ABCs of 1001 Books: Invisible Man

A – I anticipated that Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison would be a harrowing read, and it was, but not in the ways I expected. I expected the narrator to face the constant, demeaning racism that I’ve read about in other books written and/or set in America in the mid-1900s, but many of the situations in the book are extreme and nightmarish, full of more insanity and horror than fear and sorrow. It was difficult to keep reading with the anticipation that the narrator would keep encountering the worst case scenario and the worst of humanity.

B – I am grateful that I didn’t read this novel before, in high school or college. It would have disturbed me even more deeply then because, like the young adult narrator, I was figuring out my fundamental worldview. Now my strong beliefs help me emotionally and intellectually process challenging books like this.

C – The main character is the unnamed, self-proclaimed invisible man, the first-person narrator.

D – The plot is everything that happened to him and that he did that led him to develop his worldview centered on the concept of his invisibility. He is kicked out of college for a nightmarish mistake, goes to New York because of what he soon realizes is the deception of a former mentor, makes more mistakes at a factory job, stumbles into a nightmarish conflict at the factory, nearly dies and undergoes a nightmarish healing at a hospital, has a little respite at a kind woman’s boarding house, joins a political organization he calls the Brotherhood that he thinks is the answer to everything, figures out they’re not, and literally goes to live underground after experiencing a nightmarish night of race riots during which he threw a spear through a rival’s face.

E – The plot structure is episodic in ways I associate with older novels such as Gulliver’s Travels or Zorba the Greek. The main character goes from place to place, encountering people and problems, but with no clear objective other than survival. I don’t mind this structure in nonfiction because it can be life-like, but in fiction I often find it tedious.

F – Reading this reminded me of a random French satire I read in a high school theater course. Candide by Voltaire follows the characters as they go on a journey for a purpose I don’t remember and meet the worst of mankind who treat them in the worst possible ways. Both Voltaire’s satire and Ellison’s novel left me thinking the writer wrote this not to tell a story so much as to express utter contempt and disgust for society, government, religion, history, economics, humanity, and basically all of creation.

G – A glass eye makes an appearance and startles the narrator. Look forward to that on your first read.

H – I started thinking that Ellison assumes a knowledge of history in the way he vaguely references famous people, events, and fashion trends, but then I realized that he set the novel in his contemporary period. So he likely didn’t feel the need to explain “the Founder” of the college or the politics of “the Brotherhood” any more than someone writing in the 2010s would feel the need to explain McDonald’s or a cellphone.

I – A member of the Brotherhood says, “And sometimes the difference between individual and organized indignation is the difference between criminal and political action” (293). An intriguing thought.

J – I felt the urge to censor my honest judgment of this novel when I first started writing this post because I know that I don’t “get it” and that it doesn’t matter that I don’t “get it.” Ellison bravely expressed the views of an African American, working-class man in a time when that type of view was being actively, violently oppressed. The cultural relevance of this novel and this author can’t be denied. But with full recognition that my judgment is not relevant, I’m going to be honest about it because it’s all I have.

K – I lost track of how many people were killed in the novel not because there were all that many but because some scenes became very chaotic and I didn’t want to re-read them closely to clear up my confusion about the people’s fates.

L – Ellison has an admirable dexterity with language, incorporating realistic dialogue, academic speeches, impromptu speeches, and narrative stream-of-consciousness.

M – The narrator’s misogyny is disgusting. He has affairs with two different married women and then bemoans the trouble they cause, as if he had no part in it. Gross.

20180731_200905N – To the right is a picture of my casual post-it note method of note-taking. I put two or three post-its on the cover page. I write a page number and sometimes a paragraph and then a few words to show what content/idea can be found there.

O – You should watch Get Out. It is simultaneously a wry social commentary on black-white relations in America, a laugh-out-loud comedy, and a genuinely suspenseful horror movie. I thought of some of the absurdly, infuriatingly ignorant things white characters say in that movie while reading a dinner party scene in Invisible Man.

P – The petty arguments between the narrator and other members of the Brotherhood remind me of office politics as much as government politics. Get any group of people together and they’ll criticize one another and sabotage one another. Even if they can agree on a common goal, there will always be disputes on how to get there, especially as it relates to whose ideas to follow.

Q – A quote from the last sentence of Drew Milne’s entry on Invisible Man in 1001 Books: “Fierce, defiant, and utterly funny, Ellison’s tone mixes various idioms and registers to produce an impassioned inquiry into the politics of being” (478). I agree with every part of that assessment except “utterly funny.” It’s very-conditionally funny, with humor I might describe as dark, philosophical, or sporadic.

R – My favorite new website, NoveList Plus, provides read-alikes for titles and authors. The read-alike authors for Ellison are William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Lorraine Hansberry, Salman Rushdie, and Robert Penn Warren. I feel fortunate to have read works from all but three of them, Haley, Rushdie, and Warren.

S – The narrator doesn’t reveal much about his personal interests or skills, but his ability to make inspiring speeches plays a part in the plot more than once.

T – One of Ellison’s commentaries on his contemporary culture comes in poetic descriptions of people the narrator calls “men of transition.”

U – The other men in the Brotherhood continuously argue about scientific versus unscientific approaches to their work, especially when referring to how they relate to “the mob” of people they’re trying to win support from. These discussions are too vague to be interesting. But maybe that’s the point, that organizations like this are arguing about nothing?

V – It’s immeasurably sad that a black character’s violent death at the hands of police officer could have happened yesterday, seventy years after the novel’s initial publication. I wish I knew what part I could play in making sure that violence is a thing of the past when it reaches its one hundredth anniversary. 20180731_200810

W – The edition of the novel I read published by Vintage International in 1995 has a pleasant shape, jacket cover texture, and weight that I associate with reprints of novels for bookclubs.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – I couldn’t think of a word, so I typed “y” into the search bar at dictionary.com and found a wealth of random information, including some amusing lines in the “historical examples” section. One surprisingly pertinent example: “‘I can’t find anything in Y to finish this up with,’ he said at last.” from Tip Lewis and His Lamp by Pansy.

Z – Zelie is the main character in Tomi Adeyemi’s excellent teen fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone. My hold on the novel happened to come through the week I started this post. Adeyemi writes in her afterword that police violence against African American children was an inspiration for her story.

ABCs of 1001 Books: Herzog

A – When I attempted to listen to an audiobook version of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I realized within two minutes that I couldn’t. Bellow’s prose style is dense and complex, deftly weaving the story from threads of Herzog’s inner monologues, detailed flashbacks, letters Herzog writes, and Herzog’s present actions. I needed to have the full concentration of physical book reading to appreciate the book.

B – Bellow is a fun last name for an author. Like a symbol that this author’s words have the dramatic resonance to equal the sonic resonance of a bellowing voice.

C – “Character study” is the brief note I took for this novel when I added to my to-read list from Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Best Novels list. Those two words do encompass it accurately. The novel is narrowly focused on Herzog’s inner thoughts and the world as he experiences it.

D – The plot could be summed up as how Herzog behaves and thinks after his divorce from his second wife, Madelaine. Herzog travels impulsively as a ping pong ball among different cities while his ex remains in Chicago with their daughter, Junie, and Herzog’s former best friend, Valentine, a married man who has been having an affair with Madelaine.

E – I enjoy the physical experience of reading a paperpack from the 1960s with brittle, yellowing pages. But this experience is often marred by the dirt-grabbing plastic on the covers. I’m glad the publishing industry changed its materials.Blog Herzog

F – My friend Jennifer blogs for the Friends of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. I thought of her post on dog-earing as I tried out that method for keeping track of passages to re-read before I blog. It’s a lazier and less effective method than one I’ve developed for studying that uses post-it notes, so I probably won’t use it again.

G – Bellow may have been a fan of Chekhov because he introduces a literal gun early in the narrative that later creates plot tension and a point of reversal for Herzog. (I recommend this TV tropes article for a fun tangent on narrative concepts related to Chekhov’s gun.)

H – I pictured Herzog played by an aging Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman can play characters with charm and whininess, bravado and self-effacement, world-weariness and interpersonal befuddlement.

I – By making his main character a literature professor, Bellow can include some wry commentary on that intellectual type. Here is an example that occurs while Herzog watches a random criminal’s trial. “I fail to … but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better – understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?” (238)

J – I found my usual judgement of a novel’s worthiness suspended as I read because I got caught up in Bellow’s style. I instantly understood why this book is on so many “best” lists, so I was able to click off that part of my English-major brain and enjoy the flow.

K – I won’t say if anyone is killed in the course of the novel because the highest point of dramatic tension is the question of whom Herzog might kill, intentionally or accidentally, with that gun of his.

L – I love the narrative technique of using letters the protagonist writes but never sends to develop the protagonists’ character. It’s a technique easily abused, but Bellow, of course, handles it deftly. Each letter reveals something different about Herzog, not just his thoughts but his family, his past, his context within the real historical period, and so much more.

M – Coincidentally, I recently listened to an audiobook of Sharon Owens’ The Tea House on Mulberry Street, a modern novel that also uses the letter-writing narrative technique. I liked Owens’ use of it until the third act when the letters are actually sent and the result is fairy-tale unrealistic, marring what was otherwise an enjoyably realistic story.

N – Coincidentally, the narrator of this novel may be suffering bouts of insanity, just like the narrator of the last novel I read for this project, The Gathering by Anne Enright. A difference in Bellow’s novel is that other characters question Herzog’s mental state and it recurs as a plot point, whereas Veronica has only one fleeting moment of asking herself if she’s “mad” and other characters remain unawares.

O – Herzog’s observations about his friends, family, and acquaintances strike me as relatable, not because I’ve had any thoughts remotely like them but simply because his observations cause him to frequently reassess what he thinks of people as he notices or reinterprets aspects of their dress, speech, or actions.

P – If I were to attempt to write a longer, more literary analysis of this novel, I would probably concentrate on Bellow’s perception of a concept he calls “potato love,” figuring out what type of love he means and what he might be trying to say about all kinds of love. Here are two examples of Herzog thinking of potato love. “Hearts quaking with cheap and feeble charity or oozing potato love have not written history” (77). “Having discovered that everyone must be indulgent with bungling child-men, pure hearts in the burlap of innocence, and willingly accepting the necessary quota of consequent lies, he had set himself up with his emotional goodies – truth, friendship, devotion to children (the regular American worship of kids), and potato love” (266).

Q – I’ve had to resist the urge to put a quote in every letter for this book. Bellow’s prose style is just so lyrical!

R – Ramona is the character I would examine closely if I had to choose one to write about for, say, an English paper. She seems like a woman very much of her time period because she is a woman trying so hard not to be a stereotypical woman of her time period.

S – Bellow employs wonderful similes for everyday things. Here’s an example: “In the rink, the players mixed like hornets – swift, padded, yellow, black, red, rushing, slashing, whirling over the ice. Above the rink the tobacco smoke lay like a cloud of flash powder, explosive” (35).

T – Bharat Tandon wrote the entry for Herzog in 1001 Books. I read it after the novel and agree with Tandon’s final words: “Herzog comes to recognize how life is always bigger than the shapes we impose on it, and, in following him, we may have a parallel experience” (583).

U – I’m glad I waited to read Tandon’s description of Herzog until after I read the novel because the first sentence labels the novel “a comedy of manners and ideas, loss and partial redemption” (583). I might have experienced the novel differently if I went in thinking of it as a comedy.

V – A lesson learned from reading this: if you have a friend named Valentine, don’t let your wife/girlfriend/daughter/mother anywhere near him. Valentine? Might as well be named Romeo, Casanova, Don Juan. Come on.

W – A warning: don’t read the plot summary from Wikipedia. It gives away everything!

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – I enjoy how Herzog’s lengthy intellectual and emotional ruminations often yield to intrusions from his physical environment, which Bellow describes with arresting specificity. An example: “It was a winter of rocklike ice. The pond like a slab of halite – green, white, resonant ice, bitterly ringing underfoot. The trickling mill dam froze in twisting pillars. The elms, giant harp shapes, made cracking noises” (127).

Z – Herzog’s ex-wife has an aunt named Zelda, which is a zippy, fun name that seems to have gone out of style in America sometime after World War II and now may never be brought back because of the popular video game series with that title. Herzog also has an aunt with a melodious Z name, Zipporah.

ABCs of 1001 Books: The Gathering

A – Although there were several other books in the Gs that appealed to me more, I chose The Gathering by Anne Enright because the others did not have audiobook versions, and Enright’s did. Novels with an introspective, first-person narrator lend themselves well to this format.

B – As an added bonus, the audiobook’s reader, Terry Donnelly, has a pleasing Irish lilt that enhances the lyricism of the narrator’s often dark thoughts.

C – A caution: this book is very sexually frank. I don’t say “explicit” because the narrator’s commentary on sex isn’t meant to titillate the reader. She has frankly negative views toward sex. She also, disturbingly, wonders about the romantic and sexual lives of her grandparents. These passages reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which is a novel I would highly recommend (while The Gathering is not).

D – Writing this post now, I have considerable emotional distance because I read Enright’s novel over two months ago. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write this one is my belief in the axiom: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

E – Enright has described her novel as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy” (1001 Books 940). I read it to figure out what that even means.

F – Although Veronica is a strong first-person narrator, the novel is equally about the large Hegarty family, including Veronica’s parents, siblings, and grandparents.

G – The family gathers for the wake of Veronica’s brother, Liam. His suicide relates to the “weepy” part of Enright’s quote, and the slow revelation of the family’s dramatic secrets comprises the “Hollywood” parts.

H – This is a somewhat historical novel because Veronica imagines her grandparents’ lives with both psychological and historically rich detail.

I – Very early in my listening I found myself wondering, “Is this narrator insane?” Her disturbed thoughts seem to go deeper than the recent grief of losing her brother to suicide. Her negativity distorts everything in her life, from the way she relates to her husband to the way she lives in her house. Eventually Veronica asks herself if she’s insane and basically concludes she does not care if she is. So I guess that answers my question.

J – One thing I’ve come to realize while writing this blog is that my experience of each book is tied to my judgment of how “worthwhile” I deem the story to be. Does this story “deserve” to be told? Do I feel like a better person because I’ve read it, because I’ve “born witness” to the fictionalized sorrows and frustrations of this certain type of person? By this arbitrary judgment, I can decide that I like reading a book when I don’t enjoy reading it. By this arbitrary judgment, Down Second Avenue is “worthwhile” because it tells the story of a poor, oppressed African person and The Gathering is “not worthwhile” because it tells the story of a middle-class, privileged Irish person. Now that I’m aware of this judgment, I must resist it. I want to believe that every story is “worthwhile” because I do believe that every person is intrinsically valuable.

K – No one is physically killed in the course of the novel, but if negative thoughts could kill, Veronica would be quite the prolific criminal. Even the brother she loves can’t escape her criticism.

L – I wouldn’t want to live in Veronica’s pessimistic mind. She notices and is disturbed by so many little details.

M – I tend to listen to audiobooks in the morning, while I take my dog for a fifteen minute walk and then prepare our breakfasts. But Veronica’s narration would have darkened my day, so I chose a different morning audiobook and parceled out this novel in fifteen or thirty minute chunks in the evening, when I felt more mentally fortified against it.

N – My negative reaction could be seen as praise for Enright’s stylistic prowess. Enright deftly puts the reader inside Veronica’s thoughts, emotions, and memories.

O – I did enjoy the parts of the book that revealed observations about how the siblings interacted and what it’s like, in both emotional and practical ways, to grow up in a large family.

P – With a publication date of 2007, this is the first book I’ve read that was written in my lifetime. Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to visit Dublin, the author’s city, for a week in the spring of that year.

Q – I would describe the narrator, and therefore the author, as having a quick wit, but a back jacket summary puts it better by stating that Enright’s “distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction.” (I picked up a paperback version published in the US by Black Cat as a reference for writing this post.)

R – Another reason I picked this novel from the 1001 Books list was my desire to read modern Irish literature. I enjoyed the glimpses of Irish culture and history I got from reading classics and Angela’s Ashes in college.

S – I like that books considered great literature can be on the extremes of the specificity continuum. You can have a novel people love because it compellingly expresses the experiences of particular people in a particular time and place. Or you can have a novel people love because it eloquently expresses experiences that readers can relate to regardless of time and place. Enright’s novel likely falls in the second category for the people who like it. The novel is not all that specific to the setting of Ireland because of its intense focus on characterization and family drama.

T – A tanka composed of phrases from The Gathering. (Read this page for a good explanation of this poetic form by poets.org.)

I write, or I don’t,

Liam’s story, always

At cross purposes

That may not have taken place,

The seeds of my brother’s death.

U – An example of Veronica’s disturbingly unhinged perspective is the recurring hallucination of a corpse following her. A corpse that she insists is not her brother’s and sees in places such as the front seat of her car.

V – The narrator has an interesting view of her mother, introduced in the second chapter when Veronica states that she sometimes doesn’t remember her mother even though her mother remains alive. You almost wonder if her insistence on her mother’s impermanence is a delusion to protect herself from acknowledging all the ways her mother has negatively affected her.

W – The Wikipedia article for this novel is labeled as a stub. So if you like to contribute to Wikipedia, that could be a reason to read this difficult book.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – If you have read this novel, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments.

Z – Although there are twelve Hegarty siblings, none of them have a name that starts with Z.

ABCs of 1001 Books: A Fine Balance

A – What attracted me to Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is that it is a novel set in India written by a native of the country. I’ve only read books set in India written by British or American men, most notably E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and John Irving’s A Son of the Circus, and most recently Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I knew this would give very different insights into the culture of the country in 1975.

B – The balance in the title is of course a thematic one, stated by a classic novel-character: the wise person who randomly shows up in more than one person’s life and offers valuable insights. I’ll leave it up to you to read the novel to learn what two things this character thinks life is a fine balance between.

C – The novel has a large cast of characters as the author describes the family and friends of the four main characters either as they are introduced or before they are introduced. In brief, Ishvar and Omprakash are downtrodden tailors who go to work in a home business run by a downtrodden widow, Dina, who also takes in a friend’s college-age son, Maneck, as a boarder. More on each to follow.

D – Dina is my favorite. Even though I can’t relate to her as an orphan and widow, I can relate to her as a single woman trying to maintain financial and physical independence in an economy that favors families and property owners. Although the some might view the change of heart she goes through in the middle of the novel as predictable, I see it as hopeful.

E – The novel shows the life-altering effects of the Emergency on everyday citizens who had no hand in the political decisions that led to it. Most of the characters have no strong political opinions but are trying to survive with their values in tact. As with Junot Diaz and Ezekiel Mphahlele’s novels, I learned about historical, real-world problems that I was ignorant of before. (A blatant plug for reading to learn – do it!)

F – “Fine” is a funny word. Everyone kind of knows but doesn’t verbally acknowledge that although fine used an adjective to describe yourself is supposed to mean you’re well or all right, what it actually means is you want everyone to think of you and respond to you as if you are all right when you’re really not. It also has conflicting dictionary definitions. “Of high quality.” “Good; satisfactory.”“Of imposing or dignified appearance or size.” “(of speech or writing) sounding impressive and grand but ultimately insincere.” So is “fine” a good or bad thing to be? Oh the ridiculously versatile English language.

G – Although it is not a gigantic book at 603 pages, I spent almost a month reading it. But during that time I also read two books for graduate courses and listened to five audiobooks, including the audiobook for my next blog entry.20180531_115554

H – A haiku for Dina:

  • Reluctantly shared 
  • household, family, food, stories, then self:
  • quilting family.

 

 

I – Ishvar is the most stable character. Some may think this makes him boring, that he doesn’t change throughout the events of the novel, isn’t dynamic. But I think it’s interesting to see how a character with clear values continuously honors them through both mundane and horrific troubles.

J – Mistry has another novel, Such a Long Journey, which is set in India in the 1970s and deals with the political corruption through a character more directly involved in it. If you’ve read it, let me know if it’s worth a read.

K – Manek’s father, referred to by his surname Kohlah, is a minor but memorable character. The sections from his perspective provide both a context and a contrast for Manek’s choices and life in the city.

L – I appreciate how Mistry links each main character’s life inextricably with the life of at least one family member. This is a reality about life that I think many modern American writers ignore, presenting protagonists only within the contexts of their work, friends, and/or romantic relationships and treating family relationships as mere backstory, just character-building.

M – I have mixed feelings about Manek. I could identify with him somewhat as a young person going to college and opening his eyes to corruption and hardships through a friendship with a political activist. His conflicts with his parents, although sad and frustrating, made sense. I don’t understand his actions in the final chapters of the novel. Maybe I refuse to understand.

N – I partially agree with this back-cover quote from the New York Times: “[Rohinton Mistry] needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is magical.” I agree that Mistry’s writing vivifies real life. I don’t agree that the effect is to make real life look magical. Mistry’s details are vivid, gritty, grounded, enticingly specific.

O – Omprakash, nicknamed Om, is not as well-developed through thoughts as the other three main characters. That’s not to say he’s a flat character; he simply doesn’t have the same rich inner world as the others. He’s eighteen at the novel’s start, and Mistry builds him up from the angry teenager archetype. His loyalty to his uncle Ishvar keeps him from being completely annoying to me.

P – The picture on the edition of the paperback I read (and that you will see first thing in a Google search for the title) is of a child balancing on a pole with a background of clouds. It’s clearly a visual metaphor to reinforce the title. I don’t have any strong feelings about it.

Q – Before the table of contents, Mistry includes a quote from Honoré de Balzac’s Le Pére Goriot which in brief accusing the reader of insensitivity and insisting the story is true. It does seem insensitive to just go on about my life after reading a book about such suffering, suffering that did not in its specifics happen but which happens in our world. But what can I do but go on? And try not to be the cause of that suffering?

R – Rajaram, a minor character and friend to Ishvar and Om, probably changes the most throughout the novel. He collects and sells hair. At first this isn’t too weird, but later… whoa.

S – I love this quote about storytelling, from when Dina is listening to the wise fool, Valmik. “His sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without calling attention to the stitches. Was he aware of ordering events for her? Perhaps not – perhaps the very act of telling created a natural design. Perhaps it was a knack that humans had, for cleaning up their untidy existences – a hidden survival weapon, like antibodies in the bloodstream” (555). So many rich metaphors!

T – Every character drinks tea. It’s not only a social connector, giving people something to do while they talk, but also a social equalizer, enjoyed by people of all classes.

U – “Rigorously unsentimental and full of black humor, A Fine Balance, takes the reader through a vicious and sometimes carnivalesque world of poverty and utter powerlessness” (857). This quote from 1001 Books captures the novel’s tone and overall topic more eloquently than I have.

V – Vasantrao Valmik is a minor character and compelling storyteller. I’d like to spend a train ride with him.

W – As has become usual, the Wikipedia article on this book helped me write this blog post, mostly with its list of the many characters. There are “multiple issues” with the article’s research, sources, and citations. So if you’re reading this post because you’re already familiar with the novel, maybe you can help edit that article.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – There tends to be one letter in every entry that defies my attempts at creativity, and in this entry it is Y.

Z – Here are two fantastic Z-names: Zenobia (female) and Zarir (male).

ABCs of 1001 Books: Everything that Rises Must Converge

A – I chose this book because Flannery O’Connor is an author on an “I want to read everything written by” list I’ve been keeping since I was a teenager. During the weeks that I was reading this hardback copy of O’Connor’s short story collection, I was listening to audiobook versions of the last three books in Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet series. I’d picked these short middle school novels not only because Lowry is another author on that everything list but also as a respite after finishing the 18-hour audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s magnificent, intricate Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for a graduate school literature class. The series turned out to be a welcome contrast to O’Conner’s book as well. I don’t know if you could find another pair of writers more opposite in tone or thematic density than O’Connor and Lowry.

B – Lowry and O’Connor made it onto that everything list for works I’d read before in school. I read Lowry’s The Giver in elementary school, as many students in my generation did. It’s on my short list of novels I have read more than once because the 2014 release of a movie version reminded me how enjoyable my first reading experience had been. It’s worth an adult re-read. (The other three books in the series, alas, are not.)

C – In college, I read O’Connor’s well-known, lengthy short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” If you haven’t read it, do so as soon as you finish this post. If you think the beginning is boring, conventional, or annoyingly mundane, keep going. It’s worth it.

D – One of the stories, “Revelation,” takes place mostly in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. You might assume this would make for boring narration, but O’Connor cleverly develops Mrs. Turpin through her thoughts and dialogue. Like many of O’Connor’s flawed characters, Mrs. Turpin may not be likable, but you can’t say you don’t understand her.

E – “Everything that rises must converge” is not a phrase used in the titular story. It isn’t readily apparent to me why that is the title based on either the plot or what I see as the thematic issues it takes up. In an introduction, Robert Fitzgerald gives the vague explanation that the phrase comes from Teilhard de Chardin and was “taken in full respect and with profound and necessary irony” (xxx).

F – It may seem remiss to write about O’Connor’s work without writing about her faith. She is known as a Catholic writer as well as a Southern American writer. Anyone reading her stories can see she’s concerned with religious beliefs, even if it’s difficult to pin down her various meanings and messages. But I want to keep these ABCs blog posts secular, so this is the only time I will mention her faith. (If you would like to read about her faith and writing, here is an intriguing article, which I’ve admittedly only skimmed.)

G – “Greenleaf” centers on a woman’s conflicts with her neighbors, the Greenleaf family. The dangerous bull here is an excellent example of O’Connor’s ability to imbue very concrete and vividly described physical objects and moments with tantalizing symbolism.

H – It shows my dedication to this author that I read a hardcover version covered in plastic. I hate those plastic covers. This one has a plain white background that accumulates dirt like scotch tape, in a thin film you can’t completely brush off. I usually take off such plastic and then restore it with my own tape when I’m done. But someone must’ve glued down the cover of this edition from 1966, so I had to put up with over five decades of tiny filth.

I – Many of the stories end with an act of violence that O’Connor somehow makes both unpredictable and inevitable. After reading the first, titular story, you do come to expect some violent turn, but exactly what it will be or what it will reveal is difficult to predict. An aspect of brilliant storytelling.

J – In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Johnson is a troubled teenager taken in by Sheppard, the single father of a ten year-old boy named Norton. The dynamic is such that you wonder who will do the other more damage – the clueless, self-righteous Sheppard or the adamantly deviant Johnson. Then of course it is the innocent, ketchup and peanut butter on chocolate cake eating Norton who suffers the consequences of his dad’s choices.

K – Due to some ambiguous endings, it is hard to say the exact number of characters killed in the stories. There are at least four violent deaths. Add three more if you’re a pessimist.

L – I’m glad I got this particular edition of the book from the Cincinnati Public Library because it was published a year after her early death from lupus and contains a well-written introduction about her life and work from a friend of hers named Robert Fitzgerald. I always wait until after I’ve read a work to read any introduction, even one written by the author, because I hate even the hint of a spoiler. Sometimes I forget to read it, but I am very glad I didn’t this time.

M – Three of the stories, including the titular one, involve a mother in conflict with her son. You might expect O’Connor to take the mother’s side, but she actually chooses to narrate only the sons’ thoughts in detail. Yet through sophisticated narration you can see how each son is actually as flawed and misguided as he thinks his mother is.

N – Flannery is one of those old-fashioned names that seems perfect for a wise, stately woman but is hard to imagine for a child. Like Edith or Florence.

O – O’Connor uses an evocative comparison when describing a character’s first sense that his life is not just ordinary but may have a deeper meaning. “It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed” (223).

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P – I’m a big fan of the pointy tips on this font. It fits O’Connor’s unsafe stories.

Q – This quote from the first paragraph of “Revelation” shows off O’Connor’s flair for descriptions” “The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous” (191).

R – The racism of O’Connor’s time and location is present throughout the stories. O’Connor reveals the troubled ways in which her white main characters interact with black characters, especially the ways in which the white people pride themselves on how polite and accommodating they’re being when the reader can see they’re really being condescending and belittling.

S – In the one blurb on the back cover of this edition, Thomas Merton praises O’Connor by comparing her to Sophocles. Merton states, “I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.” I agree; she is an eminent tragedian.

T – A back tattoo is the central symbol in “Parker’s Back.” The story presents the desperation and frustration of a character with a tangled mess of motives trying to understand himself, change himself, and reveal himself to another person.

U – “Judgment Day” shows a rural Southerner’s fears of alienation and misunderstanding in an urban center through its setting in an apartment complex in New York City.

V – “A View of the Woods” has arguably the easiest deeper meaning to decipher – the conflict between generations and classes as shown in the main character’s arguments with his granddaughter about whether to sell part of his land. However, O’Connor throws in her trademark nuances of misguided motives and petty violence to make the meaning more slippery.

W – Warning: Don’t read O’Connor’s stories if you only like stories in which you can sympathize with the main characters. O’Connor’s characters are real in a sense that may make you cringe. But it’s a realness that I believe is worth confronting through reading.

X – O’Connor had nine chances, but she did not put a xylophone in any of these stories.

Y – I have not yet read O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away or all of the stories in her collection titled A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I remember enjoying the humor in Wise Blood, her other book that made it on the 1001 Books list, when I read it in high school. I am glad to have half of her body of fiction work still to enjoy. There are also collections of her essays on writing, letters to friends, and journals that I could check out.

Z – O’Connor has a random connection to the Cincinnati Zoo. She kept peacocks on her family’s farm during the last years of her life when her illness kept her confined. (FYI for those who have never been: the Cincinnati Zoo has peacocks that just roam around as they please.)

ABCs of 1001 Books: Down Second Avenue

A – I did read the description of Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue before picking this novel (unlike with Pynchon’s book), and I was intrigued that it is an autobiographical account of Mphahlele’s life under apartheid in South Africa during the 1920s through 1950s. It reads more like a series of essays in a memoir than like a traditional novel.

B – As a former and aspiring teacher, I was especially interested in the sections that describe the problems the main character, Ezekiel, and his fellow teachers faced after the passage of the Bantu Education Act. When all the African teachers at his school were fired for being African, many students stayed out of school to protest. And the teachers were arrested! They were accused of “inciting the boycott and consequently public violence” (168). The teachers were in jail for 4 days, but were later acquitted. Mphahlele covers this event in about two paragraphs, none of which describe the emotions of anyone involved. But I guess I can’t really capture my emotions reading it. Shock? Empathy? Outrage? Just, yeah… real life…just, yeah.

C – There seems to be confusion about whether this book is an autobiographical novel or an actual memoir. The editors of 1001 Books include it as fiction, as does Mphahlele’s article on Wikipedia. However, several of the websites that appear on the first page of my Google search for “down second avenue” label the book a memoir, including sites produced by Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin Random House. I wonder if he had to publish it as an autobiographical novel because he would have gotten in more trouble for a memoir or maybe simply because it was easier to get novels published than memoirs in 1959.

D – The level of detail varies considerably from chapter to chapter so that some incidents that seem the most emotional and dynamic are glossed over in a sentence while other incidents that seem more mild and everyday are given pages of description with dialogue.

E – The author later changed his name to Es’kia, but Ezekiel is the name on the edition I read and was his name when he wrote the book. The narrator’s name is also Ezekiel, though it is very rarely mentioned.

F – I should have published this post on the fourth Friday in February. It’s late because I had difficulty writing it, sorting my thoughts and emotions.

G – The narrator’s grandmother plays a prominent role in the first half of the novel. The family lived all together on Second Avenue. She’s a complicated character as presented through the narrator’s complicated love.

H – Another shocking historical event that the narrator mentions is that students set fire to their schools as part of political protests. The narrator says of one of the schools he attended, “Adams College itself lost its beautiful high-school and library buildings: they were gutted by fire” (146). But he doesn’t go into detail about these types of events because, he admits, at the time his “own political consciousness was vague – in an intellectual sense” and he “shut everything out” because he was obsessed with not failing in his studies to become a teacher (146).blogDowncover

I – Unlike the previous two books, this one’s cover illustration actually fits the story. It’s a simple sketch of box-like houses in a row as viewed through the bare window. It captures the stark poverty of the titular Second Avenue as the narrator experienced it.

J – When the narrator works as a journalist and literary editor for a magazine in Johannesburg, he has a vision for the magazine. He explains that the magazine “had plunged into a reading world which hadn’t developed any definite magazine taste (the non-European readership); that it should produce healthy material in an original style wherever possible and, in a sense, dictate what the public should read, without necessarily being snobbish and intellectual” (187). But he doesn’t always get to carry out his vision because of pressure from the higher ups to follow old policy and appeal to vulgar tastes. This part stood out to me because, sadly, I think many writers in many countries who work for magazines – or other pop-culture-driven media like television – find this kind of tension.

K – The narrator knows several people who were killed or became killers under the pressure of racism. He tells their stories with brevity and dignity.

L – One of the many frustrations the narrator feels as a teacher is having to teach the Afrikaan language. He states, “I taught Afrikaans as a mere duty, and it was a most painful thing for me to feel that, together with my pupils, I was caught up in a situation where a language had been thrust upon us which was the instrument of our oppression and the source of our humiliation” (166).

M – From the ages of 5 to 13, the narrator lives in a village called Maupaneng. He reflects on recollections of his childhood in a poetic passage: “I had nobody to shape them into a definite pattern. Searching through the confused threads of that pattern a few things keep imposing themselves on my whole judgment. My grandmother; the mountain; the tropical darkness which glow-worms seemed to try in vain to scatter; long black tropical snakes; the brutal Leshoana river carrying on its broad back trees, cattle, boulders; world of torrential rains; the solid shimmering heat beating down on yearning earth; the romantic picture of a woman with a child on her back and an earthen pot on her head, silhouetted against the mirage” (16-17).

N – The narrator expresses in his graduate thesis what I guess is Mphalele’s opinion on South African national literature. He writes, “Non-whites live in locations, or in the Reserves, or work for whites in towns and on farms, where they are either labour tenants or squatters. There can hardly be a healthy common culture in conditions that isolate whole communities and make social and economic intercourse difficult or impossible. And the problem of a national culture is per se the problem of a national literature. It must remain sectional and sterile as long as such conditions prevail” (196).

O – Seven obituaries from 2008 dominate the thirteen sources of the Wikipedia article for Mphahlele.

P – Mphahlele clearly describes the plodding tediousness and degrading nature of the pass system under apartheid. African men needed a pass, also known as a passport or reference book, in order to just travel around their own cities in the regular course of their day.

Q – I’m including so many quotations from this book because I just admire Mphahlele’s strength in being able to write out of and about such a life of struggle, suffering, repression, frustration.

R – I would recommend this book to anyone who likes realistic, unsentimental personal histories.

blogDowntornpageS – The paperback edition I borrowed from the library was published by Seven Seas Books in Berlin, Germany in 1962. It has the most dry, brittle pages of any book I’ve ever read. Here and there as I turned a page, a piece would come away under my fingers, soundlessly, more like the breaking of brick than the tearing of paper. The torn edges look bitten, as if trying to visually display the metaphoric way I devoured this book.

T – The narrator describes white oppression as “a tragedy the most decent of us are caught up in whether they like it or not” (178). He does have some white friends who acknowledge this problem and work to resist it. The first step is acknowledgment.

U – There’s a universality to the way Mphahlele describes the people of Second Avenue in the first half of the book. They seem like they could be anyone’s neighbor anywhere, with their petty worries, wry cleverness, fickle affections, and touching forbearance.

V – My view of Mphahlele’s characters is echoed halfway through the books in critical reviews of the narrator’s short stories. But the critic expresses it better: “Thus his stories give us not economic or political theories about human beings, but real people; frail noble mortality, unchanging through the centuries beneath all their apparent alteration” (164).

W – Towards the end of the novel, the narrator explains why he has to leave South Africa in order to write. He tells a friend, “I’m sick of protest creative writing and our South African situation has become a terrible cliche as literary material. It’s just a continuous battle to feed and clothe a family amid the yells of mad white men who are doing all to stop me and sap my energy so that I’ve nothing left for writing” (211). I admire Mphahlele for including an opinion that others might look down on, but that is really understandable.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – You should read this book; you’d probably get even more out of it than I can describe here.

Z – The narrator includes the political opinions of his friends such as Zeph who espouse views different from his own. This inclusion adds both realism and balance to his life story.

ABCs of 1001 Books: The Crying of Lot 49

A – I was about 30 pages into my 183 page version of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 when I began to suspect it would be a novel of the absurd. I don’t remember if this is an official literary term, but I use the word “absurd” because the characters act in random ways and the plot is compelled by coincidences rather than by traditional notions of narrative plot development or human motivation and manners.

B – As a novel of the absurd, it is redeemed by its brevity.

C – The main character is Oedipa Maas, a woman married to Wendell “Mucho” Maas, who unexpectedly finds herself the executor of the will of one of her previous lovers, Pierce Inverarity.

D – “Things then did not delay in turning curious.” This sentence starts the third chapter. I found it while skimming back through the pages in the process of writing this blog post. It sums up the whole novel really.

E – I chose this novel from the 1001 Books list mostly for its use of the evocative word “crying” with the bluntly physical noun “lot.” However, I suspected the title would be more poetic than whatever the lot turned out to be within the story. This suspicion was correct. I was not correct in guessing the lot would be a parking lot.

F – I felt an affinity for Mucho’s horror and despair that came from working as a used car salesman (in a lot that is not the titular Lot 49). It’s not a central part of the novel, but typical of Pynchon’s metaphorical commentary on his contemporary society. Mucho “could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else’s life” (14). I work in different profession, but I empathize with how Mucho feels as he watches people grasping for hope in material things that he knows from experience won’t satisfy their desires for meaning and identity.

G – I did many Google searches as I reflected on this novel, especially wondering which characters, places, and events were based in reality versus Pynchon’s imagination. These searches made me realize how famous this novel must be (or at least once was) because the first page of results invariably included links to sites about this novel, even for the historically real things.

H – It’s at once a novel about general ideas and a novel very much situated in a particular period of American history. Although the setting is the 1960s, Pynchon weaves in references to World War II in creative and surreal ways. A movie on a hotel TV. Bones transported to a commercial lake. Veterans weeping in stairways and under overpasses.

I – Inverarity is a name with both vocal and thematic resonance. Or maybe it just seems that way to my Latin-infused mind that immediately sees “veritas” or “truth” as the root of this name. Inverarity just sounds cooler than Untruthful or Rarelytrue.

J – If I disobeyed the common maxim and judged a book by its cover, I would not have read this one. The edition I borrowed from the Cincinnati Public Library was published in 1986 by Perennial Library. It is a well-worn copy with a beige, hardback binding but the height and girth of a small paperback. The cover illustration shows four pairs of disembodied Caucasian hands hovering around a crumpled piece of paper with a strange symbol drawn on it. It put me in mind of a ouija board, a practice I don’t like to read about. Other than the symbol, I don’t think the illustration fits the novel.

K – Not including the ultra-violent slaughters of many characters in a play Oedipa sees, one person is killed in the course of the novel.

L – Some characters trip on LSD. It is not a good experience for any.

M – I didn’t understand why Oedipa’s husband was nicknamed “Mucho.”

N – I’m sure at least one scholar has had a field day analyzing the names of this novel’s characters in relation to that character’s choices. Inverarity. Doctor Hilarius. Mike Fallopian. Wharfinger. Driblette. Metzger seems the most normal name compared to these, but still isn’t a common name.

O – When I noticed the intentional significance of names in this novel, I became somewhat worried about what the main character, Oedipa, might eventually do. For those who may experience this same anxiety, I offer this reassuring spoiler: neither of Oedipa’s parents makes an appearance.

P – Have you ever thought of the U.S. Postal Service as a monopolizing force? If I’ve thought about the history at all, I’ve thought of UPS as providing a communication service that wasn’t there before. Pynchon goes into detail describing an alternate history of the UPS and other national postal systems battling and obliterating rival private messenger services. But at the same time Pynchon’s (hi)story isn’t really “about” the postal service.

Q – Like the cover illustration, this quote from the 1001 Books entry about the novel would have turned me off from reading it if I had read the entry before choosing to read it. “Oscillations between ideological absurdity and mediated superficiality sketch out a wasteland of seemingly empty but wildly proliferating signs, and the story careers from thought experiments to anarchist miracles” (596).

R – I don’t know if I would recommend this novel to anyone, but I don’t regret reading it. While at first I was annoyed with its absurdity, I started to enjoy it when I thought of it less as novel and more as a puzzle to sift through to figure out the philosophical worldview it represents.

S – Pynchon created his satirical California town of San Narciso in the 1960s, but it’s qualities are pretty much the same qualities that a modern author might use to satirize California in the 2010s.

T – I was surprised to discover in a Google search that Thurn and Taxis was actually a German royal family involved with postal service and still around (and very rich) today. They’re so famously connected with the postal service that a board game released in 2006 bears their name and has players creating postal networks in Bavaria. Who knew?

U – The characters have many unfulfilled expectations. Without giving away plot points, I’ll hint that various characters are disappointed by LSD, a radio station, and Sigmund Freud.

V – I read this novel in various locations and for varying amounts of time. On the bus to work and grad school. At a table in the break room. On the loveseat in my living room. Sometimes I read over thirty pages in one go while at others I read only two or three pages. Although taking small doses might seem to fit the episodic nature of the plot, I would recommend larger portions to really get the feel for the gonzo nature of the narrative.

W – As with names, some scholar has probably written about what Thomas Pynchon is trying to convey about the Word. He uses “the Word” not to mean holy scripture but more like the entire human endeavor to use words to make meaning. This coincides with my understanding that novels of the absurd come out of a worldview that values questioning absolutes while bewailing the confusion and despair that such questioning can cause.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – Yoyodyne is one of the clever names Pynchon invented. This one is for a tech company. Other authors have liked it as much as I do because Wikipedia lists many works of fiction that use it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoyodyne

Z – Pynchon’s novel definitely taps into the zeitgeist of the post-WWII intellectual culture. I wonder what today’s college students would get out of reading it.