Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Water Babies (61st Book)

The Water Babies by Charels Kingsley represents the 6th novel I have read this month. I am not sure why I have been able to plough through as many novels as I have but I am now plugging quite solidly away at the 7th with at least a week left to go in the month! It took until this sixth novel, before I finally decided that I needed to read something fluffy. Since I still wanted to plug away at the list of 1001books I chose The Water Babies which purports itself to be a "fairytale for land babies". I am a fan of fairy tales and this one kept  my attention.

The first thing I would like to say about this fairytale is that is trying rather pointedly to have a point. That point is two things. One, the exhortation to good little boys and girls to lead a Christian life and two, the encouragement to adopt the idea of  evolution. Since this is only written 4 years after Darwin's book it is quite a shocking accomplishment. That being said, it is rather plainly judgemental in some parts, but oddly enough it seems to be endearingly so because it is right in your face. It is a good picture of the times if nothing else, and one that the author encourages us not to take too seriously since it is, after all, only a fairytale.

The story tells of  Tom a little boy who has a hard life as a chimney sweep at the hands of his nasty master, Mr. Grimes. He is mistaken to be stealing something from a wealthy family that he is working for and gets chased over hill and dale until he falls asleep in a river and "dies". As it turns out he has simply become a water baby which is a stage in life where a person can live underwater and become "clean" while learning valuable life lessons about the way the world works. There is a brilliant philosophical passage on whether or not water babies exist and how one can know anything at all. "but the wiser man are the less they talk about 'cannot'." 

"The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see. There is life in you; and it is the life in you which makes you grow, and move, and think; and yet you can't see it"

The novel reminded me a lot of Pilgrims Progress which I loved. I do however, think this is a slightly inferior version of it because many of the allusions got muddled halfway through the telling of them and the other half seemed to blatant for my liking. The book did a wonderful job of describing the vast and interesting life in the seas and rivers. The creatures described were so fantastical, but pointed to very real and unusual things that live in the water, things like anemone's, sea slugs, and varying forms of fish.

The last things I will say about novel is it stopped and made me think about some of the aspects of my own faith. It had a brilliant observation about one of the fairies who helped make Tom into who he became at the end of the novel. The fairy stated that although many people could make things, only she could "sit here and make them make themselves". I think it is true that God does allows us to create ourselves and sits back giving us subtle corrections and guidances, but allowing us to do the work. That is the one aspect of free will that I definitely love. The other aspect of free will is the harder. As part of his task in life he has to set out to dowhathedoesnotwant. He has to find Mr. Grimes who has since died by falling into the water. He is in a fantastical land where he is trapped with his hands in the chimney. Tom stands by helpless and wants to do something for him, but has to discover that Mr. Grimes is the only person who can help himself. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn that people are responsible for their own lives. I see that everyday in my job with addicted  youth and adults. If others try to do the work for them, they never learn the hard lessons. Sometimes the most caring thing a person can do for someone trapped in addiction is to allow them to fully experience the consequences of their addiction. The codependent care taking that happens may feel like love, but often times means that a person will stay caught in their behaviours. I love the song Timshel (which means thou mayest) by Mumford  and Sons describes this beautifully by the chorus which says ,"but you are not alone in this/ you are not alone in this/ as brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand" followed by the last line of the song,  "But I can't move the mountains for you".

I only rated this novel 3 stars out of 5 because I didn't fully have my engaged in it. It was a cute story, with a few valuable lessons, but it wasn't brilliant in its execution. Although charming and quaint it is not a novel I would recommend to everyone, particularly because it is judgemental.

Anagrams (60th Book)

Anagrams is the last book that I purchased from Powell's, the largest book store in Portland. It is a memorable moment for me, because the trip to the Oregon coast led to me dating my boyfriend. Now that I'm finished my last book from there, maybe we will have to go back! Our discussion of books as we wandered through the aisles, is one of the reasons we started dating.

This book impacted me in a huge way. It is beautiful poetry spun out into a story that changes with every page. It is a story, that for me at least, played with every single on of my heart strings and left me with a sense of philosophical wonder, and existential melancholy.

The novel follows Benna Carpenter's journey through life as she tries to make sense of her self in the day to day mediocrity that she finds her self in. The first  few chapters involve several different anagrams or versions of Benna's life. Friends and lovers are shuffled, careers change hands between characters, and the central conflict switches focus. The last two thirds of the novel are "real" life, but with trouble that we are seeing it through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.

I was struck by the themes in the novel which are themes that are quite prevalent for me at the moment: love, mediocrity, greatness, and being vulnerable before others. I am in a crossroads in my life where I have no idea what is next. I am looking at a potential move, a probably career change and and likely a change in my single status. As I contemplate a move to the city, It is looking like I will potentially have to take a few steps backward in my career goals. Coming at this stage in my life this seems like a blow to my sense of self. The main character Benna struggles with some of the same feelings as she finds herself nowhere that she would want to be at 33. She has a brilliant comment about this stage of life, one that is a constant theme in my boyfriend and I's discussions. "... that awful  stage between the age of twenty-six to thirty-seven known as stupidity. It's when you don't know anything...and you don't even have a philosophy about all the things you don't know".

Parts of the book are all silliness and frivolity. The title of the main body of the book is called "The Nun of that". The book also plays with several rather silly word anagrams. The narrator has three of the same classes on poetry with each of the sessions varying in silliness on the inane thing she tells them, and the themes for poems that she forces them to write. Benna and her sometimes, neighbour, sometimes friend, sometimes lover Gerard have the funniest puns that they say to each other.

The book is also about loss, connection and the fear that prevents us from making deep and meaningful relationships. The novel had me in sad tears by the end of it, both for myself, but also for the narrator. I think she presents in a very meaningful way the human condition about the troubles in connecting to others on a deep level. One of the repeated phrases throughout the novel is "Life is sad. Here is someone" Although that is a sad and disheartening statement I think it is also accurate. We fall in love with people who make us a feel a little less lonely. We are friends and lovers with people who we think "get" us on a soul level. In a world full of disconnection it is nice to finally be seen by someone.

Here are a few quotes that stuck out for me:

"People have lives. As difficult as your own has been, there are others whose lives have been more so".

"words are all you need for love"

"you can not be grateful without possessing a past"

And the final one, a silly one:

"People didn't get married, because they had found someone. It wasn't a treasure hunt. It was more like musical chairs. Wherever you were when the music of being single stopped, that's where you sat".

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is an honest look at how we make a life out of mediocrity and what we do when our lives are not what we would have them be. It is  frighteningly raw self analysis of what is truly important in life and one that I would say is not for the faint of heart. That being said, it is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly those between the ages of "stupidity"!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Everything is Illuminated (59th Book)

I feel like I was tricked. Everything is Illuminated makes you laugh until you all of a sudden aren't anymore. I made it the majority of the way through the book, giggling and laughing and having a jolly good time of it, but then I got to the last third of the wasn't funny any more. The author says it best when he says, "Humor is a way of shrinking from the wonderful and terrible world".

The first 100 pages of this book were a slog for me. However, despite all that I laughed my head off at Alex, the Ukrainian translator for the narrator's journey to find the lady who saved his grandpa. He was presented with a thesaurus by the narrator and some of his slip ups in word usage are extremely witty and clever. Unfortunately, it made it also made it slightly hard to read, and I kept setting the book aside after reading a few pages. Thanks to the book's odd post modernism and magical realism I decided that I couldn't read it before bed, because it would screw with my already extremely vivid dreams. This turned out to be a wise choice given the subject matter.

If you had asked me what I thought of the novel in the first 100 pages I would have been frustrated and annoyed because I was so sure that I would love the novel, but I wasn't yet. It took a quick turn for me when Alex's English started improving and the story started progressing.This is why I love reading from the lists, because it forces me to step outside of my literary comfort zone. It turned out to be quite a quick read. The post modern style of the book reminded me very much of James Joyce (who I have also decided I love), but it is much easier to follow. The book is littered with different literary styles including encyclopedia entries,  play dialogue, letters, songs, and poems. It is funny, but also not.

This book had so many of the themes that I love: the idea of love, whether there is a God or not, what the nature of good and evil is, free will and dreams. I snapped up all these references and thoroughly enjoyed the process of thinking through the questions. Here are a few of my favourite quotes around the themes:

"we are always drowning and our prayers are nothing less than pleas for rescue from deep spiritual waters"

"a bad person is someone who does not lament his bad actions"

"I loved him so much I madeloveimpossible"

"Every love is carved from loss...but we learn to live in that love"

One of the characters, Brod reminded me a great deal of my teenage self. She, like I, was in love with the idea of love. She wanted so badly to be in love, but it  was harder for her being a truthful person, and unwilling to lie to herself if she was not feeling it. Here are a few of the things that were said about her:

"she had to satisfy herself with the idea of love"

"love itself became the object of her love"

"she loved her new vocabulary of simply loving something more than she loved her love for that thing"

One of the most shocking themes in the book, was the idea of choice and how we have to learn to live with ourselves when we make absolutely horrible ones. I won't go into details for fear of wrecking the story for someone but I was blown away by the thoughts in the book. I think this is the ultimate question in life, and one that makes us human. How do we live with ourselves, when we makes choices that  are counter to our own sense of moral code? How do we live with ourselves, when we become someone we would no longer love?  This book does an absolutely amazing job at rectifying the choices each of the character's made that they struggled to live with.

"We all choose things, and we all choose against things. I want to be the kind of person who chooses for more than chooses against"

"You had to choose, and hope to choose the smaller evil"

"Try to live so that you can always tell the truth"

This book was a pleasant surprise to me. I was happy I stuck with it and thoroughly loved the process of discovery though the book. I liked it so much that I would like to read another or the authors books to see if it is equally as good.

The Thirty-nine Steps (58th Book)

Whoops! I have been reading so many books in the past month that I forgot about this short, but good novel. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because it was interesting and engaging. It is dubbed the first spy novel, and one that created a lot of the standards in the genre: car chases, disguises etc. I wanted something light and fluffy and this fit the bill. It was a short read, and very engaging. I have always wanted to go to the play recreated by Alfred Hitchcock It was playing in London when I was there, but I unfortunately missed the opportunity. Interestingly enough, I think that the novel and play are quite different. I don't know much about the plot of the play but I know it has something to do with a girl. There isn't a girl in the original version. I also know that it is supposed to be riotously funny, and the novel is extremely engaging, but not comical in anyway. I feel bad for the original author, John Buchanan who has been trumped by the genius of Alfred Hitchcock. Everyone is far more familiar with his story than the original.

One of the interesting things about this novel, is that it was written during the First World War and involved a German plot to start a war and make it look like the British caused it. It is a highly plausible plot, and it makes me wonder how it was received at the time. It seems like it would be a little too close to  home for comfort, but perhaps it only added fuel to the fire, in the British's hatred of Germans.

At any rate if you are looking for a good read between some of the heavier classics I would definitely recommend this. It would hold a candle to any of the modern day spy novels.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Fall of the House of Usher (57th Book)

I seem to be on a roll these days. I have a lot of time on my hands and have been finishing books quite quickly these days. I wanted something quite fluffy and short, because I intended to read Everything is Illuminated this month, but didn't feel this was a good book to read before bed since I tend to have weird dreams already and that book is kinda crazy. Instead I perused my Kobo and found this short story from Edgar Allen Poe, that is also on the list of 1001 Books to Read before you die. It probably seems like an odd choice given that it is Poe and also weird, but it thankfully didn't infect my dreams.

The book is set in a crumbling mansion on the lonely moors and narrated by an old friend who is sent to visit his former companion who he hasn't seen in years. When he arrives he finds his friend and sister much changed and in ill health. Over the course of the novel his friend comes unhinged and the sister dies. It is an eerie tale, filled with an remote setting, scary story telling, death and a madman. It is a quick but engaging read.

I enjoyed the story, but did not think it Poe's best. For me nothing can replace the eerieness of The Tell Tale Heart. It is interesting to see which novels make lists, and which don't. The Novel 100 list is one person's interpretation of what is best, and even though the 1001 Books list is compiled by more than 100 critics I still occasionally find books that I wish were on there. For instance, it blows my mind that East of Eden isn't on either list, when it is one of my favourites.

At any rate, this was a quick and enjoyable read, and definitely had the haunting and eerie  feel of many of  Poe's stories. I am looking forward to reading The Pit and the Pendulum which is also on the 1001 List.

Book 39-The Tin Drum (56th book)

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass is one odd little book! I'm not saying that is a bad thing because I read the book pretty fast, but it is about the only description I can think of to describe what the book is like. I purchased this book from my local used bookstore for $3 and I'm glad that was all I paid. Although it is an intriguing and engaging read, I don't think I would read it again. It is a bizarre snapshot in time to pre-war Poland and Germany....but through the eyes of a midget who willed himself to stop growing at three. This is the first book I have reviewed for The Classics Club challenge that I signed up for last month.

The best thing about the book is it does extremely well with descriptions. There are several disturbing, but very vivid moments in the book. One of the most horrifying is when Oskar and his family comes across a fisher at the seaside. When he pulls in his bait it turns out to be a dead horses head which he is using to catch eels. The book describes in graphic detail how he reaches in various orifices to pull out eels, the most disturbing being and eel hauled out of the ear, with a bit of brain still in its mouth. Apparently this is fairly well known scene, because as I talked about this book at work, it was one of the first things that my co-worker remembered about the book.

The description of this book in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die actually made me appreciate this book slightly more. It talked about how this book was about Nazi Germany written through the eyes of an outcast from this society. It also talked about how the book used literary forms that were not condoned during that time: fairy tales, carnivalesque and harlequin (2010 Edition). That is definitely what this book is like. A few parts of it reminded me of Gravity's Rainbow which I didn't like. The more books off the list I read the more I realize that I am not a terribly great fan of fantastical literature. That strikes me as odd, because given what I know of my personality I would think it would be right up my alley. I guess when I read classical literature I want to do so for edification and I find a lot of the comic, fantastical literature tends to focus heavily on bitter revelations about the world, some of which I would support, others which I see as taken to far.

There were a few quotes in this book that I found interesting:

"Even bad books, are books and therefore sacred"

"Love knows no time of day, and hope is without end, and faith knows no limits"

"My presumptive father took so realistic a view of war that itw as hard, in fact impossible, for him to be brave"

"He who doubts, believes, and it is the unbeliever who believes the longest"

Since I finished this book so early in the month, I will have plenty of time to read books off of the 1001 Books list. I think I am even going to read Everything is Illuminated along with the 1001 Books club on Goodreads. I have had it on my shelf for awhile so it will be good timing.