Thursday, March 29, 2012

Contemporary Series, Part 5: White Noise

Continuing with the Contemporary Series, I want to discuss White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo.  I feel confident about adding this one to the list because I am convinced it will be recognized as a "Classic" for a long time to come.  In fact, many scholars have already given it this status and devoted extensive analysis to the novel.  When I read it, I was immediately impressed by the unique and intelligent writing style, and I could sense its depth even before I recognized the central message of the text.

In my opinion, the story is meant to be a portrait of Middle Class America.  The family is not particularly special or even all that likable, but they are believable.  The husband and wife have each been through multiple marriages before this one, and their family is mixed with their children from previous relationships.  They live in the Midwest, and Jack, the protagonist, is a professor at a local college.  The only thing that immediately feels odd about the family is that Jack specializes in Hitler studies, a branch of academia which he actually invented.  We learn this in the first chapter, and it raises a red flag about how Jack chooses to focus his thoughts.  Nevertheless, their interactions at the beginning of the novel are fairly mundane, and it's difficult to predict how the plot will turn and demand our attention.

I must take some time to discuss DeLillo's writing style because I was in awe of it from the beginning.  Although there is not a lot of action at first, he mixes in so much stream of consciousness, sensory description, and intriguing juxtaposition that I was thoroughly engaged anyway.  Perhaps the title "White Noise" tipped me off, but I have never been more aware of a writer's descriptions of sound than in DeLillo's novel.  He often records the odd, discordant sounds that are present wherever the characters are.  It truly builds the reader's sense that we are drowned out by the white noise around us, which we breathe in without even noticing.  Even alarms and sirens fail to awaken the characters' energy and spark action.  We get the sense that we push the world away from us and refuse to look beyond ourselves, or even within ourselves for that matter.  

Most of the chapters end with fragments or short sentences that delicately make the thought linger before moving on.  Sometimes, these ending thoughts seem to depart from the action immediately before them, but they are weaving together a grander narrative.  This is perhaps the greatest illustration of DeLillo's brilliance.  The little phrases that hardly seem essential to the text build up a powerful message by the end: we are all obsessed with death.  We are afraid of it and fascinated by it.  The family communes together by watching the disaster news on TV and living through the Airborne Toxic Event.  Somehow, I didn't pick up on this theme right away, but it is clearly the heartbeat of the text from the very beginning.  People die, and the characters emotionally distance themselves from it until they are in direct and personal contact with it.  And unfortunately, it brings out the worst in them.

It's actually a pretty depressing book.  The family members talk at each other, but no one really expresses how they feel, nor do they listen.  They exist in overlapping circles, carrying on with their lives and individual fascinations.  They question "my truth" versus "your truth," and they lie to themselves even more than they do to each other.  The problems build up slowly and subtly; we can hardly predict a crisis moment.  They embrace the distractions and challenges to death, but they reject personal responsibility.  Perhaps the worst part of all this is that it is terribly convincing.

This is a fascinating story.  It can be poetic and mundane at the same time, and the throbbing undercurrent eventually pushes itself to a dramatic climax.  I don't like any of the characters, and I actually felt beaten down by the underlying message.  More importantly, I don't agree with DeLillo's assessment of the human race.  I think there is more goodness and sincerity than he suggests.  Nevertheless, I was captivated and moved.  I can sense the insights that would come from re-reading it, and yet I don't know if I ever will.  I am actually concerned for people who would devote hours to studying and analyzing the story, and yet I have to admit that it is a stimulating read.

Before I finish, I want to add a word of caution to potential readers.  I don't think you should read this book if you're going through a dark period in your own life, especially if you know someone who is facing his or her death.  This is a bit of a SPOILER, but Jack believes that because of toxic exposure, he has brought on his death much sooner than he expected.  With this knowledge, he acts out in selfish, lawless ways and disrespects the people in his life.  I read this while my father was dying, and there were times that I had to set the book aside because it was weighing on me so heavily.  I do not believe that this is how we all feel about life and death deep down.  My father did not approach his death this way at all, and I think there is more goodness in humanity than DeLillo portrays.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Contemporary Series, Part 4: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Ok, it's time for me to sit down and write about a specific book again.  I have been unsure what to do with this next one for a long time now.  I can be so strict with my definition of a "Classic" that I wasn't sure if I could justify including this one.  But I just recently recommended it to a friend yet again, and I decided I must include it on my blog.  It is a wonderful and well-written story, and since I'm the sole writer of this blog, I'm going to stop being quite so strict!

I'm attaching this book to my Contemporary Series, which I started over a year ago.  It is called Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (1994). I still find this series rather intimidating, as I recognize that I may be stepping out on a limb since it is too early for a group of literary scholars to agree with me in this classification.  The biggest difference with this book is that I'm not convinced literary scholarship will one day recognize it, but I am becoming more convinced that it deserves the "Classic Literature" status nonetheless.  It is truly an epic tale, as it spans several decades and covers such major themes as history, war, and love.  De Bernieres wrote beautifully, at times filling my heart with joy and at times breaking it.  His characters are unforgettable, as are the images he creates within the story.  It has a grandness reminiscent of Les Miserables, though I do not pretend de Bernieres quite reached that scale.

This novel is set in Greece, beginning in 1943.  The Italian army has invaded their island during the occupation of World War II.  The mood in the air is full of suspicion and resentment as the Greek people adjust to feeling jailed on their own island.  Yet we also get to know a few members of the Italian army, and we discover that they have mixed feelings and discomfort as well.  Each chapter is written in the perspective of a different character, which provides wonderful variety and depth to the tale.  If I could only pick one aspect I like about this novel, it is that every single character deepens as the story continues.  Their superficial layers are peeled back, and we get a glimpse of genuine and exposed hearts, for better or for worse.  Our initial impressions of them change as the story develops, which adds to the epic feel of everything at the end.

As it often happens in real life, some of the best relationships in the story are complicated.  Corelli is the leader of the Italian unit, who would be much better suited to play in a band than work in the army.  He wants to carry fun and light-heartedness around him, but we also see the courage and loyalty that is at the base of it all.  Pelagia is arguably the heroine in the book, and I have much love for her character.  She makes mistakes but also learns from them, and she sacrifices for the most important people in her life.

Yet Carl, the quiet Italian officer, is possibly my favorite character.  He perfectly exemplifies what a book can do that a movie never could.  He doesn't speak many lines, but we have access to his private thoughts.  During his chapters, we learn of his character, integrity, and pain.  A movie can never let you inside a person's head like a book can.  It reminds me of Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  It's as though we have obtained a pass into someone's heart, and it feels so very genuine and real.  When Carl's shining moment came, I was enraptured and subconsciously had my hand over my heart, even though I was sitting in an airport terminal.  In a book, the quiet people can be the most captivating.

I am always most drawn to the character development in stories, which means that I can love a book even if it does not have a lot of action.  However, there is endless action in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, so I am confident it will be interesting to just about everyone.  It is one of those books that I don't hesitate when I suggest to others, and it passed around my group of friends very quickly.  I'm not sure that the scholars will mark it as a Classic in the future, but I think it would deserve the status if it ever achieved it.  Happy reading.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Ones I Wish I Liked

Before I jump back to a specific book, I want to get something out there.  From time to time, I will read a famous book that everyone seems to love.  I will hear overflowing praise for its depth, insight, writing style, etc., and eagerly pick up the book to find out what everyone is talking about.  And on those rare occasions, despite my best effort, I just don't really care for it.  I may ask my friends to explain why they like it so much, and I can even understand their perspective, but I can't seem to change my feelings about it.  Maybe this has happened to you too.

These are the pieces of literature that I really wish I could make myself like.  (I actually feel that way about a couple of movies too, but that's another story).  These are the ones that lit-lovers are really disappointed to hear that I didn't enjoy.  On the other hand, sometimes I don't mind disliking certain books because I truly don't think they are written very well or contain a lot of depth.  That is a different category and not what I'm talking about.  Ok, enough already... I'm stalling.  Here's my list of The Ones I Wish I Liked:

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein - Remember the category, ok??  I absolutely recognize the intense amount of work Tolkein invested in this series.  I am in awe of the depth he reached by providing detailed historys, varied characters, and new languages.  I can feel the epic nature of the series; he created a whole world!  But, I just didn't really like it.  I couldn't feel attached to the characters, (most of whom felt one-dimensional), and I felt myself reading out of duty rather than interest.  And the second half of The Two Towers nearly killed me.  Is there anyone who actually enjoys those endless pages of Sam and Frodo walking through the mountains with the obnoxious Gollum at their tail?  But I'm sorry, I tried!!

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville - So many people love this one.  With the bad taste of Billy Budd in my mouth, I had no intention of investing in this massive Melville text.  But after enough friends pushed me to read it, even going so far as to buy me a copy and place it in my hands, I gave in and read the entire, unabridged version.  I would have loved to tell everyone, "You were right all along!  I am so glad you made me read this!"  Sadly, though I am glad to have read it, I can't say those words whole-heartedly.  Again, I recognize the aspects of it that people love.  The beginning is almost poetic, and I genuinely did enjoy the first portion of the text as Ishmael felt his call for the sea and headed toward Nantucket.  Moreover, the ending of the story was captivating, and I have never felt like an ending was so well anticipated.  It was so satisfying to face Moby Dick in the boat after pages and pages of waiting in the sea without catching a glimpse of him.  But OH MY GOSH I did not want to know that much about whaling!!  I cannot get over that; I'm sorry.  I really don't care to know about each knot on the boat and how to make use of every little part of the whale.  There are so many chapters that have nothing to do with the plot that felt like a major chore to get through, and no matter what happens at the beginning and the end, I can't embrace the book for that dreadful middle section.

3. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - I really want to like this one.  When I first read it in high school, I was happy to toss it aside in my dislike of it.  However, as I continued in my literary studies, I repeatedly heard people praising this novella as one of the best pieces of literature in its time.  Reluctantly, I finally re-read it, hoping that my years of literary training and analysis would bring me to love the book as so many of my peers do... It didn't work.  I have talked to friends and read essays about all of the symbolism, and I guess I can understand that.  But I can't shake the fact that I don't really like it, and I think it's over-rated.  I didn't feel like the admiration of Kurtz was fully explained or deserved, and the meeting certainly didn't meet the buildup the rest of the story had created.  I couldn't connect with the characters, and I wasn't even sure the messages were very strong or insightful in the text.  Oh, "The horror!  The horror!"

I'll stop here.  There are actually a few more, but I read them so long ago that I'm hoping a re-reading will make me change my mind, (even though it didn't work with Heart of Darkness).  I'm sure this is more than enough to make many of you yell at your computer screens and object to my bad taste.  But please remember that I am not insulting any of these texts.  I am putting them on this list because I DO recognize their merit, but I nevertheless can't bring myself to like them.  And I have no doubt that many of you feel the same way about some of the books I love the most.  I can accept that, though I would feel a little disappointed just as many do with me for the books I just listed.  To each his own...  :)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Getting Personal

Hi, Everyone.

You may have noticed that I have not updated my blog in quite some time.  I have been debating whether I should open up and share my personal life on this whole blogosphere because I wonder if this is the right setting.  I have dedicated this blog solely to literature and done my best to limit my personal life.  However, I have come to think that there may be someone out there who would benefit from me getting a little personal, at least this once.

On February 1, my father passed away.  The cancer he had three years ago came back and metastasized in his bones, which was a painful and debilitating challenge.  I moved into my parents' home to help take care of him in his final days, and I am so grateful I could be there for that precious time.  I am writing about this because I know I'm not alone in grief, and many of you may be experiencing this in some capacity as well.  Although I have no intention to go into detail with this beyond today's post, I do want to share a few things I've learned with you.

To those who are grieving:
First of all, you are not alone.  For some reason, I find comfort in knowing this.  I certainly don't wish that my friends would suffer loss, but I am more comfortable around the people who know how I feel.  One of my good friends lost her father just three months before mine passed away, and we have clung to one another as people who get it.  I hate that she lost her dad and I wish I could take away her pain, but I am grateful to have her support right now.  Someone explained to me several months ago that when you lose a dearly loved one, you become part of a kind of club.  It's so difficult for outsiders to know what to say or understand how you feel, but those within the club give you a knowing look and outstretched arms.  I find it easier to talk to other people about their grief and their struggles because I know what to say, and I appreciate those who know what to say to me as well.  I still have a long way to go, but the best way to approach it is with as much vulnerability and openness as possible.  Let yourself feel the emotions that come to you and follow your heart as you restart your life.

To those whose friends are grieving:
You may have no idea what you should say and feel unable to do anything for your friend.  That's ok; we don't fault you for that.  We know that it's difficult for you too, and we appreciate any way you reach out.  We need to be reminded that people love us in addition to the one we lost.  So make time for us, and let us talk about ourselves more than we talk about you for now.  Don't try to "cheer us up" because we don't want that.  We want to be able to grieve around you and with you.  The number one thing you can do is to just listen. But, I need to add that it is different for every person, and you should listen to the needs of your friend and not just my suggestions.

To help you, here are a few things that I personally did and did not want to hear:
1. "Don't cry."  If your friend is crying in front of you, that is because he/she feels comfortable enough to let out those feelings in your presence.  If you try to soothe him/her with "don't cry," that takes it all away.  If you friend is crying, let him/her cry and don't say anything about it.  We need to feel safe doing it around you.

2. "It's going to be ok."  Death is the most permanent thing in the world.  There is no reversing it, no way to fix it, and thus, no way for it to be "ok."  Instead, we have to learn to redirect our paths and redefine our relationships in this new reality.  You can't get over something like this, nor do you want to... and that's ok.

3. "I can't imagine how you're feeling right now."  This may be true, and you can certainly have these thoughts in your mind.  If you say it once to your grieving friend, that's ok.  But we are most comforted by those who do try to understand how we're feeling, who want to listen to our feelings and take on some of our pain with us.  If you repeatedly say you can't imagine it, it feels like you don't want to try to connect with us and that may create some distance.  So try to imagine what we're feeling, and we will be grateful for that.

4. "Don't worry; you'll see him again in heaven."  This is a common response, particularly from caring, religious people.  You may think that this is the greatest comfort, but that may not be the case.  Even if the person in grief believes in heaven, this "reassurance" is not going to change anything right now.  Let us keep those thoughts to ourselves if we have them.  It doesn't take away the reality of pain and feeling his/her loss now.  We feel like you are dismissing our grief if you tell us this, as though we shouldn't feel sad about it now.

5. "You made the right decision."  I needed to hear this one over and over again.  You can never say that too many times.  There is so much insecurity that comes with loss, especially if it is sudden or of a person much too young.  If your friend has had to make some big life decisions and adjust for this, assure him/her that it was the right thing to do.  Encourage your friend so he/she still can feel like a strong person, despite all the feelings of weakness and powerlessness that may be overwhelming him/her.

6. "Your dad was a great man."  At a time of grief, we want it to be about the person we lost, not about ourselves.  Take time to say good things about the person who has died, even if you never met that person.  In that case, you can say something like, "From what I know from you, your dad was an amazing person," and that is music to our ears.  Compliment the person who passed away, and do not be afraid to bring up that person in conversation.  We want our loved one to continue to be a part of the conversation; it's not an off-limits name we can't handle.  We want to know that he/she will be remembered.

These were all my personal thoughts, but there are many who speak more eloquently about grief than I do.  Since my audience is primarily made of avid readers, I want to include some things to read.

sunset soon forgotten is a young woman's journey of grief.  She herself is very insightful and often includes references to other to articles I can relate to as well.  She regularly says the things that I carry in my heart and wonder if other people understand.

The "Good Grief" series is written by a theologian who recently lost his daughter.  In contrast to many Christian writers, I find his words poignant and comforting.  He is good about saying the things we need to hear and wish we could say to others as well.

If you have been comforted by other grief blogs, please let me know and I'll include them in the list.  The great thing about blogging is we can realize that we are not alone in our experiences.  I am also planning to read a few books on grief at some point, so please let me know if there are any that have spoken to you in the past.  So far on my list are A Grief Observed by CS Lewis and The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen.

Again, I don't intend to say more on this subject on my blog, but feel free to contact me privately if you are moved by any of this and want to talk.  You can find my contact information in the left column, and I'm here if you need it.