Thursday, May 24, 2012

What We Sense About the Past, Prevents It From Ending

This past Saturday's get together discussed Julian Barnes's A Sense of an Ending. Some of the other books we've read that it reminds me of are Catcher in the Rye, Mrs. Dalloway, and Franny & Zooey. The comparison comes more from style than content. Since so much of the story's plot became clear through conversations, it was easy to link it w/ Franny & Zooey. The philosophy of prep school that characterized the first section made me think of Holden Caulfield--minus the repeated use of the word "phony." Lastly, the stream of conscious format was very Dalloway. Of course, Barnes was much nicer than Virginia Woolf in that he gave us page breaks & dialogue.

In terms of content, the surprise ending and the use of mathematical constants brought our discussion to Life of Pi. Of course, the theme of the fluidity of history is a little harder to place right now. A Christmas Carol deals w/ changing our future. But it's hard to come up w/ one of our stories that explores the shifting nature of our pasts. Remains of the Day, perhaps?

Anyway, since the book won England's 2011 Man Booker Prize, we talked about why writers write. Do they write for prizes? For themselves? For their audiences? Fame? We decided that professional writers write for their niche markets, and if one of their books becomes a movie or an award winner, then all the better. But very few can afford write w/ those types of rewards in mind. What makes a book film or tv or award worthy have so much to do w/ fortune and circumstance, that one can't write w/ an eye towards those things and still do their best.

Well, that's all I have for now. Feel free to add anything. Already looking forward to Game of Thrones next month.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes--Who Watches the Watchmen?

“We have labored long to build a heaven, only to find it populated with horrors.” -–Professor Milton Glass from “Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers”

“I am going to look at the stars. They are so far away and their light takes so long to reach us.” --Dr. Manhattan (while staring off the precipice of Mars)

In hopes of stretching our ever-expanding range of themes and book types, our group decided to discuss a story form new to our club: the graphic novel. So with Ben's suggestion, we decided to upon Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons'Watchmen. The energy of our discussion was muted slightly by the knowledge of that this was Ben's last discussion with us (since he & his wife have both taken teaching jobs at Appalacian State in Boone, NC). But back to happy thoughts....

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the Russian-ness of the story. In a novel set during the apex of the Cold War, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy by the zig zag narration. Nichole compared it to Lost, the way the story broke off and then entered into a character’s back story. I loved that Watchmen had so many layers. I’ve never seen the movie, but I wonder if Moore & Gibbons’ vision wouldn’t have been better filmed as a 2 or 3 part series instead of 1 film.

The book seems to be an exploration of the superhero psychey every bit as much as an action story. Moore uses several voices to tell his story, not just dialogue, but the end chapter additions that included excerpts from Hollis Mason’s autobiography to letters from Ms. Jupiter’s fan mail.

Yet beyond the actual words, when dealing with comics, you must acknowledge the artwork’s contribution to the overall telling of the story. That’s where Ben came in. As an artist, he pointed out Gibbons’ use of foreground and background to provide emphasis of specific ideas. For example, the scene where Dan sees Laurie in her superhero costume, he’s shocked, and she’s in the background of the panel. The authors make her sexiness low key, thus producing a subtle joke. Whereas the film emphasizes her sexiness in her outfit, the novel subverts that obvious & easy attention-getting. I wouldn’t have been able to compare the different uses of sex & imagery. Ben noticed.

We also noticed the greatness of the book. The committee that puts together the Hugo Award created a special category just to give this book its award. Special things receive special attention. This is important in that the book deals with superheroes, people who are by definition, above the rest of us. But what makes a person or a story super? What makes it uncommon? Being different isn’t enough. Dr. Manhattan is the only one who’s actually super, and even he isn’t as powerful as his abilities suggest. What characteristics denote a specific denotation? The answers are slippery but fun to wrestle with. And with complex questions comes complex answers, hence the layered yet satisfying narrative.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Discussing Arthur's Roundtable at a Sbux Brown Table

“We seem to discuss this idea every few months, so it must be important.” --Nichole

While reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I realized I wanted to talk about the section titled Incipit Liber Primus, translated from Latin meaning “the book’s first section, which discusses Merlyn’s education of Arthur while he was a young boy. Disney recounts this portion of the book in its 1963 movie The Sword and the Stone. As a kid, I never liked a lot of kid entertainment. Sesame Street never held my attention, and I found many Disney films unbearable. But I always liked The Sword and the Stone. I still don’t know why, but I do know why I liked the first part of this book: it deals with teaching. When Merlyn uses his magic to Wart (Arthur’s nickname as a youth) into an owl, or a fish, or one of Robin [H]ood’s Merry Men, he is giving the young king the equivalent to a liberal arts education. Arthur experiences new worlds and new ways of seeing, all so that he can one day bring forth a new Europe, a continent freed from the inequity of feudalism.

I love books that chronicle how people are trained to do great things. And since our group is made up mostly of teachers, we spent time on it. In fact, Ben pointed out that Merlyn’s teaching was often begrudging. For example, he felt games like jousting were a waste of time, yet he shows Arthur a jousting match. Nichole talked of how much of Merlyn’s teaching didn’t involve much instruction but more putting him in a certain situation and then leaving Arthur to learn on his own, similar to how a teacher may give a vague assignment and leave it to the student to mold it. But that is just one section of the book.

And White does more than simply tell a story. He uses the Arthurian legend to show dispel some of the romance surrounding our concept of knightly chivalry. The Round Table is broken apart by jealousy, greed, and resentment. True chivalry, true change, and true legends don’t come merely from great actions; great sacrifice is a prerequisite. And that sacrifice could destroy you. For example, Lancelot returns from his Grail Quest broken…but more godly.

So implicit in this discussion is a question our group seems to return to every few months: how far does sacrifice go? How much should we give? And what should we give? And to whom? These are not easy questions. But if we are to transcend ourselves, should we not ask them? And, just as importantly, how do we answer them? Of course, the answers are different for everyone, which is why we switch books every 4 weeks…

Next book: The Watchmen by Alan Moore

Monday, May 31, 2010

Teaching Amanda Bynes (or What You Will)

Our last get together was good. We discussed casually Twelfth Night. We tried to find an American equivalent to the twelve Christmas celebration that Shakespeare used as the backdrop. We don’t really have a festival of opposites where, for a day, servants are masters, absurdity is normality, etc. We have Mardi Gras, and students have Spring Break. But those are niche celebrations, one being local to New Orleans, the other narrowly confined to students who can afford to go on Spring Break.

For me, understanding the play’s context would be integral for teaching it. How else could students even begin to understand a story whose language is a bit obtuse? That’s when Bob brought up a good point about the need to have a visceral rather than intellectual reaction. This play is built heavily upon the festive mood of the year. Its absurdity makes sense within the part-religious, part-bacchanalian framework. Bob talked about how it’d be good to help students identify with the whimsicality of the story more so than its intellectualness.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. The main characters fall in love. But no one actually earns their love. Mood and circumstance dictate action. The play is poetic and has elements worth discussing. But Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be putting forth a clear message or philosophy that many of his other plays provide. This is why Bob talks about the importance of emphasizing feeling. Even thoughts about feelings can teach. And theories are seldom born in the void.

Speaking of students and Shakespeare, our group also talked about the Amanda Bynes movie She’s the Man, which is apparently an adaptation of the play in a high school setting. I do find Amanda Bynes’ cheeriness rather delightful, but I’ve never seen it (although Nichole admitted to watching it twice in a 24 hr span). I imagine the appeal with both the play and its younger film-adapted cousin is that they, like the twelve night Christmas festival, help us cope with the absurdity of life by allowing us to purposely court absurdity in a controlled context.

Next book: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Remains of the Day

One of the first things we discussed with this month's book The Remains of the Day (If the title sounds familiar, that may be because it was made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.) was Ishiguro's writing style. What particularly struck me was the fact that a novel about a very traditional, bordering on stereotypical, English butler was penned by an Asian author. The biographical information provided at the back of the novel states that Ishiguro, who was born in 1954, has lived in England since 1960. This fact may help account in part for his ability to capture the ideas of the English relationship between master and manservant as well as the language. Bob also helped me out on this one by explaining that the English and Japanese feudal systems have many similarities. While one might argue that as a butler Stevens and his story do not quite fall under the heading of feudal, the premise is the same as both systems are based upon strict standards of conduct such as masking one's emotions and exerting a sobering amount of emotional control. At one point in the novel, Stevens addresses this idea under the term dignity, though it is a dignity which I would argue few of us are in a position to truly understand. The writing at times has an almost stream of consciousness feel, particularly when Stevens appears to be having a revelation of sorts about himself and his life, and these revelations are in fact what the book is all about. I'm not even sure that I fully understood or appreciated the depth of the character Steven's until Bob and Nick discussed him. My initial impression was, "Show an emotion, any emotion!" Bob pointed out that while Stevens is quite disconnected from his emotions, such as the handful of instances when he is crying and doesn't seem to realize it, he does in fact feel things deeply, but these feelings remain veiled behind his professional exterior. This veiling is exactly why the line where he is discussing Miss Kenton and he states something to the effect of "My heart was breaking" hit me so forcefully. At last he seems to be having an truly authentic emotion.

This idea of authenticity was also addressed as we see that in most instances Stevens takes on the views of those around him rather than establishing his own opinions and positions. This tendency to avoid a conflict of opinion is seen with regard to his feelings toward his former employer Lord Darlington. In his private thoughts, Stevens asserts that Lord Darlington was real gentleman who fell under a manipulative influence, resulting in the tarnishing of his good name. However, on at least two occasions Stevens denies that he worked for Lord Darlington. What then is the cause for his denial? While he attempts to convince himself that is not in good taste to discuss one's former employers, to actually address his behavior would first force Stevens to assert an opinion and secondly would force him to acknowledge the foibles of his former employer.

This novel is a journey for Stevens, not only a journey across the English countryside but a journey toward an understanding of himself, one that is authentic by casting aside the rigid exterior and assuming for better or worse a bit of Lord Darlington by making his own decisions. Toward the end of the novel, the reader finds Stevens on a park bench with another older man who also served as a manservant, though at not nearly so prestigious an estate as Stevens. The man tells Stevens that they can and must make use of the remains of the day, both the literal day once one's work obligations are done and the metaphorical in the remainder of the days of their lives. One thing that we were all curious about and that another 100 or so pages of text would put to rest is where does Stevens go now? Now that he has had the epiphany what does he do with the knowledge such a revelation brings? Of course, that may very well be Ishiguro's intended response for his audience as to end the story at this moment leaves an infinite realm of possiblity open for Stevens that he has been blind to prior to his journey, and we as the reader are allowed the luxury of filling in the blanks in any way we choose.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What are the small things?

July's meeting had an awesome turnout to discuss The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. In contrast to the posting on Lolita, this month's book led itself to a wonderful discussion of not only the novel itself but the religious and caste influence at work during the period in which the novel is set. As was pointed out in the discussion, if one has some background into both the social and religious dynamics at work in India, then the interpretation of events in the text bear examination in another light. A great example of this that Bob pointed out is the dizygotic nature of the twin's relationship. Dizygotic twins are the result of two individual eggs being fertilized and carried to term as opposed to monozygotic twins which occur when one fertilized egg divides. Dizygotic twins are not identical nor do they (supposedly) possess the famous twin bond. In fact, the twin expert in the novel addresses this concept when the topic of separating the twins is brought up, and the expert testifies that the result would be no greater than if any two non-twin siblings were separated. Now in the context of the novel, this is obviously not the case as the twins have what could be considered a supernatural bond. What Bob pointed out is that in Eastern literature and beliefs the spiritual/supernatural often supersedes the natural, and I think that one would be hard pressed to argue against that belief in The God of Small Things.

This discussion of the bond between Estha and Rahel provides a starting point for our discussion of the act of incest that takes place between them. In most cases our automatic response to incest is one of at worst horror or at the least the subject of bad jokes. However, much like the sex scenes in Lolita, this act is not described in such a way as to arouse those intial responses. In fact, this act is yet another continuation of the theme of love in the novel, particularly who can love whom and how and how much. Over and over again those words are repeated when describing relationships, and the first that comes to mind is the relationship between Ammu and Velutha. Their was a relationship that was doomed from the start due to the caste divide between them. Velutha is an untouchable, and while he is kept around for the invaluable services he can provide the family, he is never really considered a true human being. Thus, when Ammu, who it must be noted is already condemned for her failed marriage, lowers herself to a relationship with an untouchable, nothing but destruction can befall them.

Actually, in many ways this is a novel of destruction with Estha and Rahel paying the greatest price. The events of their childhood from their parents' divorce, to their separation, to their mother's scandalous relationship, to their role in the death of Sophie and Velutha have contributed to make them what I can't help but consider damaged characters. Though they are adults, these childhood events haunt them and continue to impact every aspect of their lives. Perhaps one of the best ways to examine the haunting nature of these events is through an examination of some of the language in the novel. One thing that comes to mind and ties into the theme of love is the remark that Ammu makes to Rahel in which she states that one's actions can make others love that individual a little less. What a statement to make to a young and impressionable child. Of course this sticks in Rahel's head, and throughout the childhood portions she returns back to it and measures the amount of love she believes she receives from Ammu. Language also comes into play when Baby Kochamma forces Rahel and Estha to implicate Velutha in order to salvage the family's name and reputation. They are told that if they do not go along with what Baby Kochamma says then they will be sending their mother to prison. Although she is never presented as an admirable or even pitiable character, this is the most damning act that Baby commits as she manipulates the children. While everyone is complict to evil or wrongdoing in the novel and must receive blame in some way, arguably it is the children who continue to pay for the sins of the family.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Better Late Than Never Lolita

There is no real excuse for me to be posting our discussion of Lolita at the beginning of August. However, as I think back over the book and the discussion, it does make me question what is factor that determines what your conversation over the book will be like? Some books stimulate heated conversations while others seem to fall flat, and surprisingly, at least for me, Lolita was one of those books. Given the still somewhat scandalous reputation of Nabokov's novel, I expected that we would have much to talk about. However, I presumptuously think that we still struggle with Humbert Humbert's narrative in light of both A. What we know he is and B. The way in which our society views individuals like him. Obviously we recognize that a grown man essentially kidnapping (though I may use that term a bit too freely) and sexually exploiting a young teen is a no-no. Therefore, I think many readers have difficulty with Humbert's narrative version of events because while he knows that his actions are taboo in society, he also attempts to explain to the reader how he cannot help himself. Sounds like a great mental defect defense, huh?

One thing Nicole brought up and which after having read the book is still not something I have sorted out in my mind is the significance of Lolita both in the novel and in present day language use. In Nabokov's work Lolita is pretty much reduced to Humbert's sex object who learns to barter her "favors" for small desires typical of many teens. One could argue that if she's going to be forced to give in to Humbert's demands she might as well get something no matter how small in exchange. However, I would argue that Lolita is the victim here; yet, the word/name Lolita has taken on its own negative associations in modern society. What I am curious about is how did this association come about as if she is somehow at fault and culpable for the things that happen to her while she is with Humbert.

Lastly and perhaps the most noteworthy portion of our discussion was our analysis of Nabokov's language. In Lolita Nabokov executes a use of poetic language that would be noteworthy in any writer, and his skill is even more notable given that English is not his primarly language. Somehow he manages to order Humbert's narrative in such a way as to allow Humbert to both rationalize and romanticize his actions. This manipulative function of narrative often purposefully influences the reader's unconscious response to the narrative, and to a certain extent I see this same thing taking place in Lolita. While I had a basic idea of what the novel was about, I have to admit that I was very surprised by the fact that the sex scenes were not nearly so graphic as I anticipated. In fact, some were so subtle that they could almost be missed. This lack of graphic imagery as well as the narrative properties of Humbert's story work together to almost lessen the intensity of what Humbert does. I'm not exactly arguing that Humbet does or should escape judgment, but what I do argue is that the judgment we exact is somewhat different, thanks to Nabokov's narrative style, than it would be if he included violent rather than romanticized images and language.