Category Archives: Literature

The Book I Read: Charles Dickens Says What? A Christmas Carol

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry here!

First, I have a supposition, a theory, a hypothesis:

Essentially, we’d have to be living under a rock not to know the story of the famous Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. Right? We’ve seen the Albert Finney, the George C. Scott. We’ve seen the muppets and Michael Caine, the Patrick Stewart, the Bill Murray. We’ve seen the Jim Carrey. A google search revealed that as many as 61 different actors have been filmed as Ebenezer Scrooge. I know you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but somehow this is not surprising to me, and I bet you it’s true. In addition to film after film of the Dickens classic, we’ve all seen or maybe even been in stage adaptations. I think my first experience as an actor was that, in the 6th or 7th grade, I played the ghost of Jacob Marley. But here’s the question: how many of us have actually read A Christmas Carol? My guess is, even though I can only speak for myself, not many of us. I could be mistaken–but I’m guessing it is perhaps the best known least read 19th century novel ever. I mean, Moby Dick is well-known, but outside of Ahab vs. the White Whale, most people don’t know shit about it. But this story people KNOW. It’s in their blood. And that’s amazing to me. I haven’t read it all the way through. So I have spent the first few days or so of my holiday break reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and my essential question going into the project was, how will it be, that experience–how will the story be enriched (or not) for me, by dealing with the original text? What have we been missing, perhaps, by a dependence on or the bombardment by the celluloid window dressing?

Let’s find out, shall we?

If it’s at all of interest to my listeners or readers, I just finished reading the second printing of A Christmas Carol published by the Folio Society in 2007 with illustrations by Michael Foreman from the 1983 printing. Of course, I hope you know this, but just in case, Dickens’ story was first published in 1852 in a collection of short pieces called Christmas Books. What I love about this Folio Society edition, beside the lovely full color illustrations, is that the print is gigantic, spread out luxuriously over 173 pages. In my copy of Christmas Books, it’s a tightly spaced printing on half as many pages–requiring the reading spectacles. This thing I could read without my glasses–if I wanted–from three feet away.

After reading, my first and early gut response is one of surprise at how absolutely close so many of the film adaptations come. And the thing that they get mostly right is the dialogue. Many of these screen plays adopt almost verbatim the conversations in the novel–so all of the well known classic lines are mostly preserved, and reading them in silence or out loud (as I love to do) these voices ring again in our ears the way we remember them from our favorite productions. I can hear Patrick Stewart exclaiming “Good afternoon” no fewer than six times over about two pages of text, turning, at least what we hear in American English as a polite greeting, into a curse–meaning, you know, get the hell away from me. Good afternoon! I don’t know if this is particularly English–or whether it originates with Scrooge, but I remember that my son found this particular expression hilarious the first time he experienced A Christmas Carol when he was perhaps 7 years old–walking around the house good afternooning in his little grade-school bellow.

But there are speeches, that when I read them here on the page, seem unfamiliar and new to me, probably as a result of some serious editing for the screen plays. This one in particular, spoken by Scrooge’s nephew in that first opening chapter, stands out. Ebeneezer’s dismissal of “keeping Christmas”: “Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good has it ever done you!” is followed by this lovely lecture from Scrooge’s nephew:

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

If this full speech is included in any of the film productions of this story, I have forgotten or remember it only partially, so I single it out here just because I think I have not heard or read a better description of the holiday, or the meaning of Christmas, anywhere else. And I suppose this is the main benefit of reading the piece as opposed to watching it performed and interpreted: the opportunity to allow the words to really sink in. Not to mention just listening and savoring the rhythms of Dickens’ prose–his super-human ability to give complex sentences and sophisticated thought to characters in speech that nevertheless feels natural and convincing. Shakespeare did that. Jane Austen did that. Dickens did that.

Here’s a quick little description of how A Christmas Carol is laid out, structurally speaking. Its composition follows exactly the pattern of the story as we know it, in five chapters, or, as Dickens has named them, “staves,” the first being the Jacob Marley visit, the next three being the visitations of the Christmas spirits, past, present, and future, and the last being Scrooge’s ultimate redemption and rehabilitation, titled, oddly enough, and irreverently, “The End of It.” Again, the structure Dickens has set up has been religiously adhered to by every retelling of this tale–as far as I know. It is a simple, exquisitely clean structure.

You know, I think what I want to do here, for the rest of my little holiday special blog/podcast, is to simply share some of the joy I experienced in reading this complete text (I think, for the first time in my life) by looking at a single favorite passage or two from each of the five “staves” of A Christmas Carol.

This first one, the announcement of Marley’s doornail deadness and the initial introductory description of Ebenezer’s character is so fun, is so cleverly drawn, is so rhythmically alive, so immediately engaging. If nothing else, Dickens’ genius is revealed here as an absolute master prose stylist. And his gift at immediately invoking an atmosphere; here it is at once playful and deadly.

I can’t help thinking of the Robyn Hitchcock song when I read Stave II, featuring the Ghost of Christmas Past: “I’m the man with the lightbulb head.” This spirit has a lightbulb head–or, at least, underneath his cap. The description of this Ghost is a weird one, and I’d love to share it with you, but trust me. Check it out. I want to get to the next passage–before which the Spirit has shown Ebeneezer Scrooge a series of Christmases from his past–which begin happily enough, but become bleaker and bleaker until this culminating scene–the excruciating break-up scene.

This is essentially, almost the concluding passage of Stave II, but it’s the most significant moment, a heartbreaking moment, when young Ebenezer’s avarice finally cuts off from him this one opportunity for happiness with the young woman he loves. And already, Scrooge’s cold heart is beginning to transform: “‘No more,’ cried Scrooge. ‘No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!'”

In Stave III, the ghost of Christmas present, the jovial one, the giant one, leads Scrooge on a kind of whirlwind tour of the neighborhood and, miraculously, the world–but zeroes in on two particular present day scenes, maybe the most significant of which is the Cratchit residence, where Scrooge meets, or becomes aware of for the first time, the sickly and handicapped Tiny Tim. After thier glorious but modest dinner, and the presentation of the pudding, they make a cozy half circle around the fire. Bob proposes a toast to Scrooge, which, temporarily harshes the room, but all is well shortly thereafter as the children goof around, the family shares a holiday libation, and Tiny Tim sings a little song “about a lost child traveling in the snow.” The narrator gives us this final description of the family, a description for which might be captured on film visually, but perhaps not without losing this exact sentiment:

There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye on them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.

How unremarkable this family is, and yet, Scrooge sees in this scene the profundity of people who simply enjoy each other’s company, who are not grasping and striving, who are content–perhaps the truest form of human happiness, to be who they are in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

One more scene from Stave III must be referenced–one that, for me, all along in my experience of this story, has been the most haunting and disturbing of all. The Spirit begins to age and deteriorate before Scrooge’s eyes, reveals that his life is compassed by this single day and then he will be no more–and in this moment, Scrooge notices something moving underneath the Sprit’s voluminous robes. Again, we’re all familiar with the scene, but the language in this passage, for me, surpasses what can be achieved visually with this particular image. Check this out.

In Stave IV, the penultimate chapter of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the terrifying ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who appears very much like the Grim Reaper, who doesn’t speak, but only points. Early in the chapter, before Scrooge visits the Cratchit family, mourning the loss of Tiny Tim, and before ultimately visiting his own tombstone, he is shown a body covered in a shroud. Here’s a passage that you will not find translated into film, as Scrooge is tempted to remove but resists removing the cover to reveal the identify of the corpse:

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honored head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and the pulse are still; but the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, gripping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!

Something often missing from any film or stage play, and something that can be provided almost exclusively by literature, in fiction and in poetry, is character in THOUGHT. And perhaps this is the most significant thing almost always wanting when great fiction is translated to the screen–that whole interior landscape is gone. I think this is one passage above that points to the richness that might be found in reading A Christmas Carol as opposed to watching. But the imagery in this story lends itself so well to film, and it has been captured so wonderfully so many times. It’s almost like Dickens was writing for film. How many of Dickens novels, at this point, have NOT been filmed? The man was prolific–and yet there may be only a few titles of his that were never translated in this way.

Finally, we come to Stave V of A Christmas Carol. It’s the shortest chapter and it moves quickly through the iconic moves. Scrooge wakes up in love with his own bedposts. He doesn’t know what day it is. He is amazed to find out its Christmas Day, that the spirits, who were supposed to come in three consecutive nights, managed to get the whole job done in one–and thus begins a regular festival of good cheer all the way up to the closing sentence, where Tiny Tim’s words are echoed at last: “God bless Us, Every One.” What I found most astounding about this last chapter was how moved I was by it, AGAIN. Reading it out loud last night in my kitchen nook all by myself it was a concerted effort to avoid weeping–and what struck me most was the way in which Dickens has brought to life the sheer and utterly astounding joy that has returned to the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to this:

There is a film, which I have not yet seen, a biopic about Charles Dickens called The Man Who Invented Christmas—a story, according to the trailer, of Dickens’ process of creating and then publishing A Christmas Carol. The film looks intriguing and fun—but this title seems, to me, totally apropos. With a minimum of, hardly any I’d say, religious proselytizing, it might be fair to say that the story of A Christmas Carol is primarily a secular one. The holiday, for good or bad, has become highly secularized. Santa and all that hooey notwithstanding, it feels to me that, the majority of us who continue to celebrate the holiday but hold very loosely to its religious aspects, hold on tightly nevertheless to the ethics, the morality, the values represented in Dicken’s short novel. It has indeed become for us the true meaning of Christmas.

Thank you so much for reading and/or tuning in. So long. Happy holidays and Happy New Year. Enjoy your winter. Be kind. Cheers. 

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The Book I Read: I Got the Music in Me–Talking Heads 77 and Annie Kim’s Award Winning Eros, Unbroken

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I’m writing ’bout the book I read

I have to sing about the book I read

I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart

When I found out you wrote the book I read

David Byrne, from “The Book I Read,” Talking Heads 77

I want to begin this week by delivering a quick little study of the lyric that inspired the title of my humble podcast and this blog series; for those of you still outside of that particular loop, I’m referring to the song from the Talking Heads debut album, 77, a song called, you guessed it, “The Book I Read.”

First, I’d like to tell you a little funny story about the way I arrived as a Talking Heads fan. I was in middle school when the band made its first mark in the world. I was primarily in a hard rock phase. I listened to Kiss, to Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and Rush. My musical tastes were pretty typical for the era, in suburbia, and among my age group. But for some reason, I’ll never really understand why, I felt compelled over the next couple of years to experiment. Probably my first foray into New Wave music was the purchase of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, an album that I absolutely cherish now, but that, when I bought it, I hated. Hated it so much, in fact, that after a couple of listens I took it back to the record store, claimed it was defective, and got a refund. But the Talking Heads and that first experience haunted me a little, and months or maybe a year later, I came back to them (I don’t know why–probably because, as startled as I was by my first experience, there was a certain something that hooked me, that piqued my interest, that made me feel like, yeah, I should give this band a second chance). When I did go back, I decided to start at the very beginning with their debut album. Outside of Fear of Music, it was likely the strangest rock music I had ever heard, but unlike my first response to their third record, this time I was giddy with excitement. This album was so nerdy, so decidedly un-heavy, so jaunty, so unabashedly weird and joyful, that I was hooked. And this song, “The Book I Read,” has embedded itself into my brain. As Talking Heads songs go, it’s a deep cut, was not a hit, but it spoke to me, and keeps speaking to me over the decades. Do you want to take a little break for a listen? If so, here you go. It’s just a clip, so, if you want to listen to the whole thing, click the Spotify icon.

Byrne’s vocal performance here is absolutely unhinged. I love the imprecision of it and his ability to capture this sort of unbridled sense of exuberance and enthusiasm–“I’m tipping over backwards,” indeed. He’s so excited, he can’t be bothered to hit all the notes–and yet, this melody is absolutely infectious–and the na na na bridge, or chorus, or whatever it is–inescapably hooky. But these lyrics–maybe the first rock song I ever heard for book nerds–the club for which, I must confess, when I first heard the song, I was not a member. Maybe the appeal to my younger non-reader self was that I understood it to be a metaphor–“the book I read was in your eyes.” But later, as I did over time become a bonafide book nerd, I understood it to be both literal and metaphorical at the same time. “I’m writing ’bout the book I read. I have to sing about the book I read.” That’s what I am doing in this podcast and blog series. And the lines, “I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out you wrote the book I read.” Herein lies my inspiration and rationale, I suppose, for talking about books written by friends of mine as often as I can. There is something remarkable and exciting about reading books written by people you know and love. And I feel exceedingly blessed to be able to do so, and to have such an abundance of choices. Abundance is the theme of the season, after all.

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, super belatedly. As is this episode of The Book I Read–somewhat super belated. I’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus, the demands of the school year finally eclipsing my capacity to read more often for pleasure and to write and speak about such pleasures. So, the book subject today was chosen–in part–for its brevity–a 86 page single volume of poetry–but in larger part–for it’s connection to the Talking Heads song, being, as it is, a book of poetry about music. It’s a book about a lot of other things as well, which I will get into shortly–but at it’s center are a couple of characters from music history, the 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti and the famous opera singer Farinelli. I’m happy to be talking about Annie Kim’s Eros, Unbroken, the 2019 Washington Prize Winner for poetry, recently awarded the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Award.

Where to begin describing this treasure of a poetry volume. Let’s begin at the beginning, perhaps, with the opening poem that is not a poem, but rather, a kind of introduction written in a series of aphoristic little pieces of prose, a thing titled, intriguingly, “Confession.” It works almost as an explanatory, a thesis, or, a statement of purpose. It gives us a bit of back story: Annie Kim, a classical violinist, randomly finds in the stacks a biography of Domenico Scarlatti and starts to read. Interested not in the biography itself as a genre, but in this particular case the eros or the passion contained therein. Somehow her interest is piqued by the friendship between this somewhat obscure 18th century composer and the castrato singer Farinelli, and their story somehow resonates with hers: “The hunt is rarely about the thing,” she writes. Her confession ends with these two striking aphorisms:

To be a thief you must love what you steal. I saw that I could write myself into their shadows. That I would need to pierce myself.

*

Counterpoint: the art of pursuing more than one melodic line, each independent but connected to the other.

Herein lies the crux of Eros, Unbroken. Through the story of the interconnected lives of Scarlatti and Farinelli, she will explore her own story–or, at least, the story of the collection’s primary speaker–and this “counterpoint” will take her deeply into the murky waters of love and passion, the difficulties of a family rift, the heart-rending disconnection between father and daughter, and the separations that must occur in order to put back together a divided life, finding what Parker J. Palmer calls the “hidden wholeness.”

Let’s spend a bit of time unpacking the “Eros” in the title of this volume before we proceed. I think most of us know Eros as Aphrodite’s minion, a companion and child-god of love and sexual desire, most often portrayed as the baby with a bow and arrow, or, as the Roman’s penned him, Cupid. Our word “erotic” springs from the Greek eros–and mostly when we hear this word we think about sexy-sexy time. That’s not the meaning we’re looking for with this book of poems. Modern philosophers and psychologists use the term “eros” to describe something more widely known as a kind of “life energy,” or, in Jungian psychology, relating to the process of individuation–rising above and beyond our tendencies toward projection, becoming conscious of anima or animus, and ultimately arriving at something like true self. In fact, immediately after the introductory “Confession,” and before the first poem in the collection, we have an epigraph from Jung: “Eros is not form-giving but form-fulfilling; it is the wine that will be poured into the vessel; it is not the bed and the direction of the stream but the impetuous water flowing in it.” Well, that should clear things up. One of the central figures in the collection, the castrato Farinelli, has given up his sex for the perpetually perfect voice for singing–he has been “unsexed,” castrated, and yet, his passion for music, his clarity of purpose throughout, is not stymied, is unbroken. He becomes the model, then, of an undivided life, about which Scarlatti, and the 21st century speaker in these poems, maybe the poet herself, are envious–or are trying to emulate in their way.

This book of poetry is divided into five parts, containing, respectively, 3, 3, 2, 10, and 5 poems. The first part mentions Scarlatti and Farinelli not a single time, but explores the modern concerns of the central speaker of the collection. I tell my students on a pretty regular basis that we cannot assume the speaker in a poem is the poet herself, but there are times when, our knowledge of the poet and our lack of evidence that anything has been fabricated, a lyric poem can be safely interpreted as coming from the perspective of the poet. Of course, even in this case, it doesn’t mean that everything the poem says is literally true or autobiographical–I remember William Stafford saying (loosely) that sometimes the poem “wanted” his father to be mean–even if that wasn’t really the case in actual fact. Just so as not to muddy the waters, I’ll refer to the primary character in these poems as the speaker, rather than as the poet.

So in part one of Eros, Unbroken, the speaker steps forward in the first three poems, immediately digging deep in experience for appropriate metaphors: the reflecting pool in “Eros the Binder and Loosener,” bringing to mind the wells of Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon,” man-made water bodies through which our selves are reflected and where inspiration is found; in the second poem, “Friend,” a snake, shown to the young and somewhat squeamish child by a friend, is a reptile that becomes another kind of muse: “Friend, I want to ask it,/how did you come into the open?” And then the poem “Violins: Violence,” the first of a few long poems in the collection that share a particular contrapuntal structure, a structure in which lyric poetry is interspersed with quotes from Marcus Aurelius; straight up expository passages about the origins, meanings, and relationships of words, violins, violence, vitulare, vitula, violare–to violate, the resonating holes in a violin: f-hole, to forte, fine, fuck; and some prose pieces which appear to be autobiographical sketches of our speaker, like this one: “In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includes violations of a pre-existing duty, that loss includes liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.” It turns out that Annie Kim is also a lawyer–and knowing this makes it harder to separate the speaker from the poet, and this first long poem deals with the excruciating painful exploration of an abusive father–the counterpoint to the melodies around coming into herself as a professional and a musician and a poet. Some distance is achieved here, though, in the lyric passages about the father–the point of view moves into second person: “shit-like offspring–/that was his favorite/curse for you in Korean.” The discursive nature of this poem, and later poems like it, appears both in content and form–as while the subjects shift and the tone shifts and the point of view shifts, there’s also a shifting on the page. Some stanzas are aligned left, others to the right, there are chunks of prose, some stanzas are double spaced between lines with shifting indentations. It is in every way, contrapuntal. Beautiful. Devastating. And, dense, exhilaratingly so.

I realize I’ve kind of gone on and on about the first part of the book and its third poem. If I were to do this as well for the remaining parts, this would need to be a series of blog entries/podcasts about a single book of poems–I could go on all the way through the new year! I won’t do that. Certainly, I think, this incredible book is worthy of it, no question–but I do not think I am up to that task, joyful as it might be.

So let me try to describe the remainder succinctly–a fool’s errand, really, dealing with so much nuance and complexity, but I will make the attempt, and, by necessity I’ll leave way too much unspoken. That’s probably fine–especially if it makes you want to read this book of poems, which you should.

In part two we’re given two unattributed epigraphs, “Tell me, what would you do for a perfect voice?” And “Tell me what perfection means to you. Completion? Rapture? Pain?” –epigraphs that feel weighty, that almost perfectly encapsulate what’s to follow. Part two begins with “Castrato,” a poem structurally parallel to “Violins: Violence,” but here the counterpoint in poetry and prose centers around the singer Farinelli, his castration, his wish to be “without desire,” ironic, given that to have the perfect voice in perpetuity is a desire–or, maybe, rather, a purpose against which other kinds of desire, material desire, or sexual desire, might be a distraction. But the connection to our 21st century speaker, even though she is almost invisible here, is undeniable in the motif of violare–to be violated and yet, not to feel vulnerable or victimized.

Eros, Unbroken proceeds with Farinelli at its center, in persona poems in which he is given a voice–in letters to his brother, and most interestingly, in conversation with the composer Scarlatti. There are a number of poems that read like little plays; “Everything Swims,” “Fire Chasing Air,” “To Hold Something Close,” and “Bright Skin of a Snake” are all poems written in dialogue between these two characters over a period of about 20 years or more–an astounding feat of imagination on Annie Kim’s part, if you ask me, given that any record of conversations like these would have been impossible. These conversations are philosophical, sophisticated, wide-ranging–but to me, authentic feeling. I had tons of fun reading them out loud, trying on these characters. At first, Scarlatti is a mentor, maybe even a father figure, at one point advising Farinelli not to ignore the attentions of a woman interested in him–but sometimes, maybe more often, the roles seem reversed. Scarlatti, poor, deeply in debt, is rescued by his friend, both financially and emotionally, intellectually.

Interspersed between these letters and conversations, is, ultimately, Annie Kim, writing herself “into their shadows.” “Bildungsroman, 1999” is a poem that explores a moment in the speaker’s life on the verge of some kind of wholeness–in music, in poetry, in finding her voice for “singing.” “Everything is worth your look, I’d like to tell/that self, everything is still beautiful,/even if you have no words to say it.” And in the poem “Leap,” recognizing the profound significance of the father as “a bridge you crossed to burn/more than a living father: yours.” For better or worse, our parents become our bridges–we may have to burn them on the other side.

I have said before that I am a lover of poetry, not a scholar. Even when I am doubtful of my own ability to comprehend, I am still finding things to get excited about. Here is a book of poems that reveals a world most of us are unfamiliar with. I mean, I still haven’t listened to any Scarlatti. I could probably go for his hundreds of keyboard sonatas, but I am not a fan of opera music. None of that matters. Annie Kim has taught me what I needed to know, has intrigued me with a drama about musicians centuries gone, has created a veritable novelistic breadth in a book of poems, has dealt honestly and brutally with all kinds of family of origin stuff–to which we can all relate on some level, and, as David Byrne has rapturously intoned, it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out Annie Kim wrote the book I read.

Let me share this one short poem that, in an amazingly condensed way, reminds us of the liberating powers of music:

Uses for Music

Because there is no soundtrack for the brain.

Because nothing has the beauty of a cage

you can enter when you want and leave behind.

So you can crawl across the floor and give it shape.
So one day you will release the snake–

you know, the one who lives inside you, has to move,
who can’t keep still.

Annie Kim, from Eros, Unbroken

Until next time, thanks for reading; I hope to post again by the end of the year. So, in the meantime, happy holidays, be well, be kind, and cheers!

Note: The format of the poem in Kim’s book is not accurately replicated here due to the limitations of the WordPress drafting tools–apologies Annie!

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The Book I Read: I Had An Idea–The Failed Magic Mountain Reaction Videos and a Redemptive Attempt at Podcasting Instead

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In the summer of 2020, the pandemic beginning to rage, after a school year shut down 3 quarters of the way through, trying not to think about what the next school year might look like, I had a creative impulse. Inspired by a number of what has come to be known as “reaction videos,” but also disheartened by a lack of any real substance in many of them, I wondered if it might be cool to do a literary reaction video. Most of the reaction videos I had seen had been about music–wherein, a listener would film themselves simply listening and reacting along the way to an artist or a song. Some of them were instructive and interesting–for example, a vocal coach would listen to screamo metal. Or a couple of very cool young black dudes would listen to classic power pop. Sometimes the reactions were just funny–mostly the result of some super compelling personality reacting in their idiosyncratic way to something they’d never heard before–the drama heightened of course by how far away the source material was from their own musical experiences or tastes–the stranger it seemed to them, the more over the top would be their response, whether positive or negative. I must confess, I only could stand to watch a few of them–a small handful. But it was enough to peak my interest and my curiosity, as a teacher, as a performer, about what might be possible if the material in question was not a song or a music video, but a book.

I started with a study of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It was a book on my list of books I felt I should read for a long time. For years, references to it and accolades for it kept coming up for me in almost every corner–so it was my first choice. In these videos, I would simply read passages out loud and respond on the fly. I tried to capture a first take and I didn’t edit. They were short videos, between 8 and 12 minutes long. But after my initial reaction to the novel’s early pages, it occurred to me that I had a dilemma. It would be virtually impossible to read and react to this entire novel. The thing was 700 pages long! It would take years. I could have just read the opening passages of a bunch of different things I’d never read, but I had aspirations that the project would inspire me to read more, and to finish more of what I read. So I made some adjustments right away and committed to read, say, 100 pages before I attempted another reaction video. Then, in my video, I would attempt to bring viewers up to speed with a little crash course summary before I tackled the next passage. I tried to be super expeditious about the summaries–just enough to help people along, and the bulk of the thing, then, would be the cold reading of the next passage and my extemporaneous reactions to it. I figured that, maybe, in six or seven episodes, I’d be done!

In the last podcast episode of The Book I Read, I mention The Magic Mountain as one of my favorite unfinished books. The summer of 2020 was over. The herculean task of reinventing the English Language Arts classroom for on-line consumption lay before me and my colleagues. I had to put my reaction videos, and my copy of The Magic Mountain aside. I had recorded only three episodes. I had read about 230 pages out of 700. And, a year and some change later, I have promised to you and to my own bad self, that I would return to it. I have jettisoned the idea of a reaction video (nope–done with that), in favor of featuring my progress with this great classic 20th century novel in my humble little podcast (and simultaneously on my blog).

A tiny bit of background. Thomas Mann was a German novelist, born in 1875 and he lived until 1955. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. He lived in exile from Germany during World War II and spent a significant portion of his later years living in other countries, including the United States, ultimately earning American citizenship. Reading the blurbs from the folks at Brittanica.com about his literary legacy, we discover that he’s considered perhaps the greatest German novelist of the 20th century. There are other lovely little tidbits there that sum up nicely his most notable concerns and themes–but I think I’ll spare you that in favor of trying to tease that out in my own discussion of the novel.

I’m going to attempt first to give you a list of what I consider to be the most salient features of the story and the style of The Magic Mountain as far as I have read. And in the last episode, I noted that I was not going all the way back to the beginning, but instead, I would review my notes, peruse the marked passages, and begin exactly where I left off. So I am still in progress with The Magic Mountain, and will probably be for some time. My next episode/entry may feature my progress, it may not. Only time will tell. For now, let’s see where we are in The Magic Mountain:

  • Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
  • Hans is a cigar smoker. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
  • Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
  • Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
  • What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
  • It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs and that entertains her peers to no end. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads. This is clearly a novel of IDEAS.
  • Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? What is the best use of it? Is being ill so bad? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
  • The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.” Well, that’s good to know. Our narrator is an honest narrator.
  • The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections. Here’s a sampling of titles from Chapter 4: “A Necessary Purchase,” “Excursus on the Sense of Time,” “He Tries Out His Conversational French,” “Politically Suspect,” “Analysis,” “Growing Anxiety/Two Grandfathers and a Twilight Boat Ride,” and “The Thermometer.”
  • The prose, the edition I have an English translation from the original German by John E. Wood, continues to be scintillating. I will share some of it with you before this episode is over, I promise.

As I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion revealed that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was before I picked up this novel!

Okay, so where are we now, 230 pages in? Well, for starters, Hans has been at the sanatorium a heck of a lot longer than three weeks. Why? You guessed it: he may be ill. There was hilarity around the fact that people kept asking him why he didn’t buy himself a thermometer. Everyone at the sanatorium is somewhat obsessed with taking their temperatures. Finally, he breaks down and buys one. If I remember this correctly (I read these passages a year ago), he discovers a slight fever. Yeah, I just double-checked: 99.7. He makes an appointment with one of the resident physicians. An x-ray is taken–a singular passage in the novel–one which elevates the experience of getting an x-ray to a kind of existential crisis–and here’s the rub: as dramatic as this scene is and as blown away as Hans is by the experience, the reader is somewhat kept in the dark as to the results–except for the advice he gets from the physician–which is: Hans cannot leave the sanatorium–or that he should not. He’s not a prisoner–but it’s kind of like he’s staying at The Hotel California.

Another odd but significant aspect of life in the sanatorium is the lively social life that takes place, mostly, in the cafeteria or dining hall. This is where we meet most of a wide cast of characters that inhabit Hans’ experience–there’s the “bad Russian” table (a mysterious and perhaps bigoted appellation), another table of lively ladies whose conversation is peppered with gossip and judgement over their fellow residents, and a table of intellectuals, the most notable of which is the Italian philosopher pedagogue Settembrini, who, whenever he catches Hans’ attention, goes on some wild and raging lecture extolling the wonders of Western Civilization and poo-pooing Easterners generally and metaphysical ideas altogether. Hans is annoyed by the guy but also drawn to him. Settembrini is loquacious and undoubtedly super smart; he seems at times to be unapologetically progressive, other times backwards and kind of racist. It’s the 1920’s, after all. But is he a positive or negative influence on the young engineer?–at this point it’s hard to say. He seems to want to encourage Hans Castorp to leave the sanatorium in order to escape its “Eastern” influences–the worst of which, according to Settembrini, is the East’s extravagant and wasteful relationship with the big T-word: TIME. A relationship, he thinks, that might be rubbing off on Hans the young engineer.

But finally, where I am, is the important matter of Clavdia Chauchat, a woman who, at first, bugs Hans to no end–he’s especially annoyed by her habit of barging into the cafeteria, always late, and always allowing the door to slam behind her. Perhaps vain and self absorbed, Hans is repulsed by her–at first. But something kind of weird happens. Over time–because she is beautiful, and because (weird of weirds) her illness makes her more so–Hans begins to fall for her, becomes obsessed by her, becomes elated and ecstatic over chance meetings, close-by brushes, a chaste and accidental touch, or just a word: a “good morning” or a “pardon” from her sends Hans Castorp completely over the edge! So much so, (and this is perhaps the strangest bit) that when his temperature starts to drop into normal healthy territory, he becomes terribly upset–he WANTS to be ill so as to continue in her extremely limited company. And there seems to be a bit of that everywhere–I mean, no one seems terribly upset about their condition. If one did not know where they were–you would assume that they were all on some sort of pleasure cruise. Are these folks reveling in their status as TB patients? They do, it appears, look down on those who are only “mildly ill,” say of some that they “hardly have the right to be here.” Are they, in some ways, just happy to be sick? Are they in love with being ill? And is love a kind of illness?!

Before I close today, I want to give you a sense of this text–a feel for the prose–and a taste of the novel’s flavor and its ideas–and its often quick turn from the macabre to the absurd. Let’s look at the x-ray scene, for example. Hans’s friend Joachim has just had his x-ray taken and Mann describes in glorious detail the miraculous mechanism by which x-rays were taken in this early era. The “director” invites Hans to look at the picture of his friend. “I can see your heart,” Hans says, but is also somewhat terrified to see his skeleton as well. He’s filled with both “reverence and terror.” His thoughts turn to a clairvoyant ancestor who supposedly could see through people, often accurately predicting their deaths. And then it’s his turn.

A few minutes later he himself was standing in the stocks while the little thunderstorm raged, and Joachim, his body closed from view again, began to dress. Once again the director peered through the milky pane, but this time into Hans Castorp’s interior, and from his mutterings–ragtag curses and phrases–it appeared his findings corresponded to his expectations. In response to much begging, he was kind enough to allow his patient to view his own hand through the fluoroscope. And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave. Under that light, he saw the process of corruption anticipated, saw the flesh in which he moved decomposed, expunged, dissolved into airy nothingness–and inside was the delicately turned skeleton of his right hand and around the last joint of the ring finger, dangling black and loose, the signet ring his grandfather had bequeathed him: a hard thing, this ore with which man adorns a body predestined to melt away beneath it, so that it can be free again and move on to yet other flesh that may bear it for a while. With the eyes of his Tienappel forebear–penetrating, clairvoyant eyes–he beheld a familiar part of his body, and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die. And he made the same face he usually made when listening to music–a rather dull, sleepy and devout face, his head tilted toward one shoulder, his mouth half open.

The director said, “Spooky, isn’t it? Yes, there’s no mistaking the whiff of spookiness.”

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods

Lastly, as I have said that a major feature of this novel is conversation, and that dialogue abounds, I find it is unlike any dialogue I have ever read in a realistic novel–it is sophisticated in ways that dialogue is not usually sophisticated–in that the characters all seem to have an incredible gift for oratory–and one character displays this gift most exquisitely–to the point where it almost becomes comical, and that is Hans Castorp’s “mentor” Herr Settembrini, the Italian pedagogue. Here is a taste–which begins innocently enough, with Settembrini’s recommendation to Hans that, since he is staying longer than expected, he should have a warm sleeping bag.

“But wait–you’ll need a sleeping bag, one with fur lining. Where are our minds? This late-summer weather is deceptive. It can be deepest winter within an hour. You’ll be spending the coldest months here.”

“Yes, the sleeping bag,” Hans Castorp said, “that’s probably a necessary piece of gear. It has crossed my mind that we–my cousin and I–should go down into town sometime soon and buy one. It’s something I’ll never use again later, but it’s worth it, after, for four to six months.”

“Yes, it is worth it, it is worth it, my good engineer,” Herr Settembrini said softly, stepping closer to the young man. “It is truly hideous, you know, the way you are throwing the months around. Hideous, I say, because it is so unnatural, so foreign to your nature, purely a matter of a receptive young mind. Ah, the immoderate receptivity of youth–it can drive an educator to despair, because it is always ready to apply itself to bad ends. Do not ape the words you hear floating in the air around you, young man, but speak a language appropriate to your civilized European life. A great deal of Asia hangs in the air here. It is not for nothing that the place teems with Mongolian Muscovites–people like these.” And Herr Settembrini pointed back over his shoulder with his chin. “Do not model yourself on them, do not let them infect you with their ideas, but instead compare your own nature, your higher nature to theirs, and as a son of the West, of the divine West, hold sacred those things that by both nature and heritage are sacred to you. Time, for instance. This liberality, this barbaric extravagance in the use of time is the Asian style–that may be the reason why the children of the East feel so at home here. Have you never noticed that when I Russian says ‘four hours’ it means not more to him than ‘one hour’ does to us? The idea comes easily to mind that the nonchalance with which these people treat time has something to do with the savage expanse of their land. Too much room–too much time. It has been said that they are a nation with time on their hands–they can afford to wait. We Europeans can’t wait. We have just as little time as our noble, tidily segmented continent has space; we must carefully husband the resources of the former just as we do those of the latter–put them to use, good use, engineer! Our great cities are the perfect symbol–these centers and focal points of civilization, these crucibles of thought. Just as land values rise in cities and wasted space becomes an impossibility, in the same measure, please note, time becomes more precious there, too. Carpe diem! An urbanite sang that song. Time is a gift of the gods to humankind, that we may use it–use it, my good engineer, in the service of human progress.”

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods

And he goes on. And on. And on. And this scene culminates in his urgent advice to Hans Castorp that he leave the magic mountain. So, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anyone talk this way. Settembrini is infuriating and absolutely compelling in one and the same breath. He has a point. He makes it well–and yet, I am left, and maybe Hans Castorp is left, wondering if it is not the East that really has it going on with regard to time, and not the West. Perhaps Mann knew that Settembrini’s way of describing the East was somewhat obscene–his judgment of them borders on xenophobia. Maybe, just maybe, the way we experience time on the Magic Mountain is indeed magic, and despite the fact we might be dying of TB, a good thing.

Hopefully, we’ll say a lot more about this in our next episode/entry. Until then, thanks for reading or listening, and cheers. See you in a week or two!

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The Book I Read: Rock Star Fiction, Erasure, and Mother Love

(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)

In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.

Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.

Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?

I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.

This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.

But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.

But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.

Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.

In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!

Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #3)

Welcome back, friends, to the third installment of my attempt at a literary reaction vlog. I approached it a little bit differently this time. Less text. Almost entirely vlog. I’ve created two parts. The first part is a kind of “previously, in The Magic Mountain” type of introductory video, designed to catch you up, albeit superficially, on what’s happening in the novel, 176 pages in. The second part is a new reading accompanied by my reaction in real time. I think I like this approach, except, wouldn’t you know it, technical difficulties resulted in a reaction video without audio–so, what you have here is a second take. I know, it’s kind of cheating. It was super frustrating, because most of the time, in keeping with the “reaction video” concept, the first take is the best and the one you want to keep. Oh well. Without further ado:

Part One: Previously, in The Magic Mountain . . .

Part Two: Chapter 5, Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity . . .

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #2)

Already, I find it necessary to amend the rules of the game. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, in my edition, is nearly 700 pages long. I would have you know that I am not what you could call a fast reader. Initially, I thought that each of my reaction vlogs might be about a different piece of literature. At my rate, that would mean a new reaction vlog might go up every other month or so. And while I promised in my introductory entry that I would not be reading out loud and commenting on an entire novel, it does seem kind of ridiculous to do a reaction vlog for the first four paragraphs of a novel, and then a few days later another for the first four paragraphs of a different novel, especially if the somewhat selfish goal of this project is to get myself to read more, and to read books that have been beckoning for some time! So, here is my conclusion: I intend to finish The Magic Mountain. I can see myself doing several reaction vlogs along the way. One every 50 to 100 pages, say. That way, you, the viewer, get a sense of closure and continuity. That way, I, the blogger, can finish a damn book.

Here’s another idea that might be helpful. Rather than providing a series of cold readings and reactions throughout, before each new video, I will attempt to provide some context, in other words, address what kind of twists and turns have occurred since the last reading, try to describe what I have learned that might be helpful to you as you read, watch, and listen. Ergo:

Today I read about 60 pages into The Magic Mountain. This is what I’ve learned and observed:

  • Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
  • Hans loves to smoke cigars. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
  • Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
  • Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
  • What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
  • It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the two cousins and the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads.
  • Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
  • The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.”
  • The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections.
  • The prose, again, an English translation from the original German, continues to be scintillating.

That was somewhat difficult to do economically. Perhaps it will be less necessary as we move through this tome. I sense, because the essential plot of the novel has already been laid out, that catching you up, dear reader, might not be as necessary moving forward. I could be wrong about that, but as I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion reveals that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was three or four days ago!

Meanwhile, here’s today’s reaction video to a section titled “One Word Too Many” from Chapter 3!

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #1)

Okay, here it is. The first foray into a new series whereby I record myself reacting to a literary text I’ve never read. My first choice, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book that has sat atop my “should read” list for many, many moons now. Below you will find a video of my reading of and reaction to the first four paragraphs of the novel.

A tiny bit of background. Thomas Mann was a German novelist, born in 1875 (it was his birthday just four or five days ago), and he lived until 1955. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. He lived in exile from Germany during World War II and spent a significant portion of his later years living in other countries, including the United States, ultimately earning American citizenship. Here’s a lovely little description from the folks at Brittanica.com about his literary legacy:

Mann was the greatest German novelist of the 20th century, and by the end of his life his works had acquired the status of classics both within and without Germany. His subtly structured novels and shorter stories constitute a persistent and imaginative enquiry into the nature of Western bourgeois culture, in which a haunting awareness of its precariousness and threatened disintegration is balanced by an appreciation of and tender concern for its spiritual achievements. Round this central theme cluster a group of related problems that recur in different forms—the relation of thought to reality and of the artist to society, the complexity of reality and of time, the seductions of spirituality, eros, and death.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Mann/Later-novels

Again, I come to this novel by recommendation from a half a dozen writers that I love and respect who claim this particular work to be of pivotal importance to them. William Stafford, former poet laureate of Oregon and one of my literary heroes, wrote a poem for this novel. Father John Misty has a song by the same title. I’m hard pressed to think of stronger recommendations. So let’s give this a go, shall we?

Postscript:

I realize, after watching my video, which, as it should be, was the first and only take, that one of the occupational hazards of doing a literary reaction vlog might be a misreading here and there. I’m not too worried about that, but it seems appropriate to say that Hans is taking a journey by train, by boat, and then again by train in order to get to his destination. In this video, my understanding seems to be that he’s on a train the entire time, that he crosses “abysses” on a train. I think he’s on a boat over these abysses. I make another mistake in understanding that he’s on his way to Hamburg. No, he’s leaving from Hamburg, his home town, to a place called Davos-Platz. In a way, this kind of reaction vlog can be a quick study of how easy it is, even for a good reader, to quickly come to a misunderstanding, especially when speaking extemporaneously, off-the-cuff–something my students do all the time. It’s kind of embarrassing. I know how they feel.

And Oh My God. Coulda shoulda woulda, a fool’s game, I know. But I wish I would have kept going for one more paragraph. The fifth paragraph of The Magic Mountain is a doozy, and totally worth the relative slog of the first four. Not that they were a slog, but they were not, as one might say about an extremely potent novel opening, in any way scintillating. I guess, as I am discovering, one of the benefits of a literary vlog accompanied by blogger text is that a person might, if they are so inclined, write about what they failed to talk about in the video. So I’m just going to share the fifth paragraph with you here and then riff for awhile in conclusion:

Two days of travel separate this young man (and young he is, with few firm roots in life) from his everyday world, especially from what he called his duties, interests, worries and prospects–separate him far more than he had dreamed possible as he rode to the station in a hansom cab. Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time; from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways. Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state–indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and Phillistine into something like a vagabond. Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink; and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, translation John E. Woods;

Holy crap. And I say, holy crap, not because of some earth-shattering plot development or character reveal, no, but because of this almost Proustian turn from simple exposition about Hans on a train on his way to Davos-Platz to some profound philosophical exploration about the nature of travel, the way movement through physical space from one spot to another can have monumental effects on a person’s character–in the same way time can–only faster. Anyone who has significantly traveled could attest to the truth of this. I have not significantly traveled, but I know that the first time I flew by myself from one coast of this continent to the other, my life changed irrevocably. I transformed from a pedant to a vagabond–or something along those lines.

This fifth paragraph makes me believe that this novel will be a philosophical one, which excites me; I’ve always been more fond of IDEA than of STORY.

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I’ve Got An Idea: The Literary Reaction Vlog

If you’ve perused the video introduction above, you get the gist of the idea. In keeping with the new interest in the REACTION vlog, in which a person reacts in real time to a media artifact like video or music that they have never seen or heard before, I propose to try a reaction vlog to a literary text.

I have a common disorder whereby I purchase more books than I can possibly read*. I’ve got books on the shelf I bought two decades ago that I have never cracked open. I buy books sometimes because I like the author, because they’ve been recommended to me, because I’ve read a review, because they were written by a friend, or, often, because it is a book I feel I “should” have read. My brand of the disorder is heightened when I find a book I “should” read published in a limited or “fine” edition. So, not only does the volume sit on the shelf for a very long time beckoning to be read, but it also looks very attractive while doing it. I’m not sure what the psychology is here: maybe I think I will be more likely to read a book if it is beautiful to look at and hold and smell. At any rate, if this IS the modus operandi at play here, it hasn’t worked especially well up to this point. The books beckon, they look nice, and they remain on the shelf.

What I’m saying is that I don’t have to look very far and hard for a book I have not read.

You might be thinking, okay, it’s one thing to watch a video blogger react to a song or a video clip, but there’s no way I’m sitting through a video in which some guy reads out loud while reacting in real time to an entire novel. Let me set your mind at ease: I would not do that. Under only one condition would I do that: if I was being paid. Nope, not my job. My job is primarily to amuse myself, get some exposure to some texts that I have long wished to dive into, and hopefully, provide some entertainment, hilarity, and a light dose of instruction for any willing viewer. I have set for myself a certain number of ground rules:

1. I will select books I have never read, promise.

2. I will only read and react to short passages: the opening page or paragraph, a single poem, a section of a long poem, an excerpt from an essay.

3. I will not choose pieces by my contemporaries, unless one of them requests that I do so.

4. I will focus primarily on texts that are considered “classics.” And by that I mean works that have been widely read and revered, works that remain so to this day, and perhaps, works that were published pre-21st century.

5. None of the above is written in stone.

6. If this is a train wreck, which is a strong possibility, I will stop doing it immediately.

I would be amenable to suggestions or requests, although it would have to be a book that I already have in the collection (I’m not buying any more books, I’ve decided, at least in the short term, unless it is a book written by a friend). But I think I have my sights set (to begin with) on a famous German novel of the early 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. It is a book on the “should read” list and has been nearly at the top of that list for many, many years, a novel that, for some reason, has come across the radar as a seminal text for many writers that I admire. We’ll see how this goes. Onward and upward. Wish me luck. I hope you are amused and at least a little bit edified!

*Just learned that there is a word for this disorder. It’s called Tsundoku, a Japanese word for people who buy more books than they can read!

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Journal of the Plague Year: #19

The United States is dealing with two plagues simultaneously: the plague of the coronavirus pandemic and the plague of racism. It’s pretty clear to most white folks how they can protect themselves against COVID-19: social distance, wash your damn hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, stay home if you’re feeling sick, get tested if you have symptoms, quarantine. It’s less clear to white folks how best to help solve the plague of racism. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is, in fact, in our ballpark; it is our responsibility–our solemn responsibility. We broke it. We must fix it. But how? For so long, even liberal, well intentioned white people have been oblivious to systemic racism, convinced somehow that we lived in a post-racial society, or, so insulated that they never understood the depth of the problem, or, unaware of their own deep-seated racism. Some others are way out front, learning about anti-racism, becoming the best allies they can become; some of these folks have been at this for decades. And then there are those who are blatantly, unapologetically racist, and are that way because . . . Christ, who knows why. It’s difficult not to make broad generalized strokes–they are southerners, they are rednecks, they are right-wingnuts, they are nazis, they are republicans, they are ignorant, they are afraid. That pretty much covers the stereotype spectrum. And the stark political and cultural division in this country makes it very difficult to simply “bring up to speed” our recalcitrant brethren. They vilify those on the left as libtards and communists and heathen. And they hate the people who are characterized this way in the same way progressives hate the injustices and violence perpetrated against black Americans and other Americans of color. People are entrenched. So we seem to be at an impasse. Or are we?

For the first time during the corona virus shelter-in-place order from March 13, I found myself inside of a crowd. On Tuesday night I attended the Black Lives Matter Milwaukie Sit-In for Solidarity on the waterfront. There were hundreds of people there, spacing themselves from each other as well as they could on the grounds of the park, almost all wearing masks. And despite being, perhaps, the most racially diverse group of people to ever congregate in Milwaukie, most of the people there were white folks. But all of the speakers were black. And that is exactly how it should be.

Part of how we get beyond this impasse, first of all, for those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of justice and equality, is to listen. And even for those of us who consider ourselves allies, that listening can be painful, like it was to hear one of the speakers, a 2020 graduate, a former student of mine, talk about the difficulties she faced in the school where I teach. But this listening has to be done. So I’m listening. And it appears many of my Milwaukie neighbors are also listening. And we’re fired up. I don’t think that I have ever seen a gathering like the one I saw Tuesday, for any political issue, on Milwaukie’s waterfront or in its streets. I could be mistaken there, but it seems to me that my little town is waking up from a long slumber and I’m doing my best to wake up with it. It’s a step in the right direction–a step in the left direction.

Continuing with the tradition of ending with a poem, my choice today is “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes. One of the pieces of advice for white people on a flier that was circulating at the rally was to read black authors, black poets, black journalists. I know the power of reading to be the best way to exercise one’s empathy muscles, and personally, I know that until I started reading black authors, late, when I was almost as old as the speaker in this Hughes poem, 22, I was oblivious. With each piece I read by a Hughes, a McKay, a Hurston, a Walker, a Morrison, an Ellison, I became less and less oblivious. As an English teacher, I am biased toward literature, but I do believe with all of my heart that it is a correct bias, that literature is part of the cure, a significant one at that.

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#356: Another Triolet for Moby Dick

Almost seven years ago today, I wrote a triolet about not being able to finish Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Here I am, in the same boat, so to speak, in 2020. A double poetic feature today: first, the triolet from 2013 (with some minor revisions), then today’s triolet. What’s a triolet, you ask?

On Trying to Read Moby Dick Again (2013)

I’ve never finished Moby Dick,
I’ve attempted it again and again.
It’s not, for me, that it’s too thick–
I’ve never finished Moby Dick.
Perhaps commitment is the trick,
I love what I’ve read to no end,
but I’ve never finished Moby Dick,
though I’ve attempted it again and again.

On Trying to Try to Read Moby Dick Again (2020)

The novel Moby Dick I still have not read,
but during the pandemic, I’ll have time on my hands.
If I could just get through this stack by my bed!
The novel Moby Dick I still have not read.
All these other titles begging to be read instead,
a problem only the book collector understands:
The novel Moby Dick I still have not read,
but during the pandemic, I’ll have time on my hands.

 

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