Saturday, August 30, 2008

Book #19 - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (By Himself)

My mother grew up on a farm in southeastern Indiana. The farm had been in her family since the early 1800s, and apparently the original land deed (which is still around somewhere) was signed by James Madison. Her ancestors were congregationalists and Quakers, as was much of the population of that area in the 1800s. The Quakers were strident abolitionists, and that part of southern Indiana had numerous stops on the Underground Railroad where slaves hid while coming up from the south. When my mother was a child, her cousin lived in an old farmhouse nearby which contained concealed passageways and staircases where runaway slaves were hidden. My mother also remembers that in the back part of the family farm, way deep in the woods next to a small pond, there was an old fallen down shack where fleeing slaves were also hidden. It's easy today to think of slavery as something of the distant past, maybe more of legend than reality, so I find it fascinating to hear these distant echoes of it in my mother's childhood memories.

And speaking of abolitionists, one of the most famous, and rightly so, was Frederick Douglass. Douglass had been born a slave in Maryland, around 1818. He was a slave until the age of 20, when he managed to escape, and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Soon afterwards he became a speaker for the abolitionist movement. Apparently a brilliant and charismatic speaker, he moved audiences with his stories of his life as a slave. But soon, his fame and his great intelligence and articulateness caused some to wonder if he was telling the truth about having been a slave. His response was to write his autobiography, which was published in 1845 and was an immediate success. And having read the book in one sitting I can understand's totally engrossing!

Douglass was born on a plantation in Maryland. The conditions he describes are pretty terrible...beatings, near starvation...but at age 8 he is shipped off to live with his master's son-in-law and his wife, who lived in Baltimore. The couple, Hugh and Sophia Auld, have never had a slave before, and Douglass is shocked by how kindly he is treated, especially by Sophia. When she realizes Douglass cannot read or write, she begins to teach him. But soon the husband finds out and freaks out, telling her she'll ruin Douglass as a slave and make it so he'll never be content. And soon, her attitude towards young Douglass changes. She becomes strict, a harsh mistress. As Douglass writes:

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downwards course was to cease to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband's precepts. She finally became more violent in her opposition than her husband himself.

That's a fascinating and profound observation, and one that has never occurred to me. Slavery was clearly dehumanizing to those who are slaves, but it was also damaging to the slaveholders as well. It's easy to read about slaveholders beating and mistreating slaves and think that perhaps people were different back then, that it all seems uncomprehendingly cruel and that no one would do that nowadays if put into that situation, but Douglass shows that the institution of slavery has a pernicious effect on the humanity of anyone who participates in it.

Several years later, Douglass is sent back to the plantation, and he is then rented out to a poor farmer named Covey to be "broken". Covey has a reputation for breaking the spirit of unruly and contrary slaves. The conditions are horrendous, and at one point Douglass runs back to his old master's farm to complain of the conditions. The master says things can't be that bad and sends Douglass back to Covey. When Douglass returns, Covey sets out to beat him, but Douglass fights back. They go at it for over two hours. Douglass writes:

I considered him as getting the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger...This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled in me the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood

Douglass eventually is sent back to Baltimore to live again with Hugh and Sophia Auld. He becomes a caulker in the shipyards, and earns a decent living, which he must turn over to the Aulds at the end of the week. But he is able to save a little money on the side, which allows him to eventually make his escape, first to New York City, where abolitionists give him some money and send him on to New Bedford, where he lives until the book's end. Interestingly, Douglass does not describe in the book how he made his escape. He says that he doesn't want to compromise the route for other slaves wanting to follow the same path to freedom. This odd quirk I found oddly really brought the point home that this book was written when slavery was still a thriving institution. After the civil war (years after this book was published), Douglass spilled the beans: he got some forged papers and took the train from Baltimore to New York.

Religion was a theme in "Robinson Crusoe" and it returned in this book. Douglass rails against the Southern slaveholders who professed to be devout Christians, but who held, beat, starved, raped, killed, and mistreated slaves. He even added an appendix to the book where he explains that he doesn't mean to sound like an opponent of all religion. He's just opposed to the religion of the land that allows slavery, which he doesn't even recognize as Christianity. In his own words:

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

He's not mincing words there, but he has a point. It's been years since I read it, but it reminds me of a scene from "Huckleberry Finn" where (as I recall) two Southern families are feuding and killing one another, but stop to go to church to hear a sermon on brotherly love, while keeping their guns at their sides.

Anyway, this book is very moving, and a great and quick read, and should be required reading for anyone living in America. Slavery was a huge part of the history of the United States, and its after effects, in the form of racism and bigotry, are still being struggled with in the 21st century. If only there were more men as brave and articulate as Frederick Douglass, maybe this country would even be further along today.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book #18 - Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe)

I have a friend who owns a tiki bar. I was talking to him about rum one day, and got an earful. To say he's into rum would be putting it quite mildly; he probably forgets more about rum every day than I ever knew, or will know. One of the rums we discussed was Rhum Barbancourt. This 15 year old rum is from Haiti, and apparently is the only rum currently made in Haiti. My friend told me the distillery is notoriously mysterious...his distributor never knows when another shipment of rum is coming in because he's never told ahead of time, because apparently they never know how much of the shipment of rum will make it past the gauntlet of thieves and robbers lurking on the muddy roads of the remote parts of Haiti where the distillery is located. Anyway, I'm sipping some of this rum now...on the rocks, not straight up in a wine glass like Sam Spade would have done. Nonetheless, it's a fitting drink to sip while writing about the book I just finished, "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe.

When I was making the list of the top 105 books I haven't yet read, I first skipped over "Robinson Crusoe", thinking that I had read it. I mean, come on, we all know this book...a guy is stranded on a deserted island, and lives alone for years until he finds a native he names Friday. It's not just a story, it's a cultural icon. Who doesn't know about Robinson Crusoe? But then when I really thought about it, I realized that I'd never actually read the book. So it made the list, and now I've read it. And I have to say it was somewhat different from what I'd imagined. I was thinking it would be more of an adventure story, like "Treasure Island". And it certainly was, in parts. But the book was also surprisingly reflective, and was clearly on a whole different level than "Treasure Island".

Possibly the biggest example of this is the book's discussion of religion. Robinson Crusoe leaves home at a young age, eager to explore the world. He's got wanderlust, much to the horror of his common sense father, who tells him that traveling the world to seek adventure and fortune is for men of desperate ambition or men of superior ambition. The best course of all is the middle road...not exposed to the miseries and hardships of desperation, or to the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. No, peace and plenty were the rewards of the middle station in life, so he should stay at home and not raise a ruckus (Damn, sounds like something MY parents would have said). Anyway, Crusoe can't help himself, and he goes a-wandering, eventually winding up in Brazil where he starts a plantation. Within a couple of years he's doing pretty well, when a friend of him suggests he travel on a trade ship to Africa to pick up some slaves, as they need more plantation labor. So Crusoe sets sail, the ship sinks in a storm, and he's cast away on the deserted island where he'll spend the next 28 years. When he survives the shipwreck, he thanks God for saving his life, but he doesn't seem all that sincere about it. He's bummed out about being alone on the island, and curses his luck. Then he has this weird dream, which strikes me as almost some kind of religious conversion. He is ill with a fever and dreams that a man descends from heaven surrounded by fire, and tells Crusoe he must repent. When Crusoe awakes from the dream, he gets serious about religion, and remains so from then onwards. He reads the bible, he repents for his sins (which he believes are greed and not listening to his father's wise counsel), and, most interestingly, he becomes thankful for being on the island. Instead of bemoaning all the things he lacks, he praises God and is genuinely thankful for all the things he has. After all, he has adequate food (he's learned to plant corn and barley, and raises herds of goats) and shelter, and had managed to save enough things from the boat, like rum and guns, to make his life easier than it might have been. This is a big change in Crusoe, and Defoe's point is hard, be thankful for what you have, and praise God (just like a good English protestant). Actually, this is an interesting point to reflect on in such a wealthy and materialistic culture as early 21st century America...this book may have beem written almost 300 years ago, but it still seems quite relevant in many ways.

Religion crops up again when Crusoe meets Friday. Cannibals come to the island, camp on the beach, and are going to sacrifice and eat Friday, but Crusoe kills the cannibals and saves him. Crusoe befriends Friday, and teaches him not only English, but Christianity as well. But when explaining to Friday about the devil, Friday asks why God, if he's all powerful, doesn't just kill the devil and be done with it. Crusoe is stumped, and admits as much. I got a laugh out of that.

Crusoe's relation to Friday is problematic for the modern reader, I think. Crusoe instructs Friday to call him "master". While Crusoe obviously cares a great deal for Friday, and vice versa, the portrayal of Friday seems dated. He's almost like the happy, innocent savage, who will blindly follow Crusoe everywhere, and even goes back to Europe with Crusoe when they leave the island. I kept thinking "Doesn't he have any wife and kids he wants to get back to? Doesn't Friday want to get laid??" There's no consideration by Crusoe to treat Friday as an equal. He may care for him deeply, and be his friend, but Crusoe is the master and Friday the servant.

And the end of the novel is just kinda whacked. I felt like Defoe didn't know how to end it, and could have used an editor. After helping an English captain recover his vessel after his crew mutinied and tried to maroon him on the island, Crusoe and Friday go back to Europe. They end up in Lisbon, where they decide to travel over the Pyrenees to get back to France and eventually England. It's getting to be winter, and so this is a dangerous trip by land, but Crusoe has no stomach for another sea voyage. So they travel across the Pyrenees where they are attacked by hundreds of hungry wolves, plus a bear, which Friday kills. Then Defoe goes into lots of detail about Crusoe managing his affairs, and getting 20 gold pieces for this, and 37 gold pieces for that, and I'm like "Dude, the story's over, let's put a fork in it". Then Crusoe gets married and has kids, although this is all mentioned in passing, and two paragraphs and many years later the wife dies and Crusoe decides to go back and check on his island, where he left a couple of the mutineers, along with some Spaniards who were also shipwrecked. They're all doing fine, and Crusoe gets them some more supplies, and women too, and Crusoe is pleased to see that the island is now prospering, just like a good English colony should. The End. And everything I describe in this last paragraph all happens in the last 30 pages or so of the book. It's like a weird discontinuous coda. I can see why Crusoe wants to return to the island, because after 28 years, things seem pretty empty in England, and he doesn't seem to be too attached to his wife, given that we don't learn a single thing about her. Ironic, because when he was on the island, all he longed for was to get off of it. Still, this ending seems like it was all just tacked on to an otherwise great story.

But here's my biggest beef: among the things Crusoe salvages from the wreck of his ship is a few barrels of rum. And 28 years later, when he's rescued, HE STILL HAS SOME LEFT!?! WTF?!? What was he thinking?

Ah well...this is a good book, and there's a lot more to it than I have room to discuss here. It's an adventure story, but definitely a more sophisticated one than "Treasure Island", or "Swiss Family Robinson". Hmm, which makes me wonder, is the name Robinson in "Swiss Family Robinson" a tribute to Robinson Crusoe. Never thought of that before. Must be the rum talking...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book #17 - The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)

We've all seen the movie. I saw it years ago, and I remember little of it. In fact, it seems to blend in in my mind with all the other Humphrey Bogart movies I've ever seen. I remember it's got a bird statue, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, and Bogey. Bogey, as always, is cool and tough. So I picked up this book thinking "yeah, this should be pretty good". But I was wrong. This book is great! Oh man, Sam Spade is a Bad Ass. He's like Bogey and Clint Eastwood all rolled up into one. He's cool in a hot situation, he's always thinking, always one step ahead of everyone. You never know where he really he gonna work for the bad guys and take a cut of the action, or is he gonna turn everyone over to the law? At one point, he takes on two people as clients who are both working at cross purposes to one another. He can hold his liquor (and oddly enough, he drinks rum, straight, from a wine glass. I would have taken him for a whiskey man). I've heard the phrase "hard-boiled" before, in reference to detective fiction, and now I know what it means. Damn! I like it!

The dialog in this book is superb. Terse, bold, to the point. In fact, a large part of this book is dialog. There are three murders in the book, and they all occur "offstage". There are only a couple of scenes involving any sort of violence. The suspense is achieved mostly through threats, and intimidation, and the possibility of violence. And there are some quotes in the book that are so bad-ass and hard-boiled that I had to laugh. Here's one:

Cairo, speaking with difficulty because of the fingers on his throat, said: "This is the second time you've put your hands on me." His eyes, though the throttling pressure on his throat made them buldge, were cold and menacing.

"Yes," Spade growled. "And when you're slapped you'll take it and like it."

Oooh, SNAP! Actually, Quentin Tarantino must have had that line in mind in his film Reservoir Dogs, when the crime gang leader looks at Steve Buscemi's character, who's complaining that his code name is "Mr. Pink", and says "You'll be Mr. Pink and you'll like it."

Then there's this line, when one of the criminals, Mr. Gutman, agrees with Sam Spade to turn in one of his accomplices (Wilmer) as a fall guy for some murders, in exchange for Sam giving him the Maltese Falcon. Gutman says to Wilmer:

"Well, Wilmer, I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but - well, by Gad! - if you lose a son it's possible to get another - and there's only one Maltese Falcon."

Even Sam Spade laughs at that one.

And Sam's good with The Ladies too. His client, Brigid O'Shaughnessey, is a classic femme fatale, and can never be trusted. So Sam sleeps with her and then turns her over to the cops at the end for committing a murder. He explains to her:

"The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you." He cleared his throat. "If they hang you I'll always remember you."

Oh yeah. Sam was also sleeping with the wife of his murdered partner. It's not clear to me why, since he obviously didn't like either his partner or his partner's wife. That's just the way he rolls.

The narration style of this story is quite interesting. There are a lot of scenes where Sam is talking to someone and it's remarked that his face is blank, or gives no traces of what he's thinking, or is expressionless, or something like that. The narrator never reveals what the characters are thinking. So it's not an omniscient narrator, or even a really human one. It's more like the events are described as an observer would see them, and that's that. It reminded me of watching a movie. Hopefully that's not just because I saw the movie.

Anyway, this book is totally a page turner, and if you're looking for a few hours of entertainment, you could hardly do better. I heartily recommend it. I plowed through it in all the spare moments I could muster over the course of three days. Now I miss it. So get out your whiskey, or a wine glass full of rum, and go for it!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book #16 - Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin)

I'm now in this pattern of reading books that have nothing to do with the previous book I just read. With this latest book I've gone from the deep south at the turn of the 20th century to the frozen hinterlands of Russia at the turn of the 18th century. Time to break out the ice cold vodka! I mean, reading a Russian novel is a good enough excuse, right? Well, too late anyway...

Alexander Pushkin is considered the father of modern Russian literature (I read that on Wikipedia, so you know it has to be true). His "Eugene Onegin" is a novel in verse. In other words, it's a really long poem that tells a story. From what I've read, translating Russian poetry into English is not so easy, and that makes sense to me...I mean, you have to translate the meaning and all the nuance, as well as make it rhyme, in order to capture the full effect of the original. And frankly, this is probably just not possible in many cases. The translation I read is by Charles Johnston, and it follows Pushkin's rhyme scheme. Vladimir Nabokov famously translated "Eugene Onegin" into English when he became disgusted with the other translations available at the time. He focused on getting the exact meaning right, and decided to ditch the rhyme scheme and translate it as free verse. I read a bit of Nabakov's translation just to see what it was like, and I have to say I liked the effect of reading the Johnston translation better, precisely because of the fact that it rhymed. I mean, if I'm gonna read a novel in verse, then WTF, let's at least have some rhyming action! And I really enjoyed the effect of reading page after page of rhyming creates a certain rhythm that propels the reader forward through the work. It's like the words are dancing on the page (or is that the vodka talking?). Anyway, since I can't read Russian, I have no idea how faithful either of these translations is to the original, so I just decided to pretend the version I read was close enough and went with it.

Anyway, the plot (spoiler alert!): "Eugene Onegin" is the story of a young Russian aristocrat dandy coincidentally named Eugene Onegin. He's young, well off, and bored with his frivolous lifestyle. He inherits a country estate from an uncle, so he decides to go and live there. He quickly befriends a young Russian poet named Lensky who lives on a nearby estate. One day Lensky invites him over to dinner at Olga's house, a girl Lensky is courting. At dinner Olga's sister, Tatyana, a brooding young woman, falls totally in love with Eugene. She writes Eugene a letter confessing her love. Eugene meets with her, and tries to let her down gently. He's a nice guy, I think, but wants to cat about with the ladies and not be tied down to some country gal. Tatyana is crushed, and still pines for Eugene. A long time later, Lensky again invites Eugene to Olga's house, for a small dinner party. Eugene reluctantly goes, and is pissed off when he finds it's not a small dinner party, but a huge social extravaganza of the type Eugene hates. Eugene's angry at Lensky and seeks payback by dancing and flirting with Olga at the party. Lensky is outraged, and challenges Eugene to a duel. Eugene, instead of apologizing and telling his friend he didn't mean anything by all this (he really didn't), just says "Yeah, like whatever" and agrees to the duel. Well, of course, Eugene, without trying, ends up killing Lensky. Oops. Eugene feels bad, and leaves the countryside for Moscow. This gives Tatyana, who's still in love with Eugene, the opportunity to go over to Eugene's estate and look through his library to see what kind of man he really is. When she reads his books, and notes the passages he's commented on or underlined, she realizes he's perhaps not all that clever after all. Flash forward two years...Tatyana has moved to Moscow because her mom wants her to find a husband. She meets a general and marries him. She becomes a socialite and host. Then she runs into Eugene at a party, and he's like "Woah, you're not the same old country girl any more! I was an idiot!" He sends her letters telling her he loves her now and he can't be without her. And in the final climactic scene, she tells him that he had his chance, and that while she's not all that into being the married society lady and she still loves Eugene, she's not going to leave her husband or cheat on him, and why the hell is Eugene writing these letters anyway, because they're not doing her any good. The end.

This is a great story in a number of ways, but one thing I particularly enjoyed was how the power structure of the relationship between Eugene and Tatyana changes. When he first meets her and blows her off, he appears as the sophisticated, worldly man, spurning the advances of an innocent country woman. But at the end, Tatyana is now a sophisticated society woman, spurning the rather desperate and pathetic advances of a washed up jerk. I had the sense that while she maybe does really still love Eugene, that she doesn't like or respect him anymore.

This is the first book I've read in this project where I really felt I'd love to sit in a class and listen to lectures about this work, and discuss it with other readers. There are notes in the back of the version I read which, among other things, discuss all the literary works that Pushkin is referring to in the poem. I feel like there's loads of stuff in here that I'm probably not getting...literary references, historical references, etc. And this gave me an idea...why doesn't someone write/publish a series of guidebooks to classic works of literature written for intelligent adults? Yeah, there are Cliff Notes and Spark Notes, but I'm thinking of something that goes into more level discussions of literary works that are written with intelligent readers in mind who are not academics or even necessarily former English majors. I dunno, maybe it's just my vodka-addled brain going on a tangent here, but it seems like there might be a market for this kind of thing. Well, maybe. I'm a scientist...what do I know about business?

One final question for any readers out there: does anyone know how "Onegin" is pronounced? Is it oh-nay-gin or oh-nuh-gin? Is the g in "gin" pronounced like the alcohol, or as in the word "beginning"? Let me know if you have a clue!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nature Vs. Nurture, or Lack Thereof...

I finished "Look Homeward, Angel" this weekend, polishing off the last 250 pages. I have to say that this book kept growing on me, and it really wasn't until the last few pages that I felt like I really "got" this book...but when I did, it all made sense, and I loved it. The last section of the book details Eugene's time at college at a state school in North Carolina (Pulpit Hill, clearly meant to be Chapel Hill), a summer he spent working in the shipyards of Virginia during WWI, the death of one of his brothers, his graduation from college, and his decision to go on to Harvard to continue his studies.

Eugene really comes into his own as a person in the last part of the book. His love of reading and learning, and his intellectual brilliance, become clear at college, as do his eccentricities. He's a "big man on campus" and excels at his studies and extracurricular activities, but he's awkward, a loner, and somewhat of an oddball. Still, he's admired by his classmates, when they're not making fun of him. What is really brought out in the last part of the book, as Eugene matures into a fully-formed adult, is how much his family background has influenced him. He's always been introspective, and has loved reading, but the craziness of his family has also affected him, and, I think, isolated him more than he might be otherwise. His family is quite unique. They're totally dysfunctional...hard drinking, screaming at one another one moment, then crying the next, then laughing soon afterwards. Their personalities are huge. They throw harsh words at one another like tire irons to the head. Blame is tossed liberally, then guilt and remorse is felt. Sometimes the brothers get into fist fights. All is lubricated with liquor and the heat of the hot Southern nights. I love this family! They are so totally opposite of mine...a family of two rational, scientist parents who raised two kids who became scientists. No, the Gant family is a crazy, sordidly dysfunctional brood, and of the five children alive at the end, Eugene is the only one destined for any kind of "success" in this world. He's the most normal, but he's an oddball.

The family's dysfunction is perhaps most apparent during the death of Ben, the brother Eugene is closest too. Ben is a bitter cynic, but he and Eugene have a closer bond than any of the other siblings. Ben, who has always had lung problems, comes down with the Spanish flu, which turns into pneumonia, and he dies in a very poignant scene. But his deathbed is quite Gant-ian. Blame is cast, feelings are crushed, yelling, crying, fighting, and laughing ensue. These people are crazy, and I love them.

Intriguing to me, the biologist, is that Wolfe talks a lot about issues that touch on genetics. When Eugene first tries alcohol, he finds that he loves it, and he gets really drunk. His family is concerned, because they realize this love of alcohol runs in the family, and they hope Eugene won't fall into it...he's their best hope. The father feels remorse that he might have passed on his intrinsic love for alcohol to his son. There's also a scene at Ben's funeral, where all the relatives come to pay their respects, and Eugene looks on them with horrific fascination:

"There they were, each with the familiar marking of the clan - broad nose, full lips, deep flat cheeks, deliberate pursed mouths, flat drawling voice, flat complacent laughter. There they were, with their enormous vitality, their tainted blood, their meaty health, their sanity, their insanity, their humor, their superstition, their meanness, their generosity, their fanatic idealism, their unyielding materialism. There they were, smelling of the earth and Parnassus - that strange clan which met only at weddings and funerals, but which was forever true to itself, indissoluble and forever apart, with its melancholia, its madness, its mirth: more enduring than life, more strong than death.

And as Eugene looked, he felt again the nightmare horror of destiny. He was one of them - there was no escape. Their lust, their weakness, their sensuality, their fanaticism, their strength, their rich taint, were rooted in the marrow of his bones."

I just love that. That may be the best description of genetics, and of the power and kinship of families, that I've ever read. There's an argument in genetics about how much of a person's personality, intelligence, and character is genetic (nature), and how much is environmental (nurture), but this paragraph, and this book makes me think that perhaps the two are not separable. We are who we are because of our genes, which we get from our family, and from our environment, which is determined by our families, who are what they are because of their genes. There is no escape.

This book gets really wistful and sentimental towards the end, which made me reflect and realize that it was actually wistful and sentimental the whole time, it's just that I wasn't quite tuned into that (but I should have been, because Wolfe uses the phrase "Oh, lost!" in about every chapter). This is a book about a young man (which we know is Wolfe, because the book is famously autobiographical...he took a lot of heat for the closeness of some of the characters in the novel to folks in the town he was from (Asheville, NC)) looking back on his childhood and college years, his town and family. At the end, Eugene decides to go on to Harvard for graduate school, though he's not sure really why or what he'll study. But he realizes he's reached an end and must leave his town and family behind. He's quite wistful about this, and even discusses it with Ben's ghost, who he sees in the town square, on the porch of his father's old gravestone-carving shop, the night before he is to leave (Ben's ghost is great...a cynical, chain-smoking ghost who insists he's not a ghost). When morning comes and the ghost disappears Eugene looks over the town:

"Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, should I say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say "The town is near", but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges"

O, lost!

It's interesting to compare this book to "Of Human Bondage" which I read earlier this year. Both novels could be classified as bildungsroman, and the two novels were written about 14 years apart (1915 for Maugham's, 1929 for Wolfe's), but they are light years different in writing style, in emotional style, in content. Maugham's book seems very British, and very 19th century, compared to Wolfe's very 20th century American times change, and how quickly...O, Lost!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Still Looking Homeward

Well, I'm about 450 pages and 12 glasses of bourbon into "Look Homeward, Angel". And bourbon is the perfect drink for this book...sweet, southern, and packing a punch. Several characters in this book know how to drink their liquor, although they can't handle it very well.

Of all the books I've read so far, this is perhaps the hardest one to blog about. Reading this book is great, because it seems to put me in a trance...I'm transported into another world and carried along by the rhythms and phrasings of the language, and the hazy imagery, and the colorful characters. But the world of the novel is very know how you'll have a dream that seems really vivid, and then you'll wake up and you'll try to remember all the details, but they all quickly fade away, and you're left with only a general impression of the dream, and just a hint at all the details that you know you just dreamed abut. Well, that's what reading this book is like...I love it, and it seems so wonderful and vivid, but then when I try to remember exactly what's happened, it all seems very murky. Wolfe's writing is perhaps almost too can get lost in it, and the details of the novel swim by almost without notice because the language is so distracting. Maybe. It's also that there really is no plot to this book. It's the "story" of the Gant family, and in particular Eugene Gant, who is clearly modeled after the author. He's a talented, sensitive, artistic kid, growing up in a small town in North Carolina in the early 1900s. Eugene is awkward growing up, both physically and socially, and gets laughed at a lot. When he hits adolescence, he has some nervous, awkward sexually-charged encounters with women. He has a paper route, he loves books and reading (which seems to puzzle his family), he goes to a private school, and then to college. His father drinks a lot, and his mother has serious issues with financial security...she does quite well for herself, working hard to run a boarding house, and investing in real estate. Yet she constantly complains of lack of money, and can't spend any on her family. And that's pretty much the plot of the book. But don't get me's a great, enjoyable book so far, whose language is to be savored...especially with bourbon!