“Harvest” leaves readers feeling unresolved

July 3, 2014

HarvestHarvest by Jim Crace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very late Harvest discussion (Spoilers)

Jason said Crace immersed us in the mind, a positive trait. But I found the long narratives dull and difficult to read. The pacing was simply far too slow for my liking. Many of them I found a bit hard to follow. I found myself zoning out, later realizing that I’d not actually digested anything that I’d read, forcing me to read again. This may have been a function of the amount of time that it took me to read the book. I would read 50 pages, then put it down for extensive periods of time. I finally finished after having ignored the book for a few weeks. I’d even started “On Leave” to try to get some momentum. While I do appreciate the language, I felt the story was lost while trying to wade through the prose. I’m not as enthralled with the archaic vocabulary. As Jason pointed out, we are left with many gaps to the story, though I agree that it is diliberate dissonance.

I also found the inaction by the people during the abuses were very strange, but like Jason, I agree that we do witness things similarly every day, yet do not act. My wife and I have been lamenting what is going one at the border with the migrant children, some of whom have simply be set back on the other side of the border to be taken by those who will use and abuse them. The political fallout to what is going on down there polarizes us. It amazes me to hear that there are those who advocate continuing to turn these vulnerable children and women away given the dangers that they face. But for many, the few cents they hope to save on their taxes outweigh the wellbeing of their neighbors.

I saw the burning of the buildings as not only simply vengeance. I believe that the Bedlams and Walter, despite his original reluctance in misplaced respect for Master Kent to do so, burned the buildings as a sort of cleansing, erasing the memory of what had transpired there. For a moment, I thought that Walter even was intentionally lingering in Master Kent’s home so that he might be cleansed by the flames as well, escaping his miserable existence, one of the only potentially noble things he could have done in way of repentance. I too, like Amy, was put off by Walter’s continuous and clumsy attempts to win favor with others. I was particularly annoyed with the way he tries to win favor with the husband before he releases him. “See what a good guy I am for ending your wrongful imprisonment and torture early. Geez I’m swell,” while jingling the keys at the captive and conveniently forgetting that he had the chance to save the father pain by simply giving him a block to stand on but was too lazy to do so. He even concocts a ridiculous fantasy in which he joins the Bedlams as a friend, as if the early release and forced labor working the field, also a symbolic cleansing, would somehow then make him endeared to them. “We worked the field together, so we’re buddies now, right?” It’s a fantasy he doesn’t give up, again imagining that the couple packed his things and cooked him a meal after his bender, which I believe was a feeble, half-hearted attempt at suicide, as if by feigning remorse for his misdeeds, someone might see and take pity on him. He knows he is not a good man. He knows that he doesn’t deserve quality companionship.

I apologize for how far behind I am. I am about half-way through “On Leave.” I have a copy of “The End of Sparta,” but I’m not sure when I’ll actually read it. I plan to try to push through the rest of “On Leave” and then join you all on “White Oleander.” It’s far more fun to be on pace with you all then the months behind that I am.

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Rushdie’s “Shame” bogged down by rabble of characters

February 23, 2014

ShameShame by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

SPOILERS

Shame was a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed it…then it bogged down. Then I enjoyed it again…and was a let down with the ending. I found the earliest passages of Shame the easiest to breeze. I found Omar’s mothers humorously absurd. I found Rushdie’s stringing together of words interesting. I had hoped to see it continued and, perhaps, make sense of his whoknowswhat.

Pathetically, I was taken in by the depressing childhood of the fat, young Omar, lonely and looked down upon by his peers. When he was jilted, I felt even more tied to him. I’m always a bit embarrassed, or shall I say ashamed here, when I develop an affinity for characters like Omar, because I feel in small ways that relate to them, having had so much shame for myself at young ages. I should have known that things wouldn’t end well for him when I read the passage early on that simply seemed to be a device for taking shots at Omar, ending, “what manner of hero is this?”

I was equally engaged with the storytelling as I began to learn about Bilquis, growing up with her womanly father. I felt terrible empathy for her. But as Bilquis was assimilated into the strange, shall we call it family, of the forty wives and the forty thieves, I found myself completely bogged down in the mid-section of this book. The number of characters introduced so quickly in combination with the unfamiliarity of the names in my admittedly ethnocentric mind was simply too much. Several times I felt lost. I would have to backtrack in the book for reminders as to who some of these characters were. This was compounded by the fact that I found the book harder to pick up at these points, laying it down for days at a time. When I finally found the discipline to pick Shame back up, I had to reacquaint myself with the characters. I, of course, kicked myself looking back. Had I pushed through a bit faster, I might not have had struggled so much with the rabble of characters.

I actually had forgotten that the front of the copy of Shame that I have has a family tree. Upon finding it again, I had to roll my eyes at my own silly oversight. I then had a little laugh going over it again, particularly the portion about Raza’s grandmother, who had 2 sisters and 3 brothers, who between them, in addition to the many illegitimate offspring, produced 11 legitimate children, who then produced 32 sons and oddly only one daughter, including Rani, the “virgin iron pants’” mother. So perhaps it’s less of a family tree and more of a family entangled mess. I somehow missed some of this in the reading, I was so confused. I shouldn’t be surprised considering Naveed and Talvar’s mythical ability to procreate later in the book.

While I hear that some enjoyed Rushdie’s interludes of historical references and seemingly apologetic explanations trying to help us Westerners who “read left to right” understand what is going on. I found these to be less helpful and more of an interruption. I would have rather simply gone on to the next portion of the story. Thankfully, I found the book’s latter portions much easier to read.

While I found the latter passages much more enjoyable and easy to read, I can’t say I cared for how it ended. My objections to the ending are not that I don’t understand why the mothers would turn on their son—that much I see the foundations for in what they would perceive as abandonment despite his monetary contributions…oh, and the fact that they are all bat-shit crazy—but that I would have liked to have seen it developed a bit more. Babar, by the end, seemed simply a device to me. We, like Omar, barely knew him. It was as if he was an afterthought, a weak M. Night Shyamalan plot twist giving the mothers an excuse to commit an awful act upon a child that was simply a product of the messed up environment that they created. They demanded that he live without shame, so why then be surprised when he has no shame about never visiting his dysfunctional family?

Sometimes, when reading novels, I find what is intended to be serious difficult to separate from what is intended to be silly or an indication of mysticism, as it is in the case of Shame. I read Jason’s reviews and sometimes feel silly when he expresses how he laughed aloud at a particular passage, it was so uproarious. I look back thinking, “I don’t remember that being all that funny.” I found this to be the case for Shame as well. Early on, I thought, I suppose that there may be some medical reason that two women could have hysterical pregnancies at the same time in response to someone that they were close to becoming pregnant. I’ve even heard, whether it truly is scientifically possible, that women can begin to lactate without having a child. So, I felt a little cheated later in the book when things started coming up that were so clearly fantasy, when I had gone so many pages believing the story to be less fictional. Perhaps Rushdie gave us clues. There was a passage early that Sufiya could absorb unfelt feelings like a sponge. I see now that Rushdie gave us this reasoning to explain how she could be capable of such brutal feats of strength. Rushdie even goes on to reinforce this idea later with the passage “…which I insist on including the unfelt shame around her (Sufiya), for instance what had not been felt by Raza Hyder when he gunned down Babar…” and later still referring to Sufiya as “the incarnation of their shame.” While Jason tells me he laughed at the cartoon-like outline of Sufiya’s body in the brick where she crashed through, I was less excited by the description and perhaps a bit annoyed with it.

As I am writing this, I question why do I do this? Why do I seemingly have more negative than positive to say about these books. I feel like I’m tearing the book down out of some feeling of obligation. I think I’ve been getting too wrapped up in discussions about critical reflection at work. I mean to say, simply because I find these faults with the book, I don’t necessarily see them as unsurmountable faults, making it impossible for me to enjoy the book. I did, on a whole, enjoy the book.

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The Cliff Notes version of The Book of Disquiet

January 10, 2014

The Book of DisquietThe Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Spoilers, as if that were possible in this book. I got a glimpse at the longer version of this and compared it to the version I read. It would appear that the translator of the shorter version took immense liberties, but considering what I now know having read it, I can see why they might have done that. I’m not sure if I could have taken a longer version of this, as my friend Jason found in abandoning the longer translation.

1 [12]
What do these mean? Is it a puzzle of some kind? This passage may make the most sense of any in the book. He writes: “These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it is because I have nothing to say.”

2 [74]
He continually refers to himself as a slave, as if it were inescapable. He does not take responsibility for himself. Instead he plays the victim. “Everything has become unbearable to me — except life…Prison pastimes! Only the imprisoned, with the fascination of someone watching ants, would pay attention to one shifting ray of sunlight.” He reinforces that his feelings of futility are not his fault nor in his control.

3 [63]
As others have pointed out, this journal is certainly the ramblings of someone mentally ill. I pity them. They are crippled by anxiety brought on by what could be bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The text is littered with sad phrases like “I only feel safe in places I have been in before” and identifying when he feels well as “irrational good humor.” Other brief passages represent brief moments of hope, if only he had the courage to act on these moments. His mood swings are terribly intense; he moves from feeling futility to feeling drunk on life from passage to passage. However, it is unclear whether the passages are sequential.

4 [90]
What in the world do these numbers mean? Some have dates. Many do not. The dates are not in order. Is the writing in order? What is the meaning behind that? I feel like I’m watching a film in which they cut back and forth through time to intensify the feelings of confusion, a device that too often is cheaply used and does not add to the storytelling.
In some ways this reminds me of a portion of “The Eden Express” by Mark Vonnegut. Mark believed that he had reached a higher level of consciousness through his experimentation with drugs while living in a commune in British Columbia in the ’60s. Unfortunately, he had not. Instead, he was only discovering that he was schizophrenic (I have found in later readings that he now believes he is only bipolar).
Is this journal something of what the writer hopes will be a handbook to convince the anxiety-ridden insomnia tics that there inability to relate to others is somehow an indication of higher intellectual function? It seems to be the writings of someone so severely mentally ill that they have convinced themselves the they in fact have risen above the general populace, making the illness they feel more palatable. The writer tips his hand at that early, with passages like “There are some deep stead griefs so subtle and pervasive the it is difficult to grasp whether they belong to our should or to our body.”
Another indication of this is the reference to the “other.” I believe that there are a couple of ways in which this is significant. The other is yet another separation between himself and those that he feels he is superior to. They are not like them. They cannot understand. It also allows him to believe that is acceptable for him to belittle the other, to have dominion over them and even harm them. Culturally, this is a recurring theme. In some cases we have even made it theme of social responsibility to do away with “the other.” Our author writes about the tobacconist who has committed suicide: “No, other people don’t exist…It is for me alone that the setting sun holds out its heavy wings of harsh, misty colors. It is for me alone, even though I cannot see its waters flowing, that the wide river glitters beneath the sunset. It is for me alone that this open square was built looking out over the river and its turning tide.”

5 [130]
I’m not sure if his references to insomnia are real bouts of insomnia or a metaphor for his references to those who are half-awake, half-souled, half-conscious, daydreaming, and the many other references to not living fully. In other references he seems to question whether he is actually alive or dead in much the same way as some questions whether life is in fact a test for the afterlife.

6 [168]
He writes: “He symbolized nobody. … He symbolized those how had never been anybody; that was at the root of his suffering.” He seems to deny seeing this many, continually trying to convince us that, while he has a clear understanding of the man’s futility, that he didn’t even bother looking at him or examining him. I believe this is a self-reflection. He doesn’t wish to look at himself, fearful of what he must admit.

7 [85]
In other passages, our writer’s motivations seem much simpler. He makes references to the idea that he envies the lives of others, perhaps those for whom he keeps books, that likely have access to more means than he does. In one instance, he expresses his affinity for a trip that he took to pay taxes for his employer. Is this business trip his means of escaping the banality of his own existence. He makes many references to travel, but are they real? Are they on his dime only for his enjoyment? It is difficult to separate reality from the tales of the writer’s mind. I’m not sure he even knows. He clearly has difficulty being honest with himself. He even admits that he has created various personalities within himself. There are a few passages in which he despairs a great deal during rain. After some time, it is unclear whether even the weather is real or a metaphor for his mental state.

8 [381]
Pessoa seems to offer us a summary in chapter 72 (if we are, in fact, to read these as chapters): “Down the steps of my dreams and my weariness, descend from your unreality, descend and be my substitute for the world.”

While I found this enormously difficult to finish, it was easy enough to read in small doses. I’m not even sure that it is necessary to read all of it to understand the ideology. Mostly, it felt like a big time burn. I’m looking forward to our next offering by Rushdie.

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‘Of Love and Other Demons’

January 1, 2014

Of Love and Other DemonsOf Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spoilers

“Of Love and Other Demons” was a breezy read, although for the first several pages, I really had no idea what or why I was reading. I didn’t read any synopses before reading this. Without expectations, it was a little odd to read for some time. Marquez spends a great deal of time detailing how Sierva Maria is a child left to her own devices, learning and living with those meant to serve her family.

Sierva Maria was a child neglected by her parents, a trap for her father, that by all accounts was brilliant, learning numerous languages. Her neglect is so great that her father doesn’t even know how old she is when her birthday rolls around, when he is stirred from lazing around in his hammock. Marquez write’s the mother Sierva Maria’s mother even less flattering than the Marquis, making clear that she hated Sierva Maria. Her father simply has no interest in her until he fears that she may be ill and embarrassing to his family. He only seems to find pity for her after being awakened by his fear of humiliation.

Some things simply don’t feel fully explained, in my mind. We never really understand or know what to make of Delaura’s dreams of Sierva Maria or the “evidence” of possession. The only initial evidence was simply a matter of how the religious perceived cultural behaviors of the indigenous people. And Delaura’s dream and Sierva Maria’s subsequent admission of the shared dream never really feels fully explored.

I’m not sure what to think of Delaura’s conflict upon realizing that Sierva Maria may be/was actually possessed. At that point I felt a somewhat conflicted. What was actually real? To this point I thought the book was simply about the ignorance of people of the time, believing in such things as possession. Did her hair really move on it’s own or was Delaura experiencing some sort of hallucination of his own? Perhaps Delaura was concocting the possessed hair from his own guilt about being aroused by Sierva Maria and the subsequent excitement he experienced when she spat at him. Nothing in the book up to this point had even remotely suggested to me that the possession was a possibility.

I even was unsure whether to believe in Martina’s exchange with Sierva Maria about the six demons, particularly considering Martina’s own incarceration. What kind of deception was this? Was it the deception of an angry child or that of the possessed? The lack of detail left it unclear in my mind.

After all, Delaura was so susceptible to the power of suggestion, even accepting Abernuncio’s apparent placebo of the rain water as a cure for his eye. Delaura had accepted so easily that the rain water was something more medicinal that a simple cure for dry eyes.

The exorcism reminded me of reading about hysteria, a disease reserved for women who would not submit the commands or desires of the men in their lives. How we treat one another now and how we have throughout history is simply terrific. I wondered as the exorcism continued how it would end. If she were a witch submersed in water, would she float and confirm her guilt or would she die in confirmation of her innocence, guilty only of becoming the product of her neglect and abuse. If she admits to her fear of the process of her cleansing, it is only an admission of the demons that are inside.

In the face of all of this, Delaura’s trust in the legal system is confusing. He also was strangely ignorant of how she might react to what she might see as his rejection of her in rejecting her pleas to simply run away.

I was disappointed in how Marquez chooses to end the book. It feels truncated and bit cheapened. We again come back to the dream of Sierva Maria eating the grapes. The only thing that makes sense is her resolve to simply end things, choosing to eat the grapes two-by-two, hastening her way toward her death.

Still, I feel that I am being too critical. It’s not that I did not enjoy reading Marquez’s writing, I just found some of his devices a little weak. Much of the story is told in a straight-forward manner with a couple of exceptions that I don’t feel are fully explored. If Marquez had somehow better weaved the stories or explained the significance of these fantastic events, I might not have been distracted by them and enjoyed the story even more.

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Happy New Year

January 1, 2014

This is just because I don’t have time to do enough of this just for the fun of it. I simply threw together this video shot from my iPhone at my mother-in-law’s today.

Happy New Year.


Killing the catchphrase softly

December 3, 2013

Much like video killed the radio star, on-demand television is changing the way we consume advertising. Gone are the days of the captive audience, watching only a few, network channels. Now we watch television through services like, Netflix, Hulu and DVR put the user in control, and we aren’t likely to pay as much attention to advertising as a result.

The New York Time’s Teddy Wayne pointed out that where an ad placed with the popular “The Big Bang Theory” might catch 17 million viewers if they actually watch live — not recorded on DVR, the wildly popular Old Spice commercials of 2010 were viewed 47 million times online, many of those views off of viral re-posting.

Here comes my opinion

I differ in opinion with Wayne on one point, however. Wayne attributes what he calls the death of the catch phrase to the diminishing attention span, elaborating that “advertisers cannot afford to wait 25 seconds to deliver the knockout punch.”

While I don’t disagree that the digital age has changed the way media must work to keep our attention, it can keep our attention. Wayne makes the point for me. He says that we “prefer developing narratives, unfurled over years.” I agree. Where a catchphrase used to be needed to dig into our psyche within a 30-second ad spot, now we, ourselves, are part of sharing the narrative through social media. We are more invested in some cases, and no longer need that catchphrase hook.

Wayne goes on to provide examples of young people who consume all of their media through Netflix and Hulu, watching virtually no commercial television. In one case, a young woman’s father had to explain “The most interesting man in the world” to her so that she could get the joke. It seems the argument can be made that this younger generation has the benefit of access to forms of media without distraction, though it certainly isn’t the same as reading a book, newspaper or magazine.

While I can’t draw a conclusion from that, it’s an interesting case-study.


Popsci.com nixes commenting on their site

October 22, 2013

Web 2.0 relies heavily on the reader as a community member rather than a passive consumer, but there are always exceptions to the rule. The magazine Popular Science made the decision in September to remove commenting from their site for very scientifically important reasons.

Trolls, spambots overwhelm reason

In an article written by Suzanne LaBarre, the online content director of Popsci.com, the publication announced on Sept. 26 that action was taken because “a politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics.” Essentially, the editors of the site have decided to remove commenting because some posters were perhaps successfully degrading information that is known scientific fact.

One bad apple

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story,” LaBarre said in the article.

Sometimes we think that such unfounded information is limited to internet forwards, but clearly the issue is far more virally aggressive. Sadly, these trolls prey on those who are simply not media literate enough to decipher fact from opinion. This is how we find ourselves in conversations in which the absurd is backed up with, “I read it on Popular Science.”

Popularity may be trumped by fact

It’s unclear how this move will affect their readership. While I am not certain whether this was a bad or good move, I applaud the editors’ efforts to uphold their ethics.