Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Time Traveler's Wife

I simply cannot count the times that I closed the book, set it down and said, "Dangit,  Niffenegger." 
There's a bit of male culture that not a lot of women understand.   I suppose there are a lot of things in that realm that are difficult to understand, but specifically for today I'm talking about calling someone by their last name.  I've had women tell me that by not referring to someone by their given first name you aren't seeing them as an individual, you aren't recognizing them for their essence,  who they are independent of their family name.  Naturally I call "poppycock" on that.  Sure, that may be how someone takes it, but that is not at all how it is meant.

So, please allow me to peel back the curtain a little on Man culture here.  Not too far, naturally.  No one would want that.  Honestly I hadn't thought about this aspect until this gem of a novel.  Every time my sniffling exclamation was, "Dangit, Niffenegger," and never "Dangit, Audrey."  For guys, calling someone by their last name is a badge of respect; significant respect.  It's fallen into disuse before our generation and, typically for me, that means I'm attracted to it.  It says, "I recognize you as a credit to your family name."  It's on the same level as "sir" and "Mr." or "Mrs." with me.  People get annoyed at me for using them because they come off as formalizing, but really it shows that I respect you in a way that only repeated reminders to call you by your first name will relieve.  And Niffenegger is VERY much up there with this book.  

Early on I was a little thrown off by some of her writing.  The female lead, Claire, was very well written, but when it came to Henry it fell short.  He was doing things few men would ever do and noticing things no guy ever notices, let alone when they are a little boy.  No little boy is going to notice that his mother's fingernails match her shoes.  Henry does.  There are more examples of this throughout the first few chapters and I sympathize.  As a writer I find it difficult to write characters of another gender, and I see it all the time where men don't know how to write women and women don't know how to write men.  They are great at writing caricatures of men.  Seeley Booth of the "Bones" series has always bothered me as a particularly 2d example of a man, but in TV and movies you can get away with this.  You've got an hour, maybe more, to transmit a lot of information and stereotypes work well.  In books, if you go beyond dialogue and deep into internal reflections and reasonings, you have to nail it.  There is no faking it.  If you do a crap job you can't just do a razzle dazzle to distract.  Ok.  You can.  But people have to fully buy into it to get away with it...and since mostly women read "Twilight"...  *cough* sorry.  

One of the many rewarding things about reading "The Time Travelers Wife" is that you can see the author grow over time.  Something happens around chapter two or three where she suddenly shifts into being a better writer.  She gets Henry and his perspective right.  Niffenegger runs with it and there's no stopping her.  

"The Time Travelers Wife" is the story of Henry, an individual with a genetic disorder that unsticks him from time.  Usually this occurs during times of high stress but it's been know to happen during average every day moments as well.  When we first meet Henry he is in his later 30s and Claire, his eventually to be wife, is 8.  While this seems sketchy you come to realize in his 30s Henry, in Claire's future, is already married to Claire.  It's almost a Twilight Zone episode.  In the hands of a lesser author that is where it would remain, just in the weirdness, but Niffenegger is not a lesser author.

What emerges from this bizarre opening tale is something very rare in this world.  "The Time Traveler's Wife" is that rare book that is about absolutely everything and in the end reaffirms life, virtue, and makes you look at the world far more positively by the end.  The couple doesn't come off as unrelatable in the least.  They go through all of the same highs and lows, same difficulties and joys, that every couple does.  In fact she somehow uses Henry's chronal displacement disorder in such a way as to increase the relatability.  I still don't know quite how she does it.  Books don't normally make me smile, cry, grit my teeth, or shout in triumph, but this one truly does.

It's kind of like "The Notebook" but less sappy and more realistic.   

Yep.  I said it.  A genetic disorder that causes uncontrollable TIME TRAVEL is more realistic as a plot device than the entirety of "The Notebook".  

"The Time Travelers Wife" is the first novel I've read from this century.  I was leery of it at first.  I mean, honestly...Top 100 Books to Read Before You Die and this book is just 15 years old?  Could it really deserve to be on this list?  Other Modern novels (And I'm perpetually throwing shade at you Catch-22) clearly didn't deserve it.

Does it belong on the list?  Emphatically, yes.  

I don't normally say this, but if you haven't read it I highly suggest it.  It belongs on the list, it should be on your shelf.  It is officially in my top 10 books of all time solidly...and that's a pretty fluid list.  My life is genuinely better for having read it, and...I won't go so far as to say we can't be friends if you haven't read it.  It is, however, one of those books I'm dying to talk with someone over coffee about.  Coffee and pie.  Coffee and pie or cake.  Coffee and pie and cake.  There we go.  I knew I'd get there eventually.  

So...next time..  

The next book on the list is "Middlemarch" by George Eliot.  That's right, we are headed back to the Victorians and I know nothing about it.  Absolutely nothing.  The one thing I do know for certain is that it is the book right before "War and Peace".  Yeah.  "Middlemarch" is feeling like a slight stay of execution before I need to use my sliding glass doors as a massive flow chart just to keep the story straight.  Please be good...please be good...

Apparently getting the proper translation is supposedly key to "enjoying" "War and Peace".  I got the 3.99 classics on Amazon so...we'll see.

Provehito in Altum,


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Birdsong (Finale)

Since I've been off Facebook I've had plenty of time to think about how I approach doing things.  Having time to reflect is always a benefit in this world that favors and encourages knee-jerk responses.  As such, it's been kicking around in my brain that I need to readjust my approach to the 100BYSRBYD.  I've spent a lot of time making each bit a synopsis and, while interesting in some ways, that doesn't really help many people.  I'll be making the shift to reviewing the book overall rather than recounting the individual events.  There's more to say about a book than simply what happens, and if I synopsisize (not a word apparently) it then why should you read it yourself?  Reading is kind of what this is all about. So...to continue...

"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks is a hell of a book.  And by "hell" I mean both that it is a great book and that so much of it seems to take place in the closest humanity can get to hell on this side of the veil. 

In the previous entry I posted about the opening love affair that occurs.  I haven't looked but I'm sure I mentioned my general contempt for all books that glorify affairs as these wonderfully romantic things that are somehow virtuous rather than devastatingly destructive and wholly selfish events.  The book surprised me by ending its first part with her leaving Stephen to return to her proper husband once she realized she was pregnant.  And then...the war.

Oh, the war.  World War I, to be precise.  Faulks clearly dug deep in his research to find some of the most amazing, gripping, and detailed accounts that he could then immortalize her.  "Catch-22" serves to mock war and all its facets as horrible and pointless and so does "Birdsong".  The key difference between the two is that "Catch-22" tries to do so by pointing out how clever it is.  "22" is the party equivalent of the guy with a can beer in his hand, laughing at his own jokes which he follows up with, "amiright?".  "Birdsong", on the other hand, is the vet in the corner staring out of the window trying to ignore the blowhard and remembering it all too well as he walks his his tortured way through PTSD.  He's not going to say anything unless you ask and even then it's all still too fresh.

Faulks makes you feel the mortar fire, the desperation, the claustrophobia of the tunnels beneath the trenches, the anxiety, the loss of normalcy and as many aspects of that life as it was that he possibly can. 

And why?  Why does this book exist?  For that matter, why is it on the 100BYSRBYD? 

The why is represented in the character of Elizabeth whose life is vastly different that Stephen's.  She exists 50(ish) years later in the 1970s, a modern woman in a modern time who juggles her career, friends, and the monthly visits of her married boyfriend.  Everyone tells her that he's never going to leave his wife, and he strings her along with, "I'm just waiting for the right time...".  After an inciting incident which I won't reveal her...cause spoilers...she starts to try and forge a connection with her past and she begins to look into her grandfather's involvement in World War I.  She begins to sift through his things to try and glean what happened.

The world is so far removed from that time that her research creates a series of realizations, not least of which is the selfishness of her generation and the selflessness of her grandfather's.  This smacked me in between the eyes particularly when Elizabeth travels through France and takes a handful of back roads to come to a war memorial forgotten by the rest of the world.  It's a tall structure literally in the middle of a farmer's field.  It's a massive structure built of bricks each bearing the name of every man who died there. 

"I didn't know.  They never told us." Is her reaction as she weeps, devastated on the sight at her ignorance and the ignorance of the world at large.  I'd bet all the money I currently have that you could easily swap Faulks and Elizabeth at that part of the novel.

And that is the point of the novel; there is a massive gulf of what we don't know.  Everything we are taught in World War I was names, dates, important battles, casualty numbers and how it caused World War II.  Honestly, I learned more about World War I watching, "Black Adder" than I did in school.

"Birdsong" serves to give the reader context for what occurred, and good Lord does it.

There is a scene in which one of Stephen's fellow soldiers is sent back home on leave.  He has massive difficulty functioning.  He remembers the city, his parents, his childhood home, all of the modern conveniences, but none of it seems realistic to him.  Months in the trenches has changed everything for him.  Everyone expects him to enjoy himself but the only thing he can think is of all the atrocities he's experienced at the front and how no one could understand.  He tries to unburden himself to his father, tries to express his thoughts and feelings, but in stereotypical English fashion his father tells him it's best not to discuss it.  With everything pent up inside and no way to get it out we realize it is the very moment the character becomes an alcoholic.

As I closed the book after turning the last page the ending felt a little hollow.  It was hopeful and a 60 year promise was fulfilled so everyone should feel happy...Yay!  It felt tacked on, as if Faulks' agent wouldn't let it end where Faulks wanted it to.  The "good damage" was done in me regardless.  I've spent a few hours now thinking about that gulf of what we don't know, what we can't possibly know.  The ancient Greeks referred to the effect of knowledge as a light, a lamp shining on everything else we encounter. 

It is so easy to believe that we know enough, that we are done, that we don't need to seek out more knowledge and understanding, but I disagree.  The more we seek, the more we read, the more we try to understand, the more we try to know the brighter that light becomes and the more we see by it.  If we give in to our own desire for ignorance the more likely it is that we will die in darkness.

Faulks challenges us to chase after the knowledge we are uncomfortable with.  There is a scene where Elizabeth goes to a veterans hospital to meet a man in his 80s who may have known her grandfather.  I nearly cried in that part for many reasons, but chief of those was because the man hadn't had a visitor in 40 years.  He'd been sat at the same window for 40 years believing no one cared, no one wanted to hear, no one literally knew that he existed.  I can't help but wonder how many...  Well, I won't finish that thought. 

I don't just recommend that you read this book; I implore you to read it.  It will broaden your understanding and add just a bit more light to your lamp.



Saturday, April 7, 2018

War is Certainly Hell (Birdsong Part Two, France 1916)

Faulks' style is never content to remain stuck in a single person's perspective for too long, and he is certainly right to do so.  War is a strange thing in that a person can walk through the exact same events and have an entirely different perspective. 

My self-critical brain stands up and says, "Yeah, but you can say that about life in general."  You could say that, but it seems to me to be even more true when we talk about soldiers in war.  The effect is  amped up like colors under blacklight.  That may actually be a more apt metaphor than I realize.  There is a concept in art that states that the viewer of any artistic piece brings all the psychological pieces of themselves to bear onto the piece.  When someone views, reads, or listens to a piece of art it acts as a sort of mirror so that the person isn't seeing the thing objectively.  They bring a massive amount of subjectivity independent of any creator's intention.  War, from what I've read, turns this (and everything in a human being) up to 11.

The second episode of the seven opens with a new character, Jack Firebrace.  He's a miner from back in England who joined up to dig tunnels from the English trenches into German territory.  From there they set a mine to punch a hole inside enemy territory.  The difficulties for Jack are to numerous to mention.  Each hole is only three feet wide, timbers that hold up the walls falter, explosions overhead destroy the structural integrity of the tunnel, and, as we discover in the opening scene, the ever present danger of discovery by German tunnelers coming from the other direction.

I've never in my reading experience had someone such write in such a way that I experienced full on claustrophobia in the middle of a quite open room.  Throughout the entire second part of the novel Faulks does a truly admirable job of making you feel like as if you are actually there, in a situation in a part of the world and a time that you never could have experienced on your own.  All great writing does this and Faulks is as much a master as Tolkien in world building.

As the perspective shifts between Jack and Stephen in the days leading up to the climatic big push you watch people come apart in vastly different ways including our protagonists.  Jack is dealing with issues from his wife and sickly son back home by throwing himself into his mining.  Helplessness can be ignored when you have something to do with your hands.  Stephen is given a group of men to command and begins to suspect that they are being led as lambs to the slaughter despite the reassurances of his superiors.  Stephen clearly uses the war to give his life some sort of meaning since Isabelle left him with their baby still in her womb, and how he deals with that comes out in some surprising ways, one of which I'll get to soon. 

The thing that sets this book apart is, of course, the details.  It's abundantly clear that Faulks had to do massive amounts of research including getting ahold of all the veterans from the war still alive.  There are so many things in this novel that he couldn't make up or simply intuit.  As someone who is addicted to trivia, it was a dream to find glorious tidbits on every page that both illumined and horrified me.  As a general pacifist unwilling to mobilize and authorize the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men for a cause other than defense of our own country, it did the incredible job of both affirming and challenging my position. 

This is where "Birdsong" far excels as a war novel up against "Catch-22".  I was disgusted with "Catch-22" and may have even referred to it as an "abortion of a novel" so filled with nihilism and self congratulatory cleverness that swung at the load bearing pillars of virtue and nobility, laughing maniacally as the structure collapses on itself and wondering why nothing magically sprung up to take its place.  While "Catch-22" deals with many of the same issues but paints them as a pointless farce.  In "Birdsong" the characters actually struggle with the horrors of war and virtue.  There is a tension there that simply can't exist in "Catch-22".  This is specifically highlighted in the way each deals with prostitution that the soldiers use to "comfort" themselves.

In "Catch-22" the main characters engage the prostitutes mechanically, looking at them with efficient pragmatism.  When one soldier beats a prostitute the other characters concern and reason for stopping him and trying to smoothe things over is only so that they will be allowed back.  They take care of the problem with money, chocolates, and silk hosiery.  The women have as much function as an ATM further highlighting the pointlessness of existence and general ennui that is prevalent in much post-modernist writing.

In "Birdsong", Stephen knows that his company and the company of one of his fellow men of rank, Weir, is going to make the push and in all likelihood be fodder for the German guns.  It's so sure that when he looks through a pair of binoculars at the enemy position there is even a sign that says "Welcome, 29th British Infantry!" hanging over the German artillery position.   Stephen has known for some time that Weir was still a virgin and he decides that this is a travesty that he can rectify before they certainly die.

Wier protests once he realizes what Stephen is up to but relents once he is shoved into the whorehouse.  Stephen is all big talk, but his heart seems to be in the "right" place.  He thinks back to Isabelle and how the union with feminine flesh illuminated his life.  He can't imagine existence without having tasted that at least once.  Certainly it burned him, and crippled him in some ways, but to him it was light and nourishing light at that.  Weir lets out a bellow of rage and kicks open the door blaming Stephen for what happened.  Stephen freaks out, wondering what Weir has done but comes to find out that the rage was only due to the fact that his friend couldn't bring himself  do what Stephen expected.  The prostitute laughs and offers Stephen to take Weirs place.  He did pay for it after all.  Stephen ascents as long as its with a younger prostitute.  Once she touches Stephen his whole world shifts and he sees the darkness, the perversion of the situation.  It's not the warm, loving touch of Isabelle that he assumed was common to all woman.  He's disgusted as he wrestles with his conscience and makes a fumbling but polite exit.

That is ultimately what sets it apart; the struggle with conscience, the endurance of virtue in the darkest of circumstances, the seeing through of duty even when certain death is before you.  Those elements are often found in the most enduring stories of heroes.  The difference between the two is similar to the difference between Loki and Thor.  We can do without worshiping the cowardly trickster as a species.  We cannot do without tales of self sacrifice for the greater good, the denial of self for the others, or the wrestling with virtue because it is right. 

Naturally, and I half-expect this, the novel could take a terrible turn any minute now.  We are moving from the front line at Amiens and going to 1978 in the next part.  We shall see how that goes. 


Friday, April 6, 2018

Settling Accounts (Rebecca to Birdsong)

As per my usual blogging style I find that it's been a year since I last entered anything here.  I'm appalled by my behavior on that count AND by the fact that I didn't lay a finish to the novel, "Rebecca".  I am apparently confoundedly thick.  I'm not sure where my copy is and as such I can't excerpt it like I like...BUT I will review it.

"Rebecca" is one of the single best suspense novels I have ever read in my life.  Unlike...some...it absolutely deserves its place on this list of 100 Books.  Mdme. Du Maurier is far and away one of the best writers I have encountered in ages.  She can take an otherwise beautiful scene and inject just the right amount of tension that makes you think there is something wrong. By the same hand she deftly gives you reason to believe that everything actually is fine, you're just making something out of nothing.  Her sense of character and setting is so good it's ridiculous.  There is no character that is not believable.  Even the secondary villain of the novel, Mrs. Danvers, is quite believable.  You do not walk away thinking, "Oh, that could never happen."  Instead you wonder how often this sort of thing actually does happen. 

When we come to the end and the massive reveal, when the truth comes out, it is more ugly and sinister than you imagine.  At the same time, though, you feel as if you suspected it the entire time.  When the true villain is revealed (and just who that is happens to be up for debate) you actually understand the actions taken.  They are entirely logical.  Now, it is up to the reader to decide if that's a comfort or not.

The fallout at Manderlay is complete.  No one gets out of it unharmed, and Du Maurier leaves it all hanging there making you wonder what will go on, what lays beyond the final dot on the last page.  Normally that sort of thing annoys me; often it's used in a manner that tries to show the world how clever the author is.  Not so here.  To put a bow on it would detract from what the characters and yourself had just experience.  Life rarely has a tidy bow on it at any point, and all the feelings, thoughts, and emotions continue to wreck havoc on the couple beyond and probably into their last days. 

Short version:  It's a novel I'm proud to have on my shelf...as opposed to, say, "Catch-22". 

I bring up "Catch-22" and I'll be bringing it up again soon because it is the first novel of any war that I'd read on this list.  Now I have "Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks to compare it too. 

I won't go too much into "Catch-22" except to say it was a pointless novel about the pointlessness of war and the pointlessness of everything.  Nihilistic to its core it even went so far, to me, as to not even be able to justify its existence.  "Birdsong", on the other hand, blimey what a book. 

The reason I hadn't gone back to it, and thereby back to this blog, was due to the first part of the book.  I made the horrible, horrible mistake of judging it by the first 99 pages. 

"Birdsong" opens up from the perspective of Stephen, a young man somehow attached to the British military, who has come to live at the home of the Azaires.  Rene, the husband, teaches Stephen about the French textile industry.  Isabelle is the second wife of Rene and takes care of his children.  It doesn't take long for romantic tension to build up between Stephen and Isabelle and I proceeded to gag. 

I like a love story.  I have an almost feminine love for love stories.  Watching a couple go through the BS of life trying to find each other, and then overcoming insurmountable odds to end up together and hand in hand bravely face down the rest of their lives...  Honestly there probably isn't a better, more hopeful thing someone can write about.  BUT...This whole "oh dash it all, Penbrooke, I'm married to another...whatever shall we do...Oh, I can't...but, oh, I want to" back and forth tripe is ridiculous.  When the obstacles to a romance are marriage, that's when I check out. 

It's not love.  It's hormones.  I know, the post-modernists would rise up and say, "But all love is just hormones!" to which vehemently respond that just because that is the entirety of your limited experience, that doesn't necessarily make it so.  There is out there significant love; true, faithful, sure, enduring, selfless love.  I know because I experience that every day.  Infidelity, even when it's dressed up as polyamory, or an "open marriage" is the exact opposite.  It is false, unfaithful, unsolid, fleeting, selfish lust.  There is nothing noble in it whatsoever; nothing that pushes the human narrative towards the light, and I reject it as a narrative device wholeheartedly.


Except when it is not glorifying it.  When it shows, and rightly so, how destructive and gutting it truly is. 

When we arrive at the end of the first part of the novel (which is broken up into 7 episodes or acts) we see just that.  The farce is laid bare, the hopes are dashed, and the child they created between the two of them returns to her husband.  Stephen watches both the woman he "loves" and the child she is carrying walk out the door with only a cowardly note left behind. 

I don't root for a cheating couple.  I can't.  I won't.  Yes, her husband punishes her with a belt.  He's a brute and a terrible man.  I agree.  But infidelity is not a cure for anything.

The second of the 7 episodes begins with Stephen on the front lines of World War I.  And I'll properly write that episode up next time. 



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Ghost Takes Shape (Rebecca ch. 11-18)

My love for author Daphne Du Maurier only grows.

Once this list of 100 books comes to an end I am absolutely certain I will be looking into more of her novels.  Her sense of pacing and timing is simply impeccable.  Mrs. Du Maurier's word choices and insight into the universal bits of the human condition, and the manner in which she plays on them, is nothing short of masterful.  When most women write women I find myself not caring.  Call it a condition of my gender view, but I find it to be often to over dramatically done, too foreign to my way of thinking, or too forgiving of a female character's flaws.  In Rebecca I find only a perennially relatable character who reacts in completely legitimate ways that any human might to the given situation.

This section of the novel opens with the beginning of a breakdown for our unnamed heroine.  She continues to see Rebecca everywhere, in the rooms she enters, at the table, and even well into the minds and hearts of everyone she meets.  She begins an inevitable slide into a minor form of madness believing she is losing her identity with the knowledge that everyone is comparing her and finding her short to the nearly sainted Rebecca.  She is driven by this need to know her, who she was and how she died but no one wants to speak of her but to praise her.  Finally Maxim's friend, Frank, reveals how Rebecca died, capsized at sea in a boat she often took out alone.

Frank calms the heroine and comforts her, telling her that no one is actively trying to compare her.  He reassures her that Maxim is happy, her own qualities are quite admirable, and that all of her paranoia is unfounded.  Naturally she has to ask if Rebecca was as beautiful as everyone says.  For all his faults Frank is an honest man and declares that she was, "...the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life."

Domestic bliss, or what passes for it at Manderley, continues.  Our Mrs. de Winter continues to act bashful around the servants, even to the point of dashing into the dining room to quickly gather food and duck out so that the help wouldn't feel obliged to serve her.  It's such a strange moment but so oddly relatable to me.  To this day I have a strong aversion to an employee of any business making much of a fuss over me.  I just don't like it.  When we went on a Caribbean cruise there was a formal dinner we had to attend every night with our table having three different waiters for three different purposes.  One poured the wine, one served the meal, and the third was in charge of anything we might need done which included cutting up our meat.  If I'm at a fast casual restaurant I won't even ask for a soda refill if the machine is behind the counter because I don't want to be a bother, and there I am with three waiters for eight people.  I was mortified.  The only way I got through it was remembering the words of Mrs. Macready from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe "That's their function.  We mustn't deprive people of their function."  At a hotel with a free breakfast I get in and out as fast as possible.  If a place gets my order wrong I spend no less than five minutes trying to decide whether it's worth saying anything.  That is all to say...I feel ya sister.

The heroine goes out for a walk to a cove that Maxim had warned her away from earlier and finds a dim witted man who knew of Rebecca's death.  He also tells her that some great secret is being kept and that a dark snake like lady, clearly Mrs. Danvers, doesn't want him to speak on it.  When she returns to the house she finds a car there and a man talking to Mrs. Danvers.  Later she discovers it's a man Maxim had forbidden to ever come to the house while Rebecca was alive thought Rebecca knew the man well.  Plot thickens.

Chapter fourteen is one of the most beautiful and creepy chapters.  Our Mrs. de Winter finds herself in a corridor and dives into an unlocked room to avoid being seen by the servants and made a fuss over.  The room wasn't like many others in that wing.  It was not forgotten and covered to keep out the ravages of dust and light.  It was well kept and cleaned.  Mrs. Danvers and begins to reveal her obsessive behavior towards Rebecca, whose room it was.  This chapter makes it clear why Alfred Hitchcock stood up and took notice, this and the final moments of the eighteenth chapter.  Dang.  Our lady escapes and naturally chalks it up to normal grief rather than something more sinister.

Things seem to be on the upswing again as Beatrice returns to whisk Mrs. de Winter away from the gloom and melancholy.  Beatrice is quite the great soul, on par with Samwise Gamgee when it comes to down to earth thinking and lifting spirits.  She takes her to see her and Maxim's grandmother who has some dementia.  Our lady is quite accepted by the woman who longs to return to Manderley some day, and why has there not been a ball in some time?  The warmth, serenity, and confidence the grandmother engenders is suddenly broken as she calls for Rebecca.  You can almost palpably feel our heroine's pain as the warmth and joy, the possibility of acceptance is wrenched from her.  Beatrice apologizes profusely and our lady puts on a brave face, but the wounds are so much deeper than she'd like to admit.

After she recovers from the shock and grief she considers what everyone has told her, that there should be a ball at Manderley.  Maxim agrees, as long as he doesn't have to be a part of the planning, and plans are underway.  She agonizes over what to wear until Mrs. Danvers suggests that she would look rather fetching in a costume based on a painting.  The death faced woman insists again and again.  With no other ideas our lady agrees.  Come the day of the ball, she realizes that Mrs. Danvers is not as well meaning as she had believed.  What follows, the reaction and the confrontation, I won't ruin for you but Mrs. Danvers pulls an almost Norman Bates style performance that is simply amazing.  You can feel the creeping fear as our lady realizes just what she is up against and why.  *shiver*



Friday, January 20, 2017

Life In Another's Shoes (Rebecca ch. 1-10)

"Wait.  What happened to 'Catch-22'?"

Oh, it's a thing.  It still exists.  In fact it is still sitting on my bookshelf with the other of those 100BYSRBYD.  The only reason that I'm moving on to the next book on the list is because I couldn't take the inanity anymore.  I spent months trying and months avoiding it by setting parenting magazines and random flyers I received on top of it.  Sure enough it kept peeking out from under the stack with an accusing glare.  "FINE," I shouted and sat down with it for thirty minutes a day for about a week.  At the end of those few days the book magically leapt from my hand, flew across the room and smacked into the wall.

Final Word on "Catch-22":  While I'm sure that it has a place in the great works of literature I don't believe that a slot in the top 20 of the top 100 is deserved at ALL.  This book is pretty much the novel equivalent of many "Palm d'Or" Winners at the Cannes film festival or, indeed, some of the "Best Film" winners at the Oscars.  Often it seems that those films win not because of artistic merit but because it has something perceived as "worthy", a political message or something socially "relevant" to the time.  It is in that same manner that I view this novel.  It has an audience, sure.  The Mary-like deification of prostitutes, the disregard and target abuse of any virtuous character that happens to come along, and the constant Post-Modern message that there is no goodness, there is no virtue, and all your institutions are crap so let's tear them down, violate innocence & goodness, and somehow society will magically hold together since we don't have any constructive ideas; it all coalesced into something I realized wasn't worthy of my time.  I've ranted about Post-Modernism before and I realized that just because the fecal matter is being sold at the market doesn't mean I have to purchase it.  It's a clever parlor trick devoid of any substance.  /rantoff

"Rebecca" on the other hand has been quite a joy to read.  I started it less than a week ago and I'm already one-third of the way through it.

WIKA (What I Know About):  Essentially the only thing I knew about this novel coming into it was that if I was reading it in public, chances were someone would think I was reading a trashy romance novel as opposed to a literary romance novel.  The cover looks as though it is wrapped in scarlet silk, much like rumpled bed sheets, and only the title and author's name besides.  It has all the indications of being a Harlequin novel too hot to put something representative of the contents on the cover.  Yes, I could have gotten a handsome looking trade paperback edition that would be less scandalous looking...but I would have paid 10$ more for the privilege.  Other than that I knew nothing.  I hadn't even heard of the opening line, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" which is supposedly as famous as, "Call me Ishmael".  I was ready for a surprise.

The novel begins with something you couldn't get away with in fiction these days; two chapters of tease.  The author spends those two chapters making it clear that they occur long after the end of the book.  It describes the emotional state of two nameless characters who are trying to move on from some unnamed tragedy that has expelled them from Manderley much like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.

The first thing that grabs me about this novel is the author's writing style.  I'm going to say it right here and right now...I'm in love with Daphne Du Maurier.  I have not "swooned" this much while reading a novel because of spot on word usage to create a mood in a long time.  She is absolutely fabulous and this novel is a moment of literary lightning captured for all time.

Describing the Manderley in her dreams she writes: "Nature had come into her own again and, little by, little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers....The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church."

In chapter two she begins: "We can never go back again, that much is certain.  The past is still too close to us.  The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and the sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic - now mercifully stilled, thank God - might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion, as it had been before."

In describing the unnamed male companion stuck in this emotional turmoil (also from chapter two): "He will fall to smoking cigarette after cigarette, not bothering to extinguish them, and the glowing stubs will lie around on the ground like petals.  He will talk quickly and eagerly about nothing at all, snatching at any subject as a panacea to pain."

Woo! Somebody fan me.  I've got the vapors.

It's this combination of excellent language usage and insight into the human condition that makes a good book for me.  As we've said all along, a great novel speaks to these common, universal human experiences and sheds light on them.  It sets us in the direction of hope and we can glean wisdom along the way, even if it is only the comforting wisdom of, "You are not alone."

In the third chapter we are introduced to Mrs. Van Hopper, who is easily one of my favorite characters in fiction.  Not my favorite in the same way Bilbo Bagins, Jane Eyre, or Hamlet is.  She is more in line with a Falstaff, or Meriadoc Brandybuck.  Not essential for the whole novel, but a delight as they come on and enter the stage.

Mrs. Van Hopper is a bit of a one woman paparazzi.  She travels to Monte Carlo every year not to take in the sights and relax.  Rather, she goes to find and ingratiate herself to the rich and famous also on vacation there.

"It seemed as though notables must be fed to her, much as invalids are spooned their jelly; and though titles were preferred by her, any face seen in a social paper served as well.  Names scattered in a gossip column, authors, artists, actors and their kind, even the mediocre ones, as long as she had learnt of them in print."

The unnamed protagonist is introduced as a sort of hired companion for Mrs. Van Hopper.  She was hired for ninety pounds, payable at the end of the season.  She is often draw into the games Mrs. Van Hopper plays with the famous.  Essentially the old woman runs a scam where she declares that she saw the individual at the wedding of her nephew, produces a picture of the happy couple on their honeymoon, and trusts the fact that famous people attend a ridiculous number of weddings they can't remember and depends on their good manners to treat her like an acquaintance they simply forgot.  This nets her no end of favors and invitations to parties and lavish estates.

"There was nothing for it but to sit in my usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger's person."

Seriously..."wide net of tedium".  My goodness, I'm in love heart palpitations and all.

The following chapters contain the whirlwind romance with the much older and previously married Maxim, aided by Mrs Van Hopper catching a nasty case of influenza, and lends some foreshadowing of future difficulties and a secret buried or, more appropriately, drowned.  In the end the two get unexpectedly married, have a honeymoon in Italy, and return to Maxim's home of Manderley.

The introduction to Manderley chapters are quite beautifully written and you get a genuine sense of awkwardness as the protagonist begins her life in someone else's place, and with someone else's things.  How strange and otherworldly would it be to sit in a chair beside your husband knowing that its cushion had already had years forming to someone else, that the dog cuddled up to you did so because of a habit formed with someone else, that your bed, desk, bathroom items and all were previously used by another who came before you.  She struggles with this throughout.  Then she begins to meet people who all judge her against Rebecca, commenting on how different she is from her, wondering if she will uphold the traditions of parties and balls, etc.  Everywhere Rebecca is praised and our unnamed heroine begins a slide down into a mental breakdown as she begins to compare herself to Rebecca in her own soul.

I actually look forward to this book with delight every time I sit down to read it.  While I know what happens in the end (because I'm like Harry from "When Harry Met Sally") I look forward to the end.  It's not a happy ending, but it is certainly in keeping with the tone of the book.

Fun Fact:  Daphne Du Maurier was also the author of "Birds" which Alfred Hitchcock based his film "The Birds" on.



Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mustn't Be Hasty (Catch 22 chapters 10-19)

It is official.  I am halfway through Catch-22 and find myself quite happy about this.  Two books in a row now I've been less than interested in the listed novel and it has been wearing on me.  Naturally my wife has been casting me funny looks and shaking her head.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" she asks.

I've asked myself that for months now.  The answers have wavered very little.  Because it is there.  Because it is a challenge.  Because not everyone does this.  It is something I can take a bit of pride in.  I'll have a shelf full of books that I didn't have before.

Above all, however, stands one particular reason; Because they have lasted the test of time, centuries some of them.  I want to know why they endure.  I want to dig into them and find the redeeming value.  Catch-22 however is the product of the 1960s remembrances of World War II and written for a disaffected generation.  Will it stand the test of time?

Nelson Algren said of it, "This novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II, it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years."


As the title suggests I may have been a bit hasty in my previous assessment.  Oh sure, the post modern snobbery is still there going "Validate me!  I don't need you to validate me but...Tell me I'm clever!".  The format of this blog lends itself to mistaken impressions, however.  I write as I'm reading it.  There have been slews of books that have changed my mind mid-course.  (Wondered where "slew" came from as I was writing this.  From the Irish "sluagh" which means "a large quantity".  #WordNerd)

You'll be ambivalent to learn that I'm coming around to not liking but at least understanding Yossarian.  I have a hope that this will turn into something worthwhile reading after all.

The first few chapters are very much in the same vein as the previous nine.  The dead man in Yossarian's tent who wasn't there was finally explained as a replacement pilot who arrived at the base, set his stuff in his assigned tent, but went on a mission immediately and was shot down.  "Because he had never officially gotten into the squadron, he could never officially be gotten out..." which enhances the strange limbo quality of the novel.

The Bologna mission is mentioned and addressed with more frequency.  All of the characters, save the officers, live in fear of the mission and keep coming up with excuses and stratagems to delay or call off the mission.  It rains for days straight keeping the squadron grounded.  "When it did stop raining in Pianosa (where the squadron is) it rained in Bologna.  When it stopped raining in Bologna, it began again in Pianosa.  If there was no rain at all, there were freakish, inexplicable phenomena like an epidemic of diarrhea or the bomb line had moved.  Four times during the first six days they were assembled and briefed and then sent back."

Come to find out Yossarian bribed the cook to put soap flakes in the mashed potatoes to cause the diarrhea, and he was also responsible for moving the bomb line (the line on the map showing how far ground forces had advanced and therefore where the squadron should bomb).   This proves potentially tragic when Major de Coverly wakes one morning to find, according to the map, ground troops had taken Bologna.

Major de Coverly is written of in particularly glowing terms.  Well, I say particularly glowing but remember the kind of book we are talking about.  According to the book every military man appears to be a coward, self serving, conceited, or outright incompetent.  Major de Coverly has the distinction of being a man who gives a proverbial poop.  He cares about his job, and he cares about his men.  He cares about his men so much that in chapter 13, when he sees that Bologna has been secured not knowing Yossarian moved the line, he does was he always does when a new major city has been liberated.  Without a word he gets in his plane, flies to the city and secures lavish apartments complete with cooking staff, maids, and laundry so his men can be pampered during their days and weeks of leave.  Because of Yossarian's antics he is heading straight into dangerous enemy territory believing it to be secure.  No good deed goes unpunished.  And so it goes...

Because of the odd nature of the novel we get chapters out of sequence.  When the reader comes to chapter 14 it shows Yossarian's side of the Bologna mission which ends quickly for him when he fakes not being able to hear anything over the intercom and in the confusion the pilot turns back thinking those were the orders.  They return to the squadron base and the writer gives this beautiful otherworldly scene of Yossarian stripping off his parachute and flight suit, and walking through the camp, down to the beach.  Throughout you get the feeling that Yossarian is taking in the beauty of the world as only a man who came near death can.  At the same time the beauty seems pointless.  In Yossarian's head they had done the bombing run and all was well.  In reality, the mission was still ahead.  It is at this point you realize that Yossarian is the least reliable of all possible narrators.

The next chapter both gives reason to Yossarian's mentality and further expands on his unreliability as a narrator.  Chapter 15 is a nightmare of war.  The reader can really get inside Yossarian's head as he relates the scene of the moment he snaps while on a mission.  This is where I got a real sympathy for the character.  High above the earth in a bomber amid the exploding flak, bullets ripping into the hull, confusion over the intercom the pressure mounts and suddenly Yossarian is scared for his life.  It's a real PTSD inducing kind of experience for him.  Suddenly he realizes that people he doesn't know want to kill him and he's being told to kill people he doesn't even know.  Fearing for his own life blends into some sort of mystic personal experience where he superimposes his plight on the plight of soldiers on the other side.  He doesn't want to die and neither do they but they are being puppeteered by people who are far away encouraging them to kill.
Chapter 18 opens with, "Yossarian owed his good health to exercise, fresh air, teamwork, and good sportsmanship; it was to get away from them all that he had first discovered the hospital."  After the above mission (two chapters later that involves him falling in love with a whore and then spending time with the commander's wife in the same capacity) Yossarian instead of going as ordered to morning calisthenics he, while in emotional turmoil from the bombing run that made him snap, went to the dispensary with a fake pain in his side.  It's there that the doctors began to, some blatantly others unintentionally, train him on how to fake a liver complaint and get to stay in the hospital for 10 days at a time.  This facilitates his desire to never experience a bombing run again.  The doctors, clearly tired of watching good men die, start bargaining with him even to the point of promising him more hospital time if he pretends to have a different ailment for the records so that they can prove some hypothesis, or pretend to be someone's dying son.

Somewhere in all the dark comedy the book reached up and grabbed me by the feels in much the same way the ending of Catcher in the Rye did.  Suddenly I could relate to the character I despised not having known his story.  Fear of death makes "cowards" of us all at some point or another.  I've never been in the military.  I've never even been in much of a life threatening situation before.  As a result my understanding is very limited.  That is one of the wonders of novels, though.  It may be fiction and therefore an imperfect representation, but it can begin to weave in some threads of sympathy into our world view.

That may very well be why this novel endures.