Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book #42 - The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)

On a trip to Washington state over the Thanksgiving weekend I stopped at the Olive Pit in Corning, California, the olive capital of the world. It was there that I met my downfall: chipotle pepper-stuffed olives. Holy Mother of Pearl these things are amazing, especially when strategically placed in a gin martini made with Plymouth Gin. Just saying.

Why am I rambling on about this? Well, because not only am I totally enjoying a martini made with Plymouth Gin and laced with a chipotle pepper-stuffed olive as I write this, but also because I'm a bit stymied about what to say about this book. I somehow remember when I was in college that my roommate, who is now a raging right-winger living in Texas, had to read this book for one of his classes and described it as "putrid". Well, I wouldn't say that. It's an interesting book, and is clearly very well written. But is it one of the great books of the 20th century, as Jane Smiley would have us believe? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. Oh it's good, alright, but it seems a bit dated and emotionally distant.

The book is in first person, and the narrator, an American named Dowell, is clearly shown to be unreliable near the beginning of the book. In fact, he's a frickin' idiot who was unaware that his wife was having an affair with the husband of an English couple with whom he and his wife were best friends. He's unaware of a lot of things, which made me not like him...he's an idiot and after awhile I just didn't care any more. If I were his wife I'd be fucking someone else too, because he's so clueless. I think if I read this book in 1920 I might not have this criticism, but after having read Nabakov's "Pale Fire", which has the best and most cynically funny unreliable narrator EVER, this book was probably a bit ruined for me. The narrator is a jerk and I just couldn't deal with him. If he was crazy, in an interesting way, then I'd cut him some slack, but he's just a dolt.

Having said that, I have to admire this book's craft. It's the story of two couples, the narrator (Dowell) and his wife Florence, and their pals Edward and Leonora. Dowell and Florence are Americans and Edward and Leonora are British, but they're all living in other countries when they meet up. Both couples are wealthy and they become friends. Then Edward starts an affair with Florence. Dowell doesn't find out about this until they are both dead. Leonora tries to tell him but he's a clueless idiot. We learn that Edward can't keep it in his pants, and has affairs with other women too. Leonora knows all about his wanderings, and keeps hoping the new one will be the last one. We learn that Dowell never has sex with is wife because she claims she has a heart condition and can't "do it". We learn all of this in a haphazard order, because Dowell the narrator doesn't really know how to tell the story. And he says so at the beginning of the book. But really he does know how to tell a story because reading this book and finding out about the inner lives of these two couples is like peeling back the skin of an onion...layer after layer is exposed and it all gets deeper and deeper as the story moves along. That part is incredibly well done (although it's so well done that it belies a bit the stupidity of the narrator). But Dowell is still an idiot, and for me the emotion of this story never hits home...as I said it's well crafted but maybe it's just too British for my tastes...I never feel in my heart the emotion and the tragedy of these characters. And I couldn't get past the fact that the narrator is an idiot.

But who am I to criticize a book that's been deemed one of the 100 great books of the 20th century? Maybe more chipotle-stuffed olive laced martinis would help.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aeneas: The Original Gangsta!

OK, let's just get this out of the way at the start: Aeneas is one bad ass motherf*cker! If he had access to a gun, he'd pop a cap in yo ass! As it is, he chops off heads, runs people through with his sword and/or spear, hacks off limbs, gouges eyes out...well, you get the idea, which is basically: Don't Fuck with Aeneas. Unless you want your skull split open, your torso impaled, and/or head cut clean off.

I finished The Aeneid last night, and I'm a bit humbled to try to blog about it. I mean, good God, this is one of the all-time literature classics, read by about 800 billion people over the last 2000 years. What hasn't been said about this epic poem? Critics for the past two millennia have analyzed every line ad nauseam (note my use of Latin...how appropriate!), so what is there that I could possibly add? Well, I'll give a few impressions, derivative and trivial as they might be, and then slink slowly back into my whiskey clouded haze.

First of all, as I hinted to in the opening paragraph, this book gets really bloody towards the end. The poem is divided into two halves, with the first half detailing the wanderings of Aeneas and his fellow Trojan refugees as they try to make it to the promised land of Italy. This half of the poem reminds one of Homer's Odyssey. Once in Italy, the second half of the poem details their strife with the native Italians, who are friendly and welcoming at first. But because of misunderstandings, and interference from the Gods (mostly the latter, actually), things quickly fall apart and the Trojans and the Latins soon go to war. And a vicious war it is, described in very bloody and gory detail. This half of the poem is reminiscent of Homer's Iliad. Just to give you a flavor of the bloodiness, let me quote a couple of lines (this from the Robert Fitzgerald translation) from Book XI, where a woman warrior joins the side of the Latins and goes on a bloody rampage against the Trojans on the battlefield:
Then running as Orsilochus gave chase
In a wide circuit, tricking him, she closed
A narrowing ring till she became a pursuer;
Then to her full height risen drove her axe
Repeatedly through helmet and through bone
As the man begged and begged her to show mercy.
Warm brains from his head-wound wetted his face.
Ah, the joys of poetry. And there are many passages like this, describing in gory detail decapitations and impalements and bloody killings on the battlefield. I mean, this poem is like the Roman version of "Grand Theft Auto III". It's pretty impressive, actually. And parents today worry that video games and movie violence will turn their children into psychopathic killing machines, when in actuality, this kind of stuff has been around for the past 2000 years, even in "classic" literature. And as we all know, there have been no incidents of violent behavior over that span of time. Oh, wait...

In addition to sword slashing, skull smashing, and Latin bashing, lots of other stuff happens in the rest of the Aeneid. One pretty cool part is where Aeneas goes into the underworld, where the dead reside, in order to hang out with his dead father. The descriptions of the different parts of the world of the dead are quite fascinating. We learn there are special areas where dead babies hang out, where suicides gather, where criminals are punished, etc. And worst is the people whose bodies were not buried and given funeral rites...these people can't even get across the River Styx until they've hung out on its banks for 100 years. Makes me wonder if Virgil was maybe paid off by some folks in the Roman undertaking business so he'd throw this bit in. Aeneas meets his father, who died a year earlier, and they hang out, have a few beers, and discuss the glory that will be Rome and why Aeneas therefore must continue with his journey, since he's got a lot of founding to do. But perhaps the saddest part of his voyage to the underworld is that he meets Dido, the Carthaginian Queen, who unbeknownst to Aeneas has committed suicide. Some backstory here: Dido was made to fall in love with Aeneas through the meddling of Venus and Juno, for their usual complex reasons. She falls deeply in love with him, and they end up having a torrid affair while the Trojans are in Carthage repairing their fleet. But when Aeneas starts to linger and think about just settling down in Carthage and getting his fill of the royal booty, instead of heading off to found Rome, the Gods send down a messenger who tells him to get off his ass and get going. Aeneas, being full of piety, listens and sails off, leaving Dido so despondant that she builds a huge funeral pyre and throws herself on it. So when Aeneas sees her in the underworld he's taken aback because he hadn't realized she was dead, and feels terrible that she killed herself over him (well, who wouldn't?). He calls to her, and asks for forgiveness, but Dido totally gives him the cold shoulder and doesn't look at him or respond to him in any way...instead she walks on and joins up with her dead husband. Damn girl, that's harsh.

As I said, when Aeneas and his fellow Trojans land in Italy they are initially greeted by the local king with a warm welcome. The king has heard a prophesy that his daughter Lavinia will marry a handsome stranger from another land, and when he sees Aeneas he realizes that he's the dude, and so decides to marry her off to him. But there's just a slight problem: she's already betrothed to guy named Turnus. When Turnus hears of all this, he's pissed, as is the girl's mother. With a little needling from the Gods, this quickly devolves into a full scale war between the Latins (the native Italians) and the Trojans. This is where all the skull splitting, decapitating, etc. comes into play. The fighting goes back and forth, and I don't have the time or the energy or the whiskey to go into all the twist and turns, but it's clear that the final showdown will be a battle between Turnus and Aeneas. Not only are they fighting over a dame (hmmm, just like in the Trojan War) but they are both leading their respective armies. In addition, Turnus killed a young man named Pallas, the son of another local king. This king agreed to an alliance with the Trojans, and sent his soldiers, including Pallas, to join the fighting on Aeneas's side. Aeneas took Pallas under his wing, and became his mentor. Unfortunately for Pallas, Turnus kills him on the battlefield, and then takes his belt to wear as a trophy because he knows Aeneas loves Pallas and he wants to fuck with Aeneas. This turns out to be not a good move. When the final showdown between the two men finally does occur, Aeneas spears Turnus through the thigh. When Aeneas goes over to finish him off, Turnus admits defeat and asks for mercy. Aeneas thinks about it, and begins to think that he doesn't really need to kill Turnus. But then he sees him wearing Pallas's belt and, well, you can guess the rest. Don't Fuck With Aeneas. The End.

A theme I mentioned in my last post on The Aeneid remains through the rest of the book, and that is the relationship of the Gods to events on Earth. Venus is Aeneas's mother, and does everything she can to help him. Juno, for reasons dating back to the Trojan War (see my previous post) hates Aeneas because he's a Trojan. The two conspire to manipulate events either for or against the Trojans, but Jupiter has already told them that it's fated that Aeneas and his fellow Trojan refugees will settle in Italy and found the Roman race. Yet Juno is so damn petulant that she just has to make the Trojans suffer in every way possible. Finally, at the end, Jupiter has had enough, and tells her to just let it go...that she knows Aeneas will kill Turnus and maybe she just needs to take a chill pill. Juno finally relents, but says she wants the Trojans to lose their Trojan identity when they marry the locals and to adopt the local Latin language. Jupiter says sure, fine, whatever, and so Juno steps back and doesn't help Turnus in his final battle. I found it interesting that the Gods can do all kinds of things but they can't ultimately stop what's fated to be. And only Jupiter seems to be able to keep this in mind. Why are the Gods so short-sighted, and what is it that determines fate if it's not the Gods? Doesn't sound very God-like to me on both counts. In fact they don't sound so much like Gods as like cranky Superfriends. Anyway, I don't have the answers to all this, because the whiskey is really kicking in now.

Finally, I did a web search on The Aeneid and learned that St. Augustine read The Aeneid as a child and wept at the death of Dido. I find it utterly mind boggling to think that St. Augustine and I read the same book. I dunno, maybe that's part of the reason that reading the classics is so cool. And yes, St. Augustine's Confessions are on my list, so he and I will have something else in common, in addition to knowing not to fuck with Aeneas.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book #41 - The Aeneid (Virgil)

Sing in me, O muse, and let me tell the story of that heroic Trojan warrior, Aeneas, who flees from his fallen city, wanders the Mediterranean, and ends up founding the great city of Rome. Let me sing this story without the use of copious amounts of alcohol, because it's only 1pm and that's way too early to be boozing it up. And this decaf coffee just ain't cutting it, if you know what I mean, O muse. It tastes good, like coffee should, and it's from Ritual Roasters in San Francisco, who make awesome coffee, but the lack of caffeine is always a bit of a letdown when it comes to coffee. Yet that's what a middle aged guy like me is relegated to these days, O muse, because caffeine gets me too wired out and nervous and then I can't get to sleep for days on end and that's just no good, especially when I have to focus at work, which can be hard to do when you've been up for 52 hours straight. Dammit, muse, I've digressed.

Anyway, after finishing up Gilgamesh, I decided to move forward in time about 1000 years to ancient Rome, where the poet Virgil decided to write an epic poem in the spirit of Homer. In The Aeneid he describes the fall of Troy and the subsequent wanderings of Aeneas who will eventually found Rome, the city that Virgil lives in and which is ruled by Augustus Caesar, a very powerful man whom Virgil wants to suck up to, thus giving Virgil the motivation to write his epic poem in the first place. Well, Augustus and Virgil are long dead, but The Aeneid lives on, and it's my job to support its continued existence by reading it and blogging about it.

The poem consists of 12 books, which today we would call chapters. I have finished the first three so far. I was a little bit daunted by reading this one. I read the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in college and high school respectively, and while I enjoyed them very much, and while the stories have really stuck with me through the years, I remember that parts of them were a little hard to get through. Well, parts of The Iliad anyway. But I'm happy to report that The Aeneid has been a great read so far. The story really moves along, and is quite poignant and moving in parts, even after 2000 years. The only problem I've encountered is that one really needs to know their Greek and Roman mythology to understand everything that goes on in this story. In particular, I wouldn't recommend reading this unless you've already read The Iliad and The Odyssey because so much of what happens in the Aeneid is related to what happens in those epics. And also because Virgil is consciously invoking those works, which were written down maybe some 700 years previously to his writing of the Aeneid.

The story so far: In Book I we meet Aeneas, a Trojan warrior fleeing the fallen city with a ragtag band of fellow Trojans, seeking the promised land called "Italy" where it is prophesied that he will found a new city called Rome, which will eventually rule the known universe. Yes, I know, it's just like Battlestar Galactica, except that the cylons are Greeks. Aeneas has the goddess Venus on his side, because she's his mother, but he has an enemy in Juno, who is pissed off because he's Trojan, and the Trojan prince Paris voted Venus more beautiful than Juno or Minerva in a beauty contest. Yep, there's a lot of back story here, as there is in most other parts of the Aeneid. But all you really need to know is this: don't fuck with the Gods because they will get pissed off and come after you relentlessly. In fact, even if you don't piss them off, but someone from your city once pissed them off, even a little bit a long time ago, then you're still probably fucked because that's the way the Gods roll. But here's the rub: it has been prophesied that Aeneas will found Rome and so nothing that he does, or that any of the Gods do, can really stop this. They can delay it, and make his life a living hell, but there seems to be some part of fate that is beyond even the Gods control.

But I've digressed again. So in Book I Aeneas and his ragtag team are at sea, fleeing Troy, when Juno makes a big storm and tries to kill them all. She fails, and they shipwreck near the new city of Carthage, which it turns out is run by a friendly queen named Dido, who takes the Trojans in and asks to hear their story. Books II and III are Aeneas's retelling of the fall of Troy and their subsequent wanderings to her. Book II in particular tells the story of how the Greeks defeat the Trojans using the famous Trojan horse, and it includes vivid descriptions of the subsequent sacking of Troy. When the Greeks break into the city at night and start the sacking, Aeneas wakes up and is determined to fight them to the death. He fights a bit, but then Venus, his mother, comes to him and tells him that he must flee...that he is fated to found Rome and he thus needs to escape and fulfill his destiny. She then allows him to see what mortals normally cannot see...he sees the Gods helping the Greeks defeat Troy, which makes him realize that fighting the Greeks is futile. Mortals can't beat Gods in warfare. So he packs up some heirlooms, grabs his kid, carries his elderly father on his back, and with his wife following they run away (conveniently illustrated in the picture at the top of this post). But Aeneas makes a mistake by telling his wife to follow them, because she lags behind and is cut down in the streets. Oops. But seriously, the whole scenes of the sack of Troy are both very moving and very exciting. And there's lots of bloodshed. This could make a good movie...maybe with Brad Pitt? Oh wait...

Book III recounts the wanderings of Aeneas and his Trojan refugees from Troy up to the point of their shipwreck in Carthage (which was on the shores of what today is Tunisia). One interesting part of this chapter is that they find a survivor of Odysseus's crew, who is trapped on the island of the cyclops. They take this man on board and he joins up with them, as they escape from the cyclops unscathed. It's kind of fun that Virgil weaves his story in with that of Homer's Odyssey. Too bad he didn't go in for some kind of merchandising tie-in as well.

Now it's onward to Book IV...and because I've had no alcohol of caffeine today, I'm not too tipsy or wired out to prevent me from continuing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book #40 - The Epic of Gilgamesh (Anonymous)

The manuscript you see above was not written by Charles Dickens. Not even remotely. Book #40 is not only the oldest book on my list, but it's also the oldest frickin' book in existence. Seriously dude, it's old. It was written in the days when people chiseled their books on rocks instead of penning them on paper. Yep, I'm talking Flintstones old. The historical Gilgamesh, and there apparently was one, lived around 2750 BC, and this epic was written sometime around 1000 B.C. That can start to boggle your mind if you think about it; the time between Gilgamesh's death and the birth of Christ was longer than the time from Christ's birth to the present day. That's a long time. The geologists I know (and I do know a few) would argue that this is really just a short bit of time, but almost everyone else would not.

The Epic of Gilgamesh as we know it is incomplete. It was discovered in the mid-1800s by a British archaeologist and wasn't translated for years. The "manuscript" was carved onto 12 stone tablets, and is not always 100% legible. Tablet #12 seems out of place narratively, and is assumed to have been added later. Also, there seem to have been many versions of this epic during ancient times, as well as many poems written about the life and adventures of Gilgamesh. The 12 stone tablets are clearly not the first version of this story. The edition I read was by Stephen Mitchell, who filled in the blanks from the writing on the tablets with phrases from other versions of the epic and added lines and transitions as necessary. So while not a literal word-for-word translation, it is probably a better version to read if one wants a literary experience rather than a primarily archaeological one.

The story is not long; I read it in an evening. But it's a good story, and fun to read...all the more so for being over two billion years old. Turns out people back then worried about the same things we do: how to avoid death, the suckiness of growing old, and who can I sex it up with tonight. When the story opens, Gilgamesh is king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. He's strong and powerful, and is described as 2/3 god, 1/3 human. But not only is he king, he's a total asshole as well. In particular he makes sure he gets to take the bride's virginity before any couple in the city can get married. Yep, that's gonna win the people over. Plus he "crushes" the young men of the city, whatever that means. So the people call up to the Gods, who take pity on them and decide to create a man of equal strength and courage to Gilgamesh. The plan is that this man, Enkidu, will balance out Gilgamesh. And it actually works.

Enkidu is a wild man living in the woods with the animals after the Gods first send him down to Earth. A hunter discovers Enkidu, and send word to Gilgamesh, who decides to send out a prostitute from the temple to "tame" Enkidu. The prostitute comes to the forest and she and Enkidu get it on. I mean REALLY get it on. For seven days straight. I have to say that this is one of the sexiest passages I've read in quite awhile...and it's quite explicit. It's nice to know that some things have not changed with time. Anyway, after Enkidu is exhausted from all the ancient Sumerian nookie he realizes he's no longer an animal, and decides to come to the city. He's been civilized by sex. He hears of Gilgamesh from the prostitute, and he longs to both challenge Gilgamesh to feats of strength as well as to befriend him, because he's lonely and needs a friend. It's interesting that sexual intimacy with a woman still finds him lonely and wanting friendship. He needs a guy friend with whom he can hang out, drink beer, watch some football, and slay savage dragons (more on that later). And so does Gilgamesh.

So Enkidu heads for the big city lights. Along the way he hears how Gilgamesh treats new brides, and this pisses Enkidu off. So when he gets to Uruk he goes to a wedding and blocks Gilgamesh from entering the bridal chamber. Gilgamesh is not happy about this. No he's not happy at all. So they have a big long homoerotic fight, and Gilgamesh eventually pins Enkidu down, who then admits that Gilgamesh is stronger. This makes Gilgamesh happy, and they are now officially BFFs. Gilgamesh is so excited about having a new friend he suggests they go risk their lives and try to kill Humbaba, a crazy monster out in some distant holy forest where mortals are forbidden to go. Enkidu is clearly not as stoked about this idea as Gilgamesh, but he soon caves and they prepare for their adventure. The city's elders are not too convinced that their adventure is a good plan, but now that Gilgamesh has found his new buddy he's totally into going out and getting some serious glory, rather than staying home and raping more brides, so that's that. He and Enkidu make a bunch of weapons in preparation for their adventure.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on their journey, and they travel way faster than mere mortal men. And they don't even use jet-packs! Along the way Gilgamesh starts to chicken out, but Enkidu talks him back down, and then awhile later Enkidu freaks out and Gilgamesh has to talk HIM back down. Gilgamesh has as series of bad dreams but Enkidu keeps cheering him up by putting an almost laughably optimistic spin on their interpretation. So with their mutual support they finally make it to the forest where Humbaba lives.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceed to chop down some of the sacred trees in the forest, and a very annoyed Humbaba suddenly appears. They fight! Things aren't looking so good for the BFFs when Gilgamesh appeals to the god Shamash for help. Shamash hears his plea and sends down some storms to attack Humbaba. Humbaba falls under the onslaught, and Gilgamesh moves in for the kill. Humbaba reminds Gilgamesh that he's working for the god Enlil, and Enlil will be really pissed if Humbaba turns up dead. Gilgamesh starts to get all merciful when Enkidu speaks up and tells him just to kill Humbaba and then they can leave before Enlil even finds out. Gilgamesh listens to his buddy and kills Humbaba, and they travel back to Uruk with a pile of new lumber from the sacred forest they cut down, along with Humbaba's head as a trophy. When they return they build a huge city gate with the lumber from the forest.

Now that our two friends have thoroughly insulted the God Enlil, they continue on their hubris ways by insulting the god Ishtar, who wants Gilgamesh to become her lover. After Gilgamesh points out that Ishtar got tired of all her previous lovers and punished them terribly, she gets very angry and tries to kill Gilgamesh and Enkidu with a sacred bull. But the two BFFs kill the sacred bull and openly taunt Ishtar. Never a good thing to do with a God. Now all the Gods are getting pissed at them. So the gods have a meeting, and they decide to cause Enkidu to fall ill and start to slowly die from disease. Enkidu is really bummed out about this, but when Shamash tells him on his sickbed that Gilgamesh will be inconsolable after he dies Enkidu cheers up a bit. And then he dies.

Gilgamesh is indeed inconsolable upon Enkidu's death. He like totally loses it. He goes into denial and refuses to bury Enkidu until he sees a worm crawl out of his nose, which seems to jolt him back to reality for a minute. But Enkidu's death has made Gilgamesh totally freaked out about death. So he puts on animal skins and goes out to wander in the wilderness, trying to find Utnapishtim, who managed to survive the great flood that almost destroyed humanity, and who is the only person upon whom the gods have granted immortality. His search won't be easy as Utnapishtim lives in the place where the sun rises, where no mortal has ever been. Gilgamesh travels a long time to a double-peaked mountain and then to the entrance of the tunnel where the sun travels every night to get to the other side of the Earth. Gilgamesh has only 12 hours to cross through the pitch-black tunnel before the sun comes through and burns him to a crisp. So he runs and runs through the pitch black tunnel, and yes, he makes it on time...otherwise there wouldn't be a story, really. On the other side of the tunnel is a lush land from where the sun rises. After some more adventures and trials Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim and asks him how he too can become immortal. Utnapishtim tells him to chill out, that nothing lives forever. He explains that when the gods bring someone into the world, they also decide the day of death. Death is certain, so get over it.

Utnapishtim then tells Gilgamesh his story, which is one of the most interesting parts of the book, because his story is remarkably like Noah's, even though The Epic of Gilgamesh was written before the Old Testament. The god Enlil once decided to destroy all of humanity with a flood (he certainly seems like a peevish God), but fortunately another god tipped off Utnapishtim, who was a king, and told him to build a huge boat and take two of every living thing on it. Sound familiar? So Utnapishtim builds the boat and there's a huge flood and everyone else dies except for Utnapishtim and his wife. Utnapishtim and his boat come to land first on a mountain, and he releases a series of birds to see if they can find land. The third bird returns, and Utnapishtim eventually reaches shore. When Enlil finds out humans have survived he's royally pissed, but the the other gods tell him he's a jerkwad for killing everyone indiscriminately and he should be ashamed of himself. He sees their point, and so he makes Utnapishtim and his wife immortal to make up for killing everyone else. Um, perhaps too little too late, Mr. Enlil.

Utnapishtim finishes his story and tells Gilgamesh to get the f#&k out of there, that he won't ever be immortal and he needs to go home. But at his wife's urging, he relents a bit and tells Gilgamesh of a magical plant that grows at the bottom of the sea, which will make old people young again if they eat a little bit of it. This satisfies Gilgamesh's urge for immortality, even if it involves eating part of what's probably a nasty-tasting plant every once in awhile, and so Gilgamesh dives to the bottom of the sea (with the help of rocks tied to his feet) where he grabs one of the plants. Then Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh off across the sea towards home, piloted by Utnapishtim's private boatman. Gilgamesh is feeling pretty good about everything. Until he fucks it all up. One evening, as he and the boatman are camping, Gilgamesh decides to go for a swim, leaving the precious plant unattended. No, Gilgamesh, what are you thinking?!? So the inevitable happens: a snake crawls and eats it. Yep, now there's a really young snake and the magic plant is gone along with Gilgamesh's dream of a new youth. Oops. Dude, NEVER leave a precious plant unattended! How did you get to be king anyway? When Gilgamesh sees what's happened, he sits down and cries like a little girl. Then he goes home to Uruk. In the final scene, he shows off the great city to the boatman, who is still accompanying him, pointing out the great walls and marvels of the city.

At first glance the ending seems like a WTF ending...as in "WTF, that's it?". But then, upon thinking about it, it all makes sense to me. Gilgamesh has given up the search for immortality, given up his epic struggles with the gods and monsters. He has come to live in this world, and can now appreciate how beautiful his city is. It's never stated outright, but one knows that he will be a good king from now on, building his city and being good to his people. The bride raping won't be continuing. And we know that the legend of the good and great king Gilgamesh has been passed down, verifying this interpretation. His hubris was punished, but he has learned his lesson. Even though he is 2/3 god, 1/3 human, one senses that he has become all human by the end of the story. In a way, this is a very odd bildungsroman (now there's a word, like weltanschauung, that's only used by graduates of a liberal arts college).

I found this story fascinating. I can imagine reading it again in a few years (it's short, so that's not that big a commitment). The parallels to Biblical stories (Noah, the snake and the fall from Eden) are really interesting...where did these stories originally come from?...how were they passed along through different societies? The fact that the story of Gilgamesh is so old, that it's the first recorded story humanity ever told, is captivating in and of itself, but the fact that it has so much symbolism and allegory and humanity...so much that we can still relate to 3000 years later...makes it all the more incredible. The world has completely changed since the days of Gilgamesh, yet people are still the same. Maybe the geologists are right...3000 years is really only the blink of an eye.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Money for Nothing

Today I finished up the last 100 pages of "Sister Carrie". Man, it was painful in places. I was surprised how it ended, in that it wasn't as totally bleak as I thought it would be...just 3/4 bleak. But the 3/4 bleakness was pretty damn bleak. And yet it was almost impossible to put down, for as depressing as the final third of the book was, it was the best part of the book for me...it became a total page turner.

Hurstwood keeps looking for a job, but never finds one. Why not? Well, at first it's because he feels that all the jobs that might be available are beneath him. I don't think he quite realizes his predicament. And if you'll remember, as Dreiser points out, he's now in his mid-40s and so is obviously washed up and totally over-the-hill. Week after week go by with no money coming in, and thus his savings dwindle away. Then he simply becomes totally apathetic and resigned. And then he gambles some of his remaining money away trying to score big in poker games (never a good idea, by the way). Carrie is worried, but doesn't do anything about it except to nag Hurstwood to get a job from time to time. Finally Hurstwood gets a job as a scab streetcar conductor during a strike. This makes for one of the more gripping chapters of the book. Work conditions are terrible (it's mid winter), and strikers are attacking the trains and the scab operators. Police and guards ride on the trains, but there's only so much they can do. On his second day at work, when a bullet from a striker grazes Hurstwood's shoulder, he decides to call it quits and goes home. And that seems to have completed the breakdown process for Hurstwood. He never seriously looks for work after that.

Meanwhile Carrie has had enough and gets motivated herself. When she was in Chicago she acted in an amateur play put on by the local chapter of the Elks. The play was terrible, but she loved to be in it, and it was clear she had a natural talent for acting...as the narrator says at one point, she had a very high emotional intelligence, and was very evocative onstage. Plus she was a hottie. The crowd loved her. So she goes looking for theatrical work on Broadway, but having no real experience it's almost impossible for her to break into the business. Still she manages to land a job as a girl in a chorus line. She does well, and one night, emboldened by her talent, she improvs and speaks a line in response to the main actor, even though she wasn't supposed to ever speak onstage. The crowd roars in laughter and the actor improvs a line in response, which gets even more laughter. The director tells her to keep doing that in subsequent performances. She gets a slight raise to her meager wages, which are all needed for household expenses. Hurstwood is still just sitting around, hoping something will turn up as he stares into space sitting in his rocking chair all day. Good plan, Hurstwood.

The book gets increasingly painful as Carrie's life begins to take off while Hurstwood's falls off the cliff. The contrast between the two makes everything so much more poignant. Carries gets a larger speaking part, draws rave reviews, and gets another raise. She starts appearing in advertising posters for the theatre. Her parts get bigger and bigger, and her beauty and talent are winning her numerous fans. Disgusted by Hurstwood, who has finally run out of money, she moves out, putting $20 in an envelope on the table as she leaves him. This motivates Hurstwood to do...nothing! He's a broken man. He begins begging on the street. He moves into a flophouse to save money, and then moves out onto the street, sleeping in homeless shelters and going to soup kitchens for food. Remember, this was before the days of welfare, so he has no real options. Meanwhile Carrie gets a huge raise, becomes a huge star, and now can afford anything she wants. It's all her materialistic dreams come true! She has enough money to buy all the clothes she desires, and then still has a bunch of money left over! She has male admirers! Former friends come out of the woodwork to see her! But despite all the admirers and "friends" she's made lonely by her fame and fortune. She doesn't get close to anyone. Hurstwood approaches her for money a couple of times, and she gives it to him, but he has enough pride not to keep begging from her. Plus she's a star and is hard for him to get to (I should study this carefully because no doubt that's what will happen to me when this blog takes off).

Finally the inevitable happens to each: Hurstwood gets tired of begging and scraping by, so he rents a room in a flophouse, turns on the gas, and kills himself. Meanwhile Carrie never even hears of his death. Instead she's now a rich and famous star but realizes now that she has all the money she could ever need and more, that she's still unhappy. Perhaps just as unhappy as ever. All the nice clothes and jewelry she always longed for are now in her possession and yet she's just as unhappy as before. This seems to be Dreiser's indictment of our materialistic society: be careful what you wish for, because when you get it you'll still be unhappy as ever. Longing for material goods will never make you happy, because you're doomed either to be always longing for enough money to buy them, or else having enough money to buy them and then finding out that you're still completely unsatisfied once you have them. Money can't buy happiness. Money can't buy me love. Hmm, OK, but at least she's not DEAD and buried in a pauper's grave like Hurstwood. I dunno, I'd rather be rich and unhappy than poor and unhappy. Is that so wrong?

I went online and found some rather scathing reviews of this novel, including one by Garrison Keillor. He and others complain about Dreiser's writing style, which can be clunky, moralizing, melodramatic, and overly philosophical. Yeah, I can see this, but for me the story itself overwhelms any bluntness in the writing style. The fact that I can find a book that's a page turner and yet incredibly painful to read shows that it had an effect on me. I hated parts of it, and couldn't put it down at the same time. I so wish I could find more books like that.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book #39 - Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser)

I'm about 2/3 of the way through Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and I have to say this book is scaring the living hell out of me. Not only is it depressing, and seems like it will clearly not end well, but the problems the characters face seem eerily relevant to today's harsh economic climate. Allow me to explain...

The novel opens with Carrie Meeber, an 18 year old from some hick town in Minnesota or some such place, boarding a train to seek her fortune in Chicago. The eternal lure of the big city has captivated her and she's off to live with her older sister and her husband, find a job, and live the life that we have all enjoyed watching on "Sex and the City". Well, as it turns out, the 1889 version of "Sex and the City" features single women working in sweatshops and not having any money to hang out with friends and drink cosmopolitans, which is just as well because they won't be invented for another 100 years. Oh, and the sister and her husband are poor themselves, never go out because they have no money, and just want to use Carrie as a source of rent, which she must pay out of the meager wages she receives, leaving her with almost nothing. Fortunately for Carrie she was totally hit on by a traveling salesman who sat next to her on the train to Chicago. The salesman, Charlie Drouet, meets up with Carrie in Chicago. When she tells him she's leaving Chicago to go back home because she can't stand living at her sister's place and because she lost her job in the sweatshop because she got sick and couldn't work for a few days he tells her "No problem, I'll put you up in an apartment and you can be my mistress...um, I mean fiance". Carrie thinks about this for about 3 seconds and then accepts the offer, although to her credit she feels a bit guilty...at first. But then Drouet puts her up in an apartment, and buys her nice clothes and all kinds of bling and she's like "Oh yeah, bring it on Mr. Salesman. When are we getting married?"

Drouet soon moves in with her and promises her they'll get married as soon as this big business deal he's working on comes through, but deep down she knows that's not likely, and besides she's just not all that into him. But she's definitely into the things he can buy for her. In fact, a big theme of the book seems to be economics and material consumption. Carrie would fit right in in the early 21st century shopping malls of California. She loves clothes, and material things, and the latest fashions, and wants them all. Drouet buys her some things, and she's grateful for that, but she clearly wants more. Well, don't we all. Welcome to America.

Then Drouet introduces Carrie to his buddy Hurstwood who manages an upscale bar. Hurstwood's a stout man in his early 40s who's well-dressed and very sociable, which he needs to be for his job. Hurstwood is totally smitten by Carrie, and when he learns that she's not married to Drouet he decides to go for it. So he starts hanging out with Carrie when Drouet is out of town on sales calls. He soon tells Carrie he loves her and wants to marry her, but she says she'll have to think about it because even though she doesn't love Drouet, he's been awfully nice to her and has put her up in an apartment and she hasn't had to hit the sweatshops anymore, etc. What Hurstwood hasn't told Carrie is that he's already married. Oh yeah, he's a scumbag alright. Unfortunately for him, his wife soon figures out that he's seeing someone on the side, and she tells him she's getting divorced and is taking everything. D'OH! Meanwhile Drouet also gets wind of their romance and confronts Carrie, who admits it. Drouet tells her Hurstwood is married, and she is totally pissed off...in fact, she's more upset over that than by the fight she's having with Drouet. Drouet storms out, although he'd like to make up with her. Carrie doesn't know what to do, and neither does Hurstwood. But then Hurstwood gets an opportunity one night when the safe in the bar gets left unlocked, and he finds $10,000 dollars inside. He pulls it out an stares at it, and wonders if he should take it or not...when suddenly the safe door locks itself, and he's holding the money! Damn, I hate it when that happens. So he puts the money in his bag and runs off.

Hurstwood goes to Carrie, who tells him to fuck off, but he says "No, you gotta come with me, Drouet is hurt and in the hospital". Carries is freaked out and goes with him to the train station, but when she slowly realizes they're on a train to Detroit and not the hospital she gets suspicious, and he admits that he lied and that he and his wife broke up and he wants to run away with her. Oh man is she pissed, but she goes along with Hurstwood. They go to Montreal, where a detective corners Hurstwood and says that while he can't be arrested in Canada, the detective will ruin his reputation and make his life a living hell. So Hurstwood writes the bar owner from whom he stole the money, apologizes, and sends the money back. All is forgiven, except that Hurstwood now only has $1000 to his name. He and Carrie decide to go to New York City to live. Hurstwood buys part ownership in a bar, and all goes well for awhile, even though the bar is not up to the standards of the one he managed in Chicago. Poor Hurstwood is now a small fish in a big pond, but still he manages to scrape by. But then some new neighbors move into the flat next door and Carrie befriends the wife. Seems the new people have lots of money, and the wife tells Carrie that she needs to buy all the latest fashions and Carrie is like totally into that. Hurstwood is not, but he puts up with it until his bar loses his lease and he's forced out, meaning he's lost his source of income. So Carrie has to stop buying new cloths and they have to move downtown to a cheaper apartment.

Hurstwood begins to look for work, but it looks bleak. And this is the part that just kills me. Dreiser keeps going on and on about how Hurstwood is totally over the hill, and no one wants to hire him because he's too old, and he's in all this pain because he has to walk all day looking for a job and his aged body can't take it...and he's 42 YEARS OLD! That's younger than me. Let me repeat that...he's YOUNGER than me. Well, fuck you Dreiser. That cocksucker was 29 when he wrote this book. And look what he wrote: Hurstwood is totally fucked and he's younger than me. So what happens if I, the middle-aged scientist/musician, lose my job in this economy? It looks like the tenements of New York will be my fate, and a slow downward spiral, according to the famous writer Theodore Dreiser. Yeah, fuck you, Dreiser. I suppose things could look up in this book, as I haven't finished the novel yet, but Dreiser is painting a bleak picture and somehow I think this whole thing will end horribly. Just what I frickin' need. Sigh. Where's my martini? Hey, bartender, the old blogger guy needs his martini!! Quick, before he dies!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book #38 - All the King's Men (Robert Penn Warren)

After reading the first paragraph of "All the King's Men" I thought to myself "Man, can this guy write". I mean, check it out:
Mason City. To get there you follow Highway 58 going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself and you'll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you'll try to jerk her back on, but you can't because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you'll try to turn off the ignition just as she starts to dive. But you won't make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky and he'll say, "Lawd God, hit's a-nudder one done done hit!" And the next nigger down the row, he'll say, "Lawd God," and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones. Later on love vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.
Now that's just damn good writing. The whole paragraph not only tells a tragic story all in one paragraph, but is so evocative of a time and place, in this case the deep south of the 1930s. There were lots of passages in this book where the writing was so good I had to stop and say "Woah", sip some bourbon, and then go back and read the paragraph again, just to savor the words more carefully.

But it's not just the writing, but the story itself which also makes this a great and enjoyable book. When I started this book, I knew it was about a politician similar to Louisiana's Huey Long. Willie Stark is the governor of a southern state, and the book follows his rise from a poor country lawyer to a powerful governor who runs a vicious but effective political machine. The story is told by Jack Burden, a former reporter who goes to work for Willie at the beginning of his political career, and moves up with him as his right hand man. But this novel has so much in it than just the political story of Willie Stark. In fact, the novel is much more about Jack Burden than it is about Willie Stark.

At the beginning of the novel we find that Willie is running for re-election, and a prominent judge, Judge Irwin, has thrown his support to Willie's opponent. Willie and Jack go to visit Judge Irwin, unannounced and late in the evening, and Willie tries to coerce the Judge into supporting him. It fails, and the attempt is very uncomfortable to Jack, because Judge Irwin was a good family friend, who treated Jack like a son after Jacks' own father left the family. After they leave, Willie tells Jack to dig up some dirt on Judge Irwin, so that Willie can blackmail him to get his support. Jack tells Willie that the judge is an upstanding citizen, and that he can't believe there'd be any dirt on the judge. Willie tells Jack to find the dirt because "There's always something", and that "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something." He also tells him to "make it stick". So Jack searches to see if there's anything in the judge's background that can be used against him. And he finds it, and makes it stick.

The story jumps back and forth in time. The part I just described occurs in the first chapter. The story then goes back and tells Willie Stark's tale of rising up from a hick farmer's son to a political powerhouse. And it tells the story of Jack Burden, and his background as well. Jack's family was not only friends with Judge Irwin, but with the family of a former Governor, Governor Stanton, whose children, Adam and Anne, Jack is close childhood friends with. In fact, Anne Stanton was Jack's first love. The whole story is a slow unfolding of what Jack finds out about Judge Irwin, and how this becomes a huge tragedy for Jack, the judge, Anne and Adam Stanton, and Willie Stark himself. It's tragedy on a Greek scale, although at the very end the story has a moderately happy ending. There is some redemption after all.

One of the big themes of the book is that actions have consequences. Jack's digging up the dirt on Judge Irwin has huge consequences, as do may other actions in the book (the deep south in the 1930s was apparently rife with political corruption. Fortunately that kind of thing would never happen in our day and age). For a long time, Jack is fairly amoral himself, and formulates a theory that people do what they do because they are biological machines made of bone and muscle and that they can't help themselves. Their actions are just the results of biological organisms "twitching". As the tragic events of the novel unfold, Jack finally realizes that people need to take responsibility for their actions, and that his actions and the actions of others are not just the results of biological twitches.

If you've noticed, I haven't given any spoilers as to what Jack finds out, and how it affects the characters. That's because I want you to read the book and learn these things on your own. This is a really great book, one of my favorites so far on my list, and it deserves to be read and savored. The author is great at building up tension, and pulling off plot twists and surprises, and I'd hate to spoil it. So read the book...it's a great one.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Around the Horn

If I were to write a book about my adventures as a biochemist ("Twenty Years Before the Microscope") then you might read sentences like this: "I raised up the pipetteman and delivered the restriction enzyme into the Eppendorf tube. I knew that after vortexing, and a stay in the 37C water bath, there would be agarose gel electrophoresis." If you haven't been trained in molecular biology, then that quote probably sounds like gibberish. Which is why I would laugh in "Two Years Before the Mast" when confronted with passages like this:
The wind was now due southwest and blowing a gale to which a vessel close-hauled could have shown no more than a single close-reefed sail, but as we were going before it, we could carry on. Accordingly, hands were sent aloft and a reef shaken out of the topsails and the reefed foresail set...We sprang aloft into the top, lowered a girtline down by which we hauled up the rigging, rove the tacks and halyards, ran out the boom and lashed it fast, and sent down the lower halyards as a preventer.
Excuse me, but WTF? Sounds like sailors were climbing up into the sails and doing all sorts of things, but exactly what I'm not sure. Still, does it really matter? The language is all crazy nautical, and makes me feel like I'm being sprayed by waves breaking over the bow, so finally I decided maybe I just needed to go along with it and that's what I did. I'll never be a sailor shipping out before the mast, but at least now after having finished the book I can talk like one. "Man the jib and reef up those tackles and halyards men! Ahoy maties! Don't be a soger!" See, I'm pretty convincing, right?

In the latter part of this book, the author describes the voyage home to Boston from California, two years after he shipped out. The eventful part is sailing around Cape Horn at the tip of South America in June, which is winter down there. Needless to say, it's tough going...lots of storms and snow and ice and rain and days that are five hours long before the sun sets. Frostbite was a real threat, but the sailors couldn't wear gloves because they couldn't hold on to the ropes very well when wearing them. And the author describes how their clothes were basically wet for a couple of months straight. It sounds pretty miserable, and it certainly was. It's kind of amazing that anyone survived these journeys. It makes one thankful for the Panama Canal.

Once around the Horn, several of the sailors get scurvy. This was in 1838, and it wasn't until 1932 that Vitamin C was discovered and the cause of scurvy (the lack of Vitamin C) was known. At the time of this voyage all that was known was that "fresh food" could cure scurvy (which meant plants, which contain Vitamin C). Meals on board the ship consisted of a piece of salted meat and some biscuit. Every meal, every day. Mmmmm. Fortunately, right before one of the sailors was about to die, they came across another sailing ship, who gave them onions and potatoes. Every sailor was given these daily, and all were cured. The author describes how they would just eat the onions like apples, and I'm thinking that that must have been one smelly ship.

Finally the ship makes it home to Boston, the sailors leave the boat, and the author goes back to Harvard to get his degree. The end. But wait...there's more! For the second to last chapter, the author goes into lawyer mode (he got a law degree) and starts going on and on about the rights of sailors, and the legal limits to a captain's authority, etc. And I have to say this was a pretty dull chapter, and out of character with the rest of the book. But then, there's one final chapter, added as a postscript 24 years after the book was initially published. This chapter tells of the author's trip, made in his mid-40s, back to California 24 years after his sailing days. He is blown away by what he sees...especially in San Francisco. When he was there in the 1830s there was no town, just an old broken down Mission. When he returns it's thriving metropolis, and there are other cities along the bay as well (Oakland, San Jose, Santa Clara), not to mention cities inland like Sacramento. The author is treated as a celebrity in San Francisco, his arrival being announced in the papers, because his was the only account of California written by an American before the Gold Rush days, so all the original pioneers read his book to get an idea of what it was like. He hangs out in San Francisco for awhile, no doubt going to dance clubs and cocktail lounges....maybe checking out the Museum of Modern Art He then takes a steamship down the California coast, visiting Santa Barbara and San Diego, before coming back to San Francisco and then heading to Hawaii. This chapter, written 24 years after the rest of the book is much more sentimental. He meets a lot of his old shipmates and acquaintances from his shipping days, and he's obviously very nostalgic for the past as are the people he meets. And I get the feeling it's not just the 24 years of time, but also the massive changes that occurred in California during that time that probably makes the past seem even more distant than it was, enriching and enhancing the nostalgia. At any rate it's a very moving chapter, and a fitting and poignant end to the book. This book is an American classic, and while it might not be for everyone, if you're interested in what the early 19th century sailing life was like, or if you're interested in California history, then this is well worth reading.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book #37 - Two Years Before the Mast (Richard Henry Dana)

Aye, maties! Tonight I'm drinking a Mexican beer (Modelo) with lime, which seems appropriate for the book I'm currently reading. Leaving behind the 1848 France in "A Sentimental Education" I decided to step back 16 years earlier, and to another continent. I also left behind dithering young French people who talk a lot but never really do anything, in exchange for hard working, manly sea-faring men.

I'm about half way through "Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana. It's another American autobiography, of which I've read three others so far for this project (by Ben Franklin, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass). This book is about a two year period on the author's life. He was an undergraduate at Harvard when he contracted measles, which caused his eyesight to weaken so that he could not continue his studies. He decided that "hard work, plain food, and open air", and a lack of books, could possibly cure him, so he shipped out of Boston on a merchant sailing vessel bound for the California coast. The vessel carried goods for the white settlers in California, which they would both sell and trade for cow hides which they would then transport back to Boston. The whole trip was to take an estimated 2-3 years. You have to admit, this guy had some balls...his eyesight sucks so this young, seemingly well-to-do guy signs up for a couple of hard years as a sailor, which he seems to have had absolutely no experience in, instead of traveling to France and lounging around with the characters in "A Sentimental Education".

So he sets sail. Interestingly we never hear anything else about his eyesight, so he seems to have done alright on that score. They leave Boston and sail down the coast of North and South America (remember it's 1834 so there's no Panama Canal yet). At one point they're chased by what seems to be a pirate ship (it's painted black and has no flags, and pursues them relentlessly) but they manage to escape. Then they sail through Cape Horn at the foot of South America, enduring its terrible storms and weather, and then sail northward for California.

Once they reach California, they then start to endlessly sail up and down the coast, from San Diego to Santa Barbara to Monterey to San Francisco, and back and forth from one port to another, each time trading goods and stocking up on cow hides to take back. California at that time was owned by Mexico, and the small settlements were all built around a Catholic Mission and a Presidio (fort). The white population was mostly Spanish and very sparse. Numerous Indians lived in the towns, and these people tended to work for the white people. As someone who has lived in California for almost 20 years now, it's fascinating to read the author's descriptions of the small towns and settlements that grew up to be the major cities of this state. He describes sailing into San Francisco Bay and stopping in San Francisco, which was only a few shanties at the time, apart from the Mission Dolores, which is still standing and is about a mile from where I'm writing this. It's incredible that this state has become what it currently is in just 175 years after this was written. Keep in mind too that the author sailed to California 15 years before the gold rush and it's influx of people.

The book is also interesting as a description of the life of a common sailor. However, Dana really gets in to describing some of the details of sailing, and some of this is almost incomprehensible to a landlubber like me. For example, here's a sentence about a time they were sailing in a storm:

"All hands were now employed in setting up the lee rigging, fishing the spritsail yard, lashing the galley, and getting tackles upon the martingale to bowse it to windward."

Uh, say what? Or this one:

"At this instant the chief mate, who was standing on the top of the windlass, at the foot of the spenser mast, called out "Lay out there and furl the jib!""

Clearly this is dangerous and complicated work, and the writing conveys a sense of action and movement, but it would be nice to find an annotated version with diagrams or something so I had at least a faint idea of what was going on.

Dana is very good at depicting how hard the sailors' lives were back then. They basically shipped out on these merchant vessels with only a vague idea of when they were returning. In Dana's case his boat must collect a certain number of cow hides to bring back, and they can't return until they've collected this amount (he actually ends up changing ships because his original ship was going to stay way to long in California). There's only one day off, Sunday, and this is at the mercy of the captain, who can decide that they need to keep working. And the captain has total rule in every other way over these men's lives. There's one striking (no pun intended) episode where the captain is in a bad mood, and ends up brutally flogging two men for the flimsiest of reasons. The crew is not happy about this, but they can't do anything. Even if they mutinied they'd be hunted down, and could never work as sailer again. Ah, the good old days.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Unsentimentally Uneducated

When I finished up graduate school and my postdoc, and actually started working at a real job, I began to have a 401(K). When learning about how to invest the money in my 401(K) I would read in financial magazines and articles that stocks were the best investment for the long term, because over the long haul they had a return of 10% a year. And every time I read that it blew me away. Not because I thought that stocks must be pretty amazing things, but because I thought these guys writing these articles must be total idiots. Is there some law of science that says stocks must return 10% a year? Can one write an equation that proves that stock returns always revert to the mean, and that mean is 10% a year? No, of course not. Whoever came up with the "stocks return 10% a year" maxim had decided that historical events and trends of the 20th century would continue forever, and there would never be any sort of instabilities in our economic and/or political systems that would change the way businesses operate and prevent stocks from returning any more or less than 10% a year, over the long run. Reading "A Sentimental Education" should remind the reader that things are not always as stable over the long run as we would like to believe. Because as I see it, and I am an expert in 19th century French literature because I have a PhD in biochemistry, there are two main themes in this book. The first is a very cynical view of how trivial, irrational, unthoughtful, and downright ridiculous many peoples' lives are. And the second is how peoples' lives are affected by, and caught up in history. It's easy for us today, I think, to lose sight of that second theme, as our government and society have been relatively stable, at least in my lifetime. But this was not the case in France around the year 1848, when the novel takes place. In 1848 the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe was overthrown, and the Second Republic was formed. The year was full of all types of rebellion and political turmoil, and at the end of the year Louis Napoleon was elected president. A couple of years later he ended the republic in a coup and became Emperor Napoleon III. It is against all this turmoil that the action (if it can be called that) of the novel takes place, and the characters' lives are all impacted by current events. Indeed, I was fortunate that my edition of the book had footnotes explaining what all the historical references were about, since events of the French revolution of 1848 are not all that well known to most modern readers, myself included.

Anyway, it is against this backdrop that the main character of this novel, Frederic Moreau, lives his dithering life. This guy, the novel's hero, is someone you want to meet in person so you can kick him in the pants. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, and frankly never seems to quite figure it out. He starts out as a law student, then wants to be an artist, and later on a politician, etc. etc. but he doesn't seem to have much ambition or aptitude for anything. He manages to inherit a fortune, but blows a big chunk of it on his romantic affairs, and at the end of the novel is solidly middle class. He hangs out with people who have strong convictions about the political events, and he listens to all of them rant and rave, but he seems to comprehend little of it, and really doesn't care all that much when it comes down to it. Of course, his friends who espouse their ideas are all pretty much buffoons anyway, and many of them don't really know what they're talking about. Here's a passage which perfectly illustrates Frederic's interest in politics. He decides that he will try to run to be a member of the Constituent Assembly (the legislature):

"It was time to hurl oneself into the fray and perhaps help events along; he was also greatly attracted to the clothes which, it was said, the Deputies would be having. He could already see himself wearing a tricolour sash and a waistcoat with lapels."

That characterization is both darkly cynical and hilariously funny, and this dichotomy pervades the novel. The characters lives and motivations are all trivial, banal, and/or venal.

But the centerpiece of the novel is not just the revolution and the politics, it's the love life of Frederic Moreau. At the beginning of the novel Frederic falls in love with Madame Arnoux, the wife of a man who runs an art magazine. Of course, he doesn't have the balls to act on this. He befriends the husband, and gets to know Madame after being invited to their house and insinuating himself into their lives. But it takes a long time before he can profess his love to Mrs. Arnoux, and when he does they don't get very far. She loves him too, but is a God-fearing woman and doesn't pursue the affair, although one has the feeling that if Frederic pressed the issue he would have gotten into bed with her. But he doesn't because he's always indecisive, fearful, and dithering. He starts an affair with Arnoux's mistress, a woman named Rosanette. They become more attached, and Frederic seems to love her, at times, but then gets distracted again by Madame Arnoux. Near the end of the novel he has an affair with a third woman, Madame Dambreuse, a high-society figure married to a very wealthy man. After the husband dies, he agrees to marry her, even though he's still seeing Rosanette, who has just had his baby. Oh, and then there's the daughter of the man who lives next to his mother in his rural hometown, and that daughter is obsessed with Frederic. He thinks about marrying her too. So there's lots of intrigue, and jumping from bed to bed, and stringing people along, and betraying people, and tiring of lovers, etc. And in the end Frederic misplays all of his hands and ends up alone. I guess that's a hazard of juggling...all the balls can come crashing to the floor. In a way he seeks an idealized romance, and can't deal with the faults of real of human beings. And most importantly he can't even see how his own faults affect his relationships and their outcomes. It never even occurs to him to think about this. Too bad for him that therapy hadn't been invented yet.

In the movie "Manhattan", Woody Allen's character famously compiles a list of things that make life worth living. One of them is Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education". Is this book really that good? Upon finishing it my impression was that it is both hilariously funny and deeply disturbing and cynical in the way it points out the foibles and shallowness of most peoples' lives. People don't end up living happily ever after in this book, but you can see that coming from the beginning. Everyone is ridiculous. Everyone is flawed. Everyone is doomed. Which reminds me of a line from They Might be Giants: "Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful". Maybe they, and Woody, were right.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book #36 - A Sentimental Education (Gustave Flaubert)

With my reading of the 35th book on the list, Toni Morrison's "Beloved", I realize that I am now 1/3 of the way through my 105 books! Woohoo! I raise my glass of English ale to salute this achievement. And yet, I cannot rest, for death is breathing down my neck and I have lots of reading to go. And admittedly, slacker that I am, I am not reading at the pace I was two years ago. Although who knows what reading pace the future may hold.

I am in England right now. I spent a few days in London, wandering around aimlessly, checking out a few museums, and drinking some delicious real ales. Now I'm just south of Cambridge, attending a conference for work, and wondering what I'm doing in the English countryside reading a book by a Frenchman. But it's OK, because Britain and France have historically been the best of friends for thousands of years. Well, except for the Hundred Years War. And for most of the rest of pre-20th century recorded history.

I started reading Flaubert's "A Sentimental Education" on the flight over to England. The only other Flaubert I've read is "Madame Bovary", which I read freshman year in college. That's a great book, but one which can definitely be characterized as "a downer". "A Sentimental Education", however, is a whole new ballgame. I mean, is it me or is this book seriously funny? The book so far, and I'm 150 pages (of 450 pages total) into it, is about a young French dude in the 1840s named Frederic Moreau, who has just graduated from college and decides to live in Paris and be hip. And in the first third of the novel, there's not much plot. Moreau falls in love with a rich man's wife, but dares not say anything to her. He does terrible on his initial try at the law school's exams. He hangs out with his friends, who discuss politics and what should be done to stave off the revolution, but all they do is talk talk talk with no action. Frickin' French pussies. Yet, although it's easy to laugh at the characters for their big words and pretensions, it's a bit sad when they don't follow through on their words and don't even really try. I dunno, reminds me of a lot of dorm conversations I had in college, beer in hand. We'd argue politics, and sports, and art, and philosophy, but in reality we didn't know what the f#*$% we were talking about. Time wises up everyone, I guess. As some Bob Dylan once said "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now".

Anyway, I'm enjoying this book, and I'm looking forward to continue reading it on the flight home. Will Flaubert's characters wise up and start getting their act together? Or will they just keep drifting through life, and their conversations espousing their ideals but not acting upon them? Stay tuned...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book #35 - Beloved (Toni Morrison)

Tonight I have forsaken my traditional fine American whiskey, and have chosen to blog with a martini in one hand. I can think of nothing more inappropriate to drink while blogging about Toni Morrison's "Beloved". When one thinks of a martini, one thinks of sophistication, maybe the roaring 20's, of elegant bars, and FDR and flappers. That is so not the world of "Beloved". At all.

Where do I start with this one? About 20 years ago, I went through a period where I read a lot of books by black women authors. I was thinking that I should read some books that would let me see the world through eyes that gave a distinctly different viewpoint from my own, and I knew from growing up in suburban Ohio that I definitely was not a black woman. So I read books by Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Terry McMillan, and one by Toni Morrisson. My favorite book off all the ones I read by these authors was Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"...that book was brilliant, and if you haven't read it, by all means you should do so. I also liked "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker (which I read before it became a Steven Spielberg blockbuster film), although I felt the ending was wrapped up a bit too neatly and happily. The Toni Morrison book I read was "Sula" and frankly it didn't really stick with me. I'd heard "Beloved" was a good book, but I'm not sure if I was expecting all that much.

So I read it and wow, this is one helluva book. "Beloved" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 (it was published in 1987) and Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In May 2006, the New York Times named "Beloved" as the best American novel to be published in the previous 25 years. That's a pretty good track record. And reading the novel, even through the haze of a martini or three, I can see what all the hype is about. It's complex, it's thought-provoking, and it's incredibly moving. Plus the writing itself is great. I cried at the end, although that's not saying much since I also cried at the end of the movie "You've Got Mail".

The book is very loosely based on the life of Margaret Garner. Margaret was a slave from Kentucky who fled north to Ohio in 1856 along with her husband and four children. However, slave catchers caught up with them in Cincinnati and surrounded the house they were hiding in. Margaret then killed her two year old daughter with a knife rather than see her returned to slavery. She would have killed her other children and herself as well, but the posse caught her before she could carry this out. In "Beloved", the main character is Sethe, a former slave from Kentucky who escaped to Cincinnati, and kills her infant daughter Beloved when their former master rides into town, corners them, and prepares to take them back to slavery. In Sethe's case, she is jailed for murder, and is eventually released (in real life, Margaret Garner was taken back to slavery). The story is told in flashbacks, and veers back and forth between character's memories and the present. At first this was a bit confusing, but it rapidly becomes clear.

Sethe lives in a house with her daughter Denver (her other two surviving sons fled and never returned, fearing that their mother would one day kill them, as they had witnessed her kill her infant daughter). When the novel opens, the house is haunted, with what is believed to be the ghost of the murdered child. Eventually a 20-year old woman appears on the porch and comes to live in the house, and we quickly realize that this is probably the ghost of Beloved (the characters realize this too). I could go on and summarize the plot, but I hate to spoil the book for those who might not have read it already, because it's a great book and I heartily recommend it. But I think it's worthwhile to tell why I think it's a great book, and I can do that without summarizing the plot (although the plot itself is good, as is the writing).

The thing that I really loved about the book is that it really made me think about slavery and it's effects in a whole new light. I mean, everyone knows that slavery was terrible and degrading and inhuman and horrible...that seems to be commonly accepted by everyone in this day and age (as opposed to the mid-1800s when the novel takes place). But the novel, in dealing with a group of black people who escaped from slavery and are living across the river from a former slave state just after the Civil War, really gets into the mind of these characters and shows the reader how damaged they are from having to endured slavery, even long after they are freed from it. In today's world, we know so much more about psychology and things like post traumatic stress. It's insightful to take this knowledge and look at the characters in that regard. Slavery left people horribly damaged, both black and white, and Morrison seems to be making the case that we need to think about this and remember this, and look at ourselves even in today's world at the legacy of this horror, because it's effects still decidedly linger.

In "Beloved" the whites are not totally and all bad, and the blacks are not totally innocent victims and only good. Life is not like that and the book is not like that. It's a white girl who helps Sethe deliver her baby while she is escaping from slavery, and it's a white man who helps prevent Sethe from being hanged after she is found guilty of murdering her child (he also employed Sethe's mother-in-law and daughter). In slavery Sethe has a "good" master, who treats the slaves with respect, listens to their opinions, and lets them carry guns. However after he dies the new master is mean and cruel, and it's from him that Sethe escapes. Likewise, while there are black characters who help Sethe, and who love Sethe, it is also the black community who is partly responsible for the tragedy, because they fail to warn Sethe that her old master has come to town and is hunting her down (they do not warn her because they felt that she and her mother-in-law, who was a lay preacher, were getting to be too proud). The world is full of good and bad people, of all sexes and races. But a horrifically dysfunctional institution like slavery just warps and magnifies everything, so that things like murdering one's own child can become act of love. The aftermath of this for Sethe, as it would be for anyone, is brutal and damaging. And of course it doesn't help matters if the dead baby's ghost comes back to haunt you. In today's society, we could put Sethe on Wellbutrin and get her into extensive therapy to help get her over the ravages of her past traumas. But those options were not available then. Plus, I'm not sure you could find a therapist today who specializes in treating former slaves.

Anyway I feel like I'm rambling a bit, and I blame the martini. But my head is clear enough to know that this is a great book and beautifully written, full of poetry and symbolism and wisdom, and it deserves its acclaim. Yeah, it's hard to read at points, but that's how life can be sometimes, and besides the ending is surprisingly optimistic. So have a martini and a Paxil and go for it!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Samuel Johnson and the Comfort of Wisdom

"He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good and evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful." Samuel Johnson, 1780.

Two and a half years ago, right before I began this blog, I read "The Life of Samuel Johnson" by James Boswell. Johnson was a brilliant though eccentric man, one of the great English writers, a lexicographer, and apparently one of the greatest conversationalists and wits to ever walk the earth. We know this because he was trailed by his biographer and sycophant James Boswell, a genius in his own right, who basically followed Johnson around and wrote down everything he said. It's a very long book, but one of the most wonderfully rewarding ones if one takes the time to read it and enjoy Johnson's wit and wisdom. It's a rare book that can both stick with one, and comfort one, and illuminate one's mind well after having read it, and I find this book to be one of those. Recent events in my life have caused me to remember the above quote by Samuel Johnson, which was written in a letter to a friend whose wife of many years had just passed away. The quote is about the loss of a spouse, and the experience of the resulting grief. And yet, I think it's also more generally applicable to the loss of any romantic partner you truly love, no matter what the means of separation.

I've been thinking a lot about lost love and heartbreak recently. I've never experienced the loss of a lover and companion through death, thankfully, but I certainly have in other ways. Losing a lover to death would seem so final…there’s no choice involved. But losing a love through a breakup…well, then choice is involved in many cases, which has the potential to add an element of regret. And regret can be a dismal feeling in its own right, in addition to the dreadful suspense that Johnson describes.

It’s called “heartbreak” for a reason, and that’s because one can feel it in one’s chest, right behind the sternum. It lingers there, pulsing and throbbing alongside the heart, reminding you continually of what once was. It reminds one that there’s an empty space inside now, where once resided the dreams one held inside the deepest recesses of one’s body, dreams that spread from the heart down into the bones. “The continuity of being is lacerated” indeed. What had seemed like a swift current into the future, full of rapids and waves and adventure, has suddenly stopped flowing, and one is left to aimlessly drift on a shallow and tepid sea gently seasoned with ones own tears, like bitters in a martini. It is a sad and lonely and dreadful place. And in a place like that, one of the few comforts available is to read things like this quote from Samuel Johnson, so wise and profoundly knowing, so that one realizes that others have been here as well, that others have sailed on these forlorn and gloomy seas and lived to tell the tale. Some have reached the shores after being “driven by external forces into a new channel”. Others, I think, find the shore after being driven by internal forces, because separation from a lover by breakup, unlike Johnson’s death of a spouse, allows the possibility of reflection and contemplation and a new course of action. Sometimes a period of separation is itself the external force that forces one to muse and meditate on the meaning of a relationship, and on the meaning and value of another’s love and their love for another. This can force one to discover truths within themselves that they weren’t aware of before, which causes a re-evaluation of all they presumed about a relationship. That is not an easy feat, but it can lead to the recovery of a love thought lost or diminished, to a rekindling of an ardor that had dampened from flames to embers. But whether the final course is a final separation, or a glorious reconciliation, the path is not an easy one, and the heartbreak will not be mitigated easily. As Johnson says “The time of suspense is dreadful”.

The amount of people that one truly loves and is loved by is not a large number when viewed in the full span of most people’s lives, and it’s hard to often remember that and keep that in perspective. It’s too easy to focus on the flaws of a relationship, or to unrealizingly get caught up in one’s own shortfalls and not see the big picture of exactly how truly precious love is. For love is rare, and life is short and brutal, and if one doesn’t do all they can to hold on to those who one loves and who loves them back, then what’s the point of doing anything at all? True and deep connections in life should be treasured and nurtured, because they hold back the dark. If you love someone, hold on to them and hold their love close. Do all you can to make it work, even if that means struggling with one's own flaws and assumptions and limitations. For the end result can be a bright and glorious love, a shot down the rapids into a radiant future with another’s hand in yours...a rewarding and magnificent and abiding joy, rather than Johnson’s dreadful suspense.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book #34 - Animal Farm (George Orwell)

How many adjectives are named after authors? I can think of two: Orwellian and Dickensian. Oh sure, you can argue there's "Shakespearean" as well, but that refers to the author himself, so that a "Shakespearean" actor is an actor who performs in plays by Shakespeare. So old George Orwell seems to have done pretty well for himself, I have to say.

Today I read "Animal Farm". Yes, I read the whole thing in a day, which isn't saying much because it's only 97 pages long. And for some reason I keep wanting to call it "Animal House", but as we know, that was an entirely different story altogether.

So is "Animal Farm" Orwellian? Well, yes. To me, the epitome of Orwellian is in "1984" (a book I read in high school) which features a dystopian future where citizens are under the control of a total dictatorship, and all aspects of their lives are monitored and controlled. And that's similar to the way things end up in "Animal Farm", although there are differences.

"Animal Farm" is a book that most of my friends seem to have read in high school, and after reading it I can understand why. The book is an allegory for the Communist revolution and the evolution of the Soviet Union under Stalin. The symbolism is obvious and straightforward, which makes it a good book to teach concepts like symbolism and allegory, assuming the students know the history of the Soviet Union. But I'm actually really glad I didn't read the book in high school, because I think I appreciate it a lot more than I would have then. The book is very dark, painting a dim view of human nature, as symbolized by animal nature. The book tells the tale of a farm in England, where the animals take over. The revolution, where the animals overthrow the drunken farmer who runs the farm, is at first idealistic, democratic, and socialist. The animals are all equal and all comrades in arms who stand united against their common enemy, the humans. But then things go awry. The pigs, who are by far the smartest of the animals, assume leadership roles, with two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, duking it out for supremacy. Napoleon clearly represents Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky. We all know who wins that one. Napoleon raises some dogs from puppies, who become his vicious thugs. They attack Snowball, forcing him to flee, and a reign of terror more or less begins, albeit slowly enough so that the animals never really realize what is happening. Napoleon consolidates his rule with a number of show trials, resulting in a death sentence for those who confess to crimes they haven't committed. The initial ideals of the revolution are long gone, and the seven commandments that were written down at the beginning of the revolution (such as "No animal shall drink alcohol" and "No animal shall sleep in a bed") are modified to suit the pigs' needs ("No animal shall drink alcohol to excess" and "No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets"). Eventually all the commandments are overwritten with one commandment, the famous "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". In the end, the pigs and the dogs live like princes, while the other animals are slave labor to them. The pigs eventually start to walk on two legs, and put on clothes, and become indistinguishable from the humans, whom they have now allied themselves with. And so the glorious revolution leaves the animals having substituted one terrible set of masters for another.

Very bleak, indeed. But I can appreciate now, much more than I would have in high school, just how truthfully this story rings. Power corrupts, and in any society, those in power tend to gain more power, and those at the bottom find it terribly difficult to escape their class. It makes one wonder whether a true socialist society can really exist. It seems that in all societies that have ever existed there's been a social hierarchy, with powerful families and groups, and the vast majority under their rule, either directly or indirectly. Maybe that's my age talking...the triumph of cynicism and cold reality over the idealism of youth. But it's not just me..."Animal Farm" clearly presents a similar take on human nature. One that's positively Orwellian.

Friday, April 30, 2010


I haven't posted in a bit, but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading. It's more of a reflection that my life has been hectic and traumatic and full of emotional upheaval which as caused me to question my very sanity and well being. Plus I was in Washington, DC for a week. At any rate, despite the soul-crushing last few weeks I managed finish "Jane Eyre". I raise my glass of 15 year old Kentucky bourbon to Jane and her creator Charlotte Bronte! Here's my highly intellectual literary criticism: This was a really good book. Talk about your plot twists: There's a crazy woman in the attic! Holy crap, it's Mr. Rochester's wife! Oh no, she's burned down the house and wounded Mr. Rochester and took a face plant off the building! Oh yeah, sorry about the spoilers, in case you're the one other person on this planet who's never read this book.

There's a lot of stuff in this book that I, as a scientist, didn't quite get, as I was probably too busy trying to comprehend the molecular structure of Mr. Rochester's hair. For example, what's with the crazy wife in the attic? Is that a commentary on the sad state of marriage in 19th century England? Is there some larger symbolism? Or is it just that Mr. Rochester is a dick, and keeps his looney wife locked up there against her own will while he's putting the moves on the young governess and asking her to marry him even though he knows damn good and well that he's got that crazy wife in the attic and how could Jane not find out? Indeed she does find out and she runs off, and she should because of the dick-like bigamy moves that Rochester is trying to pull. So then she escapes to another part of the country where she is taken in by a poor family who, SURPRISE, happen to be her cousins. Why does this always happen in Victorian novels: there's some big plot twist that hinges around the most improbable of events. One example from the top of my head is Ham dying to rescue Steerforth in "David Copperfield". Anyway, where was I in my rambling? Oh yeah, so one of the cousins starts hitting on Jane and asking her to marry him, because he thinks Jane would make a good missionary wife. Jane says "No" several times, mainly because he loves someone else and because he's an even bigger dick than Rochester. He doesn't really care about Jane, he just wants a missionary wife/companion. Anyway, Jane finally hears the ghostly voice of Rochester calling her through some spiritual ghostly connection they have, so she seeks him out. He's now blind and gimpy from when the ex-wife burned down the house, but Jane loves him anyway and forgives him and marries him, because in the end, true love conquers all and allows for forgiveness, just as Jesus loves us all and forgives us our trespasses. There's a lesson to be learned there. This is an odd and sweet book. True love conquers all. Is that true in real life? Stay tuned...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book #33 - Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)

I have blogged on whiskey before...both bourbon and rye. And in fact that's my normal blogging state. I've also blogged on rum, for "Treasure Island" and "Robinson Crusoe" in particular. And I seem to hazily remember blogging on absinthe as well (gee, why would that memory be hazy?). But tonight we're in unknown territory...I'm blogging on Vicodin! Woohoo! What's up with that? Well, I went to the dentist earlier this week because I needed a crown on one of my molars. So he put a temporary one on while I wait for the permanent crown to be made, and he said the tooth might hurt a bit. Well, that's the understatement of the frickin' year. The past few days it's been aching and throbbing worse and worse, which according to the dentist means I may have to get a root canal on the tooth. Oh yeah, that is so awesome. I've been taking Advil, which has so far warded off the pain for a few hours at a pop, but tonight the throbbing seems to have launched into a whole new order of magnitude. So I was faced with a choice...suffer, drink lots of booze, or take a Vicodin. I opted for the Vicodin. And guess what...this stuff works! An hour after taking it the pain has largely subsided. But of course, now I feel all lightheaded and a bit loopy, so I thought "Hey, it's the perfect time to blog!". Hopefully I won't lapse into gibberish...although come to think of it, that might make this blog a bit more interesting. Nah, but that won't happen, I'm fine. In fact I could blogsh miffleplix skjri theurkst, gs. zzzz

Woops. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, "Jane Eyre". I started this book last weekend, and I'm almost a third of the way into it. I read Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" in high school, and of course I've seen Monty Python's semaphore version of "Wuthering Heights". But that's been my only Bronte experience until I picked up "Jane Eyre" last week.

My immediate thought after just a few pages was that Charlotte Bronte is a really good writer. This book moves along snappily, and keeps me pulled in. I found when reading Dickens I would sometimes suddenly realize I had no idea what was happening, and I'd have to read over the last paragraph or page very carefully to try to parse out what the heck Dickens was talking about. There's something about the density of his wording and his use of colloquialisms that can make certain passages a bit rough going at first. But Bronte's writing just moves along, and I've had no such incidents of confusion.

And it's not just the writing style...I love the character of Jane. When we meet her, Jane is an orphan living with the Reed family. Mr. Reed had been Jane's uncle, and he took her in when her parents died of typhus. But then Mr. Reed died, and Mrs. Reed has no liking for Jane, to put it mildly. Neither do the three Reed children, who are all raving assholes. So Jane is miserable, and gets taunted and beaten by the children, and blamed for everything by Mrs. Reed. Yet Jane is not a passive victim. She's bold and assertive and independent. She's a survivor. And she can be sassy...in fact, there's one scene where she confronts Mrs. Reed, standing up to her and calling her on her shit, and I immediately thought of Holden Caufield...Jane can pick out the phonies. But my favorite quote from Jane, at least so far, occurs when Mrs. Reed decides to ship Jane off to boarding school to get rid of her. The headmaster of the school comes to their home and is quizzing Jane. The conversation goes like this:

Headmaster: "No sight so sad as that of a naughty child...especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?"
Jane: "They go to hell."
Headmaster: "And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
Jane: "A pit full of fire."
Headmaster: "And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"
Jane: "No, sir."
Headmaster: "What must you do to avoid it?"
Jane: "I must keep in good health and not die."

God, that's funny. In that passage Jane reminds me a bit of Maggie in "The Mill on the Floss" (although Maggie was a bit crazier than Jane). These Victorian women writers can write some strong women characters, that's for sure.

Anyway, Jane goes to boarding school, where conditions are bad...Dickensian, in fact. That changes when typhus sweeps through the school, killing off many of the students, and the locals then realize how bad things are there, and thus they force improvements. So the school gets better, and Jane gets her education. She eventually becomes a teacher at the school, but soon gets bored and longs to see more of the world, so she gets a job as a governess to a girl living on an estate called Thornfield. The owner of the estate, Mr. Rochester (no, he's not from upstate New York) is rarely present. But as Jane gets settled in, Mr. Rochester suddenly makes an appearance. And that's as far as I've gotten. But I'm eagerly waiting to read more...as soon as this Vicodin wears off and the toothache is resolved.