Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Which Wild Wakes Up the Wilderness in Me

photo by Anna Reavis
                     “I couldn’t let myself believe it...and also go on breathing...”          
When I first heard of Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I  wanted to read it:  walking alone on the Pacific Coast Trail to try to outwalk the ghosts of your past and the pain inside you sounds  like something I would do or would have done, had I been childless at anytime in the past 20 years.   So last week, when I found it at my small local library, I grabbed it up and put Les Miserable on hold.

I had no idea how hard just getting through the first chapter would be for me.  That’s where I got to last Friday before I had to stop and regroup and decide if I was strong enough at this point in my life to read this woman’s words.  I thought I was getting a hiking memoir.  What I got in the first chapter instead was a reliving of my own mother’s death.  Strayed lost her mother in the same way that I lost mine (except that I was pregnant with my first child at the time) and at exactly the same time in her life.  She had the same kind of intertwined, how could I live without this woman, relationship with her mother that I had with mine.  I even remember struggling to stay awake with her nights, which is almost impossible in pregnancy, because I was afraid she would die while I slept, and then feeling guilty that I fell asleep.  The biggest difference is that I was with her, holding her hand,  when she died, a type of fullness and completion denied to Strayed, and for which I have been infinitely grateful because being present at the moment of death had been denied me when my brother had died a few years before, so already I knew how important it was.  It brought  to mind Sally Field’s speech in Steel Magnolias about being present when she brought her daughter into the world and being present when she went out of it.  This was the one person I knew who had been present when I came into the world.  I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to be there when she left it, no matter what was going on with my body at the time.    
The one big other difference is that I have never tended, nor even been to her grave.  I suppose that is a kind of denial:  denial through ignoring;  close your eyes,  and it isn’t there.  So because I have lived 20 years now in my self-inflicted forgetting,  being surreptitiously overwhelmed with this issue in a hiking memoir completely took me aback.   Here are some of the last words of the first chapter:  “Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone…It broke me up.  It cut me off.  It tumbled me end over end…I would want things to be different than they were.  The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.”   What motherless child can read words like these and still breathe?  I think I am going to have to make myself finish this book.  Twenty years is long enough to live in forgetting.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Breaking the Cloud Atlas Blog Jam

photo by Amy Brandon

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.  Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?  Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’clouds.”  Zachry in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I’ve spent a month being paralyzed by the thought of trying to write about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  How do you write about one book that is actually six novellas intertwined?  A book that’s not about any one thing, but about everything and nothing, the grand and the minute.   It slices life in fractals across time and space with six different genres and settings, with at least as many themes and plot lines, and with characters too numerable to track without notes. 

I enjoyed Cloud Atlas because reading it felt like working a jigsaw puzzle.  I had to keep notes to keep up with the whos and whats of the stories, and I had to get past a certain page, I think around page 25, before I liked it at all.  Am I a better person for having read it?  Did I learn anything?  Any great revelations for me? Maybe not, but it was entertaining in several different ways, well written, often funny, and kept my mind engaged throughout.  I call that a book worth reading.

“’He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him!  & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’
            Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What We All Want

photo by Anna Reavis
“We all just want to be heard.”   Maggie O’Connell

I watched what may be the best Northern Exposure I’ve ever  seen on my lunch hour.  It’s in season six entitled “Dinner at Seven Thirty.”    The quote above  is Maggie’s take on the theme,  and that completely resonates with me,  but I’ll take it one step further and add,  “And we all just want to be loved and understood.”

I guess that about sums it up.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Someone To Watch Over Me

photo by Anna Reavis
“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”  Ada in The Snow Child
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a charming adult fairy tale about wanting and waiting for something that seems to remain just beyond your grasp until you stop waiting for it, and suddenly it appears.  Part of the lesson is that while you may not get exactly what you want, what you get may be more lovely than you imagined it could be.  The story speaks to the yearning we all have to belong to someone, to be part of a family, to be loved and to love.  Even the wildness that seems bred into the snow child herself doesn’t preclude this desire in her.
I chose to read the book with some misgiving because I assumed it was going to be just magical realism, and I don’t always love magical realism, but the story isn’t what it seems to be at all.  You have to read it to see what I mean.  I didn’t love the ending, but I still recommend it for a sweet, entertaining read.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Some Days You Win, Some Days You Lose, Some Days You Just Get Pee on Your Shoes

I’m not sure why, but I am a person who gets lost. I’m very organized and careful, but almost every time I try to drive to a place I’ve never been, I get lost. I think it’s a combination of over-thinking and not trusting myself. During the month of September, almost every week-end day has involved my trying to find some random soccer field hours away from my home for my daughter’s travel soccer games. Last Saturday was no exception. We left 15 minutes late, and then, of course, I got lost. I spent the entire hour and a half ride about to pee on myself but unable to stop because we were already late, and I knew we would get lost, making us even later. After going the wrong way a couple of times and then driving past the field with NO SIGN (who does that? No sign at a soccer complex?), we pulled down a rutted dirt road into what looked like a grass field to find a few ratty looking soccer fields. I begin to panic as I look around for bathrooms and see NO BUILDINGS. My daughter jumps out and runs. I see another parent, who is a teacher at my daughter’s school and who I don’t really know all that well, (at least not well enough for what I end up saying in front of her later), sitting in a chair reading beside her car. I ask her about bathrooms; she doesn’t know. I sigh and begin to traipse across the field to the edge of the woods.

“Woods” is a loose term for what this briar-laced, poison-oak infested bog was. I lowered my head and charged through briars scrapping at my face and hair for a few feet. Have you ever noticed how thick trees and shrubs look from the outside looking in and then how thin they look from the inside looking out? I lowered my head and charged through more briars until I felt like people couldn’t see me. By this time, if some squatting didn’t occur very quickly, I was going to be sitting in stinky, wet pants for a very long time. So, in a rush and without looking, I squat in poison oak and pee on a mound of dirt from which everything that comes out of me runs directly onto my new tennis shoes. I am a college-educated, 45 year old mother of two teenagers squatting in a bog, peeing on my shoes. It does make you wonder where you’ve gone so wrong. I do the only thing I know to do. I hike up my poison-oak dusted panties and march my pee-soaked shoes through briars and mud and emerge from the "woods" looking like Swamp Thing with briars and leaves clinging to every part of me and with pee and mud on my shoes.  I get back to the parking lot, where I see a port-a-potty right beside my car. I look at the teacher/parent and sputter, “Mother Fucker. There’s a port-a-potty right here.”

Some days you win. Some days you lose, and some days you just get pee on your shoes.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Wherein An English Major Explains Quantum Physics (Ok, That May Be Hyperbolic)

photo by Anna Reavis
“Gentlemen…you are arguing about words, not reality.”  Richard Dawkins
Over the course of the last month, I’ve read two works of science nonfiction both of which, unfortunately, have had a common theme.  The first was Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, and the second, which I am still in the middle of is The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.  What I have found to be the unfortunate common theme is that both authors have had to explain why people should accept several fairly well-established scientific theories, one of which is evolution. The purpose of the entire Dawkins novel, in fact, is to attempt to convince people of the truth of evolution.  The Hawking novel deals with quantum physics and the birth of the universe, but even here Hawking has to address the issue of people who refuse to “believe” in carbon dating, among other scientific techniques.
I find it beyond disheartening that human beings still work to refute any new idea that falls outside of their established mental comfort zone. (See Galileo, circa 1633, among other issues.)  The way the world works doesn’t change just because we choose fuzzy math.  A  scientific theory describes a predictable, stable process by which, in our experience and based on our understanding of the world, something happens.  Even chemistry on some levels can be considered theoretical because not every reaction can be mathematically expressed and solved, but that doesn’t mean the reaction didn’t happen.  (Hawking)  Acceptance of scientific theories, then, is not properly termed “belief in.”  Acceptance of scientific theories simply means to acknowledge that the observable results validate the hypothesized process.   People have no problem flipping on a light switch and accepting that the resulting light is the product of a process called electricity, even though they don’t fully understand that process.  
Humans, by nature, want to see, understand, and intuit things.  In the case of quantum physics and in fact, in the case of many of the processes by which things came to be, this just is not possible.  We must accept the limitations of our brains, without lazily falling back on faith and religion.  There is no question that the easiest route is to throw up our collective hands and say, “God did it.  We can’t figure it out.”  But that is not the path to truth, even for intelligent believers.   Ask your own questions.  Do your own research.  Become a fully developed human being.  Don’t believe the propaganda.  Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.  Find out for yourself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

We Are All Outlanders

photo by Anna Reavis

“Trust me, we are comrades in ruin.”  --The Reverend
The problem with reading a book like The Outlander by Gil Adamson is that I have to finish it, and then there is no direction  for my reading pleasure to go but down.  There is no way the next book will be as entertaining or as emotionally fulfilling as a book I’ve loved almost every word of.  At the same time, I feel lucky to have discovered such books in my life.  It isn’t a matter of literary worth, although I do think this book has literary worth.  It’s a matter of its worth to me at this certain time and in this certain place of my life.

There is poetry on almost every page.   And how I love a strong, triumphant woman, especially one who is in the process of sewing  her own widows weeds when her disastrous, ruinous, neglectful, cold-hearted  husband comes home.  She  sets down her needle to pick up his rifle and shoot him with it.  She then embarks on a journey that would kill most of us and discovers that for her  there is no such thing as unbearable.
The journey is both a journey of the soul and a journey of the body and is mythological in the proportions of its occurrences.  As she runs for her life, the widow discovers truths about and strengths in herself that were previously unknown to her.   She wants to punish herself for not anticipating what she could not have known, for  life raging out of control around her, as if she somehow could  have checked that.  She fears more than anything the darkness in herself.  Her dreams  scare her because she senses in them unforeseen dangerous truths, things she feels she should see coming but can’t.  She wants to lie down and quit, wants to be too broken to be fixed, but she keeps getting back up.  The widow is only 19 years old, and she already knows what so many of us never understand:    that we give  value to our own lives and that it is up to us to take from life what we can.

This book, for me, is fiction at its best.  It helped me discover and understand truths about myself.  The novels that speak to us do so because they teach us to name the unnamed in ourselves.  We are all outlanders.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is Tess a Masochistic Neurotic? Am I?

Photo by Anna Reavis

I've been stressing myself out for a month about writing a post on my beach reading of  Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  I know it's one of the backbones of British Literature, and I know I'm supposed to love it, but honestly, Tess gets on my nerves. 

When I read the novel in high school, I wrote a paper on "Fatalism in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles."  And when I was in high school, I probably saw the entire plot as fatalistic.   As an adult, however, I am more able to recognize how much a part we play in our own happiness.  Tess says early on in the novel that we live on a blighted star, but in truth, is it not more correct to believe along the lines of this Tess quote:   "A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away."  (Gender doesn't matter here; this quote just happens to refer to a woman.)

We bear responsibility for our own choices, regardless of the curves life throws at us.  Hardy never seems to decide which matters more:  our fate or our choices.  I think our choices are what matter more.   A person always contributes to his (or in this case, her) own downfall.   The more you expect of yourself,  the more you can expect to be hurt because you will always assume others see things as you do, which is not true at all.    Tess acts out of her sense of personal responsibility and concern for the people she loves, and her over-developed sense of duty costs her dearly.   She expects better of Alec, of her parents, and of Angel, because she would have behaved better toward them.   What destroys her in the end is her naive expectation of love, coupled with her sense of moral duty.  The lesson here is not an uplifting one.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wherein The Swerve Makes Me Swerve

Photo by Anna Reavis

“The universe is not all about us, about our behavior and our destiny; we are only a tiny piece of something inconceivably larger.  And that should not make us shrink in fear.  Rather, we should embrace the world in wonder and gratitude and awe.”  
from The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

My normal reading pattern has been in disarray of late.  The divergence began when I read a work of nonfiction entitled The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern  by Stephen Greenblatt.  While I enjoyed the work and found it interesting, it was hardly escapist summer reading.   Then I looked for escape in Serena by Ron Rash and ended up in a place and time and with people I didn’t want to be.  This week, I’ve started and dropped five different books, looking for something to “take.”  No luck.  Sometimes, my stress and irritation level eradicate my focus, which just makes me more stressed and irritable.  When I need escape the most, it flees from me.
The most important lesson I took from The Swerve was a reminder of humanity’s bent to let fear and ignorance overpower enlightenment.  We see this in all ages and places among all people.  We want to hunker down in a shell of what we “know” and reject without thought anything new and challenging.  And of course, there are always opportunistic demagogues feeding these fears because that is their only way to power and recognition.   It seems our default is, as Greenblatt terms it, “superstitious fears,” because they are easy to embrace and require no effort of logic on our part.  Curiosity, thought, logic, these things are not dangerous.  It is their opposites that keep us in the dark, that keep us from fully embracing our potential as a species.   It seems a lesson we will never learn.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Land More Kind Than Home

Photo by Anna Reavis

“It’s a good thing to see that people can heal after they’ve been broken, that they can change and become something different from what they were before.”
Adelaide Lyle in A Land More Kind Than Home
My goodness these last couple books have made me miss my dead people.  And now A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash has made me remember things about my brother and his death that I thought I had lost from my memory.  I used to try to avoid anything that would make me remember those years of my life, but lately it seems I am finding some comfort in remembering them.  I hope that’s because I am finally finding healing and peace, and I hope it’s healthy and positive, even if the memories aren’t.

Cash’s descriptive language is so real and evocative of places and times I’ve inhabited that I often felt as if I were there with the characters, especially in the chapter about Jess being with Stump’s body right after the accident.  Being physically confronted with death in a person you’ve known only as very much alive is the most bizarre, incredible experience.  You just keep watching and waiting for the suspension of breath to end and the chest to rise and fall again and the breath to flow in and out again.  And then you begin to believe that you are in some weird time stall where everything is paused.  After the initial shock, you want to hold on to the grief and on to it and on to it because that keeps you closer to the time when that person was alive.  Something about the immediacy of the grief, something about being near it, makes you halfway believe you can reverse what has happened.  Because I know these things, I found the sheriff’s story, as well as Jess’s story,  to be valid and exact.  There is some comfort in being known and in knowing that others have felt as you have.

Given my normal penchant for happy books, I guess it seems strange that I loved this one.  I think it was because it was so real and so true and spoke to and of things I have known first hand.  It is beautifully written, and I am excited to see where Wiley Cash goes from here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

“I was carried away, swept along by the mighty stream of words pouring from the hundreds of pages. To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.” Ma in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

The older I get, the more rebellious I become. Even when I try to plan my own reading, I sabotage myself. I have countless books lined up at home and on my Kindle that I am supposed to be reading. I am in the middle of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  And yet, last Friday, I felt a library trip was in order. So, out of pure rebellion (and because non-fiction starves my poet soul), this past week-end, instead of finishing The Swerve or reading any of the other 500 books piled up at my house, I read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.

At least I chose a book that would feed the poet soul. I won’t say I loved the book or even that I found the translation fantastic. I wish my French were such that I could read the original. But, a small volume about the importance of literature, romance, art, and beauty in the midst of the soul-starving Chinese communist regime was just what I needed in my reading life right now.

One concept I found especially interesting was the narrator’s compulsion to collect the words of Balzac, so much so that he wrote them on the inside of his sheep-skin jacket when he couldn’t find any paper. I have often wondered if the compulsion to collect words and passages of beauty was just an oddity of mine and my own way of “writing” when I feel so inept and lacking with my own words. Something about being surrounded by beauty, whether reading it or just copying it, provides comfort.

And, of course, instead of going back to my “assigned” reading, I have now gone to the library and checked out two works by Balzac.  "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." (John Lennon)    

Monday, May 7, 2012

Suffering is Good for You - The Cove by Ron Rash

Photo by Anna Reavis

But just hearing music, even the saddest sort of song, lets you know you’re not all of every way alone, that someone else has known the likesomeness of what you have.”  Laurel Shelton
It’s been a long time since I’ve thought to wish I could talk to my mama.  The Cove, by Ron Rash, made me wish just that.  The truth in the cadences of the old speech, the speech of my grandparents, makes me miss them and by extension her. I'd forgotten how much I miss those voices, the voices of my past.
Of all the themes in The Cove, the one that resonates most with me is Laurel Shelton’s determination to overcome all the hate, prejudice, and ostracism leveled at her in a community I know well, figuratively speaking. As I read, I thought about people I know who have suffered.  There is a depth, a complexity, a complication, in them all.  There are no easy answers; there is no ease.  Having lived through hard times can make you feel untouchable, above the everyday, even above the people around you.  But the truth is we are all of the earth; we are all bound by gravity to the dirt under our feet.  You have to learn to live in the midst of humanity:  sweltering, stinking, hateful, and glorious as we all are.  You learn to make your life what you want it to be, without regard for your pain.  And that is exactly what Laurel Shelton does.  She takes every bad turn given her, moves on, and turns hope into life, however briefly.  This is the story of a life bravely lived, even though Laurel probably would have been too humble to realize it.   Bravery of the everyday kind is often the hardest to come by.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Move Over, Mountain by John Ehle

Photo by Anna Reavis

“It was spring now.  To Jordan, the best season.  Out on the old farm the new tenant family opened up long cuts in the body of the earth and dropped in seed, letting each find its place, then turned in new dirt—leaving the fields looking as if they had been swept by a big cleaning woman.  The mid-South rains came down in the afternoons and once or twice through the night.  The moist seed split.  Sprouts shouldered their way up through the crust of ground and got their leaves to the sunlight.”

Seven Word Synopsis:  Black man triumphs in the Fifties South.

As I read Move Over, Mountain by John Ehle, I tried to figure out what was bothering me about the book and why it didn’t seem to engage me or to speak to me.  The characters, place, setting, and plot had the capacity to be great, but the book rarely seemed to delve beyond the surface of what was happening.  I tried to decide if it would be possible to put into words what differentiates a great novel from a good one.  The subject feels like one that may take years to elucidate, but I was able to conclude that novels that are just good, but not great, while entertaining and diverting and not unworthy, seem to lack metaphor, figurative language, poetry, and deep universal truths.  Had there been more passages like the one above, this would have been a better book.   I’m no book snob, but reading some books is like eating at a five star restaurant, while reading others is like getting McDonald’s take out.  I won’t say Move Over, Mountain is McDonald’s.  I liked it. It was more Cook Out than Mickey D’s.  It just felt hollow, and I suspect I will eventually forget having read it.

Assessment:  Entertaining but quickly devoured like homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

“Because words are just air…when the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.”
Today, especially, I reflect on the value of silence. When I am weary, nothing is as valued as quietness. All noise, even the slightest, seems to rasp across worn nerves like nails on slate. Insomnia has given me the gift of more reading time, at least. In The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, the narrative and characters, while well-written and engaging, are secondary to the themes of silence and silent connections between people; of anger, resentment, and misunderstanding that builds between people; of revolution versus evolution; and of nature versus humanity.

Two of the main characters, Piya and Fokir, superficially have nothing in common. One is an American scientist, the other an illiterate Indian fisherman. They don’t even speak the same language. But superficial lack of commonalities and lack of words quickly become less important between them than is their shared love and knowledge of the river and its animals. I did find the relationship, if you can call it that, a bit naïve and unrealistic. A relationship where you can’t even speak to or understand the other person? Too good to be true and would certainly not endure in normal circumstances. Piya even refers to the “relief to be spared the responsibilities that came with a knowledge of the details of another life.” I do, however, agree with Piya’s assertion that “speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being.” And I have a deep affinity and understanding of her desire to “be in this boat, in this small island of silence, afloat on the muteness of the river.”

There are two married couples who play important roles in the narrative. In both cases, the couples seem full of misunderstanding and miscommunication, which not surprisingly leads to anger and resentment. Who knew marriage could be like that? I find it sad and wasteful that people who love each other are often the ones least likely to see the beauty in the other person.

On a more general level, the book speaks to how different people have different methods for changing the world: some on small, incremental levels and some through grand, drastic means, as well as dealing with the theme of the difficulty of preserving the natural world in the face of human overpopulation. I have no idea how I came to own this book, but I certainly recommend it and plan to read Ghosh’s other books.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Redemption and A Reliable Wife: What a Bargain

"...and he found that the living were more beautiful than the dead, that in the end, something must be saved, even if that meant it also had to be endured."

Yesterday was Easter.  I am not a church-goer.  But as I rode through the woods on my bike, I thought some about Easter and its message.  One of the things that appeals to me the most about Christianity is its grounding in the concept of redemption.  No one is too far gone.  No one too broken, too damaged, to be reached.  Hope for all.  I like that.  I don't know that I believe it, but I like it.  I have an affinity for all stories redemptive, and I think that is why I ended up liking A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.

I had a bit of bipolar relationship with the book as I read it.  At the beginning, I loved it and thought I was going to end up highlighting the entire book.  Then it delved into the salacious, which I find somewhat distasteful and unnecessary.  And it usually annoys me when I see the plot points way before they develop, but the book made enough important thematic points to override that annoyance.   What clinched my liking of A Reliable Wife was the author's decision to allow his characters, broken, battered, abused, and even somewhat repugnant though they were, to end in a state of grace:   a normal, functional, mundane, redeemed life of hope and promise.  I wish that for us all.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Even Grief is a Fractal

Photo by Anna Reavis

What does it cost to lose those weeks, that light, the very nights in the year preferred over all others?  Can you evade the dying of the brightness? Or do you evade only its warning? Where are you left if you miss the message the blue nights bring?  Joan Didion in Blue Nights
            Discussing Blue Nights by Joan Didion is difficult for me.  This post will probably seem disjointed and unpolished.  I have found that Didion, in her two books about the deaths of her husband and daughter, has been able to express, clearly and beautifully, feelings and thoughts I have had in my own life that I have been unable even to think clearly, much less express.  I still find my thoughts here to be a seemingly endless jumble of roots and branches that overwhelm me, so I will note only two concepts that occurred to me as I read.
Most people, people who have lived normal lives, often can have no real idea why another person cries or grieves, and to try to name it is to disrespect and diminish it.  Sometimes the roots of grief are so spread out, so long, so wide, so all-encompassing that to try to use language to address or explain it is impossible.  It would be like trying to use music to pitch a baseball.
And sometimes, it seems almost as if the moments of wholeness and sweetness in our lives are too fleeting to be worth all the other moments of brokenness and emptiness.   But in those moments of perfection and wholeness that randomly flicker through my life, I think that the people I love are as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen, and I am healed by that beauty.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

So...Would That Be Wrong in a Parallel Universe?

“We’ll live quietly.  We won’t make waves.  Only each child is a wave.  Every breath we take is a wave.” Jake in 11/22/63 by Stephen King
            I’ve never read Stephen King before.  Well, not much, anyway.  I read pieces of The Shining at my son’s behest because he so loved the book.  I agreed that what I read of The Shining was very well written, but as it scared the bejesus out of me, I had to decline to read much.  I’m not going to rave about 11/22/63, because I am not a raver, but I was lost in this book for the last two weeks.  Books that claim me like that become my favorite reading memories.  Smoothly-written page turners that make you think are hard to come by. 
With the kind of synchronicity that’s been happening in my life lately and the kind of “harmony” Jake keeps finding in the threads of reality in the novel, while I was reading 11/22/63, I also happened to listen to a philosophy lecture on utilitarianism and deontology.   As I understand the two thought processes, a utilitarian believes that all choices should always further the cause of the greater good.  A deontologist, on the other hand, believes that there are certain moral rules that are never to be broken, even at any cost to the greater good.   (I prefer situational and relative ethics, but that’s off topic.) 
I don’ t know that I have any definitive answers to the questions posed by these philosophies (see off topic aside above) or to the question posed and answered by the novel’s plot, but I’m pretty sure it is always wrong to change things we don’t fully understand.  To play god with our limited human intelligence is arrogant and presumptuous and could very well be dangerous.    To consider the large-scale ramifications of every small decision we make would drive us all insane.  Better to try to live purely, to love freely, and to exist uniquely in every moment, thinking only to do no harm and to “suck out all the marrow of life.” (Thoreau)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Strength of a Butterfly's Wing

A middle-aged woman in 2012 can’t wear a necklace without feeling choked.  Why? Because on May 25, 1919 at 3:55 pm, her grandmother decided to come in from playing in the yard.  She was hot and thirsty and tore into the kitchen for water from the sink pump.  She ran down the hall and skipped into the bedroom she shared with her twin great aunts, one of whom was hanging by the neck at an odd angle from the bed post, having fashioned a noose from a strap and rolled her morbidly obese frame off the bed, suffocating herself in the process.  The little girl spends the rest of her life unable to wear turtlenecks, and her granddaughter has an aversion to necklaces in 2012.

Very small decisions we make every second of our lives can have profound and lasting influences over the paths of our lives and the lives of those around us.  Did my decision last night to stay home rather than drive to Boone save mine and my daughter’s life by keeping us out of the car wreck we would have had on the way?  Probably not, but there is no way to know.  My young friend’s decision to wear her seat belt last Saturday morning before her serious car accident definitely saved her life and kept intact the life her family lives.  Can you save a local store by choosing to shop there once a week, thus saving the owner from bankruptcy and the depression that kind of failure often engenders?  The Butterfly Effect is in full force at all times, even if we don’t know it. 

I’ve only read 50 pages of 11/22/63, and already these are the kinds of questions it has inspired to keep me awake at night.  I am loving this book so far, and I’m a hard reader to impress.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Makes Life Worth Living?

Can a person be too broken by his life to be saved?   In The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood,the convicts who come out of the novel’s version of prison, Painball, are no longer human.  They have moved into the realm of cunning, intelligent animal predators and must be treated as such.   But there are other ways this concept applies too.  It is possible to be so emotionally broken that you can’t be fixed.   At worst, people retreat into insanity; at best, into a hermit-like existence devoid of the society of others.  They become as emotionally afraid of others as the novel’s characters are physically afraid of the Painballers.   They retreat from a reality they see as uninhabitable.  But what if reality really did become uninhabitable?
The last two novels I’ve read have had plots and themes about the dissolution of our society.  In The Hunger Games, the country has become a totalitarian state with no protections for the individual in a society governed by group think and propaganda.  In The Year of the Flood, the “waterless flood” has washed away any semblance of society.  When society breaks down, and there is not only no safety net but no safety at all, emotional and physical pain become the most prevalent experience for humanity.  One of the main characters in The Year of the Flood observes that sadness may be a kind of hunger. It makes sense to think that when you are sad, it is because you hunger for something you don't have.   Sadness and hunger become the rule rather than the exception in a dystopic society.  I suppose when you get to the point of living all the time in survival mode, you don’t have time to ask yourself questions about the purpose of your life or about the direction of your species.  You learn to live in the moment and to continue to live only so others later may be able to live more easily than you.  But I can’t imagine wanting to stay alive in a world like that.  Good thing the propagation of the species doesn’t depend on me.  If society collapsed, I’d be one of the first ones tagging out, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This I Believe?

“The Human reason is a pin dancing on the head of an angel, so small is it in comparison to the Divine vastness that encircles us.”   Adam One in The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Most of my life I have felt at a loss to explain my feelings about religious faith. Oddly enough, I seem to lack the words.   I don’t like the terminology applied to any of the existing categories.  I am not a religious person, nor am I devoid of spirituality.  I do not consider myself a “believer” in the world’s use of the word, nor am I precisely agnostic and certainly not atheistic.   Atheism is as strong a form of belief as any dogmatic religious belief.  It is as faith-based to assert the absence of anything as it is to assert its presence.   Atheism seems to me to be as shallow as blind religious faith.   I want a new term to describe those of us who are comfortable admitting  the empowerment of spirituality and the probability of something bigger than humanity  (be it god or science, why does that matter, those are just human words),  and equally comfortable admitting the errancy of blind faith.  Faith and belief are not the same thing.  Faith requires an irrational leap, a suspension of what you know.  Belief, on the other hand, is the result of much contemplation.  I think humanity has little capacity to grasp infinite truths, but our inability to understand them doesn't mean they don't exist.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Universe is Unmoved

"If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder--which, repeated, becomes order:  the Order.  My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope."  Jorge Luis Borges in The Library of Babel

This morning I decided to heed at least part of yesterday's message and pull out my volume of Borges short stories.  I read "The Library of Babel," which is a symbolic representation of the universe and a lesson in how perspective colors everything.  Everything has only the value you assign it.  A word that might be harmful or dangerous or offensive to you, for instance, would mean nothing to someone who didn't share your perspective and language.  In the space of seven pages, he makes the above point, along with touching on humanity's inability to comprehend anything very far beyond the bounds of our existence, leading us often to worship what we don't understand.  He ends the story reassuring us that the universe is infinite and unaffected by humanity.  And this idea makes me think of one of my favorite lines from A R Ammons in his poem "Gravelly Run."

for it is not so much to know the self 
as to know it as it is known 
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Synchronicity is Scary!

“The Möbius strip, also called the twisted cylinder...is a one-sided nonorientable surface obtained by cutting a closed band into a single strip, giving one of the two ends thus produced a half twist, and then reattaching the two ends.” http://mathworld.wolfram.com/MoebiusStrip.html (I cannot believe I am citing something called mathworld, but there you have it.)

Until eleven o’clock this morning, I had never heard of a Möbius Strip. I am an English major, after all. I stumbled upon the term in a book blog, of all places, in an entry about the Borges short story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I remember attempting unsuccessfully to read this story a few years ago. I will now be re-visiting it, as I do not like to be defeated. The blog entry I am referring to is here:  http://somanybooksblog.com/2012/02/13/who-needs-drugs-when-theres-borges/.

After my return from lunch, perusing another, completely separate book blog, I came across a review of the book, This Möbius Strip of Ifs by Mathias B Friese. I must say I find it most bizarre to have lived almost 45 years without hearing of a thing and then to run across it twice within three hours on completely separate blogs on the same day, especially given the infinite-seeming nature of the Möbius Strip itself.

What does this mean? Is the Matrix speaking to me? Will I be moving closer to nirvana (not the band, oh culturally-challenged ones) soon? Or is the message more quotidian in nature? Should I re-decorate my bathroom with Möbius Strip-themed wall paper? Should I read the book and short story reviewed? Or maybe I should just get back to work, but how boring is that, when infinity beckons?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Three Day Week-ends! Now!

It's Sunday night, and once again, I've spent the week-end running around too much to read enough for my liking.  I'm thinking a new law may need to be enacted to provide a three, if not four, day week-end to accomodate both my reading and my life.

The few times I've been able to sit down with my current read, I've been swept up in a world that only Margaret Atwood could imagine.  I love the way her mind works.  So often in her work, small details emerge that make me feel like I'm in on some obscure, clever, inside joke, where she interprets the outcomes of current events in ways most people would never predict.  I've only had time to delve a small way into Year of the Flood, but it promises to be as engaging and entertaining to me as I found Oryx and Crake to be ten years or so ago. 

I did spend this morning catching up on book blogs I try to follow, but there are two problems with reading book blogs.  One:  you are not actually reading your book, and two:  you proceed to want to read almost every book you read reviewed.  For a person with a TBR pile numbering the hundreds, this becomes a frustrating exercise in futility.    So here we go headed into another busy work week, where falling asleep by nine is the norm, and time to read becomes as realistic as the three day weekend.  Happy reading to all you independently wealthy and/or retired and/or smarter than me people who have just said screw it to the capitalistic society that holds the rest of us hostage. Here's hoping for more hours in the day or more holidays in the year.

Saturday Snapshot

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Wounded, Expanded Self-Esteem

"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all." Thomas Szasz

After finishing Crime and Punishment, I tried to read the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I had taken a break during the reading of Crime and Punishment to read the first book, which I enjoyed. But I wasn’t able to get beyond page ten of the second book, and that made me wonder if the problem was along the lines of “Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions” (Oliver Wendell Holmes), or if the second book’s plot is really going to be as predictable and banal as it seems. If you’ve read the second and/or third books, and you want to advise me, feel free. For now, I’ve moved on to Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood ( to satisfy my hunger for dystopia) and Trinity by Leon Uris (on my brother’s recommendation), but I’m feeling propelled toward the Brothers K or Tolstoy's  War and Peace, I’m not sure which.

It’s not that I think Dostoevsky is a great writer. He’s not. His prose is stilted, and his characters are annoying. His mastery lies in the ideas he introduces and the way he introduces them. In the space of roughly 550 pages, he threw so many new, mind-expanding ideas at me that I still haven’t caught up. Not necessarily even ideas I agree with, but what does that matter? You cannot become a fully developed human being if you aren’t willing to “suffer an injury to [your] self-esteem.”

My experience with trying to read Catching Fire after Crime and Punishment makes me wonder if reading great literature ruins you for lesser, entertaining literature. It’s kind of like skiing the greens after skiing the blacks or riding a beginner MTB trail after you get used to an advanced one. Can you go back and still enjoy yourself? I don’t know. Stay tuned to find out.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Crime and Punishment

Finishing Crime and Punishment feels a bit like I imagine having scaled a sheer rock face might feel.  Ninety-nine percent hard work for one percent beautiful view.  Talk about delayed gratification.  Good grief.  I will say that all through the 551 pages, I had no view to hope for the resolution of the last two pages.  Not that I would necessarily recommend reading the book just for the redemption of the last two pages, but it is nice to know that redemption is possible, even for an axe murderer.    (Gives us lesser, petty transgressors hope, ya know.)  So many ideas are introduced in the novel that it is impossible to wrap my head around even a small percent of them at this point.  I highlighted more passages than I have time to recap.  As difficult as finishing the novel was, I feel like I could read it ten more times and still not absorb everything.  And that, I suppose, is what makes a great novel great:  too much brilliance for one small mind over the course of one cursory reading.  Did I like it?  Not particularly.  Did I find it beautiful or uplifting?  Not at all.   I don't even think Dostoevsky is a particularly "good writer."  But still I fear that what I read next will seem petty and mean in relation.

Who Am I, Now That I'm Not Mothering?

Every day, I wake up and think, "I am going to be a better person today!" Then life happens, and I go to bed wondering, &q...