Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book #28 - Life on the Mississippi (Mark Twain)

For the holidays, I'm driving across the US to visit relatives in both Atlanta and Cincinnati. Since I live in San Francisco, this entails a lot of driving. Thousands and thousands of miles worth in fact. And isn't this a fundamental part of who we are as Americans? I'm talking about one of the inalienable rights our founding fathers gave their lives for...the right to load up our cars with suitcases and bourbon, and drive across the endless landscape with our sunglasses on and the radio blaring.

Tonight I'm staying in Meridian, Mississippi, having crossed the great Mississippi River about 150 miles ago. And thus it's fitting that I'm currently reading Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi". This book, at least so far, is also about travel, about that American restlessness to move across the landscape. Twain was born in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri in 1835. At the time of his childhood this must have been a remote location indeed, except for the river. Near the book's beginning he tells of how the highlight of each day in his childhood Hannibal was when the riverboat came in. Otherwise the town was slow and sleepy. No wonder an intellectually gifted and curious child like himself grew up fascinated by the river. The same pull of adventure and the outside world that has lured countless of generations of young people also beckoned to Twain, and drew him to seek his adventures on the river. He fled Hannibal and apprenticed to become a steamboat pilot, and much of the rest of what I've read so far describes, humorously, his beginnings as a cub riverboat pilot. It's hard to tell what is the truth and what is exaggeration, as Twain describes how a pilot must know every bit of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans, lest he run his steamboat aground, or worse, especially when piloting at night when he can't see the way. Is this really true? I've had the same 35 mile commute each day for 12 years, and yet I'm not sure I could drive in the dark without headlights.

There is a wistful mood to this book. Clearly by the time he wrote it his river days were long past, and he describes how when he started to train as a riverboat pilot, the old days of rafts and flatboats on the river were long past, replaced by the steam boats. Thus in just the first 50 pages, Twain delves deep into two very American themes...the road trip (as mentioned above) and the nostalgia for a mythical American past. And perhaps the two really go together. For wasn't the movement of early Americans from the east coast out into the frontier really the ultimate American road trip? Yep, just like "On the Road", except the pioneers took all their worldly possessions with them and often died on their way, and didn't do nearly as many drugs. OK, maybe not. It's hard to tell after driving for 12 hours and then quaffing a couple of shots of bourbon. And I gotta hit the road again early tomorrow morning. It's the American way!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book #27 - Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

Dark, darker, darkest. That seems to be my path by reading "Vanity Fair", "Pere Goriot", and "Lord of the Flies" all in a row. Because while Thackeray and Balzac have cynical, bleak views of humanity in their respective novels, Golding tops them all in "Lord of the Flies". The premise of his novel is that beneath a shallow layer of civilization lies a bloody pool of savagery in us all. Or as Margaret Thatcher once said "The veneer of civilization is very thin".

I remember seeing part of the movie version of this novel with my brother when I was very young, and it scared me to death. I had forgotten most of the movie, so it was fun to read the book. And I have to say the book is a real page turner. The story, which has really become a part of our cultural canon, is simple. A planeload of young boys is being evacuated from England because of war. It's not clear if this is World War II or some other fictitious war, although the "Reds" are mentioned at some point. Seems weird that children would be evacuated by plane to somewhere that they'd have to fly over the tropics to get to. Regardless, for some unmentioned reason, the plane crashes onto a deserted tropical island and the pilot(s) are killed. Only the boys are alive. Under the leadership of one of the older boys, Ralph, and advised by a smart but fat and sickly kid, Piggy, the boys form a rudimentary democracy. Ralph tells the boys they must build and maintain a signal fire, and they need to build shelter.

But things soon go awry. Another one of the boys, Jack, wants to be the leader. He takes up hunting, and leads a small group of boys who used to be his choir mates to become hunters of feral pigs found on the island. The kids quickly revert to savagery, in part driven on by their fear of "the beast", a monsterous creature they're convinced is out on the island somewhere. Jack and his hunters rebel and form their own tribe, and things quickly go downhill. Simon, a boy who is a saintly and wise, is killed in a ritualistic frenzy by the boys after they've eaten some freshly killed pig. He had come out of the jungle to tell the boys that what they thought was the beast was actually a dead parachutist. But he surprised the boys and they started to kill him with their spears, and even when they realized who he was they kept on stabbing him, due to their frenzy and blood-lust.

Piggy gets killed as well, buy a huge boulder pushed by Roger, the most sadistic of the kids. Finally all the boys on the island are in Jack's tribe except Ralph, and the kids start hunting for Ralph to finish him off. They set fire to the jungle to smoke him out, and so he runs to the beach, where he finds that British soldiers with machine guns have landed because they saw the huge jungle fire. Ralph tells them what's happened and the head solider says "But you kids are British, we expect better from you". Ralph cries with sadness and relief, and the boys are rescued. The End.

As I said, this was a great read, even with that deus ex machina ending. The language is taught and tense, and as the situation spirals downhill I really wanted to keep turning the page to see what happens. But I have to say, this book is not as complicated as the past few I've read. There is a lot of symbolism, but it's all pretty obvious...the pig's head (The Lord of the Flies) represents the beast within us all, Piggy's glasses represent knowledge and rationality, the conch represents the order, etc. And the main characters...Ralph, Roger, Jack, Simon, Piggy...all stand for specific types. Piggy is the intellectual, Ralph is the good, practical politician, Jack is the power hungry dictator, etc. It's a well written book, and fun to read, but maybe best read in high school, because the symbolism and allegory and characterization are all pretty black and white. But I don't mean for that to come off as an insult.

Still, the overall theme of this book is fascinating to think about. What WOULD happen in this situation? Are we really all just savages underneath? How dark is human nature? I can certainly see how Golding would have a dark view of the human psyche just after World War II when this was written. And in this age of terrorism the darkness continues. But nevertheless, society survives, as does civilization. We have laws, which are usually obeyed. Life on Earth is not the war of all against all of Thomas Hobbes. I can't argue that there isn't darkness in the human soul, but there's light in there as well, which has, over the centuries, triumphed over the darkness more often than the reverse. At least in the long run. So maybe Golding is a bit bleaker than is warranted. But ask me whether I still feel that way after the nuclear holocaust.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blogging the Canon - Year One

Happy me! Yes, it's hard to believe, but it's been one year since I first started this blogging project! Woohoo, break out the absinthe! Actually, I'm sipping on some now, prepared in the traditional manner with sugar and water. I picked up a bottle when I was in London last spring, at the duty-free shop in Heathrow. It's pretty good...tastes like licorice, and has evil green color. And fortunately it hasn't driven me mad...yet. Ha, ha...wait, why are the walls moving?

This blogging project has been a great ride so far...26 books read in the year, out of my original 105, plus 76 blog posts, and countless cocktails while reading and blogging. So does that mean I'll finish up in three more years? Well, no, for two reasons. First, there are some remaining "books" on the list that are going to be incredibly all of Plutarch's "Lives", and all of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time", which is actually something like a series of 18 novels or so. Second, during this past year, I've come across more books that should have been on the original "greatest hits of all time but have yet to read" list. In fact, I have 126 of these books. So why not add them to the list then, you may ask? Well, my fear is that I'll keep adding books in order to avoid some of the ones on my original 105 that I'm rather dreading, like "Ulysses" and "The Ambassadors". No, I think at least for now I'll keep plugging away at the original 105 books on my list, and hold off on the others for awhile.

It's fun to look back on the year and think of the books I've read. My favorite so far? Hmm, hard to say, but I think it might be...drum roll, please...George Eliot's "Silas Marner". I dunno, I guess I'm just a sentimentalist, but that book made me cry. Although parts of "Anna Karenina" and "My Antonia" made me cry too. My second favorite may have been "Moll Flanders"...that book is seriously funny! My least favorite? Hard to say, because I really liked them all. In fact, that's one of the surprising things to me...I liked them all! No clunkers out of the first 26! But I haven't read any Henry James yet, either.

I was thinking in my last blog post of common themes in several of the books I've read so far. The character of Moll Flanders reminded me a bit of Becky Sharp...both were intelligent, street-smart women who used their wiles to work their way up from poverty. But they were different, too. Moll was more of a good woman who did what she had to do to survive. Becky also did what she had to do to survive, but she definitely had a mean streak that Moll didn't have, and she aimed higher than just surviving. And Moll may have become an inveterate thief, but she would never have cheated on any of her men.

And then there's the similarities between Becky Sharp, Rastignac from "Pere Goriot", and Julien Sorel from "The Red and the Black". All three are intelligent, ambitious characters who escape from their impoverished, lower class beginnings by using their intelligence and cunning to move up the social ladder. Rastignac and Julien don't really know what they're doing, at least at first, but their ambition and drive allow them to overcome their least for awhile (in Julien's case). We sympathize with all three, but all three definitely have their faults. But what's really fascinating is to compare these three characters to the lives of the authors of the three autobiographies I read this year: Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. All three of these men were also born impoverished and lower class...and in the case of Frederick Douglass and Booker Washington they were born slaves, which is pretty much as low in society as you can be. Like Becky and Rastignac and Julien, all three of the real life characters used their natural intelligence and incredible drive to escape from poverty and move up in the world. But where Becky and Rastignac and Julien used sex and trickery to move up the ladder, Franklin, Douglass, and Washington used hard work, and when that failed, more hard work. And when they reached the top, they worked to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, rather than simply kicking back and enjoying the comforts of high society. Does this reflect the difference between fiction and real life? Or does it just mean that real life Becky Sharps would not write an autobiography? Or does it mean that people who write their own autobiographies can leave out all traces of their duplicitous, cunning natures? The latter seems the least likely, since other historical sources would have revealed the truth if Benjamin Franklin or Booker T. Washington had slept their ways to the top. Hmm, well, let me sip my absinthe and ponder this mystery, as I pick up book #27 and begin my second year of blogging the canon.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book #26 - Pere Goriot (Honore de Balzac)

Amateur Reader over at Wuthering Expectations recently celebrated a Big Balzac Blowout. This got me interested in checking the Frenchman out, so when I finished "Vanity Fair" I immediately dove into the one Balzac novel on my list, "Pere Goriot". And after reading "Vanity Fair" and "Pere Goriot" back-to-back, I immediately asked the question "Who has the more cynical and bleak view of human nature, Thackeray or Balzac?" Answer: yes.

"Pere Goriot" takes place in Paris, during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, following the fall of Napoleon (coincidentally the same time period in which "Vanity Fair" takes place). The novel opens up at a rundown boarding house in Paris. Among the boarders is an impoverished old man named Goriot. As the novel opens, the other boarders single him out to be picked on for no real reason except he's old and quiet and shabby. They call him Pere Goriot, "Pere", of course, meaning "father" in French (Yes! I FINALLY can make use of that two years of high school French I took three decades ago! I knew it would eventually pay off!). It is rumored Pere Goriot was once a wealthy macaroni manufacturer, but no one really knows. That is, until he is befriended by another boarder, Eugene de Rastignac. Rastignac is a law student who is, shall we say, not the most motivated of law students. He pays a call on a rich but distant cousin of his who lives in Paris, Madame de Beauséant, and that's that. After seeing how the rich live, that's all he be filthy, stinking rich, and to pal around with other rich aristocrats. Oh, and without studying this boring law stuff. He soon learns that Goriot has two daughters who are rich Parisians, having married wealthy men. He visits them to try to make inroads into Parisian society. Balzac's descriptions of Rastignac's initial visits to his wealthy cousin and to one of Goriot's daughters, the countess Anastasie de Restaud, are both very comical and quite painful to read. Rastignac is from the south of France, and seems to be what we might call today a "country bumpkin", or a "hick". He doesn't know the rules of society and totally puts his foot in his mouth, among other things. But he's determined to learn the rules of aristocratic society, and slowly becomes more adept at the game. Eventually he becomes the lover of Goriot's other daughter, Delphine de Nuncigen.

Meanwhile, we learn more about Pere Goriot. He was indeed once a wealthy macaroni manufacturer, but he has given all his money to his daughters, first as a dowry, and later to help pay debts incurred by their lovers. In fact, Goriot is obsessed by his daughters...all he can talk about is how much he loves them, and how he'd do anything to help them, including, as it turns out, selling all he has and going broke for them. And how do the daughters feel about him? They take his money and never visit. Kids today, I tell you.

In a twist, which never really goes as far as the reader thinks it will, there's another boarder at the house, Vautrin, who befriends Rastignac. It's pretty clear there's something going on with Vautrin, because his character seems quite sinister, although for awhile it's unclear why. Vautrin tries to convince Rastignac that if it's riches he wants, he should court another woman that lives at the boarding house, Victorine Taillefer. Victorine is a daughter of a rich man who has disinherited Victorine and her mother. Vautrin tells Rastignac to court Victorine, and meanwhile he will arrange for her father's son and only heir to meet with an unfortunate accident, which will cause the father to make amends with Victorine since he has no other heirs. Rastignac actually toys with this idea, briefly, and flirts with Victorine, but then goes back to Goriot's daughter. To make a long story short, Vautrin has the son killed anyway (oops) but Rastignac doesn't go along and the Vautrin is exposed as some kind of master criminal who the cops have been after for years. He's arrested and hauled off by the police. Melodramatic? Yeah, you think? Balzac is great with descriptions, sometimes going off on the smallest details, but he pulls it off because it's always interesting. But his plot twists can be pretty melodramatic, and sometimes a bit over the top.

Anyway, I won't go into all the details, but Rastignac works it so that Delphine gets him his own furnished apartment so she can have access to him whenever she wants. But soon Goriot, who it turns out is paying for the apartment (of course) because that's what his daughter wants, becomes ill, and appears to have a stroke or something, brought on because his other daughter, Anastasie, is in trouble since she had to pawn her husband's family diamonds to pay off the gambling debts of her lover. Goriot, finally tapped out, has a stroke because he is powerless help his daughter. On his deathbed, his daughters are called, but neither of them can come, due to, well, some lame excuses. Goriot finally realizes that maybe he's loved his daughters too much and that actually they are scumbags. Anastasie finally comes to his deathbed, but it's too late as he's already in a coma and fading fast. And so he dies. Only Rastignac and a medical student friend come to his burial. This whole experience has made Rastignac realize how shallow both the daughters and Parisian high society are. For a brief instant the reader thinks that maybe Rastignac will reform his goldigger gigilo ways...but no. After Goriot is buried, Rastignac faces the Parisian skyline from a hilltop in the cemetary and says something like "It's between you and me now!", or "Henceforth there is war between us", depending on the translation. Then he goes and dines with Delphine, who's just blown off her father's burial. The end. So although he's given in to temptation, it's an adversarial relationship between him and the society on which he is looking to build his ambitions.

Cynical? You bet! It's fun to compare this book to "Vanity Fair" in that way. Both have dark views of human motivations and behavior. It's also interesting to compare this story to "The Red and the Black". The writing styles of Balzac and Stendhal couldn't be more different, but the stories are both about ambitious, poor young men who use their charms with the ladies to (1) get laid and (2) move up in society to gain status and riches. Sigh...if only I had thought of that plan myself 25 or 30 years ago. But no, instead I had to go to grad school.

Anyway, this was a fun, quick read, and Balzac is a great writer with, as I said, a flair for description. I'd like to read more of him eventually. Apparently most of the characters in "Pere Goriot" recur in other parts of Balzac's works. It would be fun to revisit them. And who knows...maybe they get nicer, more generous, and more unselfish in their old age. Nah, just kidding.