Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I don't know much about World War I. This is what comes to mind:
  • poison gas
  • Ottoman empire
  • Austro-Hungary
  • Archduke Ferdinand
That is the extent of the contents of the catalog in my brain under the heading "World War I." I bet a lot of people know that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was one of the events that led to WWI, but I bet most don't know why. Similarly, I think 99% of American schoolchildren can name Eli Whitney as the inventor of the cotton gin, but few can explain what a cotton gin is. All I know is that it was a machine that revolutionized the cotton industry. I'm envisioning a massive robotic machine with many metal arms, propelling itself through cotton fields plucking cotton bolls at breakneck speed. But that can't be right. And I can’t explain the significance that the death of Archduke Ferdinand had on the world, either.

One of the most famous books to come out of World War I was A Farewell to Arms. Set in Italy during the war, AFtA was inspired by Hemingway's service as a Red Cross ambulance driver attached to the Italian army. This book has been sitting on my shelf for about 15 years, ever since I saw In Love and War, starring Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell. [That movie marks the second occasion I saw a man's naked bum, the first being Kevin Costner's in Dances with Wolves. Also, I have a dim recollection of looking into the locker room at the fieldhouse and seeing a few naked football player butts. These are the images that are emblazoned on my mind from childhood.]

So after more than a decade on the shelf (I can't believe I'm old enough to start saying things like that) and now that I'm completely intrigued by Hemingway, I picked it up. His plots don't totally hook me and I don't think that every word is extraordinary. But I'm reading, reading... and then: wow. A few words put together in the perfect way and I'm repeating the sentence over and over in my head all day. His spare use of language creates some scenes of powerful emotion. And maybe his tortured existence helped inform his writing. He does well transcribing desire, helplessness, jealousy, passion, and insecurity onto the page. I imagine Hemingway as a hot-blooded, tormented artist, capable of both extreme joy and deep desolation. And I think that is reflected here.

The love scenes between Lieutenant Frederic Henry and his lover, an English Red Cross nurse, are lovely and passionate, conveying profound meaning in few words. Frederic’s description of pulling the hairpins from Catherine's hair and letting it fall down around them both like a curtain is incredibly sensual and beautiful. I felt like I was invading on such a private moment that I think that I almost blushed. The scene is so much more sincere because it is discreet and vague. Less is definitely more in this instance.

After finishing AFtA, I still don’t know much about WWI. But I’ve felt, through Hemingway's words, the helplessness, the terror, the uncertainty, the tragedy of war. The importance of knowing that there is a person who is home to you, waiting for you, beyond the chaos.

A good quotation:

"Hell," I said, "I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?"
"Yes. I want to ruin you."
"Good," I said, "that's what I want too."

I love his long sentences connected by and. Here are a few I particularly liked:

"...and we would drink the capri and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet and the whole night and we would both love each other all night in the hot night in Milan."

...and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet... LOVE that.

"...and I would take out the pins and lay them on the sheet and it would be loose and I would watch her while she kept very still and then take out the last two pins and it would all come down and she would drop her head and we would both be inside of it, and it was the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls."

And this is how I feel about being with Nathan:

"Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others."

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

In the midst of some tedious and torturous novels, The Blue Castle was the perfect bit of relief. Last weekend Danielle and I watched Anne of Green Gables and I was reminded of the wonderful L.M. Montgomery. I found a used LMM book online that looked like the perfect weekend antidote to the evil Thomas Wolfe. This one jumped out at me because the description included a "good-girl" heroine and her love interest: a mysterious neighbor who is reputed to be a bank robber, an embezzler, even a murderer (yes, yes, very predictable of me, I know. I do love the bad boys).

Valancy Stirling is the good-girl heroine, a spinster from Ontario, Canada. She has lived, for her 29 years, under the oppression of her mean-spirited and image-conscious mother and aunts and cousins and uncles who mock her spinsterhood and repress her confidence and spirit. She is a homely invalid, whose only moments of happiness are when she retreats into her vibrant imagination to her "Blue Castle"-- a place inhabited by a handsome prince, as many cats as she wants and where she can sneeze without being ladylike and can read novels at any time of the day.

Valancy's gloomy monotonous life is doomed to go on forever in the same monotonous gloomy way. But! She is diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and given a year to live. Instead of being doomed by the death sentence, it is the impetus that makes her change her life. She sheds the shackles of fear and insecurity and tradition that have weighed so heavily on her and truly, for the first time, begins to LIVE. She's not depressed by her lack of a future, instead she looks to the waste and boredom of her past as the true tragedy... she decides to live her life for the present. This story called to my mind the line: "Dying seems less sad than having lived too little," from Gloria Steinem's short story, "Ruth's Song Because She Could Not Sing It." (Gloria Steinem is, incidentally, the stepmother of the hunky Christian Bale.)

So this is the story of Valancy finding herself... and her blissful Blue Castle in reality. It's captivating to watch her transformation from a meek invalid into a vibrant girl with a lot of sass. I love a girl with sass. In a wonderfully funny dinner scene with her ogre-ish family, Valancy finally verbalizes all the thoughts that she has previously politely filtered. (This has always been a personal fantasy of mine... to be able to say what you think, filter-free!)

This was a feel-good story that I knew would be tied up nicely with a happy-ever-after ending. But still, Lucy Maud managed to surprise me, even though some aspects of the novel are predictable. And it's always fun to return to a beloved author from your childhood to find that she's still as delightful as you remembered.
Grade: A-
"Isn't it better to have your heart broken than to have it wither up?" queried Valancy. "Before it could be broken it must have felt something splendid. That would be worth the pain."

Friday, June 17, 2011

Look Homeward, Angel: Part One

From Pat Conroy to one of Conroy's literary influences: Thomas Wolfe. And maybe this was a bad move on my part. I can see the same pomposity (I looked it up this time. It is a word; pompousness is also correct) in Wolfe's writing that I disliked in Conroy's.

They say writers live in Mississippi because of Faulkner; they live in Asheville because of Thomas Wolfe. Look Homeward, Angel is a huge autobiographical novel about a boy growing up in Western North Carolina in the beginning of the 20th century. Wolfe's editor was the famed Maxwell Perkins, the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So why have the works of F. Scottie and Ernie entered the American literary canon, but old Tommy's books haven't? Apparently Wolfe was incredibly successful in his time, both critically and with the public. But that popularity hasn't lasted. I hadn't really heard about him until I read the inside cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn recently. Betty Smith said she was the "opposite" of Thomas Wolfe: she grew up in Brooklyn and moved to North Carolina to write about her childhood; he grew up in NC and moved to Brooklyn to write about his. And considering that I am a major book nerd and spend much of my time reading books, thinking about books, researching about books, and haven't heard much about him, I'm wondering why he fell out of favor. (Although, after 150 pages, I can kinda see why...)

I read the first page about five times just to try to get into my thick head what Wolfe was trying to say. My first thought was: "Pompous! Abstract! I want to slam my head in a door [repeatedly.]" Then I read it again. Then I read it again out loud (hoping Nathan couldn't hear me and discover that I'm an even bigger nerd that he already thought), then I read it again and thought that it was beautiful. Then I read it again and thought, "I don't think I could explain what Wolfe is saying here, but I feel it." I think he's saying that Man is lonely by nature... that one can never really know anyone, that we all will always be strangers to each other.... he's writing about a longing, a yearning, for a connection that has been lost.

I was hoping that even if the plot wasn't fast-paced and gripping, that I would find the language beautiful. To use the word "plot" is stretching it and the language, while sometimes beautiful, isn't enough to get me excited about this novel. Mostly it drones on in an endless regurgitation of verbose stream-of-consciousness and makes me want to, as I said, put my head against a door jamb and slam the door. (I used the word verbose, meaning "wordy," but ya know, it would be great if Wolfe would throw in some more verbs. Let's get some action going!) You can't COME of AGE without going somewhere!

Perkins eliminated over 100 pages of text before LH, A was printed, much to the chagrin of Wolfe. I'm wishing I could have taken a hatchet to the manuscript, myself, cause I could have helped him out with cutting about 200 more.

To be continued...

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Lords of Discipline

Set in a military institute (the Citadel in everything but name), this was a suspenseful novel about one cadet and his experiences at the "Institute." I couldn't get past the idea that the main character, Will McLean, was Conroy in everything from his self-deprecating and sarcastic sense of humor, his love for basketball, and his ambivalence toward military life. And indeed, Will probably is a thinly veiled Conroy. I liked Will in a lot of ways, but I don't think I would like Conroy as a person, even though I couldn't get away from connecting the two. Is that weird?

The story is set in the 60s and Will, being one of the few non-racist cadets, is given the task of helping the first black cadet integrate into the Institute safely, without excess hazing from all of the thousands of other racist cadets. Why is Will the only cadet to have an acute sense of justice? If Will is a mirror of the author, Conroy must have an inflated view of himself. Will was the funny guy, the jock, the scholar, the good friend, the empathetic savior of the downtrodden. Though Will poignantly relates his own shortcomings, it seems to only serve to illustrate the fact that he is the bigger man, that he is mature enough to recognize his own faults.

A review of the book online that I read in the middle of the novel said that the writing was "fustian." This was a new vocab word for me. Meaning: pompous. Yes! On top of the fact that Will was so righteous in a crowd of monsters, the writing felt pompous. I kind of felt like Conroy was trying to impress the reader with his use of tons of ten-dollar words (as Hemingway would say). But at times his "pomposity" (is that a word? "pompousness"??) would fall away to reveal truly beautiful and haunting prose.

The format maximized the suspense and the power of the story. Divided into four parts, it began with Will's senior year, then went back to his freshman year, and parts 3 and 4 returned to the remainder of his senior year. I remembered how much I love foreshadowing. These little zingers of lines: (paraphrasing) "I hated to think of any of my friends dying in Vietnam. Later, I would wish that Dante had died there." Oohh.... delicious! That sentence could go so many ways, and lemme tell ya, it didn't mean what I thought it meant.

Grade: B

I think I'm done with Conroy. I do want to read his book "My Reading Life" about the books that shaped him as a man and an author, but no more Conroy novels for this girl.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Foray into Southern Literature

I've always felt that reading and travel enhance each other. I read about witches and pilgrims in Massachusetts; when Emma Bovary pined: "What was it like, Paris?" I was on a bench in one of Paris' manicured gardens, reveling in what it was like; I laughed reading Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods beside our campfire in Smoky Mountain National Park.

To enrich our camping trip to the Deep South this fall, I'm making an effort to dig into Southern Lit. Some of the books will be frivolous and fun, like Fried Green Tomatoes; others will be weightier: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe and Blood Done Sign My Name. I'm even venturing into the intimidating world of Faulkner: As I Lay Dying (I've been too scared to try anything by Faulkner before, but it is time, my dear, it is time.) This reading project dovetails nicely with another ongoing one entitled "Read-all-the-books-I-didn't-finish-in-English-class-or-worse-yet,-haven't-read-at-all-and-I-call-myself-an-English-major?!"

A couple of the books on this notorious list that also correspond with my Southern project are:

Huck Finn --shockingly never read
Uncle Tom's Cabin--never finished. I blame the blue-eyed boy I met and fell in love with that semester. Worst GPA ever.

That's as far as we go with that list. It's too embarrassing to ponder further.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This is the story of an eccentric family that lives in a dilapidated castle in the English countryside in the 1930s. Written in journal entries by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, the reader sees the castle and its inhabits through her [delightful!] point-of-view during a transformative year in her life.

This is a classic coming-of-age story; Cassandra is faced with adversity and in her journey through it, gains maturity and achieves adulthood. As with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I also read recently, I found the voice of Cassandra the "child" to be far more compelling than the voice of Cassandra the "adult." Cassandra is a very real and vital voice; I love her sense of the ridiculous. Francie from ATGIB and Cassandra both are two of the most delightful narrators I've ever encountered. They are funny, artless and honest. But for both of these books, my enjoyment decreased hugely after the loss of their childhoods.

Maybe adults have forfeited the wonder and beauty and simplicity of childhood in the quest for maturity and experience. Maybe that's why when childhood--innocence--is depicted so well in print, it is completely captivating. After the loss of innocence occurs in these two novels, when the characters have already come of age, the beauty and the wonder are lost. Cassandra (and Francie) undergoes a journey--not a physical one, but an emotional one--and emerges as a woman, experienced in life and love--on the other side. Without this transformation, the novel would feel incomplete. I always like having a destination, in life or in books, to journey toward, and I see the importance in Cassandra reaching hers. However, I would have preferred to remember Cassandra as she was as a child, saying things like:

"I am not so sure I should like the 'facts of life,' but I have got over the bitter disappointment I felt when I first heard about them, and one obviously has to try them sooner or later."

Another one I enjoyed:

"My imagination longs to dash ahead and plan developments, but I have noticed that when things happen in one's imaginings, they never happen in one's life, so I am curbing myself."

And a beautiful way to end the book:

"Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you."

First 2/3 to 3/4 of the book: A+... adorable and laugh-out-loud delightful. I keep saying delightful, but that's the best word that comes to mind.

Whole book: B

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Paris Wife

When I studied in Paris during the summer of 2004, I read Ernest Hemingway's beautiful memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s as an expatriate. One line from A Moveable Feast that I will always remember is from the very last page:

"I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

I'm not sure if I've ever read a sadder sentence. The ending of love is always sad, but what is more sad is his yearning tone... as if he really wished that he had always loved only Hadley. So why didn't he?

Some books stick with you after you finish them so that it almost seems disrespectful to begin another when the words and the voices from the last one are still living in your head and your heart.* AMF was like that for me, as was The Paris Wife.

Going into it, knowing what I did about ole Ernest, my loyalties were with Hadley, the wronged-wife-to-be. Hemingway was, admittedly, and in his own words, a "bastard" and I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. But in the reading of it, he did earn some sympathy from me. I don't think it spoils anything to reveal that Hem had an affair-he notoriously bounced from woman to woman-there were three subsequent Mrs. Hemingways after Hadley, after all.

This book made me physically nauseous. The writing was beautiful, the story was interesting, it was intriguing to see the lives of famous people come alive on the pages (Gertrude Stein and her salon, those wacky Fitzgeralds...), but what was agonizing to me was waiting for the affair. I knew it was gonna happen, Hadley knew it was gonna happen, probably Ernest did too. The question was simply when? and with whom?

The only reason I felt some morsel of sympathy for Ernest is because I think he realized the mistake he made in leaving Hadley and paid for it. He kept up correspondence with her for the rest of his life; at one point he wrote to her that the more women he met in his life, the more he admired her. And perhaps it is telling that AMF was one of the last books he worked on before he committed suicide: at the end of his life was he looking back at his ruined love and felt regret? But maybe I'm romanticizing a bastard. Perhaps McLain said it best through Hadley's fictional voice: "... I knew he was still lost. He was such an enigma, really--fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a son of a bitch. In the end, there wasn't one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true."

McLain beautifully captured Hadley's voice, the era, the place, and the spirit of Ernest. Hadley and Ernest have been in my head and heart all week.

Grade: A

Some of my favorite quotations from its pages:

"He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy."

"We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it, after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and rum; we made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn't ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again."

* I am paraphrasing this idea from a line in The Thirteenth Tale. Sometimes you read something that is exactly what you've always thought, but never found the right words to describe.