Monday, December 12, 2016

My Own Canoe: A Tale of Linda and Louisa

There was that one day early on I related to Bronson Alcott. ("Although Bronson Alcott was unfortunate in never being understood by the many, he was singularly blessed by being understood by the distinguished few.")  But then, I kept reading Invincible Louisa and shit got real and I came to see how scarily similar I am to Louisa herself. And not just 'cause we both got names that start with an L and end in an A, yo.

Let's check it out.
(Quoting from Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs, Alcott Centennial Edition, ISBN: 0-316-56590-3)

"At the end of the day, both little girls would write in their journals, Anna [sister] filling hers with quiet, pleasant reflections and a record of the work she had done, Louisa covering her blotted pages with accounts of her turbulent thoughts, of her glorious runs on the hill, with the wind all about her, and, alas, of her quarrels..."    p. 41

I, too, have an older sister. We did keep journals when we were young, but I'd say that passage above is basically an apt description of Lesley's and my Facebook pages.

Oooohhh, here's a part about life's work....very much related to current work...which is NOT my life work...? (Don't worry, I've already had this conversation with my boss...)

"What she had learned...made her a good teacher, but it could not make her love the task of instruction. Besides knowledge, she brought to the task energy and an enthusiasm for succeeding, along with that boundless friendliness which is the heart of a real teacher's success.  [That's me, ever "establishing rapport"...]  The little girls got much from her; she in turn got much from them....Louisa gave generously and taught well, but she could not learn to like her work. She was too restless and impetuous..."  p. 63

Right, then. Moving on, to her sister's marriage:

"...after going to see Anna in her new house and observing her sister's happiness in her new life:
'Very sweet and pretty; but I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.'" -p. 94

Seriously. I would rather paddle my own canoe. Who can put it any better than that?

From personal back to professional, she struggled at first, as we all do, don't we? to write and succeed at making a living writing, and specifically to write a novel.

"She remarked finally that she was tired of long stories, that she would rather 'fall back on rubbishy tales, for they pay best and I can't starve on praise.' It was a belief unworthy of her, unworthy of her real powers, of her father's principles, of Emerson's teaching..."   p. 134

Ahh, that's my problem - falling short by slacking off and being unworthy of Emerson's teaching! But there's still hope because:

"Things, just the same, were bound to be better for one of Louisa's spirit. She was a strange mixture of impetuousness and toiling perseverance, of wild, impossible fancies and practical sense."

I'm pretty sure no one has ever summed up Lindouisa so well.

Eventually, she gets to travel the world (Louisa without borders?) and "stopped at Frankfurt to see the house of Goethe, for Louisa would never be anything but an ardent hero-worshipper, and here was the shrine of one of her literary idols."  p. 137   The problem with this trip, though, is that she was able to go abroad by working, as the companion/helper/nurse-ish personal assistant to a woman with issues. "It was very hard for her to be hampered by the inabilities of another." p. 138, which is basically my motto. But she does meet a good guy whom she befriends (and who inspires Laurie, for ye Little Women aficionados) but who is not her suitor -- he's twelve years younger than her, for one thing. She does have suitors, though, in her life, but...

"She was so busy...that she rarely gave thought to matrimony...Life was so full for her without marriage, so beset with activities and responsibilities, that certainly matrimony was something which she never consciously missed. She had a great desire for independence, which it would have been hard for her to give up for any person's sake."  p. 140

I have had that exact conversation in those exact words so very many times.

"On the other hand, she had great capacity for affection and sentiment, for romance and for happiness."  p. 140

See, e.g., crying at Coca-Cola ads and the like.

Writing is a struggle. At one point, "she planned various novels later -- indeed, her mind was always a seething ferment of plans..."  p. 182  Check and check! And there's the obligatory moment in every writer's life (mine has lasted for a decade) in which she lives in a pleasant house with the family but, natch, "There is no mention of a study or of any privacy for herself, where she could write in peace." - p. 183  The eternal goddamn fucking struggle.

Yet, as we all know, she meets with success! Will this be my future, too?

"With Little Women, Louisa achieved what she really wanted, a piece of work which she actually knew to be her best. With it she achieved also the appreciation of the world and such prosperity as gave her full power, at last, to do just what she wished. It is delightful to read of how her name came to be on every tongue; how she grew to be not merely famous, which mattered little to her, but universally beloved, which mattered much. After all the years of doubting her own power, of looking for her true field, of thinking of herself as a struggling failure, she was obliged at last to admit, even in the depths of her own soul, that she was a success."  - p 155

May it become so.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Walking a mile/life in Aurora Greenway's (many) shoes

I finally read Terms of Endearment,  which means that I finally have come to know the character of Aurora Greenway.  I have never related so much to anyone who is so different from me.

It was my first Larry McMurtry in quite some time. It has been more than a decade since I read and adored Lonesome Dove, which I am still forever telling people to read, and another Gus and Call book, Dead Man's Walk (which wasn''t as good as Lonesome Dove- few things are - not that I had much hope as I am always super wary of prequels, even more than of sequels.) During that time I have always meant to get around to reading more McMurtry, but you know how I am with my books and projects and piles and lists of things to read...

Terms of Endearment, however, was always steadily up there on the urgency scale, if nothing else because of another looooooongtime but almost finished project of mine, that of watching all the Oscar winning Best Pictures. The movie Terms of Endearment is one of the few Best Picture winners I haven't seen, largely because I wanted to read the book first. Well, I've at long last attended to the reading portion of that goal.

Frankly, I don't know that the book was all that great. Kind of like Ordinary People, which I also finally read recently, for reasons of see above. I mean -- these books are okay, but to spawn super famous Best Picture winners? Hmmmph. It remains to be seen whether Out of Africa, my last lingering '80s-Best-Picture-winner-source-material-so-I-can-finally-watch-the-movie, underwhelms similarly.

But Aurora. Holy cow. We are the same. I wasn't even born when Larry McMurtry wrote this, but it's as if he channeled my spirit, the entity that would soon be me. It's weird, because, as I said, she's not actually like me. She is into, just to name a few things, cooking, shoes, and having lots of suitors hang around her. I'm not like that. AND YET, we are so very, very similar in our sort of essential (as in essence) approach to being in this world. I will here and now share a few quotes to show you what I mean. Let's start with Aurora speaking to her daughter Emma, early on, page 94:

"When I'm mellow and the air has a nice weight I do so love to speak elliptically, you know...As for your question, which happily you phrased grammatically, if rather dully, I can tell you quite distinctly that I don't care if I never hear the phrase 'really felt' again....No, I've not finished...I may have new heights to rise to. For all I know, my dear, good grammar provides a more lasting basis for sound character than quote real feeling unquote."

There's more. On page 225, for example there's another exchange with her daughter:

"Everybody's afraid of you. Why don't you try being gentle for a change?"
"I do try--it's just that I seem to be prone to exasperation," Aurora said .

How about her early days with Vernon?

"Yes, you're much too polite, I know that," she said. "It's a pity I'm not..."

"I don't want you to be scared!" she yelled. "I"m just a human being! I just wanted you to sit and drink some tea...with me...and be my companion for a few minutes.  ... I'm not scary! Don't tell me I'm scary! There's nothing frightening about me. You're all just cowards!"

I mean, clearly we could stop there. But what the heck, let's continue.

"...she was as she had been that afternoon--spiritless, convinced of nothing except that there was not much point in trying to make things right. Things would never be right."

"For all I know the whole point of civilization is to provide one with someone to drink tea with at the end of an evening."

As she sat at the window, looking out, her sense of the wrongness of it was deep as bone. It was not just wrong to go on so, it was killing. Her energies, it seemed to her, had always flowed from a capacity for expectation, a kind of hopefulness that had persisted year after year in defiance of all difficulties. It was hopefulness, the expectation that something nice was bound to happen to her, that got her going in the morning and brought her contentedly to bed at night." 

"Oh well, you know me," Aurora said. "I'm not one to hold grudges. I acquire so many of them that some have to be discarded."

How will we top that one?  Let's try.

"Why, after all these years, do people still think I mean anything?" she asked.

Once, Emma tells her: "I hope I never become arrogant, like you...You dismiss whole classes of people with a wave of your hand."

Later on, the General has some words: "You just talk to hear yourself talk." In her reply: "I've gone to quite unusual lengths to be accommodating to you, and we still seem to fight all the time. What's life going to be like if I suddenly decide to be troublesome?" "You can't be any goddamn worse than you are," the General said. "Ha ha, little you know," she said. "I've made almost no demands on you. Suppose I decided to make a few."  

Moving on. "Of course, being away from home has always made me feel quite gay," she added. "I believe I'm a born gadabout. One of my problems is that I frequently need a change."

Don't overlook this conversation with Rosie.

"Don't like to impose," Rosie said.
"No, I'm the only one who seems to. I'm only sorry there aren't more people willing to be imposed upon."

Those are just the choice lines whose pages I noted along the way. Reading these bits of Aurora was almost unnerving, like, is someone inside my mind? And if so, why is that person Larry McMurtry? Apparently there was a lot of praise heaped on him for writing women so well in this and a few other books. Well, I don't know about all that -- and much of what happens in Terms of Endearment is bizarre, implausible, or straight up farcical. But McMurtry is certainly onto something. Or someone. (Me.)

Once more, with feeling:  "There's nothing frightening about me. You're all just cowards!"


Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Reivers

Well, if one is going to return to one's literary supplement blog after far too long away, The Reivers is certainly a good choice with which to do it.

Y'all, Faulkner is one of those writers that we've all heard of and many have even dabbled in (by literature teacher force) or come to have ideas about. But how many among ye have actually read a bunch of his stuff? Lots of people get turned off early, like in high school. I did, but not by slogging through As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury -- no, I was horrified by the experience I had reading a mere (as if anything is "mere" with Faulkner) short story, "Barn Burning." I hated it. I hated it in an intense, passionate, irrational way. I can't really remember now, decades later, why I hated it so, so, so very much, but I loathed it. I'm pretty sure I hated the characters and I know I hated the outcome. So I did what any self-respecting, literature-loving 16-year-old would do: I took a stapler, sat down with my AP English textbook, and stapled shut the pages containing that story, starting with the page before and ending with the page after, a series of staples advancing like a row of ants around the edges of the pages, so as to prevent myself from ever  accidentally letting the book fall open to that horrid story and making me see it ever again.

I then spent my next several years -- in which I was, mind you, an English major with an emphasis in American literature-- complaining about Faulkner and telling anyone who would listen how much I hated his writing (and occasionally throwing in the "Barn Burning" stapling story for good measure). Of course, I had also read "A Rose For Emily" in high school and didn't hate it nearly as much, but I conveniently overlooked that.

Fast forward a decade or so from high school, and by my mid-to-late 20s I had become obsessed with the Pulitzer prizes and decided to embark on my project of reading all the Pulitzer-winning fiction. This came with a realization that I would be reading not one but two novels by Faulkner, although I didn't do those right away, of course. (In fact, I'm still in the midst of that project, because I mix projects together and read other stuff in between, instead of just blazing through one project at a time, which is very not-Charles-Emerson-Winchester-the-III-like of me.)  Not to mention Faulkner's appearances on other lists of greats with which I concern myself, such as the Modern Library's Top 100 and the 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die. But before I got to any of that, during the summer of 2014, a summer in which Brian and I had many a day at his family's Lake Michigan vacation home (that I am Southwesternly unable to refer to as a "c*ttage" as they all do), I spent some time reading The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Yes, all of them. One of them was by Faulkner.  "That Evening Sun Go Down" (published in slightly different form sometimes as "That Evening Sun") was a good story. A really good, well-written story. And there I was, a thirtysomething, forced to sit on a porch one summer, in the midst of being back from Asia and kind of sort of settling down in the U.S. again, in a day-of-Americana-reckoning, realizing that my high school self really might have not had that good of a reason to hate "Barn Burning," ya know? Not that I can particularly remember that much about it...

Well, now here we are, with me having finally rectified this major gap in my literary life, having finally got around to reading a full Faulkner novel, and it is The Reivers. Yes, this is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by our boy William Faulkner. His other Pulitzer winner? A Fable. What't that you say? You've never heard of these novels of his? You figured he must have won the Pulitzer for As I Lay Dying, or The Sound and the Fury? Or at least Absalom, Absalom!  Fun fact: No novels with exclamation points in the title have won the Pulitzer, although Swamplandia!  was a finalist for the year 2012, when no award was given. Well, Faulkner may have won the Nobel Prize after writing those famous novels (those of you who've been with me a while will undoubtedly recall that you don't win the Nobel for a book; you win it for a body of work), but his Pulitzers came later, for A Fable and then for his last book, The Reivers.

And yes, I had to look up what on Earth a "reiver" is. Turns out it's an old word for "robber" used in the Scottish borderlands -- at least that's what I read -- and brought to the U.S. by people from there. An interesting choice of Faulkner's definitely, for the title.

I hate describing/spoilering plots, but the "robbery" in this book is more of a free-wheeling escapist weekend journey that ends up being a coming of age experience. It's definitely not about, like, career burglars or street thugs, but rather people who get swept up in an opportunity and plunge themselves into a feverish few days of learning and growing, from mistakes and other things that come along.

What this book does incredibly well is take you into long, winding sentences without letting you get so lost that you can't find your way out of the paragraph; it also gives the reader a vivid sense of place and the characters inhabiting the places rendered.

What it did for me, more importantly, is get me fired up to read more Faulkner novels. He has a beautiful command of sentence structure (long and involved though that structure may be), life journeys, introspection disguised as regular-ol'-folks-livin'-life, and the striking interpersonal turmoil of life. He makes you want to crawl inside the book and hang out with these people, even though no part of you would rationally want to, say, have Everbe's job, or Boon's...or necessarily live in rural early twentieth century Mississippi...

What I also loved about The Reivers: his social commentary, particularly about the way cars and the automobile society we've embraced have erased some very real things. Nature, for one thing, in the form of wild, untouched spaces; those are basically gone. Also, some part of our human selves has been forever altered. The car/train/horse/walking layers of symbolism that pile upon themselves in this story could take years of literary analysis to fully sort out.

One thing I must point out, though: I've seen multiple reviews/commentaries where people describe the book as "funny" or "one of his funniest novels" or "a comic masterpiece," Um, hello? Do these people also work for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association slating Golden Globe nominees into categories? To me, The Reivers was anything but a comedy. It was a coming-of-age tale and a slice of life. Sure, there was wit -- there were clever and sly bits slipped in all sorts of places in this book. It was real and endearing. A "comic masterpiece" though? Did we get what Faulkner was showing here at all?

If you've read The Reivers, what do you think -- comic masterpiece or no?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Two thousand sixteen
or, The Triumphant Return of My Literary Supplement Blogging

Yes, it has been a while. I had blogging issues in 2015 (laptop issues, really), but it's a new year, fresh start, etc. I won't bother doing too much detail in a '15 recap; let's just quickly mention that the year basically included continuing to trudge through my many simultaneous reading projects.

The best books I read in 2015 were Room by Emma Donoghue, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, A Room With a View by my boy E.M. Forsterand Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z by David SacksSome other interesting finds, well worth checking out, were Les chercheurs d'os by Tahar Djaout, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (which essentially restored my faith in contemporary literature and made me believe there are actually good writers writing out there), Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (thanks, book group!), and Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum. Overrated, or maybe just overfussed about: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt (apparently some people think she's dismissing or defending the perpetrators of the Holocaust? Hello? Did they actually read the book?), One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which I really need to read in Spanish, which is why I was reading/suffering through it in English, to prepare for this necessary Spanish reading that I'm going to get aroudn to any minute now), and Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler, which I was really prepared to enjoy more than I did, it being her Pulitzer-winner and all, and me having really loved the other book of hers I'd read. I didn't really hate hate hate any book I read in 2015, unless you count Wild, which I mostly came to hate after I read it, when I actually thought about it. The process of reading the book was enjoyable enough, but the author, Cheryl Strayed, is more than a little full of shite and not that great of a writer, and one starts to realize this when one applies a little thing called critical thinking to Wild, but if that sounds too hard, and you prefer to be entertained laugh-out-loud style, go read the entirety of this anti-Wild blog.

So anyway. Now we're in 2016. Wheeeeee!  Here we go.

Yes, my projects continue, but I can definitely see the light at the end of their tunnels! In my Prez Bios project (wherein, you'll recall, I set out to read a bio of every president in order to see where we went wrong, a goal clearly conceived during the Dubya administration), I've recently finished --and reconsidered--Nixon and am now at Ford. Totally in the home stretch of this project: I've reached my lifetime! In my A-to-Z championship, I have one more finalist to read and then will select my final winner (which I wasn't even planning on doing when I first read the 26 novels, one author's last name for each letter of the alphabet, but that project evolved after I finished what became the first round). When that wraps up, I'm going to embark on a reverse-gender A to Z, because I realized that I read far more men than women in my A to Z selections, so I've decided to remedy that.  As for prize-winning Pulitzer and Newbery novels, I've read a few each year and continue to plug away.

Speaking of that, I've just finished William Faulkner's The Reivers.  The Faulkernization of my adult life continues, as well it should. More on that in my next post.