Monthly Archives: May 2013

page 209 of 279 of A High Wind in Jamaica

I’m sure it’s possible to read some sort of socio-economic or political undercurrent in this novel – I’m sure there are ‘readings’ of this book that place it in the grand tradition of other ‘great books’. But there is something so singular about this novel, so immersed in its own insanity and humor that to define it would almost be like an adult trying to understand a group of rowdy 10 year old’s.

page 148 of 279 of A High Wind in Jamaica

I think the greatest fun of this novel is trying to figure out exactly what is going on when you try to take yourself out of the children’s point of view. To them all the adults are inept and childlike and only the great pig is much of an authority on anything.

The joy is reading what Hughes doesn’t write on the page. Maybe this is why we say this books writes children so well – though how would we really know?

page 63 of 279 of A High Wind in Jamaica

This is actually a re-read for me since I read this many, many years ago and always remember really enjoying it.

What’s funny is how much of it I forgot, and right from the start too. The earthquake I had totally forgotten and honestly I only dimly remember the great hurricane.

Pirates, however, I do remember and this is a great spin on the pirate story – a literary, Conrad-esque high-seas yarn.

Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín: Read from May 24 to 29, 2013

Truth be told, I’ve never read Marquez before, not 100 Years of Solitude, not Love in the Time of Cholera, nothing. I’ve always wanted to, of course, because anyone who reads always has a pile of books and authors they will read one day, however, Marquez has always slipped out of my reach for some reason.

This book came to me by accident at the library when I was looking for something else; out slipped this thin little book from the shelf from between 2 large tomes on South American and Spanish history. I recognized the author right away and as a lover of film found the premise too enticing to now even remember what I went to the library for in the first place.

But what did I think of the book?

I’m not sure what to make of this story. The book is billed as non-fiction and since a film was made in Chile during the dictator Pinochet’s reign then there’s no denying the facts about it. What intrigues me is how Marquez assembled this book and how similar that engineering is to the crafting and editing of a film – in this case over 100,000 feet of a donkey’s tail to pin on Pinochet.

The book was made after nearly 18 hours of conversation between Marquez and Littin. Marquez then had to pare down all that conversation into 10 chapters about 12 pages each. That’s very little material left from an enormous trove of what Litten did talk about. However, Littin too made the same decisions when making his film and cut down over 100,000 feet of film into a 4 hour TV film and then further down to 2 hours for the theatrical version.

Both works are documentaries and both are biased because, well, everything is biased. Anyone who tells you there is a state on non-bias is a liar. Littin, being a native Chilean and an exile made all his film editing decisions from that persona – a persona he can’t escape because we can never escape ourselves – even if we are forced to flee halfway around the globe. Yet Littin, in making his film, had to take on the persona of a businessman from Uruguay, he had to talk, dress, walk, and behave like a stranger. He hated doing it, he was exiled from his own body while back in his native land.

And this is where the bias comes into play. Even with 5 film crews all filming independently of Littin most of the time, Littin still chose what to film and what not to film. Allende and Chilean democracy and September 11, 1973 was always going to be memories of heroism. He would never ACTUALLY see those events through the dispassionate eyes of some foreign businessman. He may take note of how clean the cities now are and how many surface improvements have been made to Chile under Pinochet, but he would always be fighting him.

Marquez, in turn, when editing down all Littin told him, made decisions based on what he as an author would make for the best story. He chose to explore repeated themes all through the book that seemed to be speaking to a greater ‘truth’. Here Marquez, also against Pinochet, crafted an even more unreal reality of the situation in Chile at the time. Events all seemed destined to happen (“Children are more of a problem when they are grown up”), themes reappear (Love blossoming in the form of hearts carved into an old bench vs. the modern porn cinema and the ugly, naked dancer with the mole), images repeat in clever and subtle ways (the underground resistance vs. the miners who slave underground – the constant close shaves vs. getting the word for requesting a shave at the barber wrong ‘afeitar’ and not ‘rasurar’).

This work of reporting has become literature, the film’s become art, it’s become what the dictator Pinochet tries to burn down or restore in his own image. It’s sort of a mobius-strip of ‘where’s the truth’

And that’s where my problem came because I was never sure how close to the truth I was. Yes, Pinochet was a terrible, horrible dictator (that’s not the issue), but what about Allende? Was he really the hero of Chile? How could such a great politician, one who was reelected so many times that he joked his tombstone would read “Here lies Allende, the future President of Chile.”?

Worse still was that this was just about Litten trying to make the film. Very little light was shed on the people who helped him, though when the book did go there the characters were all much more interesting than Littin. Strange that a filmmaker was unable to really see his work though the eyes of the people around him and decided only to tell Marquez his own experiences, or strange that if he did tell Marquez, that Marquez chose to edit all that out.

Who knows?

Maybe what we have here is another book like the one described at the end called ‘Chilean Race’ that under Pinochet saw revived because it hilariously claimed that Chileans were the actual true direct descendants of the ancient Greeks. Maybe what we have here is counter propaganda?

I just wish I knew more about the subject matter to be more critical, but I could never shake the nagging feeling that something seemed a bit to ‘artistic’ about the whole book. Maybe Marquez was just unable to write himself out of the story, but then, how couldn’t he help it? How couldn’t Littin be near exploding to get back into his own skin and drop the fake persona?

Fascinating to think about, none-the-less.

75% done with Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín

I get the impression that Marquez is trying to reconcile the idea of Chile as two parts: one part being Allende who is the head and brains, the other is Neruda, the heart.

Tellingly, however, is that we never hear anything bad about Allende. He was a lifelong politician and beloved as he was, he was no saint. Then again Pinochet was so bad that this reverence is understandable.

Then there’s the dirty stripper

The Pastures of Heaven: Read from May 23 to 26, 2013

A funny thing happened to me as I was reading this book – I forgot that Steinbeck wasn’t quite being literal. Yet the characters fell so alive, the valley seems like such a real place that you fall into its spell almost immediately. Not until the end when the tourists are looking down into the valley (much like how the book begins) do we feel how Las Pasturas del Cielo is a promised land and we are all still wandering around the dry California scrag like so many little American Moses’.

I wonder how someone who has never lived in America would feel about this book? I’ve been reading a lot of novels from Russia and I always wonder what it is I’m missing because I am, in fact, unaware of all the nuance that a Russian author would take for granted of his Russian reader. And would a Russian not quite feel everything that an American would feel reading Steinbeck? The distance that separate us socially as a culture, our yearning for something new and to always be on the move, the easy calm mixed with religious firmness … are these things unique to America?

I don’t know.

I do know that Steinbeck writes about the inner yearning and nostalgia and dreams of Americans with an ease as gentle as the calm breeze of the valley of this book. He’s writing about ideals, about something much more firm than a place in the ground – he’s writing about us as a people in all our varied eccentricities, our hopes and our failures and above all, our idea of what we want our lives (and our country) to be about. Here in this book is a place where harsh politics and extremist religions are tempered with hard work, good neighbors and family. People are good, and though they may not always see eye to eye, they know how to work out their differences honorably.

That’s why Las Pasturas del Cielo isn’t a real place, and that’s why the tourists at the end can’t seem to figure out that living in heaven is as simple as just walking out of the desert and into the valley. Life is complicated, life moves quickly, we grasp onto things that aren’t really firm in hopes of finding happiness in things. And yet Las Pasturas del Cielo is still there, waiting, and hoping we will all get our acts together, put aside the things in life that aren’t really that important, and just ‘go home’.

Steinbeck is writing about a very conservative ideal, but it’s the American ideal. It’s quaint, it’s hard work, but it’s full of a joy and a simplicity we wish we had more of.

Anyway, this is a wonderful book but it’s easy to forget what an artistic masterpiece this is because of its simple, idealist subject matter. Steinbeck very simply and vividly created an entire community full of living breathing people, he described the very minutest details of everyday people, and brings them to life with a uniquely American economy of words. And each story grows more mature as the book goes on, the themes a little darker, more bittersweet, but always hopeful.

I suppose a lot of readers would find the book old-fashioned, its art antiquated and its subject matter far too conservative, but there for a book about a place that doesn’t exist, there is something firm here that I can feel in my very soul that no postmodern expression could ever hope to capture. This is a book about how we could be as much as it is about how we are. It’s about a place that has never existed but we wish existed. It’s a book that everyone should read after taking a deep breath.

I hope Steinbeck will soon enjoy a renaissance because too many school kids have been forced to read him when they’re far too young to really get him and so think of his as some quaint American throwback. Yet there is real art here and it’s a kind of art we could stand to have a little more of.

page 162 of 207 of The Pastures of Heaven

While I’ll admit that Steinbeck has a slight tendency to get a little too close to sentimentality and casts some of his characters into a little too kind of a light, his ability to understand how people interact with each other is unparalleled.

His observations of human nature are spot-on and he’s at his best when he leaves a character’s story open ended.

I can’t think of any writer more American.

48% done with Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín

I’m a little unsure how to approach the truthfulness in the story. Marquez has done an artists job of tying together the imagery of love on the bench, sex in an Italian sex film, and treason through the showing of Amadeus that I wonder where the art ends and reality begins. Does it matter?

And the story of the shave: rasurar vs afeitar. Close shave indeed. Language being playful and dangerous and obtuse. Orwellian

page 120 of 207 of The Pastures of Heaven

I’ve read the story of Junius and Robbie before many, many years ago and it always stayed with me. The image of sitting on a tree branch, barefooted in the river and lazy for days on end while philosophizing about whatever with a good friend is my idea of heaven. I can think of nothing better. Neither could Steinbeck, I imagine, since the ending of the story always makes me so sad.

All his stories have heartbreak

page 34 of 116 of Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín

The blurring of the line between film making and true life is never more bizarrely crossed as when Miguel, after being arrested, is asked by the guard how directors can make movie dead bodies bleed like real ones. That story is then followed up with the slitting of the three men’s throats in real life.

The scene where the old woman congratulates him on being from Uruguay is sadly funny as is the bench with hearts.

page 50 of 207 of The Pastures of Heaven

There is an interesting thread running through each of these stories (other than the shared location) and this is of tortured creativity. The father who keeps a fake ledger, the simple boy who can draw anything, and the deranged girl who makes up stories: they are all disappointed by their art.

I LOVE Steinbeck. He might very well be my favorite author. His style is so vivid, so simple … he’s perfection.

Wuthering Heights: Read from May 16 to 22, 2013

When I started this novel I didn’t really like it that much, I was a little confused as to what was going on, whom was whom, and why I was even being told this tale. As I got a little bit deeper into it I admired the ability of Emily to create such interesting and detestable characters, but I was still uneasy as to if I liked the novel.

I think what I was having trouble working out was weather Emily was writing a novel that was deliberately unsettling and filled with hateful people being hateful just for hateful’s sake. I recognized that the characters were well written and I enjoyed that though this is a novel predating the edict of ‘show don’t tell’, Emily always followed a tell with a much more insightful show, yet I felt sort of miserable reading it, I hated the characters (their actions, I mean) and I kept wanting to put it down. Yet I couldn’t put it down. I felt compelled to continue, to discover what the motivations were for these characters, why I was being told this story, felt compelled by the excellent and powerful writing.

And during the day when I was at work and away from the novel, I kept thinking about it, rolling the plot and situations over in my mind trying to make sense of it all. I knew I didn’t yet know all the facts (in a way the novel is a bit of a mystery story) and so I just had to trust Emily to actually have a point, that she didn’t write this just to be shocking but that there was true art here.

Well I’m glad I stuck it out and stayed with this one because this is an extraordinary novel. This story and these characters are people who will haunt me till the day I die – for better or worse. These are characters who though I didn’t like most of them, loved them too. And that’s the real art here because by the very nature of how I felt about these people could I understand their passions for each other, Hareton especially. He loved Heathcliff and also hated him and we understand why – not because there was a simple explanation for such illogical behavior, but because it is complicated.

The novel begins with very much keeping the reader in the dark because it would be impossible to know a family and all their troubles and their past after just a few pages (or hours in real life). In fact you could never hope to really know another family and all it’s secrets (other than your own) if given an entire lifetime – the relationships are just far too complicated. Yet here in this novel Emily manages to reveal the secrets, the pain, the plotting, the love, and the hate page by page, slowly and with exquisite ability to make you feel the passage of time. You live with these people and you empathize with them by the end even of you can’t forgive them because only they could forgive each other since it’s their family.

I imagine that this novel is sort of a prototype of trashy family drama stories but nothing can come close to this. Emily does not hate her characters, she shows them for who why are, warts and all, and she loves them every page without fail. The mistake too many other writers make is that they don’t love their characters and just turn them into cliches to be beaten about for a few hundred pages. The most contemporary author I can think of who could match this style of work would be Raymond Carver. Carver could write about hateful people and make you love them anyway. It’s a very gift in literature, just as it is in life.

I’m not going to compare this work to Jane Eyre because it almost isn’t even fair since Wuthering Heights is FAR superior but I will repeat myself in saying that the major flaw of Jane Eyre was that Charlotte made all her characters too good – they had no flaws. Emily does not make that mistake and has written a much more gripping story.

Never have I been so turned round in the course of a novel. I went from confusion to hate to acceptance and finally to appreciation to the genius of this work. This is a towering achievement of fiction and is one of the best novels I have ever read. I put this right up with Fathers and Sons as one of my favorite novels I’ve ever read. I am so glad I decided to read Wuthering Heights.

82% done with Wuthering Heights

To see how well Heathcliff has played the long game is deviously enjoyable. Granted this all the work of an author who has quite thoroughly plotted her novel, but I actually find myself forgetting that what I’m reading isn’t actually happening. Damn fine writing.

The juxtaposition of Catherine and Linton (one mostly good and only a little bad; the other opposite) makes for great emotion.

I’m very impressed.

68% done with Wuthering Heights

The tumult and roughness of the first half of the novel has given way to a simmering pot of resentment, melancholy, and naive youth.

Young Catherine is quite charming and a relief after so many terrible people. Linton, though sickly, is mostly a twat. In fact I actually sympathized with Heathcliff about him.

And Heathcliff is now more interesting; his evil is actually impressive.

I like this shift.

52% done with Wuthering Heights

I’m sort of tearing through the novel because I’m not really reading it as ‘literature to study’ but rather just to soak it in.

It’s a tough slog with everyone so miserable and the subject matter so damn depressing – but it’s hard to look away too.

Also it seems best to put myself in the place of Lockwood and just be immersed into this tale of people he’s just met and is probably also just as terrified of.

35% done with Wuthering Heights

Catherine is a spoiled little witch who treats everyone horribly and is selfish and is pretty much the last person on earth I would ever want to spend time with.

She’s so horrid, in fact, that I’m not sure I can continue reading this novel because I just hate her so much. Oh, and I’m not buying her as some feminist proto-hero, she’s a little child who is totally selfish and manipulative.

Nelly I like.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: Read from May 10 to 18, 2013

To say I’ve never read a novel like this one before would be a silly thing to write since there isn’t another novel like it; it’s unique.

And I’m not going to review it either, at least not in the traditional sense because to do so would require flowcharts, venn diagrams, and a bunch of other things that have nothing to do with books and reading.

As the point of the novel was to describe, artistically, the process of reading as you are reading it about someone who is a reader Calvino succeeds brilliantly in thoroughly exploring this rabbit hole. And I can see why some people may think this novel was an exercise in writers block, but I don’t see it that way at all since everything does eventually all tie together and each story within a story relates, somehow, to the larger idea of reading.

Anyway, it’s probably best that I’m writing this late at night, immediately after having finished the book and still a little punch-drunk with what I just read. The book is to be experienced (read) and is so clever, so full of every whispered thought you’ve fuzzily been dimly aware of at times when reading other books that the best way to explain the book is to take a cue from the book itself and say “It is reading”.

Make of it what you will, but it’s genius.

80% done with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

So earlier in the novel we get the image of the hand stretching through the prison and now we understand the author wishes to only be a hand and cut off everything else between the author and the page.

And that hand has now pulled the Reader into the story so that he can get the Other Reader alone with him.

I think. And it doesn’t even matter because I’m just along for the ride and the ride is a lot of fun.

The Cossacks: Read from March 09 to May 17, 2013

Olenin < Pierre < Levin

They are all pretty much the same character with Levin bearing the fullest expression of what Tolstoy thought the ideal man should be.

Yet unlike Pierre and Levin, Olenin was left empty-handed and disillusioned. He tried to be something he is not and could not every be. He turned his back on his responsibilities back home and promptly ran into the backs of the entire Cossack people. To make matters more bitter, the Cossacks, though not Russian, are part of the great land of Russia, a people more Russian than the white Russians – and still Olenin could not find his way to that ideal of nature, of grace, and of love.

So what went wrong for Olenin?

Tolstoy did. Tolstoy did Olenin wrong by not writing the novel well enough.

The most glaring problem with this novel is that it’s not long or varied enough. We get the whole story told about Olenin and not much more. Even more oddly we get it in the 3rd person and not the 1st which would have cured many of this novel’s woes. However, POV aside, we have a main character whose troubled and disillusioned past we know almost nothing about and over the course of a story in which he (and thus we) never have an intimate relationship with anyone else in the novel save for Daddy (himself an outsider) never feel attached to anyone.

Now had Tolstoy really taken the time and built up the longing desire in Olenin to fit it, had really broke him down slowly but steadily, that passion to leave behind ‘the west’ and join ‘the east’ would have raised the stakes. However, as it stands, we progress from one brief, but beautifully described scene to another and rather quickly too. Nothing ever really feels at stake because we instinctively know Olenin will never marry a Cossack girl and will never be accepted by these people.

Yet even with that said, this novel could have been saved had Tolstoy understood better what he was writing as he was writing it. Yet it isn’t until the very end do we get ‘the point’ when Daddy says that Olenin should never rush into a fight with the group, but always stand off to the side because it’s safer to be alone. And in some ways even this isn’t the best point for Tolstoy to make because that doesn’t really give us much of a story. We get Olenin riding away angry at the end without anyone even paying him much attention.

And yet still this could have all worked had Tolstoy not just dismissed Olenin at the very end. The ending could perhaps have made this a better book had Tolstoy known what he was trying to say with this novel. Yet as it stands Tolstoy wanted to say something about an idyllic life that can’t be achieved but we don’t feel the sting of the reproachment because we never fully saw the story from only Olenin’s POV (which is why 1st person would have been better).

Luckily for us, Tolstoy was able to flesh out these themes and better understand what even he wanted in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Here he took his time, fleshed out the characters, and understood that while one of privilege might not be able to become a ‘simple and happy serf’, it’s still possible to be happy (like Levin).

A shame about this novel too is that with Tolstoy’s personal experiences and his great eye for culture and detail that all we get of these people is this novel. This could have been a great work and though I see what Turgenev also saw in it, Turgenev this is not.

I really wanted to love this novel, I wanted to get lost on the steppe, to see these people, to share in that life, and at times the novel does work, but overall it’s a let-down.

80% done with The Cossacks

I think the problem here is that unlike Levin, our hero on the one hand disdains his former, aristocratic life while on the other romanticizes Cossack life. The problem this creates is that we have no center to feel attached to since the Cossack’s are mostly distant to him and we never know his old life. Levin found peace in accepting who he was without hating or romanticizing everyone. Not very interesting reading.

9% done with Wuthering Heights

I must have been asleep the day everyone else was told what this novel was about. I was expecting more mild-mannered English manners; this is not at all that.

I am going to make the same complaint about Emily I made about her sister Charlotte, that is she does a poor job of describing a scene and putting the reader in a place. Yes the house is sufficiently Gothic, but that’s all I know.

The rest is good so far

61% done with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

Every so often you read a novel that makes you say to yourself, “I had no idea a writer was allowed to do that!”

Such is the case where the 2nd person perspective changes between characters: You the Reader also become You the Other Reader, Ludmilla.

Meanwhile the Other Reader is also a character in the books whom Marana (the falsifier of novels) is obsessed with.

That this all makes sense is amazing.

Jane Eyre: Read from May 05 to 15, 2013

My favorite part of the novel was the time Jane spent with the Rivers’. Though I didn’t know that these people would ultimately turn out to be her relations, there was an easy, comfortable homeyness to their relationships. I also enjoyed how St. John was, aside from marriage, able to get the better of Jane. I say this not so much that I felt Jane needed any due, but rather because she, as written, had no real faults. This lack of fault in Jane, aside from a stubborn streak, is in part what keeps the novel as a whole from being a true masterpiece; the other nibbling quibble I have is Charlotte’s inability to fully describe a setting better than a rough sketch.

I could better forgive the later (the sketchiness of the descriptions) had Jane been someone who was not so astute, so observant, and also so taken by passion. I could also better understand it had Jane not been an artist. Yet this inability of the author to really let us see (see better than Mr. Rochester in the finale) coupled with the fact that Jane isn’t an unreliable narrator – people who are mean to her are not because of any oversight of her’s, they just ARE bad people – all this weighs the novel down and keeps it from rising to what I was expecting to be a much more brilliant novel.

Jane’s lack of faults and an overall lack of any sense of humor in the story (I can’t have more than passingly chuckled only a handful of times, and then it probably wasn’t even intentional) makes the novel a bit dull. Not even the unending pun of Jane (as in one who is plain) and Eyre (as in air, ire, heir) could get a rise from me.

Yet when the story is really going, when Jane is as passionate as the terrible weather that soaks every page with rain and snow and storm, when things are hot, the novel is really good and it’s hard to not get caught up in it. I did believe she loved Mr. Rochester and I believed he loved her.

But what I loved was the complicated relationship between her and St. John. I liked him even better than strange, ugly Mr. Rochester because he was flawed in a way that real people are flawed. He was sort of unbearable, intolerable, proud, and haughty. Add in that he thought himself blameless, that he believed his name was already written in God’s book, made him interesting – more interesting than Jane or her cousins.

In fact, Olivia, who loved St. John but whom he denied, as nice but dim as she was, served as sort of a metaphor for what a person the author didn’t believe people should be yet made Jane, in many ways, just as dim and dull.

As for the tendency towards melodrama in the novel, I kept wondering if Charlotte was writing a novel she was hoping to see herself in or was speaking to some greater truth of the human condition that 150 odd years since its writing no longer is able to get across well. There are moments, especially the fire at the end that are so over the top that the novel felt indulgent, however, it was such a good scene that it was entertaining. I wonder if Charlotte was just trying to spice things up a bit after pages and pages of interesting, but rather long-winded dialog.

I do understand that the novel has political and social consequences that in their historical context are quite important, and as a feminist tract this novel is very important in the western tradition. However, with fresh, modern eyes, I never felt that Jane was doing anything worthy of even a mild blush. No consideration was made for what other people in the novel felt about Jane’s situation so to learn that the novel was met with social resistance is purely a matter of the times the novel was written, an interesting societal footnote, but not at all indicative of the text on a larger scheme. There seems to be little intention on Charlotte’s behalf to ‘shock’ readers otherwise she would have put Jane’s travails in a larger, more controversial frame.

To better explain, it’s like talking about very early season episodes of The Simpsons: they were controversial at the time but there is nothing controversial in them, they just caused an uproar because they showed a rougher side to family humor. It was much ado about nothing.

And so I feel too is Jane Eyre: much ado about nothing.

Yet I did really enjoy the novel too. The endless dialog was, unlike Dostoevsky, never dull, seemed natural, and never dragged even when it was far from brief. Characters seemed most ‘in their element’ when conversing and when the story demanded action that Charlotte didn’t take into melodramatic waters, the situations were very interesting, such as the death of Mrs. Sarah Reed (another great character). Here the novel shines and though there may not be anything earth-shattering in its observations, that’s not what the book was going for. Charlotte wanted to draw us in, make us live with these people, make us feel that love she felt, and in that regard I was quite convinced.

83% done with Jane Eyre

I swear to molasses, if Charlotte ends this novel with everyone too proud to let love have its way I’m going to be very annoyed.

Is this what pious virtue is – to reserve oneself in the presence of true love because their are some strings attached?

If you love someone, be with them. Quit being a proud pain in the butt and stop thinking you have to be miserable in this life to please the master of the next.

50% done with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

Maybe at this point in the novel I’m trying a little too hard to make meaning of what is happening.

First we get a noir-thriller about a dame and a dead body (fun read, too) that ends in a true cliffhanger. Next we are back at the publisher reading the letters of a man who relationship to the story I’ve sort of lost the threat to, but it doesn’t matter really because the fall into this rabbit hole is still fun.

77% done with Jane Eyre

In Nostromo, Decoud is stuck on the island for only a week yet commits suicide out of loneliness. Oliver Twist spends most of the novel recovering from some ailment that anyone else would brush off without a thought.

Here Jane is described as emaciated after only a day without a meal. A day. It’s all beautifully written and heart wrenching, but it’s only a day.

The constitution of protagonists is questionable.

71% done with Jane Eyre

Ah-ha! Back to the good stuff!

I’ll admit the relationship is teetering on the melodramatic and sometimes goes quite over the hedge, but it’s really hard not to get caught up in the affair. To love someone and to be loved that much, especially these two people, plain as she is and rough as he is. I really want to see them resolved.

And the way he could so well articulate his love for her is beautiful.

29% done with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

We all have a lot of books laying around we’ve never read. We all have books in mind we want to read but never get to.

With that in mind I think Calvino is having some fun with at our failings by saying with his incomplete stories, “if you’re not gonna read them, I’m not gonna write them.”

I do want to take note of the image of the writing hand contorting from the prison cell window. That really stays with me

60% done with Jane Eyre

There’s really no good way to keep a story interesting when the two lovers finally express their feelings for each other and spend the next month being all happy. The tension and drama from the previous 200 pages deflates like a sad balloon. Charlotte tries by here and there confusing the dialogue of the two so you’re not sure who’s talking, but she only does it a few times.

Let’s get back to the good stuff.

9% done with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

This has got to be one of the most original first chapters I’ve ever read.

I suppose what Calvino is doing here is trying to describe the process of reading, of immersing yourself in art, but he’s also interested in everything except the story. He describes all the books you pass in the bookstore to get to his book and his actual story, in the station, is told by showing all the people who ‘extras’.

Very fun!

48% done with Jane Eyre

Mr. Rochester is quite fun. Dressing up as an old gypsy fortune teller woman is to draw Jane out is unique.

However it’s not wholly unusual. Levin was only ever able to express his love to Kitty with the 19th century Russian equivalent of Scrabble.

It seems it’s now forgotten how difficult it can be for us guys to express ourselves in love. We’re expected to be so fearless declaring, but we’ve never been.

t zero: Read from April 29 to May 09, 2013

I’ve never read Calvino, in fact I never even heard of him until Radiolab devoted a special episode to the reading of his short story ‘The Distance Of The Moon’ and I immediately fell in love.

What strikes me the most – overall about Calvino – is is blending of science and fantasy. He begins his stories with a basis in scientific fact but then explores the mysteriousness of these findings through purely magical musings. For me this mix of fact and fiction is at the heart of what makes life interesting and I love that the beauty of science and math can be described so fantastically without being dry, boring, or full of footnotes and caveats.

One of my all time favorite films is Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ based on Tom Wolfe’s novel (which I have not read). In the film when John Glen makes his famous orbit, two of his fellow Mercury astronauts travel down to Australia to communicate with him on one of that country’s satellite dishes. As Glen is overhead that night, outside the Australian station is an aborigine who chants and sends up the sparks from a great fire in the heaven. The sparks mix with the stars and form a perfect blend of the mystical and the factual – the human condition of attempting to explain and understand a universe he’s only dimly aware of. That scene always stuck with me and now discovering Calvino I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity to explore that relationship even more.

As for this book in particular, there is a common theme of being trapped I found interesting. He begins talking about a single cell that suddenly multiplies into the void the cell had only been vaguely aware of previously. Other stories deal with our lives as being packets of information and light that are obliged to follow certain rules. Finally we are prisoners in a universe sized Château d’If where every point leads to every other point but never beyond the confines of the walls.

I was also impressed by the writing itself, Calvino was not a postmodern hack – he was very deliberate in his wording (albeit translated) and he was even playful with his endings and wordplay. He really thought through what he was writing and never allowed himself to get off the rails no matter how strange the subject matter. That more than anything else really impressed me because my previous experience with postmodern strangeness usually results in my detesting the author’s inability to just tell a damn story.

Finally I loved that everything on the page made me think. I’m not sure if what I was thinking was what he intended, but I appreciated being able to explore those distant, fuzzy ideas that we’re sometimes aware of but can never really put into words or even coherent waking thoughts. I found that to be a lot of fun.

I’m absolutely going to read more Calvino.

99% done with t zero

The Count of Monte Cristo

What I imagined going on in this final story of the book was Calvino’s attempt to explain the universe itself.

We’re all trapped in the Château d’If and no matter how hard we try, no matter what knowledge Abbé Faria discovers or imparts on us, we’ll never leave an ever expanding universe – unless it contracts, time flows backwards and we all meet ourselves on the dock.

90% done with t zero

The Chase, The Night Driver

These two stories are about communication and information. Calvino could very well be describing how information moves around in a computer, but he’s also talking about modern life. The first story is information overload, the second is the mixed signals of life and the loneliness and confusion that arise from it.

The Night Driver is my next favorite story in this book.

39% done with Jane Eyre

Charlotte plays a neat trick with the character development of Jane that I love.

After the typhus outbreak, the next 8 years are skipped over until she leaves. We see nothing more of her struggles with her hot head. Yet we remember she’s still willful. When Mr. Rochester leaves, we then get her inner monologue as she steadies her mind with what can only be from her years of schooling. Those years fill right in.

33% done with Jane Eyre

Though I’m not one for romance novels, I get the impression that many a romance novelist has tried to capture the essence of the fire in the bedroom scene. I doubt any of them have ever come close to capturing the perfection of it too.

On another artistic front, while I love the bad weather of the novel, Charlotte loves the pathetic fallacy even more. Everything happens during a storm. King Lear would be proud.

73% done with t zero

t zero

The wordplay in this section is wonderful : petrified means not only frozen in time but also the fear of being eaten by a lion.

What’s more interesting is that Calvino isn’t just telling the story of what happens in one petrified moment in time, but he’s telling the story of an electron – of never inhabiting one place and time – and what that really means.

Great analogy.

25% done with Jane Eyre

I’m very curious as to why Jane is always thinking about or imagining ghosts and phantoms. Perhaps it’s because of her time in the red-room, but there does seem to be something deeper too. Perhaps it’s in a way a manifestation of her desire for something interesting to happen? Excitement? Or maybe even further down she is hoping for some spiritual contact with her parents?

Loved the meeting of Adele.

59% done with t zero


I love how repeated readings open up new interpretations; I wonder what I might think after a few more? These past three stories are about interconnections and harmony and how the small things manage the large. It’s a wonder to think about, and even in death the continuation of life is remarkable.

17% done with Jane Eyre

Now this is more like it! Unlike that blathering buffoon Dickens and his tepid dishrag of innocent banality Oliver Twist, here’s an orphan with some life in her, some depth, some fire and emotion!

I already like the character Jane, she’s rambunctious, doesn’t suffer fools, and is a fighter.

My only quibble is that I’m not sure she’s unreliable as a narrator – the people being mean to her do seem a bit flat.

55% done with t zero

Mitosis & Meiosis

There was a moment I had when reading these two connected chapters when I suddenly became aware how amazing it is that all the different parts and mechanisms that make up an individual (the ‘I’) can work together well enough to keep the individual individual. How the whole thing doesn’t collapse under complexity or chemical argument is supremely incredible.

Calvino’s endings are the best too.

Oliver Twist: Read from April 24 to May 04, 2013

I’ll eat my head if I ever read Dickens again.

What was the point of this novel? Entertainment I suppose, something to read to while away the time every month when a new chapter was printed. And I kept asking myself if Dickens was trying to get at a deeper meaning here but, alas, there is nothing here to be found, my dear. We’ve been robbed.

But let’s take a closer look anyway.

The end of the novel is telling. We’re led to an island where the meanest, dirtiest, lowliest scum of all London, nay all Christendom, live. Here too is where Sikes – the worst of the worst – is hiding. Dickens begins by describing the people here as just mean, dirty castoffs, but then employs them in the right honorable task of bringing a murderer to justice. All of a sudden the dregs of society are miraculously reinvented as a willing army of angels; God’s brigade.

And that’s just one of countless examples of coincidence too convenient to catalog here.

Yet why did Dickens turn pretty much all of England into a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ if the one goal he must have hoped to reach was to show how poorly the lower classes are treated. By the end it’s the upper-classes who come to the rescue, who possess the means to investigate Oliver’s past, who have the social connections to connect the dots and notarize the appropriate paperwork.

Who was Dickens writing for? Was he making fun of England’s citizens while at the same time claiming he was sticking up for them? Who in this book of meager circumstances comes off as righteous? Nancy, perhaps, and maybe Master Bates (wasted pun, by the way) and none else. Oliver, orphan that he seems, is no pleb by blood, and everyone else who raised him was a wretch, a criminal, a tool, and a coward.

So how does Oliver’s story tell us anything about society? What’s the point of Oliver existing in the first place?

As always, my biggest complaint with a lot of writers is that just because they write down that a character is having an emotion doesn’t automatically mean the author no longer has to do any work to earn our emotional engagement. Saying a character is sad, or glad, or even possess a trait, does not mean the author gets a pass for the rest of the story – they have to SHOW that a character is sad, is mad, or whatever.

Yet this is the problem with too much popular writing. An author can say ‘Bella was depressed’ and readers will eat it up even though nothing has been done to show that she’s depressed – it’s only enough to know that someone says someone else is depressed.


Good art requires work. Good reading requires work. Dickens did not do much work. Dickens got paid a lot. Dickens was a literary thief and an orphan of good taste.

And the real shame is that there were moments when the writing was quite good, where if he had utilized his characters more sympathetically we could have really had a good book here, but because he just wanted to poke fun on one page and then be expected to be taken seriously the next, that we get an uneven, and undeserving entry into the cannon.

I wonder what author’s work was turned aside in the serial publication to make room for this? I wonder what great literary talent we’ll never know about was swept aside for Dickens?

There probably was a real Oliver Twist in 19th century England, and he was probably an author who never got the chance to prove his talent or be taken in by a benevolent benefactor willing to give him a chance. We are poorer for it too.


89% done with Oliver Twist

I think anyone who writes for television should read this book so they can understand how even only one writer can get a story so far off the rails it becomes almost another story all-together.

And unlike Anna Karenina where that book is really about Levin yet still needs the character of Anna, Oliver could be written to a single minor chapter and we’d be none the wiser.