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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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