Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Book #113: Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those books that will punch you in the gut and knock all the air out of you.

It has two main plots. In the first, a young American Jew – Also named Jonathan Safran Foer – goes to Ukraine to find the woman who he thinks may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by his translator Alex – who butchers English amazingly – and Alex’s grandfather. Together they try to find the village Jonathan’s grandfather fled.

The second plot takes place largely in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod, known on maps as Sofiowka. Trachimbrod is a largely Jewish shtetl, and it’s filled to the brim with neurotic, quirky people. At the center of the story is Brod, Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who was found mysteriously by a river one day. From Brod’s strange origins and childhood, the narratives moves through life in the shtetl to Brod’s adulthood an marriage, continues through the years until it reaches Jonathan’s grandfather.

As Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather search for the now-nonexistent Trachimbrod, they are drawn closer to a painful, tragic truth and a past that they could never have expected.

When I read Everything Is Illuminated in college, it totally shattered me. I loved everything about it and immediately placed it on my list of top-ten books I’ve ever read. At the time I was really interested in Jews and World War II, and the tragic nature of the book and the fact that it was an interesting spin on the “Jews in World War II” narrative (it’s about Jews, and World War II plays a minor role, but it’s not a Holocaust book) were bound to make me love it.

I’ll be honest – this time around I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. It could be that in the four years since I’ve read the book I’ve built it up in my mind to be this great literary masterpiece or that my interests have shifted a bit, I don’t know. For some reason, for the first third of the book I kept thinking, “I fell in love with this book? Really?” It wasn’t that it was bad. It was still very good, it just wasn’t the earth-shattering read I remembered.

But then I started to get more invested. The plot moved along and things like Alex’s bad English started to feel less gimmicky and I found myself getting sucked in. By the end as we approached the terrible thing my heart was racing and I kept telling myself not to be so invested because I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to be crushed.

But crushed I was.

It’s hard to say where I come down on Everything Is Illuminated. I still loved it. As a whole it had much the same effect on me this time as it did four years ago. But at the same time, I was more aware of some of the flaws and parts that felt gimmicky or didn’t seem necessary. It’s not a perfect book. It’s far from it. But in the end I felt so shattered that I’m inclined to be forgiving of the flaws, because damn, this books makes you feel.

So I still loved it. It’s still a book I’ll readily recommend to anyone who asks. If I see someone reading it or it comes up in conversation, I’ll still say, “Man. That is a good book. It’s one of my favorites.” But is it still in my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list?

I don’t know…

Either way, read it. It’s beautiful and haunting and it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Victim

Book #112: Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of those books where the setting is as much a character as the people.

Goodbye to Berlin is a series of semi-connected short stories about Berlin during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. The narrator, also a British writer named Christopher Isherwood, recounts his experiences living in the city in the lead-up to World War II, complete with the sleazy and not-so-sleazy people who meets and the seedy and not-so-seedy places he lives. From a dank room in a crowded flat with a German family to a room in a rooming house with the quintessential German hausfrau Fräulein Shroeder to the wealthy Jewish family he befriends, Isherwood’s stories offer snapshots into life in a city in decline.

1930s Berlin society is far from perfect, and as it slides closer and closer to war, things continue to go downhill. However, Isherwood’s genuine affection for the people he meets and the city he lives in. Even in decline and with its flaws, Isherwood seems to love Berlin.

At one point he even writes, “It is strange how people seem to belong to places – especially to places where they were not born.”

As someone with nomadic tendencies – I get an itch to move on and try out living in new places and doing new things after about a year – this really resonated with me. I’ve felt deep connections with places I have no business feeling connected to. I’m not from Budapest, Boston, Prague, Chicago, or Salzburg, but in some ways each of these cities has made an impression on me that goes beyond just, “I visited it and I liked it.” Each of them has awakened parts of me I didn’t know were sleeping. Each of them has touched me in places that are hard to reach. I can’t say why, and it’s probably pretentious and presumptuous to say, but somehow I feel a bit like I belong to these places. Or at least I did belong to them, even if it was only for a few days.

Any time I think about these cities, the cities themselves are always part of the narrative. They’re more than just settings or places where certain things happen, they are characters with the ability to influence the events and make impressions on the people who come in contact with them. I’ve been known to call Budapest my boyfriend. I had a short summer fling with Salzburg that left me longing for more. Boston is that interesting person I met on a trip one time and would like to get back in touch with. Prague is that toxic friend you know you should probably get rid of, but you just can’t because she always makes things exciting and when things are good between you, they are so good that you forget the terrible, soul-crushing lows. Chicago is the cool older sister that I always want to hang out with.

Isherwood does an excellent job of turning Berlin into more than just a setting in Goodbye to Berlin. He’s a very good writer, and his descriptions are often perfect. The short stories themselves are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the characters Isherwood peoples them with.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Everything Is Illuminated

 

Book #84: The Glass Bead Game

Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a really interesting read.

It’s written as an academic retelling of the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest master of a purely academic society’s greatest achievement – the Glass Bead Game. The plot is almost as hard to describe as the society and Game it involves.

In the future, society has been divided into two classes – the academic-minded who devote their lives to learning and philosophy, and the ‘laypeople’ involved in politics, medicine, and the rest of society. The division is reminiscent of the monastic societies of medieval Europe. Gifted children are chosen at a young age to enter these special schools in Castalia, the academic society.

Joseph Knecht is was a peasant boy who was very gifted in music who entered Castalia and wound up working his way through the strictly regimented learning regime up the strict hierarchical ladder to become Magister Ludi – Master of the Glass Bead Game – the highest rank in Castalia.

The Game is, essentially an exercise in thought and philosophy which tries to synthesize all human learning into one game. The game mirrors the early abacuses used by mathematicians. Everything is boiled down to beads and symbols – an idea, generally philosophical or musical in theme, is introduced as the opening problem to the Game. Then players, using the beads in some undescribed way, state associations and variations on the opening theme, much like musicians alter the main theme of music in compositions.

The rules and mechanics of the Game are never explained throughout the novel, only the Game’s importance in bringing nuance, delicacy, and beauty to the forefront of thought during the annual tournament of the Glass Bead Game that brings together players from all over Castalia.

The story is told in the form of Knecht’s biography. Hesse never loses the academic tone, which fits nicely with the intense, isolating academia that permeates Castalia. It’s hard even to write about the Game and plot of the book without lapsing into the academic vernacular I was used to in college.

This, actually, is part of the point of the book. I got the sense throughout The Glass Bead Game that Hesse was mocking the academic world. In his analysis of a life and the importance placed on the Game and learning as an almost monastic pursuit, rejecting worldly pleasures in favor of strict learning and hierarchy, there is something almost mocking in the tone. Knecht’s life could be (and is!) a great story. But something is lost, a little, with the academic tone. It doesn’t read like an awesome dystopian novel, but instead like a cumbersome biography.

For some people, I think, this could take away from the book. However, I didn’t think so. I enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of a clever commentary on academia, and it was interesting to read this cool story through the academic lens.

Rating: *****
Up Next: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Words, Words, Words: The Crying of Lot 49

Wow, Thomas Pynchon. Wow.

The Crying of Lot 49 is an English majors’ book for sure. It’s loaded with all sorts of symbols and great sentences and all sorts of themes and things to interpret. Ambiguity abounds. This book is full of meanings to tease out. It’s almost like Pynchon put together a whole bunch of weird, strange, tantalizing allusions/symbols/what have you and said, “Have at it, guys.” Very little in The Crying of Lot 49 is actually concrete. It’s actually hard to interpret anything because there are so many different angles and avenues to pursue.

Really, this, I think, is what Pynchon is trying to do. It’s an English majors’ book that kind of pokes fun at English majors. We love to tease out these meanings and analyze and over analyze and then go back and do it all over again. The central symbol and mystery in The Crying of Lot 49 is a muted horn, supposedly the symbol of one (or several) secret anti-U.S. mail organizations that may or may not exist in the United States. The protagonist, Oedipa Maas, encounters this symbol (and the group, possibly) when she is made executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will. The boyfriend himself is ambiguous and mysterious and, apparently, at the center of an organization that ground up soldiers’ bones for filters.

Oedipa gets sidetracked from her duties as executor and from pursuing the troubling truth about the bone company by an organization of assassins/mail vagabonds (or so i call them) called the Tristero. She plays the role of detective and follows meaningless thread after meaningless thread trying to get to the center of this great conspiracy.

Like I said before, the book is loaded with symbols. It’s hard for someone like me, who loves interpreting, to even know where to begin.

I think that this book is a sort of warning to people like me, who overanalyze and focus so much on meanings. Like Oedipa, who gets distracted from real life and the importance of executing (is that the right verb form?) Pierce’s will or figuring out the bone scandal, she follows a sort of wild goose chase that may or may not lead to something. She gets sucked into the mystery of a symbol and a vague name. These things may or may not actually mean something, but Oedipa is entranced.

It’s like Driblette, the director of a play Oedipa sees says:

“You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black  costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth” (63).

When I read that passage, I thought, This is the sort of thing I did in college. I asked questions, developed theses, wrote, and analyzed, analyzed, analyzed. But did I ever get any closer to an actual truth? Sometimes, maybe? But how many times did I not touch the truth because I was too caught up in the particulars.

Second, I saw myself (or my English major-ness) when Oedipa first questions Driblette:

“You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in the file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for [. . .] The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also” (62).

Words are just words. When it comes to plays, they are just the framework that allow real life, flesh-and-blood actors to come to life. In a same way, aren’t most words and symbols, even in books just the framework that real-life authors use to give solidity and flesh to ideas? The words themselves often aren’t as important as we make them out to be. Nor are symbols.

However, I’m going to close with my absolute favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49. The writing is beautiful, and what they say about words and connectivity and communication is even more beautiful.

“Say ‘rich, chocolaty goodness.’”

“Rich, chocolaty, goodness,” said Oedipa.

“Yes,” said Mucho, and fell silent.

“Well, what?” Oedipa asked after a couple minutes, with an edge to her voice.

“I noticed it the other night hearing Rabbit do a commercial. No matter who’s talking, the different power spectra are the same, give and take a small percentage. So you and Rabbit have something in common now. More than that. Everybody who says the same words is the same person if the spectra are the same only they happen differently in time, you dig? But time is arbitrary. You pick your zero point anywhere you want, that way you can shuffle each person’s time line sideways till they all coincide. Then you’d have this big, God, maybe a couple hundred million chorus saying ‘rich, chocolaty goodness’ together, and it would all be the same voice.”
“Mucho,” she said, impatient but also flirting with a wild suspicion. “Is that what Funch means when he says you’re coming on like a whole roomful of people?”

[. . .]

“Whenever I put on the headset now,” he’d continued, “I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle” (116-117).

So, I guess. Words are important. But don’t get to caught up in interpretation or books or teasing out meanings. Words, spoken words, connect us as people and allow us to act out our lives. Or something like that.

Overall, I loved this book. The writing is amazing, I loved the way Pynchon played with meanings and, I feel, made fun of me for overanalyzing and interpreting everything all the time.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Book 2: The Crying of Lot 49

I am so glad that the Random Number gods have given me The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.

This will be my first Pynchon novel. I’m kind of nervous.

This book has been on my list for a few years. One January Saturday a few years back, some college friends and I drove to another town to visit Barnes and Noble. I picked up Gravity’s Rainbow and started at the beginning. Oh shit, I thought after a few minutes, I can’t stop reading this.

Somehow, my friends managed to get me away from the book and out of the store without buying it. Since then, though, all of Pynchon’s work has been on my list. It might be better that The Crying of Lot 49 is my first Pynchon, though. It’s shorter. Not that book length has ever deterred me.

Pynchon has been one of those writers that I’ve kind of avoided with this sort of fearful awe. In my mind I rank him up there with David Foster Wallace (I’m in love with him, even though I’ve yet to read Infinite Jest), James Joyce, and Don DeLillo. I really, really really want to read their stuff, but I’m terrified that I won’t *GET IT*. I’m scared that they’re too smart for me.

For me, it’s the equivalent of going to a party and seeing an amazing guy that is so totally out of your league. You watch him from a distance. You admire him. You might even dream of going up and talking to him, in certain circumstances. But in the end, all you can do is cast sneaky glances in his direction and struggle to get up the nerve to go for it.

For me Thomas Pynchon is one of those guys. For some reason, I’ve put his work on this pedestal and decided that it’s WAY above me. I don’t know why I think that. I’ve thought that about a several writers, actually. And then once I read their stuff I find out that they usually aren’t as terrifying as I thought. Virginia Woolf, for example. I was TERRIFIED to read To the Lighthouse for my English seminar last semester because I thought that I wouldn’t *GET IT*. It turns out that I did *GET IT*. 

So, I’m really excited to read The Crying of Lot 49. So excited that I went on Amazon and actually bought it! Unfortunately, something was wrong with the card I usually use and I didn’t realize it until I’d missed the deadline for one day shipping. Instead of starting it today, I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow. I am disappointed. Thanks a lot, Amazon. 

Book 1: The Diary of a Nobody

The Random Number Generator has spoken, and the first book I’m reading for this project is The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

I’m not so sure how I want to do these little beginning-of-book blogs yet. I’m sure it’ll develop and I get better at it as I go along. I’m sorry that this one kind of sucks. Hm. How do I write about a book I haven’t started reading? Especially when it’s a book I’d never heard of until a few weeks ago?

The Diary of a Nobody was published in 1892. According to Goodreads, it details the life of one Charles Pooter. His diary captures his daily routine in his “small minded but essentially decent suburban world.” I’ve read that this book is very funny and full of puns. This should be interesting.

I don’t know a lot about late-19th-century suburban England, but the summary promises that I will find the narrative “hilarious and painfully familiar.” Let me use my English degree to see if I can figure out something semi-intelligent to say about this.

So. The late 1800s were a time of crazy upheaval in England. With the Industrial Revolution well underway, so by the time this book was written, the move to urban, factory-fueled cities was probably pretty well established. People were moving to the cities and the new working class was starting to emerge. This was the era of long workdays, lung disease, and sickness running rampant in overcrowded cities. The impoverished masses were all gathered in one place. Men, women, and children worked long hours in factories and coal mines, and once-small towns turned into urban centers with the factories sucking in people and belching out smoke.

However, at the same time that all this was happening, something was happening to the stratification of English society. The line between the upper classes and lower classes was blurring. A middle class was starting to emerge. People who did not come from “old money” (yes, that term wasn’t really used until later, but bear with me) were starting to mix and socialize with families who had been rich for generations. The landed gentry were not as exclusive a club as they used to be. This, naturally, was cause for anxiety. The social order was in upheaval. The Victorian Age was starting its slow death.

Elements of tensions created by the new factory system, the emerging middle class, and the shifting social classes are evident in all kinds of English literature. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and so many others addressed these concerns in their work. I am sure that some of this tension will be evident in this book by Mr. and Mr. Grossmith.

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