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2011 Book #11: Labyrinths

Borges makes my brain hurt. Labyrinths was a really difficult read. It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino, especially Invisible Cities. Evidently, Calvino was heavily influenced by Borges. Labyrinths is a collection of short stories, essays, and parables. I really enjoyed some of the short stories, but lots of the lost me because I don’t remember enough about philosophy or what philosopher said what. At a certain point in several stories, I had to turn my brain off and go with it Tao-style. That said, I even liked some of those.

My favorite story is “The Immortal,” which is about a man’s journey to find The City of Immortals. He enters their city, which has been abandoned and is like a massive labyrinth. He discovers them after he leaves lying, waif-like outside its walls. They have stopped talking because there’s nothing left to talk about, but he eventually gets one of them to start, and it turns out he’s Homer. “The Immortal” is one of the longer stories, and after the plot extinguishes itself, it becomes more like a philosophical essay. I really enjoyed it. I also liked “The House of Asterion” and “The Library of Babel.” I’d been told that “Emma Zunz” is best, and, while it’s probably the most easily accessible in the collection, I found it unrewarding. Enough for the short stories.

I found the essays much easier to read and surprisingly interesting. Borges is a fan of Don Quixote, so he mentions it several times, and one of the essays is about it. “The Wall and the Books” is my favorite, but I’ve already written about that one. Many of the essays are about time and whether it exists or not. Five years ago, I’d have been excited about them, but I’m over it. I’ve read that kind of theory before. (If you want to read a novel about theories of time, read Alan Lightman‘s Einstein’s Dreams, which is fantastic.) I don’t really have much to say about the essays because I kind of sped through them.

The parables are my favorite part of Labyrinths. They’re very short, but they also made me think. Borges discusses the same ideas in the parables as he does in the rest of the book, but the parables are much more accessible, which is probably why I liked them so much. Here’s the first one:

Inferno, 1, 32

From the twilight of day till the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the last years of the thirteenth century, would see some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who changed, a wall and perhaps a stone gutter filled with dry leaves. He did not know, could not know, that he longed for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing things to pieces and the wind carrying the scent of a deer, but something suffocated and rebelled within him and God spoke to him in a dream: “You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.” God, in the dream, illumined the animal’s brutishness and the animal understood these reasons and accepted his destiny, but, when he awoke, there was in him only an obscure resignation, a valorous ignorance, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast. Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.

If you’re going to read any of Labyrinths, check out the parables. They’re beautiful and undeniably brilliant.

I’d never read any Borges until now. I’d heard his name associated with Calvino and Lightman, so I figured I’d probably like it. Labyrinths was a harder read than I’d expected, and I had a hard time getting through it, but it was immensely rewarding. Borges is like T.S. Eliot and Yeats in that he draws the whole of history into a very short form, and I can see how he’s a poet at heart.

Borges was also a librarian.

The Wall and the Books

Borges‘s Labyrinths is not an easy read, and I’m having a hard time finishing it. That said, the end is in sight: I’m about three-quarters into it. It’s a collection of short stories, essays, and parables. I haven’t hit the parables yet as they’re at the end, but the essays are much easier to read than the stories are. The stories make my brain hurt, though I find some of them immensely enjoyable. If nothing else, they’re rewarding. I’ll have more to say about this later, after I’ve finished the book, and forgive me if I repeat some of what I just said. Here, I’ve reprinted one of the shorter essays in its entirety because I think it’s worth reading. It’s about the first emperor of China and his crusade to build the Great Wall and to extinguish history before himself. Borges discusses his possible motives, which I think are interesting. Why would someone from a country with such a great history (even then) want to erase all of it? I wonder whether Ray Bradbury, before he wrote Fahrenheit 451, knew anything about it.

The Wall and the Books

He, whose long wall the wand’ring Tartar bounds. . .

Dunciad, II, 76

I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned. That these two vast operations — the five to six hundred leagues of stone opposing the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is, of the past — should originate in one person and be in some way his attributes inexplicably satisfied and, at the same time, disturbed me. To investigate the reasons for that emotion is the purpose of this note.

Historically speaking, there is no mystery in the two measures. A contemporary of the wars of Hannibal, Shih Huang Ti, king of Tsin, brought the Six Kingdoms under his rule and abolished the feudal system; he erected the wall, because walls were defenses; he burned the books, because his opposition invoked them to praise the emperors of olden times. Burning books and erecting fortifications is a common task of princes; the only thing singular in Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he operated. Such is suggested by certain Sinologists, but I feel that the facts I have related are something more than an exaggeration or hyperbole of trivial dispositions. Walling in an orchard or a garden is ordinary, but not walling in an empire. Nor is it banal to pretend that the most traditional of races renounce the memory of its past, mythical or real. The Chinese had three thousand years of chronology (and during those years, the Yellow Emperor and Chuang Tsu and Confucius and Lao Tzu) when Shih Huang Ti ordered that history begin with him.

Shih Huang Ti had banished his mother for being a libertine; in his stern justice the orthodox saw nothing but an impiety; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, wanted to obliterate the canonical books because they accused him; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, tried to abolish the entire past in order to abolish one single memory: his mother’s infamy. (Not in an unlike manner did a king of Judea have all male children killed in order to kill one.) This conjecture is worthy of attention, but tells us nothing about the wall, the second part of the myth. Shih Huang Ti, according to the historians, forbade that death be mentioned and sought the elixir of immortality and secluded himself in a figurative palace containing as many rooms as there are days in the year; these facts suggest that the wall in space and the fire in time were magic barriers designed to halt death. All things long to persist in their being, Baruch Spinoza has written; perhaps the Emperor and his sorcerers believed that immortality is intrinsic and that decay cannot enter a closed orb. Perhaps the Emperor tried to recreate the beginning of time and called himself The First, so as to be really first, and called himself Huang Ti, so as to be in some way Huang Ti, the legendary emperor who invented writing and the compass. The latter, according to the Book of Rites, gave things their true name; in a parallel fashion, Shih Huang Ti boasted, in inscriptions which endure, that all things in his reign would have the name which was proper to them. He dreamt of founding an immortal dynasty; he ordered that his heirs be called Second Emperor, Third Emperor, Fourth Emperor, and so on to infinity. . . I have spoken of a magical purpose; it would also be fitting to suppose that erecting the wall and burning the books were not simultaneous acts. This (depending on the order we select) would give us the image of a king who began by destroying and then resigned himself to preserving, or that of a disillusioned king who destroyed what he had previously defended. Both conjectures are dramatic, but they lack, as far as I know, any basis in history. Herbert Allen Giles tells that those who hid books were branded with a red-hot iron and sentenced to labor until the day of their death on the construction of the outrageous wall. This information favors or tolerates another interpretation. Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

The tenacious wall which at this moment, and at all moments, casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself, aside from the conjectures it allows. (Its virtue may lie in the opposition of constructing and destroying on an enormous scale.) Generalizing from the preceding case, we could infer that all forms have their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural “content.” This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

2011 Book #10: Popular Hits of the Showa Era

511z6On6yrL.jpegI really liked Popular Hits of the Showa Era. It’s short and a very quick read, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. It’s also fast-paced and seemed more like a long short-story than a book. Murakami doesn’t waste time with in-depth descriptions but still gives the reader enough information to enter the world of the book.

It’s about two groups of six. One is six guys in their late twenties who are bored and numb in a very postmodern way. The other is a group of unmarried women in their late thirties called Oba-sans. They all enjoy karaoke, and the guys have made up a party ritual of sorts in which they determine who dresses up and sings through games of rock-paper-scissors, and whoever loses drives them to a secluded part of the beach where they videotape performances. The parties get progressively weirder and creepier. One day, one of them randomly (and violently) kills one of the Oba-sans. The Oba-sans figure out who he is and kill him (also violently). Then there’s an all-out war between the two groups with increasingly sophisticated weapons. The last battle-of-sorts is really interesting, but I won’t ruin the novel for you.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is really, really violent and gory. It’s what I’d expect from Ryu Murakami after Coin Locker Babies, the only novel of his I’ve read. And I’m not sure I even finished it. Actually, that’s not true. I read In the Miso Soup , but I don’t remember anything about it. That was my introduction to him. Popular Hits is as light a read as a book about murder can be. I think, though, that I won’t remember anything about it a year from now because it seems forgettable. Not that it’s bad: it’s just not that great, either. I gave it four stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the process of reading it, but I don’t have much to say about it. It’s certainly not a “deep” book, and I think I might have liked it so much because that’s exactly the kind of book I needed to read.

The Fail Pile gets its first book: This Side of Paradise

This-Side-of-Paradise-Oxford.jpegI jumped into This Side of Paradise right out of The Hunger Games, and I liked it at first. Then it got tedious. It reminds me of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but without a cohesive plot. It’s a series of little vignettes about a kid who grows up and goes to college with the precursors of characters in The Great Gatsby. And it’s really, really boring. It’s Fitzgerald, though, so the writing is stellar, but 60 pages in, there still wasn’t enough of a plot to keep me interested. So I’m moving on. I’m not sure if my problem right now is that I just didn’t like the book or that I’m a bit burnt out on reading, but we’ll soon see. Next up is Mr. Spaceman, which comes highly recommended by a librarian friend of mine.

2011 Book #9: The Hunger Games

hunger games.jpegWell, The Hunger Games is certainly a quick read. It’s the first kids’ book I’ve read in a while, and I liked it well enough. Suzanne Collins isn’t an especially good writer – it’s purely pop fiction like Dan Brown and all those other authors I usually can’t bring myself to read. That said, I was entertained, which I guess, is the point of novels like this.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian novel set in an Oceania of the United States. There was a war between the capitol and thirteen districts after a rebellion, and the capitol won. Each year, to punish the districts, two kids between twelve and eighteen are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games. They’re put into an arena and forced to survive in the wilderness as they kill each other off. The one who kills all the others wins. The two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, both from District 12, survive and fight and all that. It’s violent and gory at times. It ends ambiguously, halfway making me want to pick up the trilogy’s second book immediately to find out what happens.

But I won’t because it’s really not that good of a novel. And I hate novels that end with cliffhangers. I think that one reason I liked the Harry Potter series is that Rowling provides a relatively neat ending – except in the sixth book, and I remember being frustrated because the seventh was a year away. I think Philip Pullman tidies things up a bit more at the ends of the His Dark Materials books, too. And Ursula LeGuin with the Earthsea trilogy. The City of Ember series is a little better about it than The Hunger Games. I consider Lord of the Rings to be one giant novel, so the same standard doesn’t apply. I like what Terry Pratchett does with his Discworld novels: each is on its own, but there are enough recurring characters and places that it’s still a series. But that’s neither here nor there.

I knew The Hunger Games wouldn’t be particularly good early on. Or, at least, not particularly well-written. I tend to judge writing style by how authors describe their characters. If it’s a crappy novel, it might go something like this:

I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did. As I drove to the remote crossroads community of Hotshot, my brother watched the sunset in silence. Jason was dressed in old clothes, and he had a plastic Wal-Mart bag containing a few things he might need – toothbrush, clean underwear. He hunched inside his bulky camo jacket, looking straight ahead. His face was tense with the need to control his fear and his excitement.

File:Dead as a Doornail.jpegIn case you’re wondering, that’s the opening paragraph of Charlaine Harris‘s Dead as a Doornail , one of the books in her Sookie Stackhouse novels and of True Blood fame. I got through maybe ten pages of it and decided I’d be incapable of reading it. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by like-minded friends, and we passed it around, reading random passages aloud. A good time was had by all.

Anyway, good authors tend to do things a little differently. Being a good English major, I should root around and find an example, but being lazy, I’m not going to. Think about Faulkner – or even Rowling: would you ever see a description like that? Of course not. I didn’t have to wait long, though, for Collins to disappoint:

I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin; we even have the same grey eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place.

Urgh. I will give Collins credit here: her writing gets a bit better as the novel progresses, and I can’t think of another instance when I was that irritated. Descriptions like that make me think of bad romance novels – of which I’ve only read half of two because the writing is so horrid.

To sum things up: The Hunger Games isn’t a terrible novel, though it’s not that good, either. The plot is interesting, but the style is mediocre at best. I might pick up the others, or I might not. I’d put my money on the latter.

2011 Book #8: The Satanic Verses

2000-1.jpegWell, I finished it. I guess all it took was my public realization that I might not finish it to get me reading again. Note that I wrote that post yesterday and still had about halfway to go. I’ve done a good bit of reading over the past couple days.

The Satanic Verses is a long, hard read. Very long, very hard. My main problem with it is the plot is overly convoluted: I’m not quite sure about what exactly happened, and while I’d like to read it again to put it together, I know I won’t. I won’t be running back to Rushdie anytime soon, either. It’s not really what I expected, kind of like One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t. And the two novels have more in common: they’re both examples of magical realism, though Marquez‘s novel is much more convincing. And, in general, better.

If you want a thorough rundown of the plot of The Satanic Verses, I’ll direct you to Wikipedia because I couldn’t do it without writing much more than the short blog post I’ve planned. Rushdie’s novel consists of two-and-a-half storylines involving Bollywood actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, a plane crash, one turning into a goat, and one developing paranoid schizophrenia and possibly being, at some point, the Archangel Gabriel. And that’s only one of the plotlines. It ends up really confusing.

It’s not that it’s a bad novel: it’s just not as good as some people say it is. I have a feeling that a lot of people with strong opinions about it haven’t read it. I can totally see why Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill Rushdie: The Satanic Verses is fabulously blasphemous.

In Rushdie’s defense, the language is nice – even beautiful in some places. Here’s my favorite part:

The landscape of his poetry was still the desert, the shifting dunes with the plumes of white sand blowing from their peaks. Soft mountains, uncompleted journeys, the impermanence of tents. How did one map a country that blew into a new form every day?

And that’s about all I have to say about it. I didn’t really like it, though I didn’t hate it either. I might reread it someday and get more out of it: I have a feeling that if I did read it again, I’d like it more. Maybe an abridged version would suit me better, though.

An update!

So it’s been over a week, and I still haven’t finished The Satanic Verses. I’m having a really hard time getting through it, and I’ve seriously considered making it the base of my Fail Pile for this year. The funny thing is that I really like it – it reminds me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, my new Favorite Novel. I just can’t really get into it. I’ve decided that I’m going to power through it, though, and I’m giving myself a whole week to finish it because I’m so far ahead in my 50. I’m halfway through it now, so if I read about 37 pages a day for the next 7, I’ll be done. I think I can handle that.

2011-01-29 10:44:32 -0600-0.jpgWhat have I been doing, you ask? Well, I’ve been studying for the GRE, which helps immensely with my Thesis Monster procrastination. I’ve been working on the verbal and math sections a few hours a day for the past few days. I’ll talk more about what I’m doing with it later, but it involves moving out of Shreveport and not getting a PhD, both of which make me very happy.

I’ll be doing some pretty hardcore studying. Though I don’t think I need a particularly good GRE score this time around, I don’t want to embarrass myself, either. I’ve somehow forgotten all but the simplest math, and I’m horrible at analogies, so I have to work on those. I’ve accumulated a stack of GRE books, and I’m slowly working through them. I’ll probably take the test in late February.

Within a week, then, a post about The Satanic Verses should appear on this blog. If I can’t finish by next Saturday, into the Fail Pile it goes.

2011 Book #7: Oryx and Crake

oryx_and_crake.jpegI really enjoyed Oryx and Crake . It’s a dystopian, post-apocalyptic-type novel about one of the few men left on Earth. He calls himself Snowman, and the plot bounces back and forth between him and the man he used to be, before the catastrophe, Jimmy. This part is set in the near-future, where everything is genetically spliced together – food, animals, medicine, etc. Jimmy and Crake had been good friends since they were kids. Crake was really intelligent. They grew up, and Crake worked on what he claimed would cure all of the problems caused by humanity. Then Things Happen. Snowman survives with Crake’s humanish creations, called Crakers, who think Crake is a god and Snowman is almost one. Then there’s Oryx, who might or might not have been sold as a slave into the sex industry when she was a child and who is revered as a near-god, too.

I tend to like dystopian novels. I read Atwood‘s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, when I was fifteen or so, and I liked it so much I even remember some of it. I’ve noted before that I rarely remember what books are about after a few years. I think 1984 was the first dystopian novel I ever read: my high school freshman English teacher assigned it, and I actually finished reading it. Another feat.

I bought Oryx and Crake in 2003 when it was first published. I tried reading it but lost interest after the first chapter or so. I don’t know why: this time, I had a hard time putting it down. I ordered The Year of the Flood, the events of which are contemporaneous to Oryx and Crake, from Amazon, but I think I’ll save that for later.

Oryx and Crake really sucked me in – moreso than most novels do. It’s the usual dystopian warning of sorts, but it’s not preachy. I’m not sure of a comparison – maybe a not-so-grim On the Beach. I really like Atwood’s writing style: it’s very easy to read, though I guess I’m comparing it to the two dialecty novels I just finished reading. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.

2011 Book #6: Things Fall Apart

Things Fall ApartI have a history with Things Fall Apart: I was forced to read it when I was a sophomore in high school. I’m actually not entirely sure I read it because I didn’t remember one thing about it – except, of course, that it’s African of some sort. That said, I was less than half my age back then (scary!). I don’t remember whether I liked it or not – I’d imagine I didn’t because assigning this book to fifteen-year-olds is probably a bad idea. They’d hate it because it’s boring as all hell.

And that’s exactly what I think about it now: boring as all hell. It’s a short 200 pages, and nothing interesting really happens. The only part I halfway cared about is when one of the protagonist’s daughters is taken by a prophetess in the middle of the night, but we never find out what comes of it.

Things Fall Apart is essentially a list of a Nigerian tribe’s traditions that are upset in the last third of the novel by the influx of British imperialists and Christianity. We all know who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen. Meh.

Simply put, I don’t think Things Fall Apart is a good novel. It certainly doesn’t have a solid plot: it’s full of holes, and, again, it’s boring as all hell. The language is also too spare, and you have to flip back and forth to a glossary in the back. I didn’t sympathize with any of the characters except maybe the daughter I mentioned above. I just wanted it to be over, which is why I read it so quickly.

After I finished reading the novel, I looked through some reviews on Goodreads and found this one, which just about sums up my opinion:

How To Criticize Things Fall Apart Without Sounding Like A Racist Imperialist:

1. Focus on the plot and how nothing very interesting really happens. Stress that it was only your opinion that nothing interesting happens, so that everyone realizes that you just can’t identify with any of the events described, and this is your fault only.
2. Explain (gently and with examples) that bestowing daddy issues on a flawed protagonist is not a sufficient excuse for all of the character’s flaws, and is a device that has been overused ad naseum.
3. Also explain how the main character is a generic bully, with no unique characteristics that make him interesting to the reader. Crack joke about Achebe stealing Walt Disney’sHow To Create A Villain checklist and pray no one beats you to death for it.
4. Do not criticize the rampant misongyny present in the book. It is part of the culture, and is therefore beyond criticism by you because you are not in a position to understand or comdemn what you have not experienced directly.
5. Do not say that the frequent use of untranslated words and confusing names that were often very similar made the story and characters hard to keep track of at times. Achebe is being forced to write in English, a foreign tongue, because he is a post-colonial writer and the fact that the book is written in English stresses his role as a repressed minority, something that you are incapable of understanding, you racist imperialist!

Urgh. I generally like novels I’m supposed to like – like Jane Eyre , which I read only recently. This is supposed to be a good novel, but it’s not, and I’m not going to pretend it’s any good just because I’m supposed to.

2011 Book #5: Good Morning, Midnight

I’ve been wanting to read Good Morning, Midnight for a long time. Years ago, I randomly picked up another Jean Rhys novel, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (which doesn’t have a Wikipedia page!), and I really liked it. Later, I was assigned Wide Sargasso Sea, which, it turns out, is a sort-of prequel to Jane Eyre, for a modern fiction class. I liked that one too, though at the time I hadn’t read Jane Eyre, and when I finally did, I was kind of disappointed in the fire part.

Anyway, back to the current novel. It’s about the Loneliest Woman on Earth living in Paris, and it’s Very Modernist. The woman, who calls herself Sasha, lives off money from friends and former lovers, as she seems emotionally incapable of any sort of work, though she tries a couple of times. She thinks everyone in Paris dislikes her, thinks something is wrong with her, and she tries her best to be alone and avoid their critical eyes. And, of course, things happen. She goes back to London for a time and falls in love with Enno, who is at times very loving and at others emotionally abusive. She marries him and has a baby who dies shortly after birth. Enno leaves. Sasha becomes more and more depressed, eventually slipping into a sort of drunken madness.

This novel surprised me because of what there wasn’t. Several people told me that it’s really disturbing, and I didn’t find it that way. Nobody ends up dead. What did disturb me, though, was how much I identify with Sasha. Okay, not currently, thank God, but when I was younger. If I had lived alone in 1930s Paris, leaving what friends or family I had behind in England, the same things would have gone through my mind, and my life might have been a lot like hers. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is a similar novel, though its protagonist isn’t so terrifically lonely. I guess I just tend to identify with Jean Rhys’s characters, and that’s why I like her so much.


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