Tag Archives: The Magic Mountain

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

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry!

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: Works Unfinished, Finishing the Appalachian Book of the Dead, and a Prayer for October

Listen to the Podcast version of this blog entry here!

True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.

Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.

. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finished Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.

A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.

And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Dead is a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.

I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:

October Prayer

If a grey sky can be indicative
of a life lived in the long echo
of the snap of umbilical cord

and a farewell to the self of pure love
floating in a green light near the origins
of particle and wave,

then let leaves high in the maple
turning to their first autumn orange
be messengers of messengers

from the tallest, most foriegn
angels that death is waiting
for your next accident

and, no matter how cautious
you are, you will only ever
catch one glimpse.

Let the call of crow bobbing
in the pines be the ungainly ugliness
in your life that you must accept,

and let the digging in the yard for grubs
be your digging–acrid food
of your often-rehearsed regrets.

Crow gives way to silence
in which you hear
another kind of stirring.

Perhaps skies stretching,
preparing rain, watering
the suffering earth.

David Ruekberg

As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.

Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!

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The Book I Read: Choices! More Books of the Dead! Climbing the Mountain! and the Freakout Commencement

For this entry in The Book I Read series (which is also a podcast, by the way), I am writing about, not what I’ve read, but what I’ve started to read, AND, what I’ve tried reading and then abandoned. I had these ideas that I might get well into one of those things, or well into the beginnings of both of those things in the effort to, you know, make a CHOICE about what to tackle next—and in that effort I appear to have been successful! And then finally I’d like to conclude with a bit of a freak out, a freak out over the beginning of the new school year of fully in-person teaching and learning in the midst of that part of our current plague we’re calling the delta variant spread of COVID-19.

First, about book choices: 

I am fortunate, in that I do not have to go very far to find titles. For the longest time—well, now, more than half of my life, I have been a habitual and chronic book buyer and book collector. I am guilty, as so many of us are, I think, of buying more books than I can read—embarrassingly so, maybe more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime. Nevertheless, there are books in every room of the house. I even have a tiny little traveling library in the teardrop trailer I take camping. So the list of books to read is almost always immediately accessible to me. But making the choice of what to tackle next has always been a struggle. With a limited amount of discretionary reading time—the choice must be the right one. That’s a lot of pressure. So, I forgive myself when I start a book but can’t, for whatever reason, finish it. 

So how do I choose the next book to read? For all of my academic life—or my schooling life, I was just told what to read—and lucky for me, that did not kill reading. As an adult, if you’re like me, we have lists—either ones that we write or ones that we catalogue in our brains. My list is categorized like this: books I want to read because I think I SHOULD (classics and such), books I want to read because I know I would be interested (books about subjects I dig or books by writers I already love). Then there are those books recommended or gifted, which are on the list out of a sense, as I’ve said before, of obligation, yeah, but also because I trust the gift giver. Last, but not least, there are books written by friends of mine. My community of Warren Wilson MFA alumni has produced an embarrassment of literary riches, some of which, in previous episodes, I have shared with you. I’m going to start there today by talking about the novel Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. If you happened to read the last entry, or listen in on episode three of the podcast, you might catch a pattern here. Another factor in the choosing the next book might be a kind of thread I’m following—in this case, with Lincoln in the Bardo and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog—I am following a kind of Tibetan Buddhist thread. This novel’s title makes an explicit allusion to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I have heard Dale Neal speak of his novel as a kind of Southern Buddhist thriller. And it is that—in flying colors. 

I think I wanna do something crazy. Maybe even two crazy things. First, I’m going to talk about this book IN PROGRESS. I confess right out of the gate that I am a little less than halfway through Appalachian Book of the Dead. I am liberating myself from the notion that I can only talk about books that I’ve finished. That’s a crazy notion. But this is a book, I know, already, that I will absolutely finish, but today, I can only talk about my experience of the first hundred and twenty-five pages. And I’d like to begin by talking about the beginning—the opening. Some readers are dependent upon a strong hook from the start—while other readers are more forgiving and patient. I tend to be patient—more so with classics—but in this case, with Neal’s novel, patience is absolutely unnecessary. To prove my case (here’s the second crazy thing), I’m going to read out loud the first page of Appalachian Book of the Dead. 

To hear the reading, please visit the podcast, otherwise, the next paragraph will make less sense.

Holy shit. That was my first reaction. And I think I had exactly the same reaction when I heard the author read this out loud once. Holy shit. First of all, to begin a novel with a murder and car-jacking—openings to novels don’t come any bolder than that—but the sheer drama of the scene is far less striking than some of the other moves here. First of all, Peabody is fully characterized. Here’s a character we will never see again—who dies on the first page a violent and gruesome death—and yet, we know a whole bunch about him—his age, what he did for a living, his favorite sports team, his favorite snack, his religion, and something, too, beyond that, of his worldview—“he never even considered the prospect of such pure meanness”—it’s a master class in the fiction writing adage that says that no matter how minor the character, some fleshing out of that character is crucial to creating a believable fictional world, to suck the reader in to the “fictive dream.” And on top of that, in a single page, before killing him off, through those details, Neal has created a character that we care something about.  We’re horrified at his death, not just because it stirs up the creepy icky, but because he seems like a good guy. 

Okay—to begin with, Neal has opened the novel with the criminal and murderous spree of two escaped convicts, who, in short order, are forced to leave their stolen vehicle behind and flee on foot into the wilderness of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains—into or around a small wilderness town called Yonah, where all our main characters live. Now, one of these criminals is immediately caught in the manhunt—but the other, the decidedly more dangerous one, the one that represents “pure meanness,” the one with the tattoo of the naked lady in the clutches of a demon—this guy seemingly disappears into the landscape.

So we have a cast of characters: Cal, a retired tradesman, a recovering alcoholic, also recovering from a recent and serious heart surgery, a committed stoic and faithful adherent to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, hoping soon to write a memoir; Joy, his recent and third wife, a craft potter who spearheaded the idea to move away from city life into this vast and wild landscape; Doyle, the caretaker of a now defunct nature camp for kids, and a young woman, Ainsley, who camped there as a kid, the child of the family that ran the place, returned now to start her life anew—living in a yurt in the woods of the run down property of the family camp. She’s a spiritual seeker, super earthy, dread-locked, still attempting to practice Tibetan Buddhism—having arrived without her longtime boyfriend and spiritual companion—estranged from her now. These are the major players—and the chapters that follow that horrific and gripping opening delve into to the somewhat broken lives of these characters—meanwhile, in the backdrop, as a kind of ominous echo—almost a haunting, is the spectre of this escaped convict. Where is he? Is he alive? Will any of our people encounter him? These are the big sort of plot questions—and Neal is taking his time with this. Some people might find that frustrating—but Neal has made us intimately familiar with these characters—they are flawed but likeable—and from my vantage point, super interesting. I do not mind hanging out with these people while this other darkness percolates in the background. How does the darkness percolate—let me show you. 

As the story progress, there are some really intriguing point of view moves. One chapter, a single page long, seems to be from the perspective of a coyote, a coyote that feels it’s being stalked. And a couple of other chapters seem to be about our evil guy—but Neal has made the super strange and wonderful choice of putting these chapters in second person! The escaped convict, ironically named Angel, is now YOU. Sometimes in the style of The Tibetan Book of the Dead—which, if I didn’t characterize it specifically enough in the last episode, are essentially a set of instructions for dead people about how to navigate the bardo! So creepy. So wonderful. “You have heard of the smokey mountains, but you did not believe in the haze of these hills.” Our narrator seems to be giving instructions to this “hungry ghost” through the bardo—putting us as readers eerily in his shoes—and then later Ainsley gives her lost boyfriend her own instructions through the in-between. 

I’m gonna step out on a limb here and say that the forests in the Appalachian Mountains, for all of these characters and for us, are serving as a metaphorical bardo—an in-between place—where we are all striving toward some kind of enlightenment into a new life. 

I am digging this novel. It is vivid, beautifully written—every sentence kicks ass, and, as I’ve said, I am all in. In the next entry in this series (while I promise there will be no spoilers) I will share with you a final reaction to Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. 

I’d like to write next, briefly, very briefly, about a book I started reading last summer but did not finish—let me sort of paint the scene. The summer of 2020, at the height, (we thought) of our pandemic woes, preparing to go into the weirdest school year in the history of school years, and I sit down for an ambitious read of a classic novel whose praises had been sung up and down over and over by people I admire, the early 20th century German novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. This novel is about a lot of things—thematically, perhaps, the way we understand and experience TIME—but literally—this novel is about a pandemic! It takes place during the Tuberculosis Pandemic of the early twentieth century. I loved reading this book. I have taken an entire year away from it. It’s a tome—like 700 pages. But It keeps calling to me and I know that soon, I will be back. I mention it now to add some weight to that commitment. I didn’t know what it was about when I picked it up, but it is too perfect for this time, in this year of our plague, 2021.  

So, to conclude, I’m freaking out a little bit about the new school year—for a couple of reasons. First—you know—I’m going back to in-person instruction after 15 months of plague year teaching and learning at home. I spent the entire last school year relearning my job, finally getting somewhat good at it, and now I’ve got to unlearn a lot of that—revise everything I know one more time—in the transition back to business as usual—which, by the way, will not be business as usual. I’m fully masked. Kids are fully masked. Teachers and other school employees must be fully vaccinated—while the kids—as far as I know in this moment—not so much. Last spring, in what we called the Hybrid model, when we thought things had improved enough to offer the opportunity to any kid who was willing to come back into the building for a half day, I was back in the room with between about 15 and 20 students in each of 3 classes. This year, I will be back in the building with 6 periods of anywhere between 25 and 30 students in each. All the comfort last spring, of, at least, coming into contact with a relatively tiny student population will be null and void this year. So, with these conditions and the reality that vaccinated people are far from invulnerable, I admit there’s a little trepidation. The second freak-out (albeit a more minor type of freak out) has to do with the difficulty of continuing my podcast extra-curricular activities during the school year—especially with regard to talking about NEW books I’ve read. It may just be that I might just have to talk about something else!

We will see how this all turns out. Wish me the best. I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.

 

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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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