A novel by Marilynne Robinson. A review on the back of this book says that you will want to read it slow, because each sentence is beautiful and you don’t want to miss one, and I found that overwhelmingly true. Some of the passages I marked as I was reading are just three or four words long, valuable little phrases.
And lord it was sad. Reading about a barren western glacial lake when you are sitting next to the perfect blue-green gulf (as of yet, un-oil slicked) makes the setting of the novel even more potently unlivable.
Robinson’s synopsis is this: “Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women.” Yes, and also about the burden of a household— particularly one in the strain of a small mountain town— and how to escape it.
“One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, […] performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith.” Men are cursory in this book. The actions of women take on significance.
“Old women she had known, first her grandmother and then her mother, rocked on their porches in the evenings and sang sad songs, and did not wish to be spoken to.” I certainly understand a homemaker’s need for silence.
“She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.”
“Such a separation, I imagined, could indeed lead to loneliness intense enough to make one conspicuous in bus stations.”
“My cold, visceral dread of school I had learned to ignore.” Ha, yeah.
On skipping school repeatedly: “All of this was too dreadful to consider, and every aspect of the situation grew worse with every day that passed, until we began to find a giddy and heavy-hearted pleasure in it. The combined effects of cold, tedium, guilt, loneliness, and dread sharpened our senses wonderfully.” Sounds a bit like winter quarter in Evanston.
“Here and not elsewhere, thus and not otherwise.” Despite a hate for the word “thus” that editing a certain coworker’s writing has instilled in me, this is one of those beautiful things you don’t want to miss by cruising through this book. Here’s another: “Such delicate improvisations fail.”
“I have often noticed that it is almost intolerable to be looked at, to be watched, when one is idle. When one is idle and alone, the embarrassments of loneliness are almost endlessly compounded.” Explains why people bury themselves in their work.
For a lover of well-crafted prose, this is a great read. Otherwise, it is slow in pace, sad and the material is generally very tough and ordinary and sad.
Luckily, I followed it up with a Michael Crichton beach read that I have finished 500 pages of in about 2 days. Vacation reading is wonderful. A book that’s salty and warped by the surf in my hand on the beach and all my friends and fam is my own personal LOST finale.
“Maybe I’ve read too many positive novels with wonderful characters,” Wilcox says. “I’ve read genre fiction. I read Judith Krantz when I was at Doubleday. The main characters are always rugged and handsome if they’re men and gorgeous and buxom if they’re women. They have a drive to succeed, and they do succeed. They forge ahead in life. Why can’t I write about more heroic characters?”
He answers his own question. “I’m not a positive thinker. Southerners tend not to be. Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, they’re in the tradition of Hawthorne or Melville. There is depravity. We’re not good people unless we really try. Popular fiction is Emersonian. He transcends the dark side of human nature. Self reliance. We can become better people. I don’t subscribe to this. The sense of reconciliation readers want is not that easily won. Unearned idealism usually does more harm than good. I absorbed this from Robert Penn Warren. He wrote a poem about a night flight to New York in which he thought about Emerson at thirty-eight thousand feet, the point being that at that distance from life you can indulge in Emerson’s view of human perfectibility. I don’t see Olive as positive or negative. We’re all pretty mixed bags. Our faults are very much tied in to our virtues. Most of our lives are not weddings, funerals, and crises. We’re not in a plane that’s about to crash, and we’re not about to launch a new line of high-fashion clothing. We mostly have routine days. We can’t see where we’re going. I’ve heard the most interesting things standing in the checkout line at Wal-Mart.” Wilcox declined to make any significant changes in “Miss Undine.”
I think I might have even beat my sister to the end. I mean, given she is a hardworking full-time lawyer with two children, but still, I WIN!
Wartime talk: “It is getting to the point where killing Nips is no fun anymore. There is no sense of accomplishment in it. It is a tedious and dangerous job that never seems to end. When will these stupid bastards knock it off? They are embarrassing themselves in front of the whole world.” Would anyone talk like this? Maybe that’s why Bobby Shaftoe is so great and fun to read. Because he is so unrealistic.
“Intellectually, he is juggling half a dozen lit torches, Ming vases, live puppies, and running chainsaws.” Whew, do I know how this feels.
“To the north, and uphill, a jungle is attempting to tear down a mountain.” Stephenson doesn’t do simple much, but when he does, I like it.
On that jungle compound: “It has something in common with a normal Philippine town in that it’s built around a church. In this case the church is small—Enoch called it a chapel—but that it was designed by Finnish architecture students would be obvious to Randy even if Root hadn’t divulged it. It has a bit of that Bucky Fuller tensegrity thing going for it—lots of exposed, tensioned cables radiating from the ends of tubular struts, all collaborating to support a roof that’s not a single surface but a system of curved shards.” I pulled this quote partially to show how ridiculously layered and researched and knowledgeable and just plain thick this writing is. But also to bring up the fact that, on the 11th (approximate) time I beat the 2927 #rd floor boys at trivia without any of them ever defeating me, I answered a question correctly with the answer “Buckminster Fuller.” Yeah.
And finally, a haiku on being hit with a grenade that did not go off, and then realizing you knew the person who threw it at you…
“Pineapple fastball— Guns of Manila applaud— Hit by pitch— free base!”
Oh man, just go ahead and read this book. It’s a time commitment, yes, but it’s beautiful, hilarious, gross and touching, and it will tell you how the digital computer was invented, which is something everyone should know.
I’m so close to being finished with this book, that I have been reading for the rise and fall of some six seasons, that I might read until my eyes fall out tonight to finish. And finishing is going to be such an accomplishment. I might even put it on my resume.
This description of a minister reminds me vaguely of my friend and favorite Father, Papa Joe. “It all leads to an unbearably tense and complicated meeting in a Sunday school classroom near the offices of the minister, who is called the Rev. Dr. John Mnrh. He is a stout red-faced chap who clearly would prefer to have his head in a tun of ale but who is putting up with all of this because it’s good for his immortal soul.” Isn’t that always the case?
(Cue technical difficulties— this book is so thick that I can’t make it stand up so I can read out of it and type at the same time.)
On the language of friendship. “‘The most cigarettes,’ Randy says. This is a contraction of the phrase, ‘We could end up in prison married to the guy with the most cigarettes,’ which Avi coined during their earlier Andrew-related legal troubles and had so many occasions to repeat that it was eventually reduced to these vestigial three words.”
On teenagers. “‘But I don’t think that teenagers are the way they are because of their age. It’s because they have nothing to lose. They simultaneously have a lot of time on their hands and yet are very impatient to get on with their lives.’ ‘And that’s where you are right now?’ ‘It’s exactly where I am.’” Good, me too.
“Born in Birmingham, Ala., Percy was orphaned as a teen and was raised and influenced by his father’s cousin, William Percy, a literary socialite. While he enjoyed writing in his youth and while he was able to mingle with the likes of Carl Sandberg and Langston Hughes, “in the South, you didn’t set out to become a writer,” said Percy in a 1980 interview.
Percy received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina in 1937 and a medical degree from Columbia University in 1941. Percy began his career by practicing pathology. His medical practice was cut short, however, after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to an asylum. While in seclusion, Percy studied the writings and philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Marcel, and others, which inspired him to resume writing and influenced his conversion to Catholicism.”
"Throughout his writing career, Percy was an advocate for young, struggling writers. In 1976 while teaching at Loyola, Percy was approached by the mother of a young, local writer who had committed suicide after failing to find a publisher for his manuscript. Percy saw promise in the piece and used his influence to reintroduce it to publishers. As a result, “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole was published in 1980 and was awarded a Pulitzer-Prize posthumously in 1981."
"Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the results show this; some of the sections read best at night, far in the night."
— Walker Evans. The photographer on the writer, James Agee, in the foreword.
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
My other favorite phrase from the book: Waiting is. There’s a new mantra for patience when making the big decisions of life.
Highly recommend this book. Weird sci-fi cheesiness at times, but ultimately pretty challenging and very enjoyable. More on it to come.
“I didn’t intend to let the subject come up until I had softened you with animal proteins and ethanol.” Well, I like honesty in a man.
“Scientists indeed! Half guess work and half sheer superstition. They ought to be locked up; they ought to be prohibited by the law. Joseph, I’ve told you repeatedly, the only true science is astrology.” Uhh, yeah. I need to start saying more outrageous crap like this. Especially since my daily horoscopes have been giving me such good advice lately.
“If God existed (a question concerning which Jubal maintained a meticulous intellectual neutrality) and if He desired to be worshipped (a proposition which Jubal found inherently improbable but conceivably possible in the dim light of his own ignorance), then (stipulating affirmatively both of the above) it nevertheless seemed wildly unlikely to Jubal to the point of reductio ad absurdum that a God potent to shape galaxies would be titillated and swayed by the whoop-te-do nonsense the Fosterites offered Him as “worship.”” Agreed.
“Random chance was not a sufficient explanation of the Universe—in fact, random chance was not sufficient to explain random chance; the pot could not hold itself.” Also agreed.
My dad gave me the unabridged version of Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein for Christmas, and 250 pages in, I can understand why the original editor cut the length.
But, it is great. And when the pacing is on, and doesn’t get bogged down in speculation, it is incredibly fun and funny to read.
The best part so far is the development of the character of Dr. Jubal Harshaw. Read on.
“Being both a doctor of medicine and a lawyer he is three times as hard to shove around. But most important he is so rugged an individualist that he would fight the whole Federation Department of Security with just a potato knife if it suited his fancy—and that makes him eight times as hard to shove around.” The state of American politics makes me wish there was someone like this around.
Jubal’s oath: “Well over a half century earlier he had sworn a mighty oath, full of fireworks, never again to pick up a stray cat. […] The fact that he had broken his oath more times than there were years intervening did not trouble him; his was not a small mind bothered by logic and consistency. Nor did the mere presence of two more pensioners sleeping under his roof and eating at his table bother him. Pinching pennies was not in him. In the course of nearly a century of gusty living he had been broke many times, had several times been wealthier than he now was; he regarded both conditions as he did shifts in the weather, and never counted his change.” How do you become a person like this?
““Remind me,” Jubal said to her, “to write a popular article on the compulsive reading of news. The theme will be that most neuroses and some psychoses can be traced to the unnecessary and unhealthy habit of daily wallowing in the troubles and sins of five billion strangers.”” How very, very prescient.
“Dr. Jubal Harshaw, professional clown, amateur subversive, and parasite by choice, had long attempted to eliminate “hurry” and all related emotions from his pattern. Being aware that he had but a short time left to live and having neither Martian nor Kansan faith in his own immortality, it was his purpose to live each golden moment as if it were an eternity—without fear, without hope, but with sybaritic gusto. To this end he found that he required something larger than Diogenes’ tub but smaller than Kubla’s pleasure dome and its twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers girdled round; his was a simple little place, a few acres kept private with an electrified fence, a house of fourteen rooms or so, with running secretaries laid on and all other modern conveniences. To support his austerely upholstered nest and its rabble staff he put forth minimum effort for maximum return simply because it was easier to be rich than to be poor—Harshaw merely wished to live exactly as he liked, doing whatever he thought was best for him.” This is not alleviating my desire to one day create a compound one little bit.
Our sentence may be caught in the sweet grey matter of another’s head; our sweet pink matter may grasp a finger and hold it tight and squelchy as a toddler’s fist. Still, we are alone.
But the beauty is that this futility doesn’t stop us. We may be restrained by our own humanity, and in the prisons of our own flesh, but we reach out, and we reach out, and we are reached, and we touch in language and in flesh and if we’re very, very lucky, in both, and occasionally we meet in bright hot white-pink seismic flashes and we feel blessed indeed.
You speak my language. You get me, and as I lie under you, around you, writhing like Joycean syntax below you, we get each other, briefly, painfully and sweetly.
As much as sitting at the airport and then on the runway for an eternity sucks, it does give you a ton of time to read. Just finished Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which I really enjoyed. What does it say about you if you love post-apocalyptic novels?
“His mother on the other hand could never seem to recall how old Jimmy was or what day he was born. He’d have to remind her, at breakfast; then she’d snap out of her trance and buy him some mortifying present - pyjamas for little kids with kangaroos or bears on them, a disk nobody under forty would listen to, underwear ornamented with whales - and tape it up in tissue paper and dump it on him at the dinner table, smiling her increasingly weird smile, as if someone had yelled Smile! and goosed her with a fork.” Not to be contrary on a gift-giving holiday, but gift giving and receiving can be some of the most awful experiences.
“Jimmy found himself wishing to make a dent in Crake, get a reaction; it was one of his weaknesses, to care what other people thought of him.” Have had many discussions with the family about whether caring what other people think of you is a weakness, a strength, or perhaps a necessary evil. I have family members who ascribe to both extremes, either too invested in their image in the eyes of others or soundly giving no consideration to others’ opinions at all. While these extremes are probably not the best path to follow, moderation also seems to be too simple of an answer.
“He too would like to be elsewhere. No hope for that: he’s up to his neck in the here and now.” Yep.
“He hated being dumped, even though he himself had manoeuvred the event into place. But another woman with intriguing vulnerabilities would happen along shortly. It was a time of simple abundance.
He wasn’t lying though, not all the time. He really did love these women, sort of. He really did want to make them feel better. It was just that he had a short attention span.” Hmm, who does this remind me of? He has an alliterative name and is allegedly related to me.
“Crake hadn’t been able to eliminate dreams. We’re hard-wired for dreams, he’d said. He couldn’t get rid of the singing either. We’re hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were entwined.” So you’d think that since I’m so good at concocting dreams that are absurdly complex and downright cinematic in their plots and imagery, that I’d be a better singer. Rats.