Sunday, September 25, 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Ivan Denisovich, written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and published in 1962, chronicles a day in the life of a fictional Soviet gulag prisoner. Solzhenitsyn was well-qualified to write such a work, as he himself spent eight years in a gulag in the Siberian steppes of northeastern Kazakhstan. His crime? Referring to Stalin as "the master" and "the boss" in a letter to a friend.

The book was originally published in the Soviet Union with Khrushchev's approval and with some censorship, and was the first account of Stalinist suppression to come from within. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich led to Solzhenitsyn's deportation from Russia, and to his reception of the Nobel Prize.

The reader of Ivan Denisovich will follow the protagonist through a breakfast of thin gruel, repeated searches, forced marches, heavy labor, biting wind, thin clothes, shorted rations, incredible bureaucracy and cruelty and dehumanizing treatment at the hands of prison guards. Through it all, the heroic triumph of the indomitable human spirit...just kidding. It's pretty bleak.

(But you should definitely read it. There aren't any gory or disgusting parts, so it would be suitable for anyone old enough to understand it.)

Protagonist: Ivan Denisovich
The Baptist: Alyosha
The foreman: Tyurin
The snivelling worm: Fetyukov
Old deaf guy: Senka
There was a lot of: freezing cold, wasting time for Soviet protocol, inhumane conditions
There should have been more: food. seriously, grass seed gruel and 200 g black bread isn't enough to lay bricks on
This book makes you want to: support free speech and human rights
This book makes you glad you don't have better be obvious...

Curious Confessions of a Literary Nature

A recent commenter asked me if I have a list of all the books I've read. Unfortunately I don't have a list, but the comment sent me trudging through the backwaters of my brain, recollecting my evolution as a reader. And since this is my party and I'll blog what I want to, here's a post on my literary life.

     My mom says I learned to read when I was three. The first word I read (and I remember this) was the word ICE written in large red letters on an ice freezer outside a gas station. I enjoyed reading and my skill improved over the next few years. I don't remember going to libraries much at that point, but we didn't live near libraries then. My brothers and I had lots of children's books at home, and we often received books as gifts for Christmas or birthdays. Our parents read us bedtime stories at night, even after we could read well on our own. When I was in first grade I received a paperback set of 22 Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions, which I read repeatedly. These are classic novels abridged for a young audience, and I wore some of them out. My favorites included Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Call of the Wild, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Wizard of Oz, and Sherlock Holmes.  These books were my first exposure to classic literature, and although they were extremely abridged and very adapted, I consider them fundamental to the development of my enjoyment of classic novels. You may notice that I have read a few of these titles and blogged on them this year; that is because I don't consider having read a 50 page adaptation to be equivalent to reading the novel itself.

     By third grade I was established as one of the better readers in my class, which established a positive feedback loop. From that point I was placed in the more advanced reading classes and given assignments with more difficult content. I can see how children who struggle with reading and are forced to read technically simple but content-poor assignments would not grow to love reading unless adults continued to read to them and expose them to new and interesting material.  Unfortunately, I must point out that most of what I read during reading class wasn't worth remembering. So many reading textbooks are cobbled together from little snippets of texts taken out of context. Teachers would do better to expose students to entire works. If that means sticking mainly to short stories, so be it. I don't know how many excerpts I read, never knowing how the story began or ended. No wonder some of my classmates were frustrated and found it to be a meaningless exercise. Starting in fifth grade, our classroom had a little lending library, just a couple of shelves, but it kept me busy. We didn't have video games at home, and we often didn't have a tv either, so I read a lot during my free time too. I was also somewhat introverted and didn't live near many of my friends anyway, so books were a great way to pass the time. By the time I finished elementary school, I had read many classic kids' series, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, and Anne of Green Gables, to name a few.  When I was in junior high, my mom bought me the Dover Thrift Editions volume Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. These Dover Thrift Editions were a dollar at the grocery store. This was my first exposure to poetry, and was, in retrospect, certainly instrumental in shaping my preferences for 19th century over that of any other. Currently I would say that Longfellow, Tennyson, Frost and Whitman are my favorite poets.

     As the oldest child, by the time I reached high school, I had outgrown the kids' books in the house and didn't have any older siblings to provide me with young adult books. My parents had their college textbooks, a set of encyclopedias, and a few other nonfiction books such as a Readers' Digest book of curious facts in American history. They also had some fiction, mainly western novels by Louis L'Amour. I read a Louis L'Amour novel but wasn't interested, so I read some of the college textbooks and other nonfiction, as well as random encyclopedia entries that interested me. Yes, this was long before home internet access! Then I read more of the college textbooks, including some of Goethe's Faust, although I was only about 14 at the time so a lot of it probably went over my head. My mom also had one volume of the Readers Digest abridged classics, in which I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck multiple times, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Our high school library was pretty spare too, consisting mainly of donations of current romance novels and American young adult fiction from the 1930s-1960s. After I got my drivers' license at age 15, I started frequenting the town library.  In our town of 1,500 people, I didn't actually need a library card, and the library itself was only a few bookcases of fiction and a few more of nonfiction. Still, over the next three years I read Michael Crichton, John Grisham and some other random fiction. My crowning achievement at that point was probably reading  Les Miserables unabridged at age 15, although it took me nearly all school year. I had taken it out of the public library, and there were no renewal notices or overdue fees, so I had it for about six months before returning it. In eleventh grade I took two English electives with Mrs. Rusten: Fiction and American Literature. In our fiction course we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities and one other novel, the name of which unfortunately escapes me at the moment, but Fitzgerald and Dickens made a deep impression on me.

     When I went to a small rural college in southern Manitoba, I encountered the largest library I had ever seen. If you're thinking it wasn't actually very big, you're right. It was a research library consisting mainly of nonfiction, and I got my money's worth. During my four years there I read a lot.   <---understatement     Most of the books I read were related to my assignments, and I read fiction in the summers. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland between books on linguistics and sociology. After graduating, I went to Kazakhstan to teach English for seven months, which was a challenging but enjoyable experience. I spent a lot of time planning lessons, but my four western housemates and I also had a lot of downtime. We didn't bring any books with us for leisure reading, and English reading material in that city was hard to come by.  At times my brain felt like it was gasping for intellectual air. (Okay, some of that may have been culture shock.) The American embassy had a small lending library for expats, its contents made up of whatever books visiting Americans had brought with them and then decided not to bring home with them. Now think about this. "The book was so bad that I can't spare 8 oz of luggage weight to bring it back, so I'll leave it at the embassy." That's right.  I read a lot of so-bad-it-was-fortunately-forgettable sci-fi, but the one rose among thorns, so to speak, was Orson Scott Card. I picked up Xenocide, not knowing it was third in a series, and couldn't put it down. Imagine my disappointment upon getting to the end and discovering that the last 30 pages were missing. I didn't find another copy of Xenocide until eight years later, but it was worth the wait. I then proceeded to read eight Orson Scott Card novels in about 10 days. He is now well-established as one of my favorite authors. After I got back from Kazakhstan, I stayed with my grandparents for two months while finding an apartment. I immediately proceeded to check out 20 books at a time from the library, sit down and read them in five days, and then take them back and exchange them for 20 more. I had to make up for lost time, you know.  (Of course, my reading slowed down considerably after I found a job.)

     After 4.5 years of marriage, our first child was born, followed by a second two years later. Thus began a period of very little reading which lasted about four years. With two small children and a job, I just didn't have time. We only lived a block from the public library, and I took the kids there a couple times a week to pick out new reads for them.  I would usually get a couple novels for myself, but only had a chance to open them during the kids' naptime, if at all.

     Now that my kids are school-age and can play by themselves without drowning or electrocuting each other, I make time in the early morning or in the evening to read. This is also made possible by them sleeping through the night, allowing my brain to maintain more than two synapses at once. Last year I noticed that, although I was reading a lot, I was often choosing books that weren't very challenging and books that were in the "new releases" section of the library, as that section is located near the front. I had a lot of classic novels on my shelf that were always getting put off to some later (unspecified) time. Remembering my past enjoyment of Dickens, Hugo, Fitzgerald and others, I finally decided to tackle the volumes languishing on my shelves, and in the process I have been led down various rabbit trails to wonderful books that I wasn't even aware of two years ago. Although I won't be reading a classic novel a week next year (the rule necessarily limits the length of books I can read this year-no War and Peace for me), I will continue to set out a syllabus month by month and keep to it.  The fact that I'm still excited about this after nearly a year tells me I'm doing something right.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Around the World in Eighty Days

It was the last week of August and I wanted a fast-paced adventure to send summer off. Jules Verne didn't let me down. The premise is simple, but leaves plenty of room for plot twists. Phileas Fogg, a man of mechanically precise routine, wagers a large sum that he can travel around the world in eighty days. Accompanied by his loyal but occasionally bumbling servant, he embarks on a journey which allows no room for delay or missed connections. Fogg is pursued around the world by Detective Fix, who believes Fogg to be a bank robber and has vowed to arrest him as soon as the warrant arrives. Will Phileas Fogg's mathematical precision bring him back to London in time, or will natural disasters and human error result in his forfeit of £20,000?
     This novel was originally published as a serial, which is obvious by the cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter. Part of the appeal for Verne's original audience was the descriptions of exotic countries and of various steamers and railway lines. The reader could truly become an armchair traveller as s/he followed Fogg's progress in a biweekly French magazine.
     I was struck by Fogg's mathematical precision and imperturbable calm in the face of repeated delays. No matter how difficult the situation appears, Fogg remains unruffled. If he loses time in one leg of the journey, he is confident that he will make it up at a future time. In his mind, all delays and mishaps are foreseen and prepared for. This brought a smile to my face one day while I was sitting at a red light, 13 minutes away from a destination at which I was due in 7 minutes. Fogg remained placid in the face of a major financial loss; why should I chafe over a few minutes?
     Plot movement depends heavily on weather developments, local occurrences, human ingenuity and pushing the limits of mechanical performance. Throughout the novel we see industry and nature bump up against each other, sometimes with thrilling resolutions. Verne's opinion of industry and modernity remains resolutely positive throughout the book.  The railway doesn't trample nature or destroy the livelihood of peasants, it slips quickly through forest and plains, avoiding dangers and inconveniences along the way.  This positive view of modernity and industrialization contrasts sharply with the opinions of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, the authors I read in the two weeks preceding this one. At first I thought that part of this could be attributed to Verne's location in the 1870s, versus that of Lawrence in the 1910s-20s: perhaps Lawrence saw effects of industrialism that Verne never anticipated?  But this hypothesis is faulty as Hardy was a compatriot of Verne's, publishing in the 1870s as well.
     Despite the positive outlook of Around the World, I don't wish to paint Verne as a saccharine optimist; some of his other works show a much darker point of view.  The most famous example is Verne's lost novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Verne wrote it in 1863 but his editor suggested he set it aside for 20 years (do most editors take such a long view of things?) because it was too dystopian and technologically unbelievable. Verne put it in a safe, and it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989 and published in 1994. That's right, just 17 years ago.  Oh, and some of the unbelievable things Verne predicted? Gasoline-powered cars, mutually assured destruction, electric chairs, calculators, computers, the internet, high-speed trains and skyscrapers. Nothing about Wonder Bread though...perhaps too dystopian for a Frenchman.

mathematicalicious hero: Phileas Fogg
goofy manservant: Passepartout
warrant-less stalker: Detective Fix
Fogg's pasttimes: reading newspapers, playing whist
there was a lot of: trains, steamers, generous tips, exotic locales, delays, improvisations
there should have been more: adding more description would have slowed the plot down too much, so I will excuse the general lack of  food (I really need to start eating something before I write these blog entries!)
this book makes you want to: be prepared, pay attention, keep calm and carry on, visit a place you've always wanted to see, not freak out when your precious schedule encounters a slight delay
this book makes you glad you don't have to: sit on a steamship for 21 days to get from Tokyo to San Francisco or be cremated alive with your deceased husband in an Indian suttee, everything else sounds pretty good...well, except for the opium den. And the railroad tracks ending in the middle of a jungle. And the typhoon. Also being captured by Indians and dueling on a moving train.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native is the second novel by Thomas Hardy I've read this year, and I have to say I enjoyed it much more than Tess of the D'Urbervilles, despite the latter's fame. This strengthens my resolve to delay forming an opinion of an author until having read more than one of his/her works.  Tess seems to be problematic and depressing for current readers, in part due to its unfair treatment of a victim of circumstance by the other characters. The Return of the Native presents a very different plot and structure, while retaining Hardy's sense of place and modern perspective.
      Slightly controversial when published due to its modern themes, The Return of the Native brings to life a deeply flawed heroine who, along with the other characters, must navigate sexual politics, unfulfilled desire, and conflicting demands of nature and society.  Throughout the novel, the omniscient narrator points out cultural vestiges of pre-Christian agricultural society which still survive on Egdon Heath, and the heath is portrayed as a place where time runs more slowly, but the reader sees that the modern world is already trickling in and will someday carry off the old ways in a flood. If you want to read about mumming, small beers, Nov. 5 bonfires with pre-Guy Fawkes origins, omens, barrows, effigies and folk cures, this book gives them a mention but doesn't dwell on them; they are almost taken for granted. Some characters understand the heath and love it as their home, accepting their place in nature. To others, who want to leave nature behind for culture and society, the heath is a prison. There is a sad nostalgia as Hardy describes Egdon Heath, as one would experience when contemplating a dear friend whose days are numbered. In other words, this book is a big plate of modernity, with a side dish of modernity, washed down with a tall glass of... classical tragedy. Wait..what? That's right.
      Hardy originally planned to structure the novel into five books, which is the classical tragic format, but he adapted his work to the tastes of the public by adding a happy ending for Diggory Venn and Thomasin in a sixth book, Aftercourses. In Hardy's original version, Venn remains a reddleman (seller of red ochre for marking sheep) and Thomasin lives out her days as a widow. In addition to the classical tragic structure, Hardy employs unity of time, place and action (also requirements of classical tragedy). This means that the plot occurs in a single place and with a main course of action (subplots were discouraged). Traditionally the unity of time meant that a classic tragedy took place in a single day, but Hardy's novel covers a year and a day.  To further emphasize the classical nature of his work, he chooses for its setting an ancient heath steeped in pre-Christian history and creates a chorus consisting of the heathfolk.
     The setting itself, Egdon Heath, is imbued with enough life to be considered a character in its own right. Hardy is known for his masterful treatment of place and his literary landscape of Wessex, the semi-fictional region in which his novels take place. Hardy drew maps of Wessex; he loved its wilds and mourned its industrialized areas, and in this he shares some similarities with Tolkien, although he did not provide a backstory for Wessex complete with cosmology and languages, as Tolkien did for Middle Earth.  The composer Gustav Holt wrote a piece called Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas Hardy's description. You can listen to it here.
     Because I mentioned Thomas Hardy in my last entry about D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I would like to complete the circle this time by including Lawrence's view of The Return of the Native. An anonymous contributor has put it so eloquently on wikipedia that I would like to directly quote a that too shocking?  Really, who's going to spend time editing the wikipedia article on The Return of the Native? Probably only academics and lit geeks, either of whom are qualified enough to do so. SPOILER AHEAD. Here's the paragraph:

"Some critics—notably D. H. Lawrence—see the novel as a study of the way communities control their misfits. In this view, Eustacia dies because she has internalised the community's values to the extent that, unable to escape Egdon without confirming her status as a fallen woman, she chooses suicide. She thereby ends her sorrows while at the same time—by drowning in the weir like any woman instead of floating, witchlike—she proves her essential innocence to the community."

The titular native: Clym Yeobright
Promethean heroine: Eustacia
Babe in the woods (er, on the heath): Thomasin
Fox on the run: Damon Wildeve
The reddleman, hero of the heath with a dash of magical realism: Diggory Venn
Leading character: Egdon Heath
There was a lot of: walking on the heath,  heath-en customs
There should have been more: I wouldn't have minded more descriptions of heathen customs, but that wouldn't have been as realistic. The novel is a largely accurate portrayal of Wessex life at that time.
This book makes you want to: embrace your little corner of the world, not resent it
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be shunned by a small community for being different

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lady Chatterley's Lover

When I first chose this book, I was aware that it had originally been banned due to charges of obscenity, but this didn't bother me because I had already read Madame Bovary, which had the same fate despite its apparent quaintness to modern eyes. Well, times certainly changed between 1856 and 1928. D.H. Lawrence purposefully used certain unprintable words about ten times in this book, with the intention of reclaiming them so they could be used as common, even romantic words. Based on society's past and current opinion of the book, I have to wonder if he made a tactical error. Not only have the words not been reclaimed, but now they are the only thing most people think of when D.H. Lawrence comes to mind. If the reader can follow the plot without giving undue weight to these sections, s/he might be surprised to find that Lawrence has more in common with Hardy and Tolkien than with Ovid.
     The relationship between Connie and Mellors takes place in the East Midlands, against the backdrop of a region which has recently been transformed by the development of the coal mining industry. Critics rightly see in Lawrence's focus on the coal-mining town the important themes of social conflict and the class system. I also saw echoes of Hardy's ache of modernism (see my discussion of Tess) and Tolkien's orcs- beings who are slaves to industry and mechanization, slowly losing their humanity. The coal mine is depicted as an ugly aberration which destroys the beauty of the land and the lives of the people.
     D.H. Lawrence uses the dichotomy of agriculture vs. industry to discuss the theme of mind and body.  Clifford Chatterley, after his paralysis, becomes a writer and an industrialist, living completely in his mind. The coal miners live completely in their deformed bodies, seeming to have very little mind at all. Only Connie and Mellors are able to escape this fragmentation, as their relationship brings them into a life of integrity and wholeness. Lawrence believed that true relationships can reverse the brokenness that life visits upon individuals.
     I am in search of another author who will take this idea a step further back in time and point out that it is only through the brokenness brought by modernity that society (including D.H. Lawrence) has come to view the individual as its smallest unit. Pre-industrial societies did not (and do not) see individuals as their building blocks. Rather, for them, the family is the smallest indivisible unit. I am not talking solely about New Guinean or Andean tribes either: indigenous Europeans viewed life in the same way. The current culture of mechanized, consumerist individualism is not "Western culture". Rather, Western culture was the first to be torn apart by its own juggernaut. Native Americans are right to mourn the loss of their cultures, and to work to preserve and reconstruct them. But they would not be completely correct were they to state that their cultures had been overwhelmed by Euro-American (or Western/Anglo) culture. Rather, both Native Americans and indigenous Europeans have witnessed the erasure of their cultures by industrialism and its functions of individualism and materialism. Western cultures brought industrialism upon themselves, and for them the damage is more complete. Can we even imagine what indigenous European cultures would look like had they survived untouched into the 19th century, as did Native American cultures?  They actually did survive that long in rural areas, and vestiges of early Anglo-Saxon culture are depicted in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, published in 1878 and the subject of my next blog entry.

Protagonist: Constance Chatterley
More machine than man: Clifford Chatterley
Working class by birth, noble in deed: Oliver Mellors
Creepy sycophant: Mrs. Bolton
There was a lot of: descriptions of the forest, private conversations, characters' thoughts
There should have been more: I don't know. I wouldn't mind reading Lawrence's thoughts on balance and wholeness, but then it would have been an essay instead of a novel.
This book makes you want to: live an authentic life (don't a lot of good books do that?)
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be a coal miner. or a game keeper. or a paralytic. or one half of a dead marriage.