, I am sure the book will sell. After all, the people in high society buy most of the books in this country.

Mrs. Tolstoy: Ah, so it’s a marketing strategy. You are good.

Tolstoy: But my motives are pure! I must tell a moral tale.

Mrs. Tolstoy: So, basically, there’s no way things are going to go well for this fallen rich woman.

Tolstoy: No chance, no way, no how. But it will provide an opportunity to expound upon many of my theories.

Mrs. Tolstoy: Dude, people who read novels want a story. They do not want to read a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

Tolstoy: But I have spent months and months reading the philosophy and I must share my insights with others! I must also share my sympathetic tendencies towards the peasants! These ideas are burning within me!

Mrs. Tolstoy: You just never really got that whole moderation thing, did you?

(In this imaginary dramatization, the part of Mrs. Tolstoy was played by Hurley on LOST.)

Anna, sweetie, I believe Mr. Tolstoy used you to illustrate that at some point in life you've got to own up to the consequences of your choices. We all do. As I was nearing the book’s end, I thought of the song "Babylon" by David Gray.

Looking back through time
You know it's clear that I've been blind
I've been a fool
To open up my heart
To all that jealousy, that bitterness, that ridicule
... You know I'm seeing it so clear
I've been afraid
To show you how I really feel
Admit to some of those bad mistakes I've made
History repeats itself because there are no new mistakes. Oh, and because humans are so good at rationalization. Anna Karenina is an example of excellence in both rationalization and delusion, particularly the obsessive type of delusion, the type that starts with denial and moves along the irrational obsessive path until it is a fireball of anxiety and resentment and want, and even though you know it’s irrational you feel powerless to stop the cycle. Not that I can relate.

Tolstoy also makes a statement on the value of work, the good hard work of tilling the soil and harvesting the crops. Other work is valued as well, whereas not having enough to do leads to people filling their time with meaningless activities in an attempt to give their lives meaning. He’s real good with the saying stuff without saying it, is Tolstoy, but there are plenty of times he simply expounds upon one of his pet theories. Apparently he felt the need to teach us a thing or twelve.

This novel is an extravaganza of interconnected people. Maybe one reason there are so many characters in this book is to provide contrast. For every character making progress on his journey to self-awareness/spiritual enlightenment there is another who happily remains clueless. This book is jam-packed... politics, spirituality, religion, morality, love, hate, indifference, the intelligentsia, sincerity, hypocrisy, dishonesty, honor, bribery, delusion, sacrifice, war, pacifism... in short, all the ingredients of a society.

I really needed a flowchart to keep up with the characters, but that is frequently the case with Russian names since each name also has a nickname and sometimes the nicknames don’t look much like the full name. My boy Levin is Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin and his nickname is Kostya. That one’s not too difficult, but his brother Sergius Ivanovitch Koznyshev is sometimes called Koznyshev and sometimes Sergey, and sometimes Sergey Ivanovitch. That’s all well and good until you have to start remembering dozens of people by their various names. Sometimes the characters were so well defined that I could tell who was speaking simply by the context, but that wasn’t always so with the minor characters.

And what about Levin? I won’t say what happens to him because this is a spoiler-free zone, but I will say that he started getting on my nerves during the last half of the book, and I fairly screamed at him to get some perspective already! But Tolstoy definitely wants the reader to love Levin, and I do.

Reading is such a personal thing that books affect us differently. Rereading a book can also affect an individual differently when read at another point along life's timeline. This passage in Part 7 Chapter 4 rang true to me--

… when we were brought up there was one extreme--we were kept in the basement, while our parents lived in the best rooms; now it's just the other way--the parents are in the wash house, while the children are in the best rooms. Parents now are not expected to live at all, but to exist altogether for their children.
Ah, the cycles of humanity. We are determined not to make the mistakes of our parents so we go to the opposite extreme and wind up making the mistakes of our grandparents, doing the very things our parents tried to avoid.

I need a break from all this angst!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Four - Anna Karenina - Part Five

A couple of things I've read in this book remind me of one of the requirements for a book to be great: the author must so capture the characters that they remind readers of themselves and/or people they know. The characters, no matter the particular situation, must have a kind of "everyman" quality. Anna Karenina was written in the late 19th century, but people are people. From Part 5 Chapter 13--
Golenishtchev was the first to give expression to an idea that had occurred to all of them, which was that Mihailov was simply jealous of Vronsky.
This is something which has always puzzled me. Some people consistently ascribe negative reactions to jealousy. Maybe Mihailov simply thought Vronsky was a jerk. I think he was a jerk. Does that have to mean I'm jealous of him, or could it maybe, possibly mean that I see a flaw? Or maybe that we're simply not like-minded enough for me to want to spend time around him? If I could talk to Golenishtchev and Anna and Vronsky, I would gently remind them that having flaws makes them human. We all have our weaknesses as well as our strengths. And I think this is one of Tolstoy's messages.

Secondly, from a deathbed scene, speaking of women, he says in Part 5 Chapter 19--
... they knew without a second of hesitation how to deal with the dying, and were not frightened of them. Levin and other men like him, though they could have said a great deal about death, obviously did not know this since they were afraid of death, and were absolutely at a loss what to do when people were dying.
And about the man, from the same chapter--
More than that, he did not know what to say, how to look, how to move. To talk of outside things seemed to him shocking, impossible, to talk of death and depressing subjects--also impossible. To be silent, also impossible.
The man (my dear, sweet, impetuous Levin) had read books about death yet when he was about to witness it discovered that he was afraid and uncomfortable. The woman simply wanted to comfort the dying.

Disclaimer: I am not making a generalization about gender stereotypes but merely noting that the experience in the story Tolstoy published in the last quarter of the 19th century has also been my experience in life with death. Whew, that oughta do it.

When I finish this book I will take a break from the bleakness of it all. I believe I shall read a nice fluffy book, the literary equivalent of a sitcom. I like sitcoms and sometimes I need one.