Monday, June 30, 2008

Book #14 - Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

I'm traveling this week, and for reading on my trip I picked up Rudyard Kipling's "Kim". Turns out it's not a bad choice, since for at least the first part of the novel the two main characters are themselves traveling. I seem to have been reading a streak of 19th century English literature recently...not planned, really, but it's been fun to stay within the same cultural context. Kipling, though, write this book in 1900, so I'm now at the tail end of that era, whereas "Frankenstein" was from the beginning of it. And this book takes place far from the British Isles, but rather in the British colonial posession of India.

I'm about 60 pages into the book. I've never read any Kipling before...never even saw the movie version of "The Jungle Book". I always had this vague conception in my mind that Kipling wrote for kids, probably because of "The Jungle Book" (or wait, was that written by Walt Disney?). While the protagonist of Kim is a young lad, I'm not so sure I'd call this a kid's book. In fact, the language gets a little dense in places, and can be hard to follow. It's the story of a young Irish boy whose father was a soldier in India. He is orphaned at an early age and is forced to grow up on the streets of a town in India, fending for himself. Sounds a bit like Dickens, but it really isn't. In Dickens, Kim's story would be one of squalor and constant danger, but Kipling's Kim is a wily, unbelievably street-smart kid who can more than take care of himself. He can totally confound and manipulate all the adults he runs across. He meets a traveling Tibetan Buddhist priest, who is looking for a magical river whose waters have wonderful powers. Kim tags along with him, and together they leave Kim's town for parts unknown...the priest to find his river, and Kim to, well, to just travel around. The story so far mostly concerns the different people they meet up with along the way. Kipling lived in India, and his descriptions of the different customs and castes of people there are well worth reading. It is indeed a whole different world.

One thing that's a bit hard for the modern reader (i.e. me) to get around is Kipling's attitude toward race. I don't think he's a racist, but he does focus on race a lot, and in stereotyped ways that would not be PC today. He refers to Kim as being burned as black as the natives. He says that Kim can "lie like an oriental". Race was certainly an issue in colonial India. After all, these were the days of the "white man's burden" (a phrase coined by Kipling, and the title of a poem he wrote). It was the height of the British Empire, and issues of the goals of empire were in question, as were the roles and obligations of the British to the non-white subjects they ruled over in their colonial possessions. But it's hard for the modern reader to relate, as there are no more European empires, and as ideas of race have changed so dramatically in the last 100 years. And unfortunately, I know very little about the history of colonial India. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining tale so far. I'm not sure where it's all going, but I'm willing to go along for the ride.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Frankenstein's End (Spoiler Alert, sort of)

I finished "Frankenstein" yesterday. The ending was not at all surprising, because Shelley foreshadowed it into the ground, over and over again, for the last 60 pages or so. Frankenstein almost goes through with making the monster a bride, but then freaks out, thinking about the two monsters then reproducing, and then killing humans right and left. So he rips up the half finished female (which, although Shelley doesn't use must description, sounds pretty gross) and then the monster gets all gangsta on Frankenstein's ass and kills his friends and family. Oops. Then, Frankenstein proceeds to chase the monster up to near the North Pole, in hopes of seeking revenge, but the monster just keeps taunting him by staying just out of reach. Ha, ha!! That's when Robert Walton finds the near dead Frankenstein. Frankenstein tells his narrative, and then dies. And finally, Robert Walton finds Frankenstein's corpse is visited by the monster, who regrets what he's done, pays his last respects to Frankenstein, and then says he's going out on to the ice to kill himself. The End.

While I thought this book could have benefited from a good editor, it's still a ripping tale. But what's the moral? Is it that man should not attempt to create life...that there's a line between man and God that should not be crossed? Why is Frankenstein so repulsed at his creature? Is it that he's realized that he's crossed this line, and pulls back in horror at what he's done? Well, that's one idea, but it's not my favorite. My favorite, outlined in my last post, is that Frankenstein brought this on to himself. His fatal flaw was creating a life and then freaking out at the ugliness and running away from it, instead of taking responsibility. He could have covered the monster in a bag, ala the Elephant Man, if physical ugliness was the problem. But he should have "owned up" and taken care of his laboratory progeny. To me, this then is the moral of the story..."with knowledge comes responsibility". And that's a lesson that rings even more true in today's science and technology-centric society.

One final note: I wonder if the premise of this story is as shocking today as it was when it was written. After all, genetic engineering is now a reality, and genetically modifed organisms pervade the world around us, whether we like it or not. Plus, perhaps Shelley was not aware of this, but humans have been mucking with life for thousands of years. After all chihuahuas do not exist in the wild. And have you ever seen what corn looked like before humans started breeding it? So to go from humans to Frankenstein's monster does not seem such a big stretch today. Perhaps the modern Prometheus has already visited us. Although, as far as I know, no GMO has ever gone on a murderous rampage and killed it's inventor's entire family and circle of friends.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Deadbeat Dad

Man, is Victor Frankenstein a dick, or what? I mean, the more I read (and I've got about 75 pages left) the more I want the monster to do him some serious damage. Victor goes for a hike in the mountains, to escape his woes and thoughts of the monster, when who should he encounter...the monster! The monster tells him he needs to sit down and listen to his story or he'll rip Frankenstein's head off after killing all his family (or something like that). Frankenstein doesn't have to think about this for too long before agreeing. So the monster tells Frankenstein his story, which takes a few chapters. We learn the monster is quite intelligent, and has read Goethe and Milton (although he seems to believe that "Paradise Lost" is actual history). He's sensitive, and articulate, and doesn't like the fact that he's an outcast. He had tried to befriend a family in the country he had been spying on, and almost succeeds after approaching the blind father, but when the kids come back and see their dad with a monster, they naturally freak out and chase him away. Poor monster. In fact, the monster seems more human than Frankenstein. He's lonely, he's isolated, he's angry. Victor Frankenstein is all those things too, but in his case it's his own damn fault. In America today we'd call Victor Frankenstein a "deadbeat dad". He created a life, but then couldn't deal with it, and ran off. If only he'd stayed with the monster, and helped him find his way into society, all this wouldn't have happened. He should have "owned up" and showed some responsibility. Jerk. Anyway, the monster tells him he wants Frankenstein to make him a wife, or else he'll kill all his family and then rip Frankenstein's head off (or something like that). But if he does make him a wife, they'll go off to South America together and never bother anyone. Now THAT'S a great plot twist. I was not expecting that one. Frankenstein is not so excited about this idea, but he relents, having no other real option. He's being forced to "double down". We'll see where this goes, but it's clear it won't be good.

Incidentally, the narrative structure of this novel is quite interesting. "Bleak House" had the two narrators, and they were two entirely separate ones, with each having their own chapters. "Frankenstein" also has multiple narrators, but it's more like an onion skin, with layers upon layers. Robert Walton is telling the whole story, which is mostly of Frankenstein telling his story, but then Frankenstein is telling about the monster telling his own story, within which the monster is telling the story of the family in the woods he tried to befriend. Cool.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book #13 - Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

I've started my next book on my canon odyssey...Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein". I'm about 70 pages in so far, and it's been quite interesting. Frankenstein is such a cultural icon in this day and age. Everyone has a mental image of the monster (Boris Karloff with bolts coming out of his neck) and an image of Dr. Frankenstein (a mad genius in a lonely castle with his faithful assistant Igor, digging up graves to get body parts, and using the brain of a criminal psychopath). Well, surprisingly to me, the book has none of this. In fact, the book starts out describing a voyage of exploration to the North Pole, lead by Robert Walton. WTF?? Was that Tanquery martini I just had tainted in some way?? What does THIS have to do with Frankenstein? Well, the Robert Walton expedition runs into an ice flow, where they see some strange creature sledding across the ice in the distance. What was that? Then they run into another sled, carrying a half dead man across the ice. So they bring him on board, give him food and water, and put him under some blankets to get him warm. Finally, he confesses his tale to Robert Walton...and he's Doctor Frankenstein! OK, so now the book should start getting into familiar territory, yes? NO! First of all, Dr. Frankenstein is no doctor. He's just some college kid, who is fascinated with science and alchemy, a genius at science in fact, and decides he wants to create some life. So instead of the usual method of going to a local dance club and hitting on some loose women, he instead goes the harder route, building a lab in his apartment, stealing some body parts, and sewing together his monster. The monster awakes, Frankenstein screams and runs off, and then he doesn't see the monster again for months and months. Now that's unexpected. In fact, pages go by with no mention of the monster, except for Frankenstein's guilt over having created life. But then Frankenstein travels to his home in the Swiss mountains, only to find his little brother has been murdered by the monster, and the monster has also somehow framed the cleaning lady for the crime. The cleaning lady is found guilty and executed. This makes Dr. Frankenstein, who has not told anyone about the monster, feel really, really bad.

This book is whacking me upside the head by being so different in storyline to what I expected. That's great, and I love it, but as I said the movie version of the story is now so iconic that it's hard to get over. Also, Shelley uses a LOT of foreshadowing. As Frankenstein tells his story to Robert Walton, every other paragraph is like "And that's what sealed my doom" or "It was then that my downfall began". I mean, OK, we GET it! Back off a bit. And also, what's with the monster traveling to Frankenstein's home from his college town where the monster was created, and then killing Frankenstein's brother. That seems like a really big coincidence to me. But them maybe there's some backstory we haven't gotten yet that will explain this. Maybe I need to just shut up and continue reading. In fact, I think I will.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Literature, and Family History

My great great grandmother was a profoundly unhappy woman.  Born in 1844 into an upper class Jewish family in Bavaria, in 1865 she married Abraham Staab, an American immigrant who had come back to Bavaria in search of a bride.  Abraham had come to America in 1854 at the age of 15.  After two years working in a grocery store in Norfolk, Virginia, he lighted out for the territories, traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had some cousins, and where the prospects looked more promising for an industrious young man.  There he went into the dry goods business with his brother, and by 1860 their company was the largest wholesale trading and merchandising company in the southwest.  Abraham was a shrewd businessman, and became a pillar of the community.  Due to the lack of commercial banks, he kept cash for many of his customers, and was known for his honest dealings.  When my great great grandmother, Julia, married him, it was surely a promising match.  Abraham built a large, three-story mansion in Santa Fe for her, and the ballroom there became the center of Santa Fe's social scene, with Julia as the elegant host.

But despite the promise, her troubles were great.  She bore Abraham 7 children, and lost her health due to problems with the pregnancies (she also had several miscarriages in addition to the successful pregnancies).  She traveled back to Europe several times in order to be nursed back to health by her sisters, which meant a difficult and dangerous stagecoach trip along the Santa Fe trail.  When her last child, Henriette, died shortly after birth, she apparently entered into a spiral of depression which she never overcame.  Furthermore, while he was a successful and wealthy man, Abraham was apparently a tyrant when it came to his family, even disinheriting one son after he married a gentile, despite the fact that the rest of the family found the woman charming and elegant.  Julia spent her last few years as a recluse and an invalid, never leaving her bedroom, and she died at the age of 52.  The Staab mansion is now part of a hotel in Santa Fe, and it is said that Julia's ghost still haunts the place.

Interestingly, Abraham Staab had a brush with literary history.  He was a good friend of Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe, who inspired Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop".  Which brings up an interesting story:  Staab and his friends had a weekly Friday night poker game.  Archbishop Lamy would regularly attend these games; never to gamble, but simply to sit and converse with his friends as they played.  One night Lamy seemed quite glum, and Abraham asked him what was wrong.  Lamy replied that it was the new Santa Fe was about half built, but they had run out of money and he didn't think they could raise any more.  Abraham asked how much more was needed, and when Lamy replied, Abraham wrote him out a check for the balance, saying "You can pay me back later".  Well, the cathedral was built, but as it was being finished it became apparent to Lamy that he would never be able to raise the money to pay back Abraham.  When Lamy confessed this to Abraham, the jewish merchant told him it was not a problem, but asked if Lamy would do him one the keystone over the door to the cathedral, he asked him to carve, in Hebrew, the name of God, Yahweh.  Lamy readily agreed, and to this day, you can see the Hebrew carving in the keystone above the door of the Santa Fe cathedral.

OK, maybe that all makes an interesting story, but what does it have to do with book blogging?  Well, here's the deal:  a few years ago I was contacted by a writer, Joanna Hershon, who wanted to write a book about the Staabs.  She was looking into the history of Santa Fe, and asked for my help.  So we talked, and I shared what I knew. A year or two later I heard from her that her book about the Staabs had turned into a novel, and was now only loosely based on the real history of the family.  Well, the book came out a couple of months ago, and I read it this past week.  And I have to say, it was quite an interesting experience for me, and made me think about the nature of both fiction and history.

Joanna Hershon's "The German Bride" tells the tale of Eva Frank, who was born into an upper class Jewish family in Bavaria. Eva is quite close to her sister, Henriette. When an attractive young gentile painter is hired by their father to paint their portraits, the painter and the adolescent Eva fall in love. But of course, he's a gentile, so this can't really go anywhere for Eva. Meanwhile Henriette marries a respectable man, and is soon pregnant with his child. Well, complications ensue, and Henriette dies in childbirth, as does her child, and Eva believes her sister's discovery of her affair was responsible (and she has good reason to think so). Eva is devastated. Soon after, Abraham Shein appears, an immigrant to America who has made his fortune in Santa Fe and has come back to Germany to find a bride. Eva, looking to escape her past, says "sure why not", marries Abraham and embarks for the American frontier. Well, when she arrives in Santa Fe it's not quite what she expected. Abraham is indeed in the dry goods business with his brother, but he's not all that prosperous, living in an adobe shack. Then things get worse. Abraham is an inveterate gambler, boozer, and a loyal customer of the Santa Fe prostitutes. He has a large and ever-growing gambling debt. Eva has several pregnancies, all of which end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Life pretty much sucks. Then Abraham secures a large government contract, and all looks promising again...for a bit. He builds her the large fancy house that he's always promised but never has delivered. She gets pregnant again. Yay! Well, not so fast...Abraham loses the government contract, and the gamblers to whom he owes money come after him. He leaves town. Eva has the child, a girl she names Henriette, and then Abraham suddenly reappears, demanding her jewelry to repay his debts. Fortunately she's thought this one through, and Abraham is unable to find the jewlery. Things are getting ugly, and she realizes that if she doesn't leave town, the gamblers will take the house and kill the whole family. So, through the help of a friend and her own cunning, she escapes town with her child and jewlery, and heads to San Francisco on a stagecoach to start a new life...although what that life exactly will be is unclear. Abraham, well, let's just say he meets with a dark result.

This is a good book, and a good read. It's very well-written, intelligent and entertaining, with a colorful cast of characters. It presents a side of the "Old West" that one doesn't see that often...middle and upper class European jews struggling with their way of life on the frontier. Yet it's a side of American history that really happened...I know from the stories of my ancestors. It also presents a side of the settlement of the American west that is easily forgotten in modern-day romanticism about the frontier...namely that life was quite physically (and often emotionally) hard for the early settlers, and that was on top of any culture shock that the immigrant settlers may have had. So I recommend this book!

And for me, reading it raised an interesting thought. I could certainly see where the family stories I know so well were used as a basis for parts of the novel. And yet, this is not a novel about my family. Abraham Staab, unlike Abraham Shein, was not a gambler/boozer/womanizer and failed businessman. Julia Staab's life was nothing like the life of Eva Frank, except in some outlines and in setting. And really, who cares...the author has woven a great tale out of the broad fabric of these historical lives. It is not the role of fiction to tell historical truth...that's why it's called "fiction". But here's the thought that reading the novel brought to my mind: what if Abraham Staab did have a gambling/drinking problem? What if some of his industriousness, which lead him to riches and the heights of society, had been steered towards darker pursuits? Might he indeed have ended up like Abraham Shein? In a way, but only in a way, reading this story reminded me of the movie Rashoman, where the same story is told from several different points of view. Yet this story doesn't tell history with a different point of view...instead it tweaks the historical characters, then lets the story unfold to see what happens. It's like that Star Trek episode where they go to a parallel universe, and see what life would be like if all the crew members were violent and evil at heart. History depends not only on fate and setting, but on the nature of the people present at historical moments, and how their personalities allow them to handle the world and times that surround them.

As an example, there is a scene in the novel where the archbishop comes to Abraham Shein's poker game. Abraham has just won a bunch of money, and is feeling cocky and looking to show up his fellow players. When the archbishop confesses he has no money to finish the cathedral, a drunken Abraham throws his winnings at him and tells him to "use this". It's actually a pretty disgusting scene, totally fitting with Abraham's character. It parallels the family story, but it's replayed with Abraham Shein replacing Abraham Staab. It was fascinating and enjoyable for me to see history replayed with a rogue set of characters. Now, if I could only replay my own life, but as someone who's devilishly handsome, sublimely debonair, and completely confident, with an overpowering intellect, and a lightening quick wit. That would be interesting! Any writers out there want to take up this story idea?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bleak House - Finished!! (Spoiler Alert!)

Well, it took me long enough, but I finally finished "Bleak House" last night.  Whew!  What a big, sprawling novel!  And after all the bitching and moaning I did at the beginning about how I just couldn't get into it, and damn it was so huge, and how would I ever be able to keep track of all the characters, etc., well, I actually was sad to end it.  I was in this world for so long, and got so used to the characters, that I was sorry to leave them.  Looking back, I now think this is the first book I've read in quite a long time that I really want to read again...not immediately, but not years from now either.  I think by reading it again I will be better able to get a grasp of things in the early parts of the book, where I felt confused by the characters, and I think that confusion made me miss a lot of things that I would get on a second read.

And what a wild ride this book turned out to be!  Did the book have a happy ending, or a sad ending?  Answer:  All of the above!  Did it have a first person narrator, or a third person narrator?  Answer:  All of the above!  Was the book a comedy, a tragedy, social satire, a detective novel?  Answer:  All of the above!  I mean, this book was all over the place, and yet, was also a fit coherent whole.  In the end, all the craziness, and all the oddball characters, and all the narrator shifts, and all the various moods and themes, they all fit together.  It all made sense.  This to me is proof of Dicken's genius.  Very few authors could pull this off.  Bravo, Charles!

I have several comments and thoughts about the book.  First, I liked the contrast between the tragic part of the novel's conclusion (the death of Esther's mother, the Lady Dedlock, who ran away from her husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock, because she knew he had found out about her having born a child before they were married.  She feared he would throw her out and heap scorn upon her, when really he loved her so much that he didn't care.  But she didn't know this, and ran off and died in the snow) with the happy part of the novel's conclusion (Esther's finding out that the man she loves still loves her, despite her smallpox scarred-face, and so they get married).  There's something for everyone!  But isn't this how life is?  Some things turn out well, and others end up tragically.  Then you grow old and die, unless you're part of the tragedy, in which case you just die.

Second, I love how the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which has gone on for years and years, ends.  It ends when the lawyers figure out the estates involved no longer have any money to pay for the suit to continue any further, and so they drop it immediately.  No thought of justice, or the law...the money's gone so that's the end of it.  And ironically, this happens just as a new will is discovered that would have put the suit to a satisfactory end, had it been found in time.  And the court breaks out in laughter at this conclusion.  Ha, ha, ha!!  Man, Dickens did not respect lawyers.  Fortunately times change, and no one ever makes fun of lawyers anymore.

Third, I loved how Richard, one of the "wards of Jarndyce", the cousin and wife of Ada, Esther's "darling", never really could figure out what he wanted to do with his life, and finally gets sucked into the lawsuit...studying it and going to court everyday with the hope (wrong!) that it would be resolved soon and he'd come into some money and could live a life of leisure.  Instead, he falls in with a crooked lawyer, loses all his money, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with the case.  He dies just after the case's conclusion.  Wow, this rings a bell.  I've known several people who were promising in their youth, but then became obsessed with something, or fell into really bad habits, and their lives just went off the rails.  Moral:  don't let this happen to you!

Fourth, what was with Mr. Jarndyce's marriage proposal to Esther?  He was her guardian, her father figure.  And then he proposes marriage, although once he makes the proposal, he doesn't do much to follow through until nudged by Esther, and then when he realizes Esther and Allan Woodcourt still love one another, he quickly arranges them to get together, and he drops the proposal, tells the two of them to get married, and fixes them up with a house.  Jarndyce is a very good man, but what's with this proposal.  It seems, well, icky to me.  Would this proposal have seemed this way to a Victorian audience?  Have times changed?  Or would the reaction 150 years ago have been the same as mine?

Finally, I like how the two houses named "Bleak House" are really the two happiest places in the novel.  Oh, the irony of it all!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bleakly Falling Apart

One of the joys of entering middle age is that one becomes more and more reminded of one's mortality.  In my 20s and 30s my mind and body were supercharged machines...not that I was some superman athlete and scholar like Ben Franklin and Jesse Owens combined, but I was lean and healthy and could go out dancing and boozing until 3 a.m. and it was all good.  Then, in my 40s, the wheels started to come off the well-oiled machine.  Slowly I found myself getting tired at NIGHT, when the fun and exciting stuff is supposed to be happening!  The Saturday night out until 3am became the Saturday night in watching a video and falling asleep by midnight (which, while late for some, is early for me, a notorious late person).  And the body started its inevitable decay...I gained a few pounds, my muscles complain more after exercising, and just two days ago I had to get gum surgery.  Gum surgery is actually not as bad as it sounds, but I don't really recommend it unless necessary.  So what does all this self-indulgent whining have to do with "Bleak House"?  Well, the one thing I was looking forward to about having gum surgery was that I would take a day off of work, and as a result I could get some serious reading done.  Like maybe even finish "Bleak House"!  So what happened...well, I got home, the novocaine wore off, and I had to take Vicodin for the pain.  As I soon learned, Vicodin and literature do not mix so well.  Appropriately enough for "Bleak House", I found my mind getting foggy, and I could not focus on reading.  And it made me fall asleep at the ungodly hour of 8pm.  So much for the good side of gum surgery.  Fortunately, I'm much better today, and I'm getting by on Advil alone, so the mind is clear again and ready to go, but then of course I had to go back to work today.  So I've still got about 100 pages of "Bleak House" left to go.

I find myself enjoying the book quite a bit now.  The various story lines of all the different characters are starting to come together, and indeed the characters have all become like friends...I shall miss all their quirks and follies when I'm done with the book.  Plus, there's been a murder, which always makes a book interesting.  One of the characters, Mr. Bucket, is a detective who has now come to the forefront to solve the murder.  He's quite an interesting character, and I like the fact that he was a very minor character for the first 650 pages or so, and then suddenly he becomes almost the main character, and the novel totally changes tone and becomes a detective mystery least for a bit.  This book is such a giant sprawling mishmash of characters and moods and styles...kind of like life itself!  Without the gum surgery, that is.