Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran,
@ 2007, Nilgiri Press,
How has it taken me so long to find and read this book? It is difficult to form words around this, but that’s the whole point of posting, so I’ll try.
“Gita” means “song,” and “Bhagavad” means “Lord” or “God.” This is the Song of God.
It’s a dialog between a warrior in a desperate circumstance and the Lord, here called Krishna.
The Bhagavad Gita is a “song” and is thought to be an Upanishad that was inserted into the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, which I have yet to read. I gather that the Mahabharata is a big big deal Indian literature, so, of course, it’s on the list.
In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert refers to the Bhagavad Gita several times as she describes her time in India. Apparently, her task in the ashram was to recite the “Gita” in Sanskrit daily for hours on end. This was understandably quite a chore. And, raises a hell of a lot of questions for me. Is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Sanskrit that good? Did she understand it as she was reciting it? Had she ever read it in English?
I had a different reaction to it. It blew my mind. It filled in a lot of spiritual gaps, as did the other Upanishads. I found it intense and fascinating. The idea is that God Himself is speaking. He is explaining life, death, human nature, and how to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth so a person can be with Him eternally. Fascinating. Simply fascinating.
At the heart of the Gita’s message is to see the Lord in every creature and to act accordingly. It urges self mastery. It makes the distinction between the Body and Mind, and what is the true core Self. It discusses the process of dying and what happens to us after we die. And it gives the purpose of life: to realize God.
Meditation is key. There are also other key ways to realize the purpose of life as well.
This was Gandhi’s favorite scripture.
There’s a lot here. It’s worth a second and third read. I can’t possibly cover all the high points; there are so many.
The introduction says the Gita is a “handbook for self realization.” I couldn’t put it any better.
One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
@2006, 12 hours, 49 minutes.
Audible version read by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Back in 2008 a coworker said, “You really gotta read this book!” She described it to me fairly accurately, and I didn’t think it would be for me. I didn’t want to read about some blond lady’s spiritual journey. I didn’t want to read about her travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating? I was on a diet!
So it’s fair to say it took me a little time to get around to this book, but it kept showing up here and there. People kept trying to give it to me. And I don’t really know what my problem was. It seemed, well, so “girly.”
The first book by Elizabeth Gilbert I “read” was her Audible version of Big Magic, and I probably would not have listened to that if it hadn’t been for her 2009 TED Talk on Creativity (which hit me like a ton of bricks) and yet another coworker sending me her podcast on Magic Lessons.
OK already, I’ll read your damn book!
Which wasn’t too bad. You know, I liked it. I like Liz’s openness to well, everything. Liz is engaging and interesting and sweet and supportive. You get the feeling that she’s the kind of person people seek out—all the time. Like she never has a free Saturday night. And this puts me off a little. It’s my issue, not hers.
She begins her book talking about how many people she’s going to offend by discussing her search for spirituality and healing, and I get that. I can easily think of people in my own life who would be terribly offended by this book. Liz looks for God on her own terms. She isn’t too sure about marriage or having children. She wants to claim space for her creativity, her own writing. She puts the breaks on her life and focuses completely on herself.
My mother-in-law would hate this book. In fact, she hates all books except for the Bible. If you’re reading a book that isn’t the Bible, there’s something wrong with you. If you can relate to my mother-in-law on the topic of books, Eat, Pray, Love may not be for you—-and, of course, you should definitely read it.
I’m not so easily offended. People can believe things radically different from what I believe, and it doesn’t upset me at all. I just think, hmm, that’s interesting. Wonder how they came to that conclusion? Liz does talk about one thing that I think, gee, why Liz? Why did you want to talk about that. TMI. TMI!
That said, Liz has a great reading voice. I think this book was probably better listened to than read.
So, yes. This was an interesting book. Liz’s problems are not my problems, though, so I wasn’t saying, oh yes, I really get you. Rather I marvel at this woman’s life. I marvel at her success and her freedom. I marvel at her ability to travel and her ability to pursue her dream because my dream has always seemed so hard to pursue. The small issue of money has always presented a barrier to me. I am only just conquering it, and even as I say this I’m not terribly sure that’s true. I mean “future me” probably is going to hate “past” and “present” me.
But Eat, Pray, Love. Should you read it? Yes, I think so. I think it is an important book of our time. I think it taps into women’s issues and gives a picture of the female condition that is very accurate for a large number of people. I think it’s historically and culturally significant.
Plus, Liz’s contemplation of meditation and yoga is very interesting. Yoga and meditation are becoming more important to me lately. My husband got some really bad news back from a test the other day. His ability to concentrate was judged to be under the 20th percentile with his working verbal memory measured just above the 1 percentile. So yes, I’m talking a range from 1 to 100. Does this mean dementia? We still do not know. But it does confirm brain damage. Well, duh. The 40 plus lesions on his MRI told us that. I mean really, what do we pay these doctors for?
The point is this. Meditation could help my husband improve his cognitive function as long as he doesn’t have dementia. It can help with focus and concentration. Meditation is simple the practice of focusing your attention, of paying attention to what’s happening, right now. The act of bringing your mind back once it starts wandering is like lifting a weight and your ability to control your mind becomes stronger just as weight training makes your muscles stronger.
And as Liz discusses, there are all kinds of ways to do it because meditation has been explored by ancient cultures like India for a very long time. And by a long time, I mean for more than five thousand years. These cultures have the information, in other words.
Liz’s accounts of her heartaches rang true, but her account of her love story in Bali, while I get her excitement, seemed like she was holding back. So I think Liz nailed the “Eat” part of her story as well as the “Pray” part. But the “Love” part, I think she didn’t quite do it. I felt empathy. I felt relaxation. I felt her peacefulness. But I didn’t feel love. Love being a very complicated topic indeed.
Liz laments constantly: was Eat, Pray, Love her greatest work? Is her best work behind her?
Here’s my advice to her. Explore the concept of “love” and I mean this exploration to go beyond the Western one-word “love.” Explore love in Greek terms. Explore love in Middle Eastern terms.
As if I should be giving advice to Liz Gilbert! I should be giving advice to myself! Where’s my advice? Where’s my journey?
But alas, I have a gift for seeing what others must do, and Liz, your best work is not behind you. Best work does not equal most recognized work. Is your most recognized work behind you? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.
The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By Marie Kondo
Tantor Media, Inc.
The Konmari method is an organizational and decluttering method devised by Marie Kondo. Marie’s central claim is that “tidying can transform your life.”
And I believe it!
“When you put your house in order,” she says, “you put your affairs and your past in order too.”
I find that listening to the audiobook version of this work is very inspirational. I’ve been doing this while I take shortcuts here and there with Marie’s method. She would not be happy.
That said. I do like her method and think it’s a good one. I just don’t think it works when clutter has gotten so very out of hand, as my case was. I also have to have a way of clearing the mess away while I get back to my work week. Advise such as take all your books off their shelves and put them on the floor, just doesn’t work for me. I would have no floor space left!
I do like her advice to touch each book to see if it brings you joy. This helped me get rid of about 50 books last weekend. And I feel so much better! Just admitting that I am not going to read those books and if I really want to, I can check them out of a library made me feel so much better.
Marie lives in Japan. A web search reveals that the average size house in Japan is about 1,310 square feet. Apartments average at around 250 square feet. My house is 545 square feet. This seems so small. I can’t imagine living in less. But as I clear out the things I don’t love and don’t use, I’m finding that I really don’t need to hold onto all of these things. I would much rather have the space than to have the objects.
“Surround yourself only by things you love.”
This is a great way to live too. I’m not quite there yet, but with Marie’s help, I am getting closer.
“Tidying must start with discarding.”
I like her advice to sort by category, not by location. And you can subcategorize if you need to. The idea is to gather every item in the category you are working on and put them in one place, such as the living room floor. That’s where you start work. What to keep? What to discard?
Marie says that for people who have problems being tidy, there are three types: The can’t throw it away type. The can’t put it back type. And the can’t throw it away/can’t put it back type.
I am in the “can’t throw it away type.” But over the last six months, I have been throwing plenty away. Maybe I’ll conquer that soon.
Tidying consists of two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to put things. Marie says to not put anything away until you’ve decided what to keep.
Tidying should only be done once.
Once an for all—within a specific period of time. Quickly, where “quickly” means about half a year. (I am a little behind schedule.)
Do not put your things away until you have finished the work of discarding (for half a year???). Once you get rid of everything you don’t need, then you can put things away.
Touch each thing to figure out how you feel. “Does this spark joy?”
Some categories are harder than others. Things that bring back memories, such as photos are not a good place to start. Start with the easy stuff.
Things have value in terms of function, information, emotional attachment, rarity.
The correct order for tidying?
My favorite tip: “Don’t let your family see.”
It hurts people to see you throwing out stuff they gave you or to see you throwing out things that are still useful. It’s just better to make these personal decisions by yourself.
I loved this book. But like I said, I live in such a small space that I have to have a large chunk of time available to throw it all on the floor at one time. Maybe Marie’s right, but so far I can’t do it. I have given away books, but I might be able to give away more books. I have given away clothes, but I could give away more there too. Right now I am working on papers. Her advice on papers? Throw them all away.
There’s nothing like being required to read a particular book that makes you want to read something else. I am supposed to be reading War and Peace, but I am compelled to read A Hero of Our Time. So finally, I gave in. Besides, I had to read the book after I found out that Lermontov’s early poetry was too explicit for young ladies to read.
A Hero of Our Time is written as a travel journal and takes place in the Caucasus. It concerns the anti-hero, Grigori Alexsandrovich Pechorin. My translation was done by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray in 1854 and was verified and corrected by Alexander Vassiliev in 2010.
A Hero of Our Time is a very interesting read. I felt transported to the Caucasus. I could almost see the landscape. I marveled at the strange cultural traditions. And the character Pechorin is a man at his worst—a character I have encountered in various forms in my life. I can’t believe this guy is still around:
Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether God created me so—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. then I launched out into the high society—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused by their love; my heart remained empty….Then I grew bored…Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechens boredom could not exist—a vain hope…”
We learn about Pechorin through his friend Maksim Maksimych, who is treated heartlessly by Pechorin upon an unexpected reunion. Maxim is quite hurt by Pechorin’s lack of enthusiasm upon seeing him again:
“Of course we were friends—well, but what are friends nowadays?…What could I be to him? I’m not rich; I’ve no rank; and, moreover, I’m not at all his match in years!…See what a dandy he has become since he has been staying in Petersburg again!”
“I’ve always said that there is no good to be got out of a man who forgets his old friends!…”
It is sad when one’s memories of old friends are not supported by reality.
This novel employs two different devices. The first device is a travelogue in which we hear about Pechorin from someone who has known him. Then our narrator is able to get hold of Pechorin’s diary. From that point on, we hear about Pechorin’s innermost thoughts and feelings as well as his exploits from his point of view.
Pechorin seems at times almost like a sociopath and yet I felt sorry for him. I also recognized his sad ideas and was surprised that so little has changed with the stereotypical bad boy, even across cultures and more than a hundred years.
Here is Pechorin’s view on friendship:
“Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time deception would be required.”
Throughout the novel, Lermontov pays attention to and appreciates nature:
“Whatever grief oppresses my heart, whatever disquietude tortures my thoughts—everything is dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, illumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.”
“On making a woman’s acquaintance I have always unerringly guessed whether she would fall in love with me or not…”
And all games:
“To arouse a feeling of love, devotion and fear towards oneself—is not that the main sign, and the greatest triumph, of power? To be the cause of suffering and joy to another—without in the least possessing any definite right to be so—is not that the sweetest food for our pride? And what is happiness? Satisfied pride.”
He goes on to say that passion never lasts forever.
Some people are just better talkers than others:
“You are a dangerous man!” she said to me. “I would rather find myself in the woods under a knife of an assassin than under your tongue…In all earnestness I beg of you: when it comes into your mind to speak evil of me, take a knife instead and cut my throat. I think you would not find that very difficult.”
Harsh words from a princess. And even though she was on the right track, Pechorin later observes her weakening:
“Compassion—a feeling to which all women yield so easily, had dug its talons into her inexperienced heart.”
Before I dare to wonder too much about Lermontov and this book, here is what he has to say about his intent in writing it:
“The Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man only; it is a portrait composed of the vices of our whole generation in their full-grown development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as this; and I shall tell you that since you have believed that all the villains of tragedy and romance could exist, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?…This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author of this book has ever proudly dreamed of becoming a reformer of human vices….He has simply found it entertaining to depict a man, such as he considers to be typical of the present day and such as he has met—too often, unfortunately for the author himself and for you. Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!”
I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it—and I especially recommend it to young women.
Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.
I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.
The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.
Here is a quote from early in the story:
“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”
The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.
Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.
This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”
All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.
Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:
A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.
‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.
Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent. Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]
Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a zombie story? Wow!
Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.
I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.
I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.
Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?
Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.
And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.
Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.
This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.
In the short story, Cathedral, the narrator is not too happy about his wife’s friend, who is blind, coming to visit. It seems to bother him quite a bit that the man is blind. The narrator doesn’t seem jealous, I don’t think, except perhaps at the sharing of thoughts that his wife has been doing with this other man over the years. That might have him upset. But instead of mentioning anything about that, he focuses on the man’s blindness. As he does this, all of his stereotypical and weird biases emerge, making him less sympathetic to us.
This story is wonderfully crafted. The opposing ideas of blindness and sight are woven throughout.
I really liked this part. It gave us information not only about the narrator’s wife and her past, but also about the narrator himself:
“…where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out. But instead of dying, she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance.”
This made me chuckle. You really get the narrator’s voice here. And yeah, any guy who holds the title of first love, doesn’t deserve a name. He’s already gotten enough.
By the end of the story, the protagonist undergoes a change, as he should. The way that Carver shows this change is beautiful and subtle.
By Edith Wharton; @ 2012 by Vintage Books a Division of Random House; First published in 1911; 103 pages.
Oh my goodness. Shocking, simply shocking. Edith Wharton really knew how to create opposing characters. And nice twist at the end. I did not see that coming. Wow.
I had no idea what to expect with Ethan Frome. This is the first time I have read anything by Edith Wharton.
The story begins with the observance of what has happened to Ethan, a man who in our present is broken beyond all repair. We observe him in his fifties, and he is already an old man. Then we travel to his past to when he was 28 years old. He has lost his parents and has inherited the family farm but no money.
Ethan’s wife is Zeena. She is seven years older than he and hasn’t aged well. At 35, she already has false teeth! She exaggerates her health problems and isn’t pleasant to be around. Ethan is miserable. Then Ethan falls in love with Mattie, one of Zeena’s relatives who has fallen on hard times and has come to help care for Zeena and the housework.
Even though this novel was published 101 years ago, it is really readable. Not much has changed—it still seems much easier to feel sorry for the man who is mismatched than for the woman. I suppose that things were not too fun for Zeena either.
Edith Wharton was born into high society. I thought I saw a glimpse of this world view in the restrictions Edith places on Mattie, a seemingly vibrant and healthy young girl who could not sustain standing up as a store clerk all day. Since I have had the experience of working while standing all day, and while I didn’t like it one little bit, I felt this was an unworthy and perhaps an uneducated excuse for what happened as a result of this “impossibility.”
The ending was just chilling—a real testament to the choices that money gives or rather that the lack of money takes away.
Long before there was flash fiction, Kate Chopin seems to have mastered the form. The Story of an Hour gets a lot done in three pages.
A wife (Mrs. Mallard) learns some terrible news. It turns out she has a heart condition (relevant back story), so her sister is very careful about how she delivers the news. As it turns out, (a little twist) what we might think was horrible news is received as fantastic news by Mrs. Mallard. While everyone is terribly worried about her, she is secretly rejoicing.
But it turns out that there was an error in the news. What we thought happened actually did not (another twist). Mrs. Mallard receives a terrible shock when she finds out, and dies on the spot (twist).
The Story of an Hour is a story worth studying. It’s a great example of a short story in that it takes one situation and gives just enough information about the protagonist and supporting characters, so that we understand what’s going on. And personally, I love a good twist.
Kate Chopin is most known for her novel The Awakening (1899), which my anthology says ended her writing career because of its scandalous nature. The book is now praised as a portrait of a woman in search of her individuality. Potato/ Potahto.
By Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), @ 13 pages (1922).
There’s nothing like a good cry in the morning. Wretched. How wretched!
There are so many things about this story that I just love—for example, the way we are lead into the story. We begin with an opinion on the weather, then ponder the flowers that people are most likely to recognize. When we meet our first character we are transported from the outside world into the home. We learn more about the plot and the characters when we are given insights into how each character feels about participating in the setup of the party. When we learn that one doesn’t want to be part of that action, we move to another, who also will not be involved. Finally, we meet the character who will take charge, Laura, and we follow her out of the house and into the garden.
My grandmother used to throw garden parties, so this story transports me back to those days and to thoughts of her. This line, especially, made me think of her:
“Oh impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.”
Ah, the good life.
And that’s just it. Right outside their massive estate, poverty is just down the lane.
Another reason I like this story is because of its contrasts. Rich, poor. Happiness, sadness. Joy, grief. An man is killed just down the road. The family is practically a neighbor of his widow and five children. Laura asks the question, should we really go ahead with the party?
“‘But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?'”
It’s funny (weird) how we can explain things away in order to get what we want.
To her credit Laura does push back and gets this response:
“‘You’re being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. ‘People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.'”
Upping the stakes, after the party, Laura’s mother has the splendid idea of sending the leftovers to the widow and her children. I won’t spoil the whole story, but I thought this was a wonderful touch by the author.
Well done Katherine Mansfield. I want to read more from you!
By Haruki Murakami; Knopf, Random House; @ 2007; Translated by Philip Gabriel in 2008; 180 pages.
I recently went on a book binge. I was in the local used bookstore with my credit card and no supervision.
Murakami’s book was one of about seven or eight that called to me from the shelves: Hey, you, over here!
I read Murakami’s After Dark while I was in grad school, and though I loved his style, I didn’t really care for the story. Murakami’s best known work is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I can’t wait to read it.
Before I go on, you should know that I do not run. Never have. Ever since I was a kid and was secondhand inhaling five packs of cigarettes a day, I have not been a runner.
But back to Murakami. I like this guy. He says most people don’t like him because he isn’t willing to compromise. That makes me like him even more. He’s in his late 50s as he writes this memoir. He says he started writing novels in his 30s. His secret? He runs every day, or at least every other day, and he runs a marathon once a year.
Murakami explains that solitude is a necessary part of his profession. That’s why he’s had to constantly keep his body in motion…”in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and put it in perspective.”
Murakami doesn’t recommend that everyone run. It’s more important that people go at their own pace. If they are meant to run, they will. (If they are meant to write, they will.)
As he describes training for the New York City Marathon, he drops pearls of wisdom about writing. He says the most important qualities of a novelist are talent, focus, and endurance. A novelist has to focus for three or four hours every day for six months to two years. Running helps him maintain his endurance.
“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest….with clear goals and fully alive….”
Murakami says that a lot of people in Japan seem to think that writing novels is an unhealthy activity—”that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write.” He says that it’s a widely held view that by living an unhealthy lifestyle, a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value.”
Murakami says: “when we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it….”
I had a hard time understanding exactly what Murakami meant by that, but he goes on to say that it can be related to the fugu fish. The tastiest part is near the poison.
To create, a writer has to deal with the risks of becoming antisocial or decadent. The writer has to get the energy from somewhere to battle this. Murakami gets the energy from keeping his body strong. He says “an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”
He says that with older writers it’s harder to maintain the balance between imaginative power and the physical abilities that sustain it. When that happens, some writers commit suicide.
I’m not sure I agree with this entirely. I think that when writers open up their subconscious and remove those protective barriers to lost memories, feelings, etc., that what comes out can be so startling and overwhelming that they can fall into a clinical depression. The actual chemistry of their brains is affected to such an extent that they can’t handle it emotionally. Perhaps running provides a mechanism to cleanse the brain of the chemical toxins generated by introspection. Maybe vigorous exercise is needed to keep the brain healthy. Maybe, or maybe not.
Murakami says that some people think he’s obsessed. Hmm, marathons every year for 25 years and then completing a 62-mile race in one day? Maybe.
But there are worse things to be obsessed about. At least he balances his obsession for running with his obsession for writing. I felt sorry for him, not because he couldn’t reach the time he wanted to obtain, but because he seems to beat himself up about it. I think anyone capable of running a marathon in his late 50s and early 60s has nothing to be ashamed of, even if that little old lady did pass him up.
The story begins as Ivan Ilych’s friends/associates learn of his death. They remember that he was a friendly guy liked by all, but really their immediate reaction was what effect Ivan’s death would have on them. What kind of promotion would they get now that Ivan Ilych’s position had been vacated? Then we are transported into a review of Ivan Ilych’s life, his major decisions, profession, and character.
One thing I think is so interesting about reading Tolstoy is how observant he is of human nature and social interactions. Although Tolstoy lived more than 100 years ago, it makes no difference; his observations and insights into human relationships remain fresh and contemporary.
Tolstoy himself was an interesting man. He fathered 13 children, became something of a religious fanatic, and according to my short story anthology, had a most annoying habit of running away from home. On one such adventure, he died in a railway station.
Ah, great artists.
One of my big complaints about my own culture is the seeming denial of the reality of death. When my family members started dropping off, I was woefully unprepared for the logistics. When my grandmother was on her death bed and I left work to be at her side for her final days, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. We had been very close. She had spent more time with me growing up than perhaps anyone else, and I was beside myself with grief.
I witnessed the deathbed experience again with my mother, this time for several months leading up to the event. It was a grueling ordeal, and I came away from both experiences with the idea that death happens when the body becomes so uninhabitable that the soul is forced out. Perhaps those who can let go of life easily have the easiest time with death, and perhaps those who are determined to live have the most pain. These are my impressions from direct experience.
There are lots of religious ideas around death too, many of which I find very difficult to deal with during the event. My husband’s family views grief as a kind of heresy, a viewpoint I find incredibly inhumane.
The short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, leads us through these experiences and related happenings in great detail, physical, psychological, and social. Ivan Ilych did not marry the love of his life, we are not sure if he ever had one; instead, he married a woman who later became a shrew and failed to understand him, pity him, or even face his imminent death directly.
I think I must seem preoccupied with death. And perhaps. A friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. She had contracted a rare virus that attacks the heart and actually had a heart transplant. Her body rejected the transplant and a terrible skin irritation developed. Medicines then destroyed her liver and eventually she died. It was all quite gruesome.
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”
I can’t claim that I have done everything properly by any means. I reflect now and find so many errors and only hope to not make more. It seems to me as I reflect on my life at this point that things are of little value. My family put such a high value on collecting things, and I feel not a small amount of guilt for wanting to be rid of them and considering what experiences and travels their “worth” could bring. I’ve been obsessed for nearly two years with unburdening myself of things, and it seems that I am never happier than when I am traveling. These desires to see the world are in constant conflict with my desire to build a home, so that I have populated my backyard with lavender, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, mint, and arugula. I am fascinated with gardening even though gardening and traveling are forever at odds with each other.
Tolstoy raises an interesting idea of correctness in living one’s life. Who decides what is correct? You? Someone else?
At some point, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live correctly—by my own definition. And this meant tearing down everything I had built up. What had been my dreams back when I dared to dream? And could I still accomplish them? Could I detach myself from all my self-created prisons and live? And what does living now mean to me? And is living worth anything without love?
“What if my whole life has really been wrong?”
A horrible question and then:
“He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into a black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.”
Finally Ivan Ilych has a realization that helps him die. It seems that Tolstoy touches all the bases surrounding death that I myself have experienced as a witness, all except one. Both my mother and grandmother hallucinated about people who were dead being in the room with them. I have read that others have had the same sorts of hallucinations.
As for my poor dog who recently died, I could not bear to have her suffer in these ways. Maybe I did the wrong thing. There are some who believe the process of death is valuable and not to be denied. Her euthanasia was my selfishness. And what would I want for myself?
I want not to lie on my deathbed and realize I got it all wrong. I would like to look back and think I that when I saw two paths that converged in the woods that I took the one less traveled. Finding that path and getting onto it is the trick. It’s around here somewhere. I know it is. I can almost see it.
This is one of the most profound stories I have ever read. It does a lot in five pages. I read it first in 2006, and it has stayed with me ever since. Le Guin creates a city called Omelas, a place were people are very happy. But, although they were incredibly happy, they were not simple:
They were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
She describes this beautiful city of joy and then asks her readers: Do you believe?
She decides that we can’t yet believe, not without one more detail of the life in Omelas.
What she then describes is what I found so incredibly profound because at first the whole story seems like pure fantasy, but after further consideration, it struck me that the second part of the story (be warned this is only my interpretation) accurately describes what is happening to the animals on this planet (other than humans). It struck me so forcefully and so completely. And so sadly. I doubt that Ursula meant for me to take it that way, but once the idea formed in my mind, it’s been unshakable.
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there…”
The end of the story seems to leave us with a choice.
By Nien Cheng; Grove Press, New York, @1986; 544 pages.
Life and Death in Shanghai is wonderful—outstanding. Over and over, it made me ask: how could this happen? and Could this happen again?
Life and Death in Shanghai is an account of the Cultural Revolution that took place in China under Chairman Mao. It opens on a summer evening in 1966 when the author, Nien Cheng, is summoned to attend a struggle meeting. A large crowd of her former coworkers has been assembled to struggle against one of her former colleagues from Shell. Since Shell was a foreign firm that had operations in China and because during the Cultural Revolution all things foreign were deemed against the state, anyone who had worked for such a company was automatically suspected of espionage, or so it seemed.
What in fact was going on was a struggle within the Communist Party in China, with people serving as pawns.
As the revolution progressed, everything that reminded the leadership of the old ways was under attack. Art was destroyed; books were destroyed; possessions were confiscated; people who had any educational training were deemed enemies of the state; anyone who could be considered a capitalist was under attack.
Nein Cheng, soon after attending her first struggle meeting, was visited by the Red Guard. The Red Guard amounted to a gang of young people who went house to house and ransacked, pillaged, confiscated, and destroyed.
Not too long after this event, Nien herself was seized and taken to a prison for political prisoners. Armed only with the advice to never give a false confession, her intellect, and her will to survive, Nein endured 6 1/2 years in solitary confinement, subject to temperature extremes, medical emergencies, and torture.
As I read this book, I was stunned by the character of its author, Nien Cheng. Through all that she had to endure, she is the most self-assured personality I have ever encountered. She comes to conclusions about her surroundings and the people who populate her life without question, without any kind of self-reproach or self-doubt. I am amazed. I wish I could have known this woman. To have met her would have been an honor.
Even though English was Nien Cheng’s second language, this book is effortless to read. She has great skill for the craft of writing. I looked, and I don’t think that she wrote anything else. It’s a real pity.
I bought this book on a whim for $3. In it I learned more about courage and perseverance and honesty than I think I have in any other place. Even after she was released from prison, she remained under the watchful eye of the party. Nearly everyone who came in contact with her had an agenda and sought to trick her into saying something that could send her back to jail.
For all the trouble they went to, I found myself often wondering, why they didn’t just make up a lie? Why go to the trouble of baiting her to say something against the party and then becoming disgruntled because she didn’t?
Maybe I’m revealing my Western way of thinking here. But for a system that wasn’t above torture and trickery, why were certain lies off limits?
There is so much in this book. It is probably one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.
By Chuck Palahniuk; W W Norton & Company; @ 1996; 218 pages.
Call me a child of the short attention span generation, but 218 pages is about as long as I like my novels to be. I get the experience, and it ends at about the time I want it to.
This is a book club book for me. I voted for the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami but didn’t get my way. That’s OK—it’s a lot longer—Fight Club was my second choice. I’d seen the movie, but it’s been years.
I’ve read Palahniuk before—he’s a Northwest writer, revered by the students in my writing classes when I was in school. The only other book I’ve read by him was Rant. How do I describe Rant? Hmm, “insane” is the first word that comes to mind. The second is “creative.” It’s been my experience that Palahniuk is edgy. He makes me a little uncomfortable. At the same time, I’m impressed by his imagination and delivery. He’s definitely a writer who stands out.
Fight Club begins very near the end with the protagonist losing all his worldly possessions. I like this structure. It definitely sustained my interest.
“The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”
That’s also the second rule.
Our protagonist has a severe sleeping disorder. Until he found fight club through a friend, he was visiting various support groups. This is an example of Palahniuk’s extraordinary (twisted?) creativity, so for anyone who hasn’t read him, I’ll stop there.
As our protagonist incorporates fight club into his schedule, his life view changes:
“Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer….Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”
“You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.”
I thought our protagonist’s relationship with Marla, the woman who stole his support groups, was hilarious (-ly dark). Very funny.
Marla and his friend Tyler become lovers, further irritating our protagonist.
“’If you lose your nerve before you hit bottom,’ Tyler says, ‘you’ll never really succeed.’
Only after disaster can we be resurrected.
‘It’s only after you’ve lost everything,’ Tyler says, ‘that you’re free to do anything.’”
I love Palahniuk’s pacing, part of which is accomplished by random haikus. (5,7,5)
Flowers bloom and die
Wind brings butterflies or snow
A stone won’t notice
Fight Club started as a short story “just an experiment to kill a slow afternoon at work.” (The original story is chapter 6 of the book.) Palahniuk says he was just writing The Great Gatsby updated a bit. He needed a technique. “Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just—cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.”
By Sergei Dovlatov; translated by Anne Frydman; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York; @1983; 135 pages.
I went online searching for videos of Dovlatov. There don’t seem to be any from when he was young. The ones I found show him as a hulking man, not really the writer type, more the heavy weight boxer type. Very masculine. And as I ponder that for a while, I realized the striking difference that I found between Russian and American culture. In Russian culture, men were very masculine and women were very feminine. I’m sure there were exceptions. But there, the difference between the sexes seemed to be celebrated and rigidly defined. In America, there seems to me to be some blurring. So that for me a man who seems to really own his manhood, who makes a point that there is a very clear distinction between the sexes, like Dovlatov, almost seems scary. I’m not sure I would be wrong in saying it was a very sexist culture and much of what Dovlatov says in his books seems sexist.
For some reason, like so many things Russian, I find that forgivable—there, although I would never stand for it here. Confused? Me too.
But, to the book. So I found one more thing to like D for. In the end, when his whole family left the USSR for the United States, he also took his dog, Glasha. In fact, Glasha has her own chapter in the book. He says that she was a very Russian dog and never quite adapted to America. This was the funniest chapter in the book for me.
With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’”
Glasha was such a cool dog that one of Dovlatov’s friends tried to steal her. He had to go get her back. Glasha even saved a family’s life and for this was awarded 400 grams of tenderloin—“the first time in the history of the Party that exclusive privileges were awarded to someone worthy of them.”
Dovlatov tried to arrange some “marriages” for Glasha, but none of them worked out. He explains in hilarious detail why each of them failed.
“Alas, Glasha did not become an American. What is the main quality of Americans? I immediately decided it was their optimism….My dog had a different psychological makeup….She didn’t even wag her tail very often. If a stranger moved to pet her, she snarled….In brief, Glasha had little talent for democracy. She was short on kindheartedness and loaded with neuroses. The sexual revolution never touched her. A typical middle-aged woman émigré from Russia.”
That wasn’t my personal experience, but I accept that much was lost in translation.
By Nick Flynn @ 2004 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 347 pages.
An estimated 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States in a given year. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, gives us insight into that way of life.
This is the story of Nick Flynn, a caseworker at a homeless shelter in Boston, who wound up running into his estranged father as one of his “customers.” This book is the recipient of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir and was on the list of books I was encouraged to read in grad school.
Flynn’s memoir is very well written and at times is poetic. He does a wonderful job creating scenes and reflecting. His pacing is good. Timing is good. Structure—good.
Flynn as the protagonist is a sympathetic character. I respect his ability to hold it together during these difficult times and I also respect his literary accomplishment. I can relate to the internal turmoil he feels about a parent who doesn’t always do as society expects.
I’m not sure I understand why Flynn didn’t offer his father a place to live—with Flynn. At the same time, I feel like I should understand this, knowing how hard it would be for me to live with either of my parents. All the same, with the stakes so high, I’m not sure how I would react given a similar situation.
Mental illness is a tough one, not to be taken lightly, not to be passed on. It’s hard to admit it when someone you love is afflicted. Intelligence offers no immunity, and surprisingly, increases the risk.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an honest, brave examination of a very difficult and complex family situation. I’ll be keeping it close, trying to learn from it. I recommend it to anyone who has their own parental problems (few of us don’t) and/or wants to learn the craft of memoir.
By Hunter S. Thompson; Vintage Books; @1971; 204 pages.
Since I’m soon to be off to Las Vegas to see my father on Father’s Day—and to experience this iconic city, I thought it would be appropriate to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve heard about this book (and movie) for years, but somehow never got around to it, sort of how I never got around to Las Vegas.
Like Thompson, I am in search of the American Dream. I want to know what the American Dream means to me.
Hunter S. Thompson (and Jack Kerouac) would have us believe that the American Dream is about taking what you can get. There is an absence of responsibility and a love of indulgence. (Look at Las Vegas—enormous fountains of water in the desert dancing with lights.)
If the drug culture scene bothers you, don’t read this book.
So, on a sleepy Sunday morning (cue Johnny Cash music which might have been appropriate but was never referenced in the book), while the cold Spring wind whips through the trees and cancels out any warmth the sun could possibly offer, the following paragraph, the first paragraph in fact, makes me chuckle:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
Our protagonist, Raoul Duke, is on his way to Las Vegas to write a news story about the Mint 400, “the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport.”
I won’t give the details of what was in the trunk of his car. Suffice it to say that he and his attorney were very thorough:
The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story.
From there the story descends into drug-addled mischief. I thought the part about the hitchhiker was outstanding. The voice of the novel was strong. Whereas Keroac really put me off with his irresponsibility, with Thompson, it’s somehow forgivable, understandable, and endearing. I think this is because throughout the book, there is the thread of personal reflection that this might not really be the best way to behave, but since he has chosen this path, he’s going to do his best—to excel. The guy is an overachiever in this realm. Maybe that’s what I like. He’s no slacker once he’s chosen his course.
By the end of the book, Raoul Duke has broken every Vegas rule: burning the locals, abusing the tourists, and terrifying the help.
Except for the strength of the narrator’s voice, I don’t see much reason to read this book. It was ok, but that’s not quite enough these days.
I’m not sure this book got me much closer to the American Dream; I don’t really have that much hope for Vegas either, but maybe. Here’s a quote from the end of the book that I thought would be interesting to ponder, or come back to:
…This was the fatal flaw of Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously….But their [acid freaks] loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.
In the middle of reading the book, I watched the movie. Even though I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance, I don’t recommend the movie. The book somehow was less offensive.
Anna Karenina is an 817-page study of the consequences of adultery. But it isn’t just about adultery; it’s also social commentary on everything from marriage, maternal love, having children, the education of the workers, farming practices, faith, and the moral implications of not actually working for a living. It’s about human relationships, love, birth, and death. Tolstoy forces us to look at Anna, the adulteress, as a person. He keeps us from judging her out of hand. He shows us the terrible consequences of choosing security over love and then again of choosing love over security. And he shows us all the jealousy, insecurity, and fickleness involved in human relationships.
Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s. Tolstoy provides great insights into human nature that ring true even today, more than 100 years later. He explains that some adulterous liaisons were excused by society while others were not.
The story is wonderfully crafted (for the most part—I felt like the ending was tacked on) and easy to read. None of the explicit details are given that modern readers are accustomed to. It’s all very classy. Tolstoy very subtly gets the point across on page 149, saying simply “…this desire had been satisfied.” With the romance out of the way early on, let the tortuous tale begin.
Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province of Russia. He studied oriental languages and law but did not complete a degree. He faught in the Crimean War and afterwards wrote Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He married at the age of 34 to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, and together they had thirteen children. For much of his life, Tolstoy was active in efforts to educate and emancipate the serfs. His most well known novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karinina (1877).
Anna Karenina is a novel written in eight parts and told through the omniscient narrator. With this format, Tolstoy is able to explore the thoughts and motivations of all his characters. The story begins in Moscow, Russia. Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky’s affair with a former French governess has been found out by his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s married sister, Anna Karenina, who lives in St. Petersburg has been summoned to his house to console his wife and put their marriage back together. Meanwhile, Stepan has two friends, Konstantin Dmitrych Levin and Count Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who are rival suitors for the same young lady, Kitty Tcherbatsky. Kitty is Dolly’s sister.
(Confused? You won’t be once you get going.) To get it all started, Tolstoy puts Vronsky’s mother and Anna Karenina in the same train car to Moscow from Petersburg.
The biggest problem for the western reader not used to Russian naming conventions is keeping track of the names and nicknames. If you can get that straight, this novel is smooth sailing. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have done a fantastic job.
The first thing that struck me about the story was how unfair Stepan Arkadyich’s (Prince Oblonsky’s) view of his wife, Dolly, was.
He could not be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he.
So this guy is older than his wife, and yet she is too old for him, now that she has “done her womanly duty” and given him seven children!
It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent.
Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, seems the opposite of the other men in this story. Tolstoy described Levin’s love for eighteen-year-old Kitty in a very charming way:
He [Levin] knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart. She stood at the other end of the rink, talking to a lady. There seemed to be nothing very special in her dress, nor in her pose; but for Levin she was as easy to recognize in a crowd as a rose among nettles.
I love this too for being such an accurate description of love, or I suppose, of infatuation:
He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
Tolstoy writes about the younger generation rebelling against the norms of the older generation. The previous generation had consented to having their marriages arranged by their parents. This generation was moving away from that practice. More and more young people were arranging their own marriages. To that end, I love this description of Kitty’s mother’s feelings on the topic:
And however much the princess [Kitty’s mother] was assured that in our time young people themselves must settle their fate, she was unable to believe it, as she would have been unable to believe that in anyone’s time the best toys for five-year-old children would be loaded pistols.
And yet, Kitty’s mother’s interference caused much grief.
This novel turns around the love affair that develops between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It must have been shocking reading indeed, for not only is Anna married to man with whom she has a son, it also seems that she might be older than Count Vronsky. Tolstoy illustrated for us from the beginning how Russian society viewed wives who were even slightly younger than their husbands—as unattractive throwaways who should be understanding of their diminishing status. I love how he pushes this social value when he sets up Anna with Vronsky.
Early on, we suspect that Anna may be getting in over her head as Vronsky’s views of love are a bit liberal even by today’s standards:
In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.
And this is Vronsky’s friend’s opinion of why people get married:
For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance—that is marriage…it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau (burden) and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back—and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage—that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything.
Anna’s husband is onto her straying feelings immediately. Tolstoy is wonderfully wise about this:
She [Anna] looked at him [her husband], so gaily, that no one who did not know her as her husband did could have noticed anything unnatural either in the sound or in the meaning of her words. But for him who knew her, who knew that when he went to bed five minutes late, she noticed it and asked the reason, who knew that she told him at once her every joy, happiness, or grief—for him it meant a great deal to see now that she did not want to notice his state or say a word about herself. He saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.
Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is twenty years older than she. He doesn’t seem capable of passionate love, but we see that he does love her. He would rather ignore the whole thing, save his reputation, and keep Anna as his wife. One can see that they are fundamentally a bad match. Alexei, with all his flaws, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, at least to me.
He felt that he could not divert people’s hatred from himself, because the reason for that hatred was not that he was bad (then he could have tried to be better), but that he was shamefully and repulsively unhappy. For that, for the very fact that his heart was wounded, they would be merciless towards him; people would destroy him, as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain.
As much as this story is about Anna Karenina and her love affair with Count Vronsky, it is also the story of Konstatin Dmitryich Levin and his love for Kitty Tcherbatsky. Levin seems to symbolize all that is good in men. He lives in the country, mows the grass with a scythe along with the muzhiks, and wants nothing more than to have a loving family. He is also a good tool for Tolstoy’s exploration of the pros and cons of the education of the muzhiks and the rise of a working class.
One really big hole in the story, for me, was the absence of Levin’s reaction to Anna’s death. He has only met her once, but his awareness of Count Vronsky has been high throughout the story. He was charmed by Anna when he met her. It seems really odd that we don’t get Levin’s take on either Anna or Vronsky at the end of the story. Levin becomes consumed with the idea of death and the meaning of life. One can infer that this is one of the consequences from Anna’s death, but with the omniscient narrator, it seems that Tolstoy missed a big opportunity to draw the whole thing together.
At the end, we also get insights into faith. Levin is not a believer at the beginning of the story. His view of the universe and how it operates could be summed up as follows:
In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me.
But later, he has an epiphany. People must live for goodness, live for the soul, and that goodness is revealed by God.
If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.
He also makes the argument that faith and love are outside the bounds of reason.
Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.
…faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man.
At over 800 pages, I was prepared to trudge through this novel. It was quite a relief to find it so engaging. I came away from this book wanting to throw out all my Russian novels and re-buy them as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They did a brilliant job.
I read this a while back when it first came out, and thought it was ok—I don’t think I was awakened. I opened it up again to see if maybe this time would be different.
The first thing that surprised me was how fast I zipped through it. I can’t pinpoint where the content was particularly compelling, but one word seamlessly led to another and away I went!
Toward the beginning, Tolle says that mankind is in the process of awakening. This book isn’t meant to convince, it’s meant to awaken.
You cannot fight against the ego and win, just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.
[I’m feeling better already.]
Tolle gets my attention when he says this: “The first part of that truth is the realization that the ‘normal’ state of mind of most human beings contains a strong element of what we might call dysfunction or even madness.”
He goes on to say: “Certain teachings at the heart of Hinduism perhaps come closest to seeing this dysfunction as a form of collective mental illness. They call it maya, the veil of delusion.”
“According to Buddha, the human mind in its normal state generates dukkha [not to be confused with dookie—my words, not his, but still fitting, I think], which can be translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness, or just plain misery.”
The great Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, says: “The mind is maya.”
[My mind is maya.]
Tolle says that “sin” is a word that is greatly misunderstood. “Literally translated from the ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written, to sin means to miss the mark, as an archer who misses the target, so to sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering.
Science and technology have magnified the destructive impact that the dysfunction, that collective insanity, can be most clearly recognized. A further factor is that this dysfunction is actually intensifying and accelerating.
Another aspect of the collective dysfunction of the human mind is the unprecedented violence that humans are inflicting on other life forms and the planet itself—the destruction of oxygen-producing forests and other plant and animal life; ill-treatment of animals in factory farms; and poisoning of rivers, oceans, and air. Driven by greed, ignorant of their connectedness to the whole, humans persist in behavior that, if continued unchecked, can only result in their own destruction.
In our destruction. I like how Tolle sets himself apart: “in their own destruction.” Almost out of harm’s way.
Tolle says: “If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being, the diagnosis would have to be: chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived ‘enemies’ —his own unconsciousness projected outward.”
Who is this Tolle guy anyway?
The back of the book says he is a contemporary spiritual teacher who travels extensively. The inside cover doesn’t reveal much more. An enigma, I suppose. Is “traveling extensively” credential enough to diagnose the collective of humanity with insanity? Sure, I was thinking it too, but I’m just a wabbit who has only traveled marginally.
Reading on…Gautama Siddharth (Buddha) is said to be the first to come to this conclusion, 2,600 years ago in India. Or, maybe it was China’s Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching.
I admit, I’m liking Tolle. He doesn’t hide behind “culture” to excuse suffering. He is a proponent of self evaluation and change.
He says that through organized religions, people “could make themselves ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’ and thus define their identity through their enemies, the ‘others,’ the ‘nonbelievers’ or the ‘wrong believers’ who not infrequently they saw themselves justified in killing.”
A dim little light came on for me when I read the following paragraph:
He [Jean-Paul Sartre] looked at Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” very deeply and suddenly realized, in his own words, “The consciousness that says ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thinks.” What did he mean by that? When you are aware that you are thinking, that awareness is not part of thinking. It is a different dimension of consciousness. And it is that awareness that says “I am.” If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he’s dreaming. You as identified with every thought as the dreamer is with every image in the dream. Many people still live like that, like sleepwalkers, trapped in old dysfunctional mind-sets that continuously re-create the same nightmarish reality. When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream. Another dimension of consciousness has come in.
Tolle explains that complaining works to strengthen the ego (not a good thing) and when someone or something is wrong and you recognize that, it makes you feel you are right. Tolle echos the ideas expressed by Dostoevsky when he says that “by far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”
Here “normal” equates to “insane.” And what lies at the root of insanity? “Complete identification with thought and emotion, that is to say, ego.”
While reading this, I continue to think back to my questions regarding the economy of New Guinea and how it was disrupted by discovery by the outside world in the book Lost in Shangri-La. My question was, and is, is war really necessary? Economically? Also, I can’t help but think about recent news events. The two brothers who devastated so many lives in Boston, but also ruined their own. And for what? For ego? In the service of their unconscious pain body? What could they have hoped to accomplish with that act? It makes no sense to me. I see the face of that 19 year old and my heart goes out to his parents, and yes, to him as well. What happened? I want so much to think he didn’t do it and we have convicted him too soon (outside the courts), but then if it wasn’t him, it was someone. Someone did this. But why? And how?
Tolle has this to offer:
A collective ego manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego, such as the need for conflict and enemies, the need for more, the need to be right against others who are wrong, and so on. Sooner or later, the collective will come into conflict with other collectives, because it unconsciously seeks conflict and it needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity.
Tolle’s discussion of the pain body and how it feeds the ego is interesting. I think I struggle with some of this stuff. I liked and identified with what he had to say about time:
Time is what the ego lives on. The stronger the ego, the more time takes over your life. Almost every thought you think is then concerned with past or future, and your sense of self depends on the past for your identity and on the future for its fulfillment.
The main way to disable the ego, according to Tolle, is to accept what is and what comes, regardless of whether your reaction makes a judgement of good or bad. Since the ego identifies with stuff, it would also seem that cutting back on one’s belongings might help. But Tolle doesn’t say this. It’s just my idea.
As I read Tolle, I slip into a reverie of what life might be like to live closer to nature, with significantly fewer belongings and significantly fewer obligations. Would my world be enlarged or depleted? And my ego?
To awaken from the dream is our purpose now. When we are awake within the dream, the ego-created earthdrama comes to an end and the more benign and wondrous dream arises. This is the new earth.
This is a lot for my Western mind to take in. But if I understand Tolle correctly, the idea is to be present in each moment. Experience “now,” no matter what is happening now. Right now, you are reading my blog. There is a strange temporal relationship between my thoughts and yours. I am communicating with you from the past. You are reading my thoughts in your now. I am thinking about your actions and reactions in my future.
When I picked up this book, I came to it with the assumption that everyone’s life purpose is different. But not so per Tolle. Everyone has the same internal purpose in life—that is to awaken. Awakening means to be able to distinguish between the constant inner dialog we all experience—thoughts—and ourselves as the thinkers. Basically, we are not our thoughts. If your purpose is anything other than that, it will be thwarted by time and will eventually result in sadness.
So, curing cancer, ending poverty, building a fortune—anything of that nature no matter how altruistic, is the work of the ego. Anything you are doing in the present moment is your purpose, even if you’re sharpening a pencil. When you move on to something else, that will be your external purpose. And so forth. The point is to be conscious of what you are as you do whatever it is. Tolle says that whatever you do you should do it in a state of acceptance, enthusiasm, or enjoyment; otherwise, stop doing it.
I recommend this book for anyone having a problem with excess seriousness. It’s a lot of food for thought. I’m not sure I got it all. When I was in college and having a rough day, I would often go to a certain fountain and stare at the water. My mind would clear and peace would descend. Sort of like a serving of broccoli, everyone probably needs a serving of peace, so many grams a day.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.
Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.
Here is the introductory statement by the author:
The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.
Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.
Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.
In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.
As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.
Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.
This is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:
I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.
Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.
He says he was very healthy.
Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.
Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:
… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).
Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:
Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.
For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)
So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)
Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.
Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?
It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Counterpoint Press; @ 1986; 129 pages.
The premise of The Suitcase is simple. Sergei Dovlatov finds the suitcase that he carried from the Soviet Union to the United States in the back of his closet in New York. Each chapter of the book tells the story behind each item he rediscovers inside.
I really like this structure. I’m trying to figure out how to “repurpose” it for my own needs. And, I really like Dovlatov. I’ll be reading along, interested enough to keep going, and then all of a sudden I’m laughing. It’s nice. It reminds me of Russia and the friends I met there, and makes me sorry I left and glad that I did at the same time.
I like how Dovlatov describes his relationship with his wife, Lena. He says the main things a wife should do for her husband are 1) feed him, 2) believe he is a genius, and 3) leave him alone. And she can’t just do one of these. She has to do all three. So I’m ticking off these things in my head. Am I doing my part? It was touching—for all his tough-guy rhetoric, you can tell he really loved his wife. The kind of love that is too real and painful to talk about.
Dovlatov died relatively young (Not suicide—but what was it? I don’t know.), and it makes me really sad. But he left behind several books that I haven’t read.
The New York Times said this about The Suitcase: “Readers will soar through the first two-thirds of this novel, then…stave off finishing it. The final chapters will be hoarded and cherished, doled out one at a time as a reward after a bad day.”
That’s exactly how I felt. I have a bad day, I reach for Dovlatov. That’s why I need to have enough on hand. Fed up with life? Lost your sense of humor? Take two Dovlatov’s and call me in the morning.
By Ted Kooser; @1980, 1985 University of Pittsburgh Press, 142 pages.
This is the one. This is my favorite book of poems by Ted Kooser. Ted has tremendous talent for evoking vivid scenes with simple, unassuming language. My favorite poems include:
Selecting a Reader
Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen
The Man with the Hearing Aid
How to Make Rubarb Wine
So This Is Nebraska
After the Funeral
Shooting a Farmhouse
Looking for You, Barbara
A Goldfish Floats to the Top of His Life
They Had Torn Off My Face at the Office
Flying at Night
A Birthday Card
A Room in the Past
The Voyager II Satellite
By Toni Morrison; Signet, Penguin Books USA @1987; 338 pages.
I had heard of Toni Morrison, but had never read her books. I won’t rehash the story here because I don’t want to spoil it for you, not even the first chapter.
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Briefly, the story is about Sethe, a woman who escaped from slavery and who continues to be haunted by her past.
Toni Morrison is amazing. She is the most skilled writer I have read in a very long time. I am in awe. The story she tells, the details, her execution, her command of language, suspense, knowledge and understanding of human nature, scene, dialogue, imagination! And while I’m not drawn to sad stories, this one is a must read. This one, that I’m reading so soon after having read Doris Lessing’s Prisons That We Choose to Live Inside, strikes me as another example of the horrific behavior of our species.
Slavery is a topic so painful that we still can’t talk about it. There is so much I didn’t know. So much I need to find out. How terribly awful our past is. But Morrison has created art here. She has brought beauty, humanity, and strength to a situation so horrible, so shameful, so intense that it is just unimaginable to me that it really happened. Of course, this story is fiction, but the details here revive the real-life actions of the past. We know that people, other than the characters of this story, real people, lived through a lot more. Morrison tells a story that must be told, must be read, and must be acknowledged.
Here is an example of Toni Morrison’s writing:
Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let along loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make up for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her third child, a boy, with her—only to have him traded for lumber in the spring of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. That child she could not love and the rest she would not.
I find Baby Suggs’ strategy for getting though the final chapter of her life compelling. She decided that she wanted to think about something that didn’t have any pain involved, no hurt, no evil. She went to bed and contemplated color. She started with blue, then went on to yellow and then pink.
Was Morrison meaning to be ironic? Because it seems that color does have a lot of pain associated with it.
On the front of my copy, there is a quote from Newsweek:
By Jeff Gerke; Writers Digest Books; @2011; 226 pages.
I’ve got a few how-to books for writing novels, but this one is the best one I’ve read in quite some time. The author, Jeff Gerke, has worked as an acquisitions editor and offers his insights for what needs to be done in the first 50 pages of your novel.
I was so inspired by this book that I started making notes for my own novel while reading it.
For the longest time, I’ve felt constrained about how to begin a novel. Should I just free write and see what happens, or should I outline the thing to death and start writing from my outline?
Thus far, I’ve done nothing.
Jeff Gerke gives me a third option. Think about a structure and the key things you need to accomplish (he tells you what they are), and then write to satisfy that structure. It’s sort of like playing the blues. You learn the blues scale and then improvise. That, I can do.
This isn’t to say that I’m not still feeling a lot of angst about my novel. I am. But I’ve got a lot of notes going now and a feeling about how to proceed.
As you might expect, Gerke harps on about showing and not telling, but he does a whole lot more.
He says the point of writing a novel is to show us a character’s transformation. He says that the hero has to have a “moment of truth.” He (she) has to acknowledge that he hasn’t been true to himself and that something has to change.
Fiction is about someone who wants something—and the thing that would keep them from getting it.
I like Gerke’s analogy of a character sitting on a fence (makes me think of the Flowers album by the Rolling Stones). The character has been sitting on a fence. As storytellers, we have to set fire to that fence, and our character has to jump off. The only question is: will he chose the path to his destruction (his status quo up to this point) or will he be true to his nearly forgotten core self?
Gerke reminds us to establish a normal before we violate normal. Begin with action, but not the main action.
He talks about the “hero’s knot.” What’s our hero’s deal? What’s his issue?
The more you, as the author, push him to unravel his knot, the more he resists.
Then Gerke talks about four ways (devices you can use) to begin your novel.
He also gives guidance for what the villain is supposed to do. He says that although some novels don’t have villains, in the publishing world, it’s better to have a villain than not to have a villain.
He talks a bit about the three-act structure, and explains how this works in a fresh and understandable way. Since Act 1 takes place in the first 50 pages, he gives you everything you ought to have in Act 1.
I was really inspired after reading this book. I now have quite a few notes on my first 50 pages. And, I’ll probably refer back to the book as a whole once I’ve written my first draft.
From the back page of this book: “Tim Flannery is an internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer, and conservationist.” He is a professor at Macquarie University in Australia. He has made numerous appearances on various news outlets. And he just might be my new hero. Well done Flannery. Well done.
I bought Flannery’s book back in 2007. It’s got a pretty cool cover photo, and the subject matter interests me. For some reason, I felt intimidated by this book when I first tried to read it in 2007.
This book re-emerged after Super Storm Sandy crashed into the East Coast.
I flipped to a section that interested me: Time’s Gateways. Finding it incredibly engaging and easy to read, I read another section. Then I flipped to the beginning and dug in.
Flannery fills this book with detail after interesting detail—adult humans require 30 lbs of air every day of their lives; elephants colonized every continent on earth except for Australia; our time address today is Cainozoic Era, Quaternary Period, Holocene Epoch.
I feel like I should read it again and again. But probably I will read it only once.
You can pretty well guess which side of the issue Flannery is on just by reading the title of his book. While he confirms that “skepticism is the lifeblood of science,” he follows that idea a few pages later with: “If, for example, we wait to see if an ailment is indeed fatal, we will do nothing until we are dead.”
Many if not most of the people I associate with these days, do not accept the possibility of a human-induced climate change. The earth is simply too big, and humans are simply too small.
Unlike my acquaintances, I am swayed by the massive amount of evidence: disappearing glaciers, melting polar ice caps, destroyed coral reefs, massive extinctions, stronger weather events, rising ocean temperatures, acidifying oceans, the Keeling curve. I also recognize that over the last 40 years, science has made enormous strides in its ability to analyze the world (computers). I don’t think scientists are always right or that they know everything, but Flannery makes some interesting points.
The author’s core message is that we currently have the knowledge and the tools to act wisely. Climate change is occurring rapidly and will soon become not just a big issue, but the only issue.
Scary words. Sensational language. This is usually the time I put the book down to see what’s in the fridge.
But I try to be better than that and read on to learn that some power plants burn through 550 tons of coal per hour. Wow. I mean…Wow. Really, that’s quite a lot. Did you catch that? Not per day. Per hour.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Academy Chicago Publishers; @1990, first copyright Alfred A Knopf, Inc @1981; 148 pages.
While reading about Kurt Vonnegut, I noticed this guy, Sergei Dovlatov. Apparently, Vonnegut said some nice things about Dovlatov, so that peaked my interest.
The story unfolds as Dovlatov, a Russian living in Estonia, takes a job writing satire for the newspaper, On Watch for the Motherland. Turns out he isn’t a party member—which I found odd; I thought you would have to be a party member to write for a Soviet newspaper and that basically everyone was a party member anyway, but apparently not. Also, his articles weren’t satirical. Hmm, or were they?
Each chapter opens with a short newspaper article that Sergei has written—and that must be written in a certain way or changed to satisfy his bosses—a compromise. Basically, the typical writer’s life. But in this case, it is a writer’s life under Soviet rule. And it seems, every aspect of Dovlatov’s life.
One amusing anecdote is about an article that is needed for Tallinn‘s liberation anniversary. Dovlatov is given the assignment to tell the story of the 400 thousandth inhabitant born to the city. This number isn’t accurate, or even close, but no matter; it makes for a good story. Dovlatov goes to the maternity ward of the hospital in Tallinn and waits for a male child to be born. The 400 thousandth child needs to be a boy because a boy is more symbolic for the occasion.
Dovlatov waits. The first child born that day is a boy, but he doesn’t meet all of the publicizable requirements; he is half Ethiopian. Then another boy is born—also unacceptable; he is Jewish. Dovlatov has to explain to the father that the paper is looking for a boy from a “worker-peasant family.” No intellectuals. Too bad, because the father has already written a poem for the occasion.
“How could it appear in our country? Here, in a country where it seems—”
I interrupted him. “In a country where the ‘founding corpse’ has still not been buried…”
(I can see why Vonnegut liked Dovlatov.)
A suitable boy is finally born, but now the newspaper, still seeking to tell a good story, wants Dovlatov to convince the father to name the child Lembit, a name out of Estonian folklore. They are willing to pay him. So for 25 rubles, a would-be Volodya becomes a Lembit.
Sergei Dovlatov is immediately engaging. He captures my attention by talking directly to me; I find out who he is as he’s telling the story and I feel sympathetic to him (I have to think more about why). I like his tongue-in-cheek style. He’s absurd, honest, and subtlely humorous.
I liked several of his lines, but especially this one: “Lying without hope of gain is not lying, it’s poetry.” Seems right, considering how much poetry pays.
So probably, there are some things I missed, references, etc. that I didn’t understand because I haven’t ever lived in the Soviet Union. But, overall, The Compromise, was a good read and makes the interesting distinction between the facts and the truth.
I found myself giggling through the last two compromises, high praise indeed.
By Fyodor Dostoevsky; Bantam Classic; First published in 1866; this edition published in 1981; 472 pages.
At the risk of sounding like Alistair Cooke, it seems this is the best way to start my entry:
The stakes are high for Dostoevsky as he contemplates writing this novel. It’s been five years since his return from exile in Siberia (1850–1860). He had been sent there as punishment for alleged subversion against Tsar Nicholas I. He spent four of these years doing hard labor. At one point, he was even led before a firing squad, but was pardoned at the last second. After his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky worked with his brother to produce two literary-political journals (you’d think he wouldn’t have wanted to touch politics after his stint in Siberia). In April 1864, his wife died of tuberculosis. His brother died a few months later. The journals failed, and Dostoevsky’s debts increased by the day.
Hounded by creditors, in 1865 he wanted to leave Russia to find some peace in Europe where his ex-mistress, Apollinaria Suslova, was currently living and whom he wanted to see very badly. To raise the money, he obtained a loan from the Literary Fund. He also approached several periodicals with an idea for a new novel.
He was rejected. Finally, he made a deal with a publisher named F.T. Stellovsky. Dostoevsky promised to give Stellovsky a novella-sized work by November 1866. (Looks like he made his deadline?) If he failed, he would have to give Stellovsky the right to publish all of his future work without compensation for the next nine years! (I have the feeling that Dostoevsky really wanted to go to Europe.)
So Dostoevsky took an advance from Stellovsky, paid his debts, and traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany. His plan was to replenish his funds by gambling what he had left. He lost everything. He could not even afford to eat.
During this time as tension and desperation continued to build, Dostoevsky developed the idea for Crime and Punishment. He swallowed his pride and wrote to an old enemy, Mikhail Katkov, a powerful editor. He pitched the story, and Katkov liked it.
Now Dostoevsky was indebted to two publishers. The introduction to my edition tells me all this and the whole plot of the novel (which I turned a blind eye to because I would rather experience it myself), but did not explain how Dostoevsky resolved these two debts. Leave it to me to fixate on something no one else finds interesting. And what happened with Apollinaria?
Only three years before his imprisonment in Siberia, Doestoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk. (Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821.) His prison memoir is Notes From the House of the Dead.
Crime and Punishment begins with a scene of a hot July evening in St Petersburg. Our protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (Родиóн Ромáнович Раскóльников), is leaving his tiny apartment and trying to avoid his landlady because he is hopelessly in her debt. He is off to see his pawnbroker to pawn something else. He isn’t from St. Petersburg but is living there to attend the university. He has dropped out due to lack of money. Crushed by poverty and in need of nice clothes, he has also given up on the only way he can earn a small living, by working as a tutor. It doesn’t pay enough to seem worthwhile. He is incredibly handsome. (Well, of course. Protagonists have to be handsome don’t they?)
The name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word “raskolnik,” which means schismatic, and according to Wikipedia this alludes to the Old Believer Movement (Old Believers aka старове́ры or старообрядцы), which I don’t get because it seems like Rasknolikov was intended to be the poster boy for the new Socialist movement of the day.
In 1652, Nikon, the then Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts and introduced ritual and textual revisions to create uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. He did this without gaining consensus among the clergy. Those who did not accept Nikon’s changes were persecuted from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics or Old Believers (Old Ritualists) (старообрядцы). Old Believers rejected all innovations and the most radical of them believed that the Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist.
In 1666, the Church officially suppressed (anathematized) the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them, and stripped the Old Believers of their civil rights. Persecution, arrests, torture, and executions followed.
(This is pretty cool to me because when I was in Russia, people would sometimes whisper to me: he’s an Old Believer. I had no idea of the significance of that.)
I really don’t think that Raskonikov is supposed to represent the schism of the Church. At one point with Sonia (the 18-year-old girl who has been forced into prostitution as a way to keep her family from starvation, or worse), he questions the existence of God. I think, rather, that Raskonikov, was named for the schism between his motivations and his actions. He is driven by this idealistic view of what good is or should be and, because of this, views himself as above the recognized moral code of what is always good and always evil, allowing himself to believe that he is entitled, justified, even duty-bound to commit a crime if his crime would end evil actions of the one murdered. Or, maybe more accurately, it is the schism that happens when one believes with all one’s heart and soul that to do a particular thing is wrong, but does it anyway.
Raskolnikov’s mother (Pulcheria Alexandrovna) and sister (Avdotya Romanovna) want desperately to help him escape his poverty, misery, and depression. (His father has already passed away.) In this society, it seems the only help from women can come from an advantageous marriage (one for money [in this case of Raskonikov’s sister to the “supercillious” Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin]) or through prostitution, a way to thoroughly and forever destroy a girl’s reputation. So basically, it’s condoned prostitution (holders of a yellow passport) or uncondoned prostitution (holders of a marriage certificate). Raskolnikov’s mother, at 43, is too old to be of any use.
Dostoevsky indicates Raskolnikov’s feelings of helplessness with his gruesome and upsetting dream about a mare. Clearly, Dostoevsky has observed how stupid and cruel humans can be once they get an advantage over something that can’t fight back.
Part I, Chapter VII is riveting. Every sentence was a tense extension of the one before it. I was on the edge of my seat. I haven’t read writing so thoroughly engrossing in years. Dostoevsky’s skill is phenomenal. The proofreader of my edition, however, should have been shot. I’ve never seen so many misspellings!
And I suppose it’s the penny-pincher in me, but every time Raskolnikov gave away his rubles (typically to help someone else), I cringed.
Writing this in his 40s, Dostoevsky demonstrates superb skill. He conveys time and space with ease. I am right there with Raskolnikov in his tiny room or walking in the street or along the Neva. I don’t see his face, but I’m in his head. I sympathize with him and yet I’m repelled. Dostoevsky pulls me back and forth as he examines Raskolnikov’s complex character from all directions.
Raskolnikov has a good friend, Razumihin, who sees after him during his “illness.” Just as you might suspect, there is an opportunity to discuss the nature of crime in this novel. According to Socialist doctrine, “crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social organization.”
…if society were properly organized, all crime would cease at once.
This strikes me particularly now as I have been reading about a different Russian, a billionaire Dmitry Itskov, and his idealistic (and rather terrifying) 2045 project aspirations. As humans use technology to achieve immortality, Itskov expects all of humanities’ problems will miraculously disappear.
Are Itskov’s views a reincarnation of the socialist ideas present in Russia in the 1860s?
…there will be nothing to protest against and all men will become righteous in one instant. Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it’s not supposed to exist! … They believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organize all humanity at once and make it just sinless in an instant…
…they don’t want a living soul! The living soul demands life, the soul won’t obey the rules of mechanics…
These words seem hauntingly relevant today.
Raskolnikov discovers that an article he wrote while a student has been published. In it, he discusses the psychology of a criminal before and after a crime. He suggests that some people have a right [even a duty] to commit crime.
He explains that all men are either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary men live in submission and have no right to break the law. Extraordinary men have an right to decide their own conscience and to “step over obstacles … for the benefit of humanity.” [pre-emptive strikes?]
For example, posits Raskolnikov, if the discoveries of Newton and Kepler could not have been made known without sacrificing the lives of a hundred or more people, they would have been duty-bound to eliminate those men.”
And there you have it. There is the reasoning behind the atrocities committed in the name of scientific advancement (chimps in space, gorilla head transplants, introducing animal genes in to plant DNA, etc.) And of course, behind the atrocities committed between nations in the name of “security.”
Raskolnikov goes on: “…all great men … must … be criminals…”
Ordinary people live their lives in a rut and stay there. They are inferior. They preserve the world and the people in it.
Extraordinary people do not. They move the world and lead it to its goal. They have the gift or talent to utter a new word.
Funny how one collects memories and impressions throughout one’s life. So much is discarded and yet some experiences, however irrelevant, linger and come to the surface as the result of some reminder. Maybe some experiences are so extraordinary that one is compelled to pay attention to every detail. The following passage struck me in such a way:
For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumihin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumihin started. Something strange, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides.
One thing that always interests me when I read these types of stories, stories in which the reader is set up to judge the protagonist, is order. My impressions of Raskolnikov would have been different if I had learned more about his character before I was exposed to his crime. I would have felt more sympathetic towards him. As it is, I find myself struggling, which I think is exactly what Doestoevsky intended. It’s easier to forgive someone you know and love, but not so easy to forgive a stranger, even if you do know his thoughts.
Then at last, there is the idea of redemption in suffering.
I finished this novel on the same day that the leading story in the news was about the murder of Chris Kyle, the 38-year-old former Navy SEAL who wrote a memoir about his 150 confirmed sniper killings in Iraq. His wife explained on TV that he did what he loved. Both Kyle and Raskolnikov made the same decision about human life, though Kyle apparently was less bothered by it, but then I haven’t read his book, American Sniper. Sanctioned killing versus unsanctioned killing. It’s important, it seems, to get the rubber stamp.
Was Raskolnikov’s deepest regret the self awareness that he was not, in fact, and extraordinary man?
Several times in my life, I’ve been accused of thinking too much. I’ve always thought that was odd. I think now I finally get what that means. For the truth of things isn’t really so complicated.
At the end, like at the end of Anna Karenina, we are left with the hint that our protagonist will make the conversion from atheism to Christianity.
When the Kiev zoo gave its smaller animals away because it could no longer afford to feed them, Victor, a struggling writer, adopted a depressed penguin named Misha. The story unfolds with Victor and Misha living together in an apartment in Kiev. For both of them, it’s a rather unnatural environment.
This book did a great job of grabbing my attention early on. Page one and I was into the story.
Kurkov subtly examines the nature of choice. There is a tension that develops and a contrast that is set up when the main characters have different kinds of situations to deal with: ones they have freely chosen for themselves and ones they have happened into. I enjoyed the way Misha’s predicament mirrored Victor’s internal struggle. I also appreciated that Misha wasn’t turned into a cheesy kid’s character. Misha was always his own penguin. Enigmatic at times, but after all, he was a penguin.
One question remained for Andrey Kurkov. On the last page, the last line is the date range: December 1995–February 1996. What is this? The time it took to write the book? Bragging?
[Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find out. Mr. Kurkov was very kind to answer my question and said that this was the time it took him to write the book, although he said that it took him two years to nail down the plot.]
There was something that happened to me while reading this book. Misha the Penguin had a health problem. The resolution to this health problem, when I read it, was like flipping a switch for me. I can’t explain it. I don’t really understand it, but it’s as though a weight was lifted. The shock. The laughter. The immediate understanding. It was all very personal. I’m not promising a cathartic experience for anyone who reads it, but for me, it helped. Sometimes the stars align with literature and this was the case for me.
Sailing Alone Around the Room is one of the books I bought when I was on my Billy Collins kick. I’m not sure if Collins is my favorite poet in the whole wide world, but there is no doubt that he is talented. Reading him always gets me in the mood to write, and I envy those who were/are so lucky to have him as a professor. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
By Tomas Tranströmer; Translated by Robin Fulton; @ 2006 by New Directions Publishing Corporation, 257 pages.
Tomas Tranströmer was the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize for literature “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”
Born April 15, 1931, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tomas Tranströmer has been translated into 50 languages. The Great Enigma is the complete collection of Tranströmer’s published poetry, a compilation of his 12 poetry books. Tranströmer’s subject matter often focuses on the Swedish natural landscape and on the poet’s observations from daily life. One gets a sense of the cold, salty sea air when reading his poems.
I came to Tranströmer’s poetry, having never visited Sweden and knowing very little about life there. I found his poems very difficult to penetrate. Often they seemed to be talking about one thing, only to stray completely from the topic at hand. Tomas Tranströmer has a lot to offer. His poems need to be read and digested slowly. They deserve many reads. There are many wonderful lyrical phrases, but taken as units, I found them hard to decipher.
Poems from this book that I plan to come back to are as follows:
The Four Temperaments
Secrets on the Way
After an Attack
The Tree and the Sky
The Half-Finished Heaven
A Winter Night
From an African Diary
Downpour over the Interior
In the Open
By the River
Sketch in October
Along the Radius
A Place in the Forest
Early May Stanzas
The Indoors Is Endless
April and Silence
Lines I especially liked:
“Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.”
“A dog’s barking is a hieroglyph painted in the air above the garden”
“I stood in a room that contained every moment—a butterfly museum.”
“There’s a tree walking around in the rain, it rushes past us in the pouring grey.”
“It helps perhaps with handshakes like a flight of migratory birds.”
“The lake is a window into the earth.”
“In the daylight a dot of beneficent black that quickly flows into a pale customer.”
I looked at the sky and at the earth and straight ahead
and since then I’ve been writing a long letter to the dead
on a typewriter with no ribbon just a horizon line
By Mohsin Hamid; @ 2007, Harcourt Books; 184 pages.
It is late afternoon, and you are an American on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. Perhaps you are lost. Maybe you are seeking the perfect cup of tea. That might be your excuse if anyone should ask. A Pakistani man approaches you.
“Excuse me,” he says. He wants to know if he may be of some assistance. “Do not be frightened by my beard,” he says. He tells you that he is a lover of America, and you appear to be on a mission.
Anyone who has ever been assailed by kindness, trapped in a conversation or situation on the pretense of maintaining good manners can relate to the dynamics constructed by Mohsin Hamid in the Reluctant Fundamentalist. Page one hooks the reader by offering an intriguing interpersonal dynamic. Who is our narrator? Is he an ordinary man or out to do someone harm? Who is he addressing? Is his American conversant an innocent tourist, a businessman, or a spy?
As readers, we can only eavesdrop on the conversation from the narrator’s point of view. No matter, because it appears that the narrator, Changez, is happy to do most of the talking. Changez escorts the American to a café where they can have a perfect cup of tea. Changez begins to tell the story of his time in America. Why does Changez need to tell this story? Why is tonight a “night of some importance”? Will this be the American’s last meal?
The story of Changez in America begins around the time of his graduation from Princeton. To celebrate, he goes on a trip to Greece with a group of Americans. In Greece, he falls in love with Erica, an American girl his group. Changez takes the relationship slowly. He wants more, even marriage, but there is something holding Erica back.
Changez soon lands a coveted position at an American valuation company called Underwood Samson. At 22, he is making $80,000 a year. It is intense work, but after three years, Changez can depend on acceptance to Harvard Business School. At Underwood Samson, success requires employees to focus on the “fundamentals.” Only the fundamentals of companies are acceptable measures to determine their value. Underwood Samson’s assessments often result in job losses, and empathy for employees can only impair the assessment. Changez excels at his work. He focuses on the fundamentals.
Shortly after Changez is hired, the terrorist attacks of September 11 compel him to re-evaluate his identity. He goes home to Pakistan to see his family. Nuclear tensions are high between India and Pakistan after September 11, and Changez is concerned war will break out between the two countries. He feels guilty about returning to his job in New York instead of staying with his family through this crisis. On his flight back to the United States, he notes:
I found it ironic; children and the elderly were meant to be sent away from impending battles, but in our case it was the fittest and brightest who were leaving, those who in the past would have been most expected to remain. I was filled with such contempt for myself…
After Changez returns to the United States, he sees things differently. He is no longer eager to please his employer. He becomes defiant and stops shaving his beard. People mistake him for a terrorist. He is angry and begins to realize that something is wrong with Erica.
As afternoon becomes evening, and evening turns into night, Changez and the American eat at the café. The courses of their meal, served by a large, ominous waiter, pace the story. Eventually, it becomes clear why Changez gave up his career in the United States and returned to Pakistan.
Mohsin Hamid is a master of psychological introspection. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is filled with unexpected developments and metaphors. Questions arise, such as: How should we make decisions about our world? and Is it possible to separate the fundamentals from the big picture? Goals and aspirations are weighed against loyalties and ways of seeing the world. Do Changez’s experiences in the United States lead him to embrace religious fundamentalism once he returns home? The reader isn’t sure. This creates great suspense.
Because of Changez’s journey and knowing what he has decided to give up, the reader expects Changez to act decisively. During dinner, Changez tells the American, “Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.” What is the result of this one-way baring of souls? What will happen after dinner?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist illustrates the difficulties encountered when trying to bridge the gap that has been widened by cultural distrust. When fear is a factor for both sides, one can only hope it is not too late.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Moshin Hamid’s second novel. His first novel, Moth Smoke, won a Betty Trask award and was a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist.
————–The BBC World Book Club interviewed Mohsid Hamid about the Reluctant Fundamentalist. You can listen to that interview here:
By Qanta Ahmed, MD; @2008; Sourcebooks, Inc.; 437 pages.
I came to this book with very little knowledge of Islam or of Saudi Arabia. This was a fascinating read, and I highly recommend the book. While structurally the book reads like a series of ideas that the author felt compelled to cover, the book is loaded with interesting factual information—it is a must read for anyone planning a trip to the Kingdom.
What is certain from the very beginning is that Ahmed did not like to veil. I came away from the book thinking that veiling might be ok if it weren’t mandatory. The fact that women can be harrassed if not properly veiled offends my Western sensibilities. Also, what’s up with men wearing white (a heat repelling color) in a hot climate and women having to wear black (a heat attracting color)? That ain’t right.
I was shocked to learn that women are not allowed to purchase music. I love Arabian music, and I simply can’t imagine not being allowed to listen to it or purchase it on my own.
Throughout the book, I was haunted by the question of what does a woman do if she has no male figure in her life to drive her, accompany her, or do all the other things that only men are allowed to do? Women are like possessions.
Ahmed’s writing is engaging, and every night I looked forward to sitting down and reading more about her experiences. I was fascinated by her spiritual experiences during Hajj, but also upset that only Muslims are allowed entry. The recurring theme of this book seemed to be: “you’re not in the club.”
Ahmed’s coverage of the relationship between the Muttawa and the Saudi royalty was very interesting.
One thing is certain, I would not do well in the Kingdom. I’d slip up and get into some kind of life-threatening trouble.