Pushkin Hills

By Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, Counterpoint Berkeley, @1983, translation@2013, 163 pages.

So it’s like this. I started reading this book a few months ago and it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t feeling it. I was about 50 pages in and not tremendously impressed. I wasn’t hearing Sergei’s voice in my head like the books that were translated by Anne Friedman, and I started to think maybe it was the new translator’s fault, Katherine, Sergei’s daughter. Maybe, well maybe, she just wasn’t capturing his voice. This depressed me. So I was already a little depressed, and this didn’t help—and my Russian, while it is good enough to get me food, shelter and a bus ticket, is not good enough to allow me to read Dovlatov in the original, though this is sort of an emerging goal.

Well, I was kind of giving myself a hard time about, well, was it Katherine’s translation, or maybe was it that I didn’t like Dovlatov as much as I thought? Was I possibly influenced by whomever it was who first gave me his name? Maybe my love of Dovlatov was a passing thing, you know, not real.

So I was just sitting around today, waiting for my rice to get done and not doing anything in particular but being stuck in the kitchen, and I picked up Pushkin Hills again. And there he was, Sergei, his voice, everything—and then he made me laugh—again and again and again. And I decided that I do really like him after all, and that Katherine did a fine job in translating him into English, and that it was just me. Just me being depressed and unreachable—before.

Lines like: “…I am simply horrified. You called Pushkin a crazed ape…”

and the story about Mitrofanov, p. 46, and what a complete genius he was and how he was completely lazy too. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of someone very close to me. “His tours were twice longer than the average. At times, tourists fainted from the strain.”

I also liked the story about Stasik Pototsky, the man who decided to become a writer of literary best sellers after reading 12. “A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.” And I started to think, hmmm, how far away is capitalism from communism?

Things changed when Pototsky left the provinces and went to Leningrad: “A complete absence of talent did not pay, while its presence made people nervous….What was forgiven in a provencial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.” Well, anyway, Stasik came to a bad end. And knowing Dovlatov’s difficulties getting published in the USSR, you get why.

But best of all was this: “The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him.” This is said by a Dovlatov’s character, as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills. And you get the significance of this if you understand how revered Pushkin is. And that’s when I knew. Yes, I do really like Sergei, and I’ve missed him.

Chapter 1: Speak to us of Love

Taken from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Today, this seemed a fitting book to pick up. I read it first in high school as a Catholic high school student, even though I was not Catholic. A confused religious identity was one of the many gifts my mother left me. All the same, one of my favorite teachers of all time was Sister Annette, a woman who walked around with no makeup, unashamed and uninhibited, a student of the world. I enjoyed learning about the Old Testament from her. I was probably her most engaged student, having never heard the stories before. She recommended that I read The Prophet, and I found it to be a very wise book, though at the time I had no idea that its author was Catholic. I assumed from his name that he was Muslim. This made the book more alluring to me, and probably at least in part accounted for me reading the whole thing.

THEN said Almitra, Speak to us of Love,

And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them.

And with a great voice he said:

When love beckons you, follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make you naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks.

He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant;

And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,

Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor,

Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

 

 

Fathers and Sons

By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.

I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.

Turgenev_Oxford

Ivan Turgenev

Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.

The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.

Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:

“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”

I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?

I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:

“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”

It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.

Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.

Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:

“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”

This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.

[SPOILER ALERT]

But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)

But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

Penguin Lost

062By Andrey Kurkov, Translated by George Bird, Melville International Crime, Melville House, Brooklyn, New York, @2002, 255 pages.

Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. The story begins with a betrayal and ends with redemption. Along the way, we journey from Kiev to Moscow and into Chechnya. I thought the last line was the best.

What I like so much about these penguin books, besides their bizarre nature, is that Kurkov has set up the scenario where there is interspecies friendship. I haven’t seen that done before, and I appreciate it. Misha, the penguin, is our protagonist’s (Victor’s) friend. But, Kurkov doesn’t make Misha cutsy or try to make him human. Misha remains a true penguin, with the heart of child, which still seems odd, but so be it.

It’s an interesting take on friendship, betrayal, and redemption, not exceptionally deep, but it does provide an interesting excursion elsewhere.

I would love to see these penguin books on the big screen. This morning I was thinking that I’d sure like to write that screenplay. I could see Victor as a Slavic James Bond with everything that might mean.

 

The He-Said-She-Said Of Dialogue Tags

WordWabbit:

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” she exclaimed extatically, wondering if she had spelled “ecstatically” correctly but then deciding not to worry about that. and to just reblog this relevant blog posting. Yes!

Originally posted on Lynette Noni:

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A few months ago I stumbled across a funny Tumblr post labelled ‘Dialog Tags of Doom’. I found it both entertaining and disheartening because it gives the opinion of a NYC book editor towards specific dialogue tags. I’ve copied the examples here and edited out the swearing, so if you choose to click on the link, just be aware that there is some offensive language in the original. Otherwise, here’s my PG-rated version:

~*~*~*~

“she whispered almost imperceptibly”: Good thing your protagonist has super-human powers of perception.

“she bubbled enthusiastically”: Redundant descriptors are redundant.

“he murmured”: Speak up!

“she whispered huskily”: What is she, a sled dog? Not sexy.

“he choked”: Ever hear someone choke? They can’t talk at the same time.

“he explicated”: Put down the thesaurus.

“she argued heatedly”: Show, don’t tell.

“she simpered”: Who actually simpers? It’s so 1970’s Idealized Movie Woman.

“he managed at last”: Over-used.

“he exploded”: CALL AN AMBULANCE.

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How to craft characters that resonate with an audience

WordWabbit:

Great post and lots of important points to remember and consider.

Originally posted on Craig Lumen:

Image

Whether you are writing a film or television script or a novel or even a play for the stage or radio, the need to create dynamic, challenging and complex characters is the same.

Every story is character-driven. Without characters, there are no stories.

We have already covered the basics for creating a compelling protagonist, which we defined by asking the following questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • How badly do they want it?
  • How are they having difficulty achieving this goal?
  • Why do we care?

All your significant characters must change in some way or learn something, even if it is extremely subtle.

Each of them is there in your story to serve a specific purpose – make sure you work out what that purpose is. Once you know this, you can make sure you complete the character in satisfying fashion.

For example…

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NaPoWriMo (Day 20): Two souls

Two souls
lovers in a former life
find themselves
dissatisfied with each other’s clothes,
the skins they have chosen to wear
in this world, in this life…

The moment yet is undecided
once great lovers
now unsure,
it’s difficult to remember
from one life to another
what was it that put them together?

Sitting in a coffee shop,
uncommitted to a future together
uncommitted to a string of Christmas card correspondences,
uncommitted to a phone call next week,
figgeting,
shifting in their seats,
checking their watches,
then the clock on the wall,
picking at their pastries as if at
old and bitter wounds,
considering the questions.

Why hadn’t he waited for her?
Why had she wasted time on her makeup, her hair,
selected one skin, then worn another?
Why did nothing fit anymore?
Each hung up on what the other was
supposed to be.

Somehow they had found each other,
reconnected,
trespassed on the bridge between life and death
space and time
How could the depth of their love be as shallow
as the coffee in his cup?
Why couldn’t she have been slimmer?

Her eyes drift to the ring on his finger
watch as it refracts the light
tossing photons as if they didn’t matter,
his life, already formed, lived.

She searches his bespeckled eyes,
tries to pierce the glass, the tissue,
all the things organic and ephemeral
to see if who he was still is.

In this head-on moment,
the windows of the shop all shatter,
time slows down its rhythm,
every detail
hangs suspended.

Fallen Swan

Like an apple on toothpicks,
The elderly ballerina
Tiptoes across the yard

Finding the pond
She asks
The dark waters
For their old reflections

Like a duck
She submerges her head,
Draining away
The makeup
And the years

Emerging as swan
She swims the shadows
Echappe, pas ballonne, glissade

Remembering
Across the years
Across the algean floor,
Freeing dreams
Of Barishnikov.

Dreams can seem so real

I dreamed about you last night
Christina was there
But it wasn’t a dream about her
—Although I miss her too—
No, you were the star of this dream
As it should be
Me?
Well, I was there with someone else
A dandy in a nice vest
We were in some nightclub in New York City
You were holding a bag (Baggage?)
The dandy wanted to go off and dance
I let him
You approached me
With the bag
It was “designer”
Red, with a tan, square, embroidered patch in the lower corner
I complimented it
You recognized the wool sweater I was wearing
Also red
Decades old by now
—And I was still wearing it?—
Still not hip

(I’m still not hip)

I didn’t want you to leave
So I kept stalling
Saying anything
To keep you talking
You were talking

(I heard your voice)

But finally I had to leave
My back was killing me
I couldn’t stay
You came along with me
And slowly
We walked out together
Like we used to walk
—Slowly—
Into the light

(It was so nice to see you again)

NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Paris Witchcraft

Join me in Paris next Monday at nine
After dinner we’ll dance in the fountain
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

I hope you know French—I can’t read a line
Save me from ordering something not done
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine.

No reservations? I have some. Share mine.
Sergei will be with me sipping his rum
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

Your stern demeanor sends chills down my spine
Two ghosts for dinner are better than one
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine.

No matter—I’m thrilled you followed the signs
Let’s save some cake to eat in the fountain
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

Ghosts don’t eat cake, but the fountain is fine?
Avoiding dessert will save us a ton
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine
Let’s go for a swim—in vodka and rum.

NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Running for the Train

(see below for background on this poem)

I think I see you running for the train
The shock of recognition stops me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

Your form remains a blur in all this rain
I start to lift my hand and yet I’m still
I think I see you running for the train.

I see your happy eyes and I’m all pain
Sensations long forsaken prompt me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

You’re soaring with a girl down this wide lane
You’re thinner and your clothes are different, still
I think I see you running for the train.

I’m wrong, it isn’t you, my eyes complain
The need to know consumes me ’till I’m ill
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

It’s too late now, I know it’s all in vain,
I shut my eyes but see your image still
I think I see you running for the train
Our love’s been lost for years, so I remain.

***

I have only attempted a handful of poetry forms, but I really like the Villanelle. This is a poem I wrote many years ago as part of a poetry class. At that time, I was finding ideas everywhere. and I was commuting by train to and from work. One day, I thought I saw someone I hadn’t seen or talked to for years, but who had once been very important to me. The poem above is my reaction to that.

My professor shared with me that he had had a similar experience. He thought he had seen someone who he knew was dead, walking around. He shared with me how troubling and confusing this was. It was an interesting, if not morbid, idea. And I appreciated his interest in my poem. He then told me to make some changes. “The shock of recognition” is a theatrical term and is cliché. He advised me to take it out. But taking this phrase out caused a complete rewrite, caused things to shift around and changed the scene in my mind. I lost the original poem for years. Finally about two years ago, I was able to reconstruct it and I feel satisfied that this is the original version.

The experience with the rewrite taught me several things. It taught me about the delicacy of language and opened my eyes to how words affect and influence each other. It also taught me about artistic ownership. I didn’t want to make the change, but I let my professor convince me against my better judgement. That hurt the integrity of the poem and my integrity as an artist. For better of for worse the poem was mine and a true depiction of my feelings at the time—and a true depiction of that scene had been my goal—not publication. It was a personal release of emotion, which is what I think poetry should be.

Many years later, I came to suspect that I really had seen that fellow running for the train. My eyes had not deceived me, even though it had seemed completely impossible at the time.

It’s odd how a few silly lines can hold so much history. I maintain that language is miraculous and the skillful use of language is enormously powerful. Poetry trains this, even for “so-so” poets.

NaPoWriMo Day 3 (Palindrome): It stopped with you

It stopped
amazingly
one day
when there was biology everywhere
Air became love
Alive again
Bees buzzing
Birds singing
Clouds flowing
Rain falling
finally there was
electricity with

—You—

With electricity finally
was there
Falling rain
Flowing clouds
Singing birds
Buzzing bees
Again alive
Beating hearts
Love became air
Everywhere biology was there when
Day One
Amazingly
stopped
it.

What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s as simple as being able to decide what to do with your time. For others, it’s more complex such as being able to think and say what you want, to believe what you feel inclined to believe, to go where you want to go. After watching Adam Baker, I started wondering, what would our lives be like in the United States, or even across the world, if none of us had credit card debt? Or, no debt at all. What would we all do differently? What would we do the same?

War and Peace Book Review: Part II

By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.

I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.

The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.

Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.

Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:

“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”

Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????

Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.

Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.

A severe criticism of society:

“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”

On the way some men talk to women:

“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”

On women who forget themselves:

“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”

The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:

“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”

First thoughts of Napoleon:

“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre

Makes you say, hmmm:

“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”

On marriage:

“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey

Social graces:

“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”

Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”

On Prince Andrey’s father:

“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”

The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:

“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.

“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”

On Crossing Lines:

“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”

Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.

On Fear in War:

“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”

Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.

Sharing a Bed with the Dog

Your warm body
rests partially on mine,
pushing me over,
opening a place for yourself on the bed.

I brace my hand
palm flat
against the floor.
Enslaved by your comfort, I
easily surrender
my territory
at three times your body weight.

I never worry about fire,
completely certain that you
will be one of those heroic dogs,
so well-practiced
are we
with wake-up drills
every morning at
4 a.m.

You begin with anxious signs
strategically exhaled
on my exposed ear.
I
bury my head,
hoping my pillow will protect me.
Growing impatient, you gingerly
astute to the laws of physics,
edge your regal snout
under my throat,
which yields.

Your head,
hard as a brick,
pushes under my neck,
then my sternum,
until suddenly,
I am upright.

Awake,
and amused by your ingenuity,
I get out of bed,
walk to the kitchen,
and get your breakfast.

War and Peace: Book Review Part I

By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ‘em join ‘em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is not unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?

 

War and Peace: Tips for Reading

I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.

Don’t:

  • Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
  • Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

Do:

  • Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
  • Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
  • Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
  • Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
  • Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
  • Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.

Happy Reading!

The Lizzy Bennet Diaries

WordWabbit:

OK, so this is some hilarious stuff. Enjoy…

Originally posted on “Wear the old coat and buy the new book.” :

So, if you love Pride and Prejudice, or even if you think it’s silly and like to see people poking fun at the ridiculousness of it all, I think you’ll enjoy this video.

Check it out! And if you fall in love with it, don’t worry. There’s plenty of episodes to keep you busy!

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About History – Georgian Military Road

WordWabbit:

Two places have been on my mind lately: Bruges and Georgia. Definitely on the bucket list. Here is an interesting blog about Georgia. Happy reading!

Originally posted on Georgia About:

The Georgian Military Road (საქართველოს სამხედრო გზა) is the historic name for a major route through the Caucasus from Georgia to Russia. The 208 kilometer road from Tbilisi (Georgia) to Vladikavkaz (Russia) follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders throughout the ages.

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

Although the route has been used since ancient times, the Georgian Military Road in its present form was refurbished and improved by the Russian military in the first half of the 19th century at a cost £4,000,000 (a huge sum at the time).

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

Soviet era tourism poster promoting the Georgian Military Road

Soviet era tourism poster promoting the Georgian Military Road

Visit Georgia and travel this amazing road!

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Reading List for 2014

Here are my goal books for 2014. My must reads:

First off, I really want to read something in Spanish. This one is pretty short, and the author is well respected:

050

This one is one of those “guilty books.” This was my mother’s favorite book. I didn’t read it while she was alive. She really wanted me to, but I never got around to it. It is Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore.

052

Just one I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.

054

This one sounds interesting and is by an author I’ve never read before:

056

This is one that I carried back from Russia and have been carrying around with me for many years. Time to read it:

057

The latest from Andrey Kurkov, an interesting Ukrainian author, and author of Death and the Penguin:

060

The sequel to Death and the Penguin. Should be interesting to find out what happens to Misha:

062

A fellow blogger recommended this one to me:

063

Heard so much about this one:

065

Striking another one off the classics list. Seems like I should read it before visiting Spain, which I would like to do asap:

068

And another one by Gary Jennings. Excited and scared to read it:

069

War and Peace: Reader Preparation

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.

War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?

It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?

Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?

Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.

There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:

“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”

In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.

Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!

So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.

And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.

So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?

Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.

A Hero of Our Time

English: A portrait of Mikhail Yurievich Lermo...

English: A portrait of Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov by Pyotr Zabolotsky, painted in 1837. This reproduction is in color. Русский: М. Ю. Лермонтов (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Mihail Lermontov, @ 1839, 141 pages.

There’s nothing like being required to read a particular book that makes you want to read something else. I am supposed to be reading War and Peace, but I am compelled to read A Hero of Our Time. So finally, I gave in.  Besides, I had to read the book after I found out that Lermontov’s early poetry was too explicit for young ladies to read.

A Hero of Our Time is written as a travel journal and takes place in the Caucasus. It concerns the anti-hero, Grigori Alexsandrovich Pechorin. My translation was done by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray in 1854 and was verified and corrected by Alexander Vassiliev in 2010.

The view from Elbruz West Summit 5642m

The view from Elbruz West Summit 5642m (Photo credit: twiga269 ॐ FEMEN)

A Hero of Our Time is a very interesting read. I felt transported to the Caucasus. I could almost see the landscape. I marveled at the strange cultural traditions. And the character Pechorin is a man at his worst—a character I have encountered in various forms in my life. I can’t believe this guy is still around:

Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether God created me so—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact  remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. then I launched out into the high society—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused by their love; my heart remained empty….Then I grew bored…Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechens boredom could not exist—a vain hope…”

We learn about Pechorin through his friend Maksim Maksimych, who is treated heartlessly by Pechorin upon an unexpected reunion. Maxim is quite hurt by Pechorin’s lack of enthusiasm upon seeing him again:

“Of course we were friends—well, but what are friends nowadays?…What could I be to him? I’m not rich; I’ve no rank; and, moreover, I’m not at all his match in years!…See what a dandy he has become since he has been staying in Petersburg again!”

and

“I’ve always said that there is no good to be got out of a man who forgets his old friends!…”

It is sad when one’s memories of old friends are not supported by reality.

This novel employs two different devices. The first device is a travelogue in which we hear about Pechorin from someone who has known him. Then our narrator is able to get hold of Pechorin’s diary. From that point on, we hear about Pechorin’s innermost thoughts and feelings as well as his exploits from his point of view.

Pechorin seems at times almost like a sociopath and yet I felt sorry for him. I also recognized his sad ideas and was surprised that so little has changed with the stereotypical bad boy, even across cultures and more than a hundred years.

Here is Pechorin’s view on friendship:

“Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time deception would be required.”

Throughout the novel, Lermontov pays attention to and appreciates nature:

“Whatever grief oppresses my heart, whatever disquietude tortures my thoughts—everything is dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, illumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.”

Always smug:

“On making a woman’s acquaintance I have always unerringly guessed whether she would fall in love with me or not…”

And all games:

“To arouse a feeling of love, devotion and fear towards oneself—is not that the main sign, and the greatest triumph, of power? To be the cause of suffering and joy to another—without in the least possessing any definite right to be so—is not that the sweetest food for our pride? And what is happiness? Satisfied pride.”

He goes on to say that passion never lasts forever.

Some people are just better talkers than others:

“You are a dangerous man!” she said to me. “I would rather find myself in the woods under a knife of an assassin than under your tongue…In all earnestness I beg of you: when it comes into your mind to speak evil of me, take a knife instead and cut my throat. I think you would not find that very difficult.”

Harsh words from a princess. And even though she was on the right track, Pechorin later observes her weakening:

“Compassion—a feeling to which all women yield so easily, had dug its talons into her inexperienced heart.”

Before I dare to wonder too much about Lermontov and this book, here is what he has to say about his intent in writing it:

“The Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man only; it is a portrait composed of the vices of our whole generation in their full-grown development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as this; and I shall tell you that since you have believed that all the villains of tragedy and romance could exist, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?…This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author of this book has ever proudly dreamed of becoming a reformer of human vices….He has simply found it entertaining to depict a man, such as he considers to be typical of the present day and such as he has met—too often, unfortunately for the author himself and for you. Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!”

I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it—and I especially recommend it to young women.

Russian literature always seems to dig deep.

The Night Before Christmas

Our Christmas tree at night.

Our Christmas tree at night. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Nikolai Gogol, New Directions Books, 73 pages.

Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.

I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.

The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.

Here is a quote from early in the story:

“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”

The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, @ 1973, 295 pages.

So while I was supposed to be reading War and Peace, I started reading Vonnegut. There’s this whole Vonnegut/Dovlatov connection I keep trying to make, but to read more Dovlatov, I either have to wait until April for the release of Pushkin Hills in English OR I have to learn Russian. Ok, so I know some Russian. I know enough to eat and travel. And to get some quizzical looks. Rosetta Stone, BTW, is turning out to be great for Russian pronunciation.

Anyway, I read Breakfast of Champions a very long time ago. I’m reading it again because I remembered how intensely creative Vonnegut was with his structure and storytelling. On this read, Vonnegut pummels me over the head with foul language and imagery. Apparently, I used to be immune to this. Now, not so much. I had a coworker who liked to act like she knew everything and would quote Vonnegut even though she didn’t know the significance of this: *

Which is odd because that was exactly what she was, a big

*

Breakfast of Champions—wow—what to say about this book. It is all over the place and perfectly organized at the same time. It has characters you don’t want to get to know, and yet, like the train wrecks they all are, you can’t stop reading about them. Hmm.

And speaking of trains, I found Vonnegut’s ideas about machines to be very interesting. Vonnegut really develops this, but here is the kernel:

‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’

Breakfast of Champions is the kind of book that I think I want to read again, maybe in 20 years. Maybe then, I’ll be able to digest it fully. And Vonnegut, like Dovlatov, is one of those guys you wish was still around so you could say stuff like: hey, what do you think about the 2045 project? What do you think about immortality for humanity? Isn’t that a really bad idea?

I’d love to put those guys in a room, ohh and add in George Carlin, who is also now in the club, introduce the topic, and let them go. What I wouldn’t give to hear that conversation. I wonder if D wouldn’t be too polite for these two rambunctious Americans. Would he sit there with a thin smile on his lips, thinking how uncivilized George and Kurt were? Or, would he, after almost coming to blows on certain subjects finally let loose with some raucous laughter, teeter on his chair, and nearly fall over?

To Room Nineteen

Cover of "To Room Nineteen"

Cover of To Room Nineteen

By Doris Lessing, @ 28 pages, (1963).

[Spoiler alert] When I see a short story over 20 pages long, I shudder. Will it be that interesting? Will I like it? Or, will it be a trudge?

To Room Nineteen did not disappoint. It held my interest all the way through, and the pages flew by. This, even though I felt myself arguing with the viewpoint of the protagonist, Susan Rawlings, pretty much the whole way through.

One of my problems, I suppose, is that I don’t have four children. I don’t fully know how draining that can be. But I can imagine. She did have help. She had a cook and later a nanny.

And granted, the personality type of the protagonist Susan Rawlings is not my personality type. I can’t imagine having no interests in life. If I had free time at my disposal, I would write, draw, paint, play music, compose, and hike. But I don’t, and I’m envious of those who do. It’s hard for me to understand those who have time on their hands and waste it.

Susan was restless. It seemed she had the dream in her grasp, and then it disappeared. Some of the uglier parts of marriage materialized and although everyone involved thought they were so intelligent, no one had the common sense to say “no.”

With four children, Susan couldn’t go to the parties any more. She had to stay home with the children. Why did her husband go? They were his children too.

There seemed to be this unspoken idea in the story that it was better to be unfaithful than to be insane. I don’t agree. Being unfaithful is a choice. Being insane is not.

I must have missed the point of this story somewhere. Was it that all marriages are farces? Was it that having four kids and a husband leads to insanity? Was it that people who think they are intelligent can make some pretty stupid decisions? Was it about a woman’s need for privacy?

But what about the man? He worked all day. When was he supposed to have any privacy? When was he supposed to have his own life?

So he cheated? So she went insane?

I’m not agreeing with all of these premises. How could Susan’s life have been so empty? Why did she not have any art in her life? Music? Something of her own? What about the children?

Maybe the story is about the traps people can fall into while trying to do everything right. Everything that society wants and expects. Then when you do those things, you’re in a trap, and society has no sympathy. And you have no life. 

But, all my complaining aside, the story kept me turning pages without agony.

Rules of the Game

Amy Tan, author

Amy Tan, author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Amy Tan, @ 10 pages (1989).

Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.

This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”

All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.

Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:

A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.

‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.

During my first tournament…”

I love Amy Tan. Must read more! :)

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Flannery O’Connor, @ 14 pages (1965) .

Ok, quick. Flannery O’Connor: male or female? Well, I didn’t know. Female. Her first name was Mary. This short story was published after her death.

Everything That Rises Must Converge is a story that illustrates the old degrading habits of racism and the self-delusion that comes hand-in-hand with racist beliefs. Human ugliness, anger, degradation, violence, and what’s up with the ending? What is Flannery telling us? What does she want us to think? Are we to be utterly confused? We rejoice at and despise the hateful narrator son. We hate and despise his hateful mother. We get the feeling that they hate each other too. It’s all very hateful.

There is the interesting twist with hats. But I even found that annoying.

I disliked the story for purely personal reasons, not because of its merits as a story. I’m sure it meets all the criteria for success. I am caught up on the content; I have met people like these. I grew up with people like these. What callous hateful ignorance. How do people not recognize the evil that lurks behind it. I don’t understand.

Death by Landscape

Margaret Atwood at TRU on Feb. 15, 2013

Margaret Atwood at TRU on Feb. 15, 2013 (Photo credit: Thompson Rivers)

By Margaret Atwood, @ 15 pages (1989).

This story took a little while to get going for me. The action of the present is bookended around the actual story. An event from the protagonist’s past is at the core of the story, so it makes sense that the author started a little farther away from the action than what we typically experience in contemporary short stories.

After I got to the action, I was glued to the page. The suspense was incredible. The following paragraph was especially suspenseful for me:

“She has gone over and over it in her mind since, so many times that the first, real shout has been obliterated, like a footprint trampled by other footprints. But she is sure (she is almost positive, she is nearly certain) that it was not a shout of fear. Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog’s bark.”

And a couple of pages back there is foreshadowing:

“Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background.”

I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but this story basically gives us an important event from the protagonist’s past and invites us to think about how it may have shaped her whole life.

An interesting story that raises interesting questions.

The Salesman

Talking Walls and CigarettesBy Kelli Beck @ 2013, from the short story collection Talking Walls and Cigarettes and Other Dark Tales.

I am still very interested in the short story form, so when I saw that fellow blogger Kelli Beck had just released a collection of short stories written by herself and Erin Beck, I had to get it.

The first story of the collection is “The Salesman.” I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll just point out a few things that I especially appreciated. This story did a great job of setting a tone and a mood. I was transported into the scene. I had a sense that I was there.

When she was in front of the window a slight breeze slipped up her neck, caressing the small hairs that had fallen from her loose ponytail. She shivered, turned and faced the night. Fog started to wash its way across the street heavy like smoke creeping in from all directions, swallowing up first the hardware store and the small defunct movie theatre, moving in to the center until the entire parking lot was invisible behind the shroud of fog. A childish fear built up in her and she closed the window, securing it in place with the locks. She watched the haze, then, afraid of what might appear out of the mist, closed the shades, and turned her back on it.”

I thought the part where the protagonist turned her back on this scene was wonderfully creepy. It captured my attention and built suspense.

I think it’s important for stories to have a big idea. One of the big ideas of this story has to do with messes and responsibility. The protagonist ruminates over this and comes to the conclusion:

“Whatever mess you cleaned up, it always ended up somewhere else.”

I could identify with the protagonist and the guilt she felt at being put into a difficult situation and having to make some hard choices.

The pacing of the story is very effective, and I enjoyed the surprises that the author threw my way. These really added interest to the story.

“The Salesman” was a great diversion. I’m excited to read the rest of the collection.

 

 

 

The Overcoat

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view)

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Nikolai Gogol (1842)

Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent.  Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]

Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a  zombie story? Wow!

Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.

I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.

I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.

Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?

Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.

And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.

Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.

This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.

The End of Nature

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Ins...

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Institute of Technology about global warming, consumerism, the economy, and his organizations, 350.org and Step It Up. McKibben’s book, Deep Economy, was the common reading for all incoming freshman for the fall 2008 quarter at RIT. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Bill McKibben, Random House, @ 1989, 195 pages.

This book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time. I don’t remember when I bought it. It was published in 1989, which means much of the information is out-of-date, but it’s still an interesting read. McKibben’s central theme is that man’s activities have gone so far now [1989] that we are seeing a permanent end of nature—nature being defined as a force independent of man.

“An  idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is ‘nature,’ the separate and wild province, the word apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental ‘damage.’ But that was like stabbing a man with a toothpick; though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces—the wind, the rain, the sun—were too strong, too elemental.”

This book contained several new ideas for me. One was that an explosion in the numbers of termites could occur from rising global temperatures. The logic goes like this. As temperatures rise, trees will be caught out of their climate zones and die. Termites will then move in and feast. Termites emit methane, like cows. So, global warming will be further fueled by methane from termites.

Also, methane ices are also expected to melt, releasing more methane.

And another reason not to engage in nuclear war: it would damage 30 to 70% of the ozone layer. (The ozone layer is what keeps us from being fried like toast.) And here, I was just worried about radiation poisoning.

McKibben also delivers the not so cheerful message that it is already too late:

“…scientists agree that we have already pumped enough gas into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.”

This 1989 book is dated. I found myself wishing I had a revised edition. One thing that did strike me as being very interesting primarily because I have a corn sensitivity and “corn” is one of those words that makes me stop and take notice was the following:

“Last fall, when American farmers finally harvested what corn crop there was and took it to the grain elevators, United States Department of Agriculture officials began to find a new trouble: corn samples from at least seven states—including Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, which grow close to have the nation’s crop—where found to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a fungus commonly found in topsoil. When overheated corn kernels crack, the mold rushes in. Aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen, known to cause liver cancer, and corn for human consumption can’t contain more than twenty parts per billion, while immature hogs are limited to a hundred parts per billion and mature cattle to three hundred.”

My dog had liver cancer. Dog food, like human food, is processed and has lots of corn in it. The animals we eat are fed high quantities of corn. I have to wonder if there is any connection, and also have to wonder if my dog was a canary in the coal mine, of sorts.

This book really picked up around the end when McKibben discusses genetic engineering. I have not kept up with the news items of this science even though I find them fascinating. And judging by what had already been accomplished by 1989, I am sure that my knowledge of what’s going on now is woefully out of date.

This is one of those areas where people are apt to say: This is complicated, you need to leave all this to the scientists. And to that I reply, since it has moral implications that can affect my family and me, I’m unwilling to do that. I believe that I have just as much right to think about and discuss these developments as I have a right to discuss rain and snow—and I’m not meteorologist. I am interested in the big picture. The picture of which I am a part. And it’s a gruesome picture indeed.

My tolerance for gruesomeness is kind of low, so I won’t get into vivid detail. Don’t get me wrong. McKibben doesn’t write anything that makes me want to close the book and walk away. This fairly long quote does a good job of explaining his point:

There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there. We like to imagine that we’ve already crossed a bridge or not yet come to it. Some people tend not to worry much about genetic engineering, for instance, because they think it’s an extension of traditional practices, such as selective breeding. But nature put definite limits on such activity: Mendel could cross two peas, but he couldn’t cross a pea with a pine, much less with pig, much less with a person. We could pen up chickens in atrocious batteries, but they still had heads. There were restraints, in other words—limits. And our understanding of what those limits were helped define nature in our minds. Such notions will quickly become quaint. The idea that nature—that anything—could be defined will soon be outdated. Because anything can be changed. A rabbit may be a rabbit for the moment, but tomorrow ‘rabbit’ will have no meaning. ‘Rabbit’ will be a few lines of code, no more important that a set of plans for a 1940 Ford…”

An this makes be think of the 2045 project:

“‘Eventually,’ says Stableford, ‘there may well be a complete breakdown in the distinction between living and nonliving—the boundaries between the two will be blurred and filled in by systems which involve both the machinery of life and the machinery of metal, plastic, and glass.'”

“It is the logical outcome of our defiant belief that we must forever dominate the world to our advantage as we have dominated it in the last hundred years.”

“The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists.”

“Many of those who take the biocentric view are, of course, oddballs, the sort who would walk two thousand miles instead of flying.”

I’m not sure I see things quite the way that McKibben does. I am less likely to be so completely at odds with minor tweaks of our natural environment. But I too, would also hate to see an end of nature. Surrounded by mass plantings of monocultures and hiding from the cold in either my house or my car, I feel very disconnected from nature. Much more than I have in years. I am hesitant to say that nature does not exist any more in an unaltered form. I believe it still does in Idaho. But at least where I live, except for some raptors, coyotes, song birds, and deer, my view of nature seems largely diminished from where I grew up.

Cathedral

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Raymond Carver, 13 pages.

In the short story, Cathedral, the narrator is not too happy about his wife’s friend, who is blind, coming to visit. It seems to bother him quite a bit that the man is blind. The narrator doesn’t seem jealous, I don’t think, except perhaps at the sharing of thoughts that his wife has been doing with this other man over the years. That might have him upset. But instead of mentioning anything about that, he focuses on the man’s blindness. As he does this, all of his stereotypical and weird biases emerge, making him less sympathetic to us.

This story is wonderfully crafted. The opposing ideas of blindness and sight are woven throughout.

I really liked this part. It gave us information not only about the narrator’s wife and her past, but also about the narrator himself:

“…where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out. But instead of dying, she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance.”

This made me chuckle. You really get the narrator’s voice here. And yeah, any guy who holds the title of first love, doesn’t deserve a name. He’s already gotten enough.

By the end of the story, the protagonist undergoes a change, as he should. The way that Carver shows this change is beautiful and subtle.

This is definitely a story to come back to.

NaNoWriMo Day 30: The Last Day

cropped-024.jpgFirst of all, congratulations are in order to everyone who completed the NaNoWriMo and actually wrote 50,000 words. To give some idea of how much that is, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is about 45,000 words long. So good job!

There are some mixed feelings out on the web about National Novel Writing Month. As for myself, I thought it was a great experience (for me) for the following reasons:

  • It made me commit to writing every day.
  • I realized that a month is both a very long time and a very short time.
  • The tight deadline forced me to make decisions about my plot, character names, etc. that I would have put off for eternity.
  • It prompted me to find writing guides that would help me get over the hurdles of plot creation.
  • It prompted me to learn new things about how to write a novel.
  • It gave me a great excuse to say: Sorry, I need this time to write.
  • I wound up with more than 33,000 words (over 70 pages single-spaced)…(it’s not over yet; I’ll be working on it today)
  • I got an idea of what it’s like to write a novel. (It’s terrifying, long, tedious, tiresome, mind-bending, and exhilarating.)
  • I discovered the value of working incrementally. While 1667 words a day was too much for me, 1000 words a day was fine.
  • It opened up my imagination.
  • It helped me silence the inner critic and realize that everyone has an inner critic that is just as awful as mine.
  • It helped me admit that I want to do this. I want to write a novel. That’s a hard thing to say out loud or even in my head.
  • It gave me an opportunity to dump all these ideas that have been wandering around in my mind for years onto the page and see what happens.
  • It taught be the value of being brave.

So, I bought a coffee cup from the good folks at NaNoWriMo. I’m not sure that counts as a donation because I didn’t get the little halo around my avatar, but oh well. :)

Today, I’m off to finish up what I can. I’ll add some more words until I feel like I have everything in the novel that I need. Then I will print the whole thing out, read it, and write notes all over it—because it’s nowhere near done. Someone somewhere suggested flipping through magazines and looking for pictures that relate to the novel. This is supposed to active the right brain and spur more creativity. I might do that too. And my writing space is a mess. I need to put things in order.

Tomorrow, I’ll get back to my regular posting about books and short stories.

Tonight, I’ll post my final word count here: 33,453