Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mr. X

NOW READING: Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

OK, I know. I KNOW that technically the name "Gao Xingjian" is really like "Xingjian Gao" in the way we here in the West would say our names (not my usual U.S. West, but the Western West, as opposed to not Asian, basically). But have you ever tried to find authors, plural, whose last names begin with X from among which to choose the 24th book of your A-to-Z Literary Blog Project? I daresay you have not!

The whole starts-with-X thing has always bugged me. One of my most gigantic pet peeves in life -- I'm talking right up there with "PIN n****r" and people who say they "don't have a choice" about shopping at Walmart -- is when there is a game, children's book, motivational poster, or other list where there is one word for each letter of the alphabet A through Z and then when they get to X there is NEVER an appropriate word/item for the list that actually starts with X, so they put in something like "eXtremely _____." It is totally cheating. The way I see it, if you want to do the whole gimmicky A-is-for..., B-is-for.... thing, then you damn well better either need an X-ray or a xylophone, or just don't make the list in the first place.

So I have been aware for a while of the difficulties presented by 'X' and I have allowed myself to read Gao Xingjian because he totally meets all the other qualifications (being an author I have wanted to read etc.) and also because he is so shelved under X and I certainly did not think about that back in 'G' time (hello Nadine!) so otherwise Gao would not have a chance. And he deserves a chance to have me read him, don't you think? Even if he is not a xylophone.

The only other options I found, by the way, were also Chinese last names that are actually Chinese first names. One was some mystery author and one was a woman who apparently goes by the one name, like Cher or Madonna. She could be better or even worse for my 'X' name credibility, depending on how you look at it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Kings and Eggs

NOW FINISHED: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

I'm sure it is high time I pondered the relevance of the title All the King's Men. Now of course, we all can recite a little Humpty-Dumpty who had a great fall. And when you get to the end of Warren's book, the ways in which all of Willie Stark's men cannot put him together again are many and varied. Still, why that line in lieu of any others? Why a nursery rhyme at all? If I had a book group I might start the discussion by asking them these questions.

Speaking of book groups, I am jonesing for one right now. If I were settling anywhere I would start one. Instead I will just have to wait. This little blog of mine (I'm gonna let it shine) would be kind of like a book group, if anyone actually read it and commented on it. (Very few exceptions duly noted and appreciated.) Which means I clearly need to stimulate some discussion about books on here. I actually have misgivings about online book groups (see e.g. Infinite Summer) although they are not based on any particular bad experience. But I digress.

So all the king's men ... could not put Humpty together. I was thinking about why Robert Penn Warren (or any poet/writer/nursery rhyme composer) would liken a mighty politician/king's fall to a shattering egg, irrevocably damaged, as opposed to, you know, something that breaks but could be mended, at least a little. Then, I realized that I have a different question: Why is Humpty-Dumpty an egg? It never says that Humpty-Dumpty is an egg. In fact, it says that he is sitting on a wall. Since when do eggs go around sitting on walls?

A little Wikipedia action told me that the rhyme was presented as a riddle a couple centuries ago, a la "What falls off the wall and can never be put back together again." So, if the Humpty-Dumpty rhyme is a riddle, and the answer is that Humpty is an egg, and that is why he cannot be put back together again, I am somewhat back to my original question of why did the composer of the riddle rhyme invoke all the king's (horses and) men? What did that phrase "all the king's men" mean to a 17th-century nursery rhymer? Was it a common phrase about when something was tried to the utmost, or was it a genuine political allusion?

Furthermore, I read that a "Humpty-Dumpty" was an ale and brandy drink. Which I might have to try ordering next time I go to happy hour. And doesn't it make at least as much sense that it was about dropping your drink as about dropping an egg?

Now that I am thoroughly confused about what the phrase means, I still think about why RPW chose it. He was definitely thinking political, not egg, even though he says his novel is not about politics but merely set in politics. Oh how the mighty fall, etc. The interesting thing (to me) about Willie Stark is that I do not really think he changed all that much. A lot of commentary on the book goes on and on about how Willie of the noble intentions ends up just as corrupt as the next politician. I am not sure that is the case. (I would discuss this with my book group also.) I think Willie's handlers and hangers-on and minions are the ones who get corrupted, and begin to see Willie as someone who can give them something, be it a favor, or money, or power. With the exception of Sugar-Boy, who remains genuine. Dumb, but genuine, and not without his own special talents.

Willie, on the other hand, just seems to be more and more sure of how able he is to get things done, things he wants. He is more cocky than corrupt.

Highly highly highly recommend the book ... and currently am trying to figure out if I know anyone who's read it! As usual. At least Brian's reading this one with me, but now I've finished way ahead of him (he's working a lot, but I took a plane trip) so I have to wait a few hundred pages to have this conversation with him.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Just around the bend

NOW READING: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

I am just liking this book so much more as I build my momentum into the home stretch. More and more great thoughts, quotable lines, and building to fever pitch of all the interpersonal relationships' fallout.

I like how narrator Jack has this really matter-of-fact and yet profound way of saying, in essence, "Wow we all screwed that up pretty much beyond belief."

I love me some Sadie Burke.

I'm not sure they make lines better than, "The Boss was dour as a teetotaling Scot."

I have definitely been impressed by the twists the plot has taken.

And the Twitch! It simply does not get any more awesome than the Twitch.

I officially recommend this book to you now, even though I have 100 pages left to go. (That is rare of me to do that. Sort of the parallel to my give-it-a-100-page-chance rule. Anything drastic could happen in 100 pages.)

"But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn't the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day." -- p. 534

Thursday, July 09, 2009

"It was just where I went"

NOW READING: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is one of those books I've been reading in fits and starts, but not because I want it to be that way. I am totally interested in it, I like it, and I want to devour it. I just seem to have too much going on and not enough laziness to my summer days to allow for reading it in longer stretches.

I totally think that long lazy summer stretches are the perfect way to read this novel. Perhaps this is in my mind at the moment because I am just finished reading about narrator Jack's summer romance, complete with porch swings, sultry swims and swan dives, plus a few dashed hopes.

Thematically, All the King's Men reminds me of War and Peace as it ponders the interconnectedness of mankind and history. Jack, the historical researcher, sees the ripple effects of men's actions, but he also senses a certain inevitability to it all. Even when it is not inevitable, it is out of our hands:

"And so my luck became my wisdom (as the luck of the damned human race becomes its wisdom and gets into the books and is taught in schools...)" -- p. 447

In addition to the bright jumble of melancholy that is human interaction and the ruminations on human history, Warren has delighted me here in the 400s with Jack's drive West. Specifically, his summation of what the West is.

"For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gices out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go." --pp. 405-406

I like reading a Southern writer's perspective on the West. The South is a mythical, misunderstood place too, just as the West is, full of legend and lore and history and mistakes and all sorts of other things. And I think both regions seem equally mysterious to some people who live in places like, you know, Long Island. I guess if nothing else, on some level the insular viewpoints of New Yorkers or New Englanders help the West to be that much more free and awesome. It's like their ignorance of things west of the Mississippi (or the Hudson) help fuel the frontier mentality that persists a little to this day. Even when you're escaping something, it takes courage to go West. It takes less courage to remain in your Long Island enclave for the eighth generation in a row.

At any rate, it is interesting to have a little bit about the West in this novel that had been completely Southern up to this point. As I have mentioned on this blog many a time, the South has seen way more than its fair share of excellent writers and stunning writing.

The strength of this book continues to be the way the narrator observes things in powerful sentences that make you feel both that only he could have stated the thought so well, but also that it captures what was on everyone's mind.