Mirror, Mirror

There is nothing a writer knows how to do better than not write.  I’ve heard variations of this idiom many times, and if it is true, then I, most certainly, am a writer.  Even tonight, with the best of intentions and a 6 week old New Year’s resolution behind me, I sit at the keyboard, sipping bourbon and . . . paying bills, checking email, organizing tax paperwork.  Pretty much anything but the thing I most desire to do.  Write.

Oddly, this brings me to my latest read, which is a very good thing since I don’t have the money to pay bills or taxes at the moment.  From Here To Eternity was the 1951 debut novel of James Jones.  It centers on member of Company G in the autumn of 1941, just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into World War II.  The primary characters are First Sergeant Milt Warden and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt or Prew.

I have to say that I did not enjoy this novel very much, and at least part of that fault lies with the manner in which I read it.  In my effort to find a way to include reading in my unstable schedule, I tried reading for 15 or 20 minutes at a time during my lunch break.  In retrospect, I would absolutely advise against this method.  I realize that part of the pleasure of reading is losing myself in another world, another time, in other people’s lives and struggles.  Fifteen minutes barely let me remember where I was the last time I was reading.  I was only able to skim the surface of the interactions, forgetting names, places and situations.  I was certainly not able to jump into the rushing river of the plot and be carried away to the end . . . which, by the way, I did not get to for approximately five months.  That’s unbelievable in my world!

The other reason I was unable to fully immerse myself in the book was my inability to relate to the main characters, particularly Prew.  At first I thought if I could just get a little further in the book, he would reveal himself to me.  He would show me something that was a reflection of me.  But I struggled through most of the book thinking how I just don’t understand men.  Or maybe it was the military.  There was rampant drinking and testosterone fueled fighting (though I imagine the drinking supplied at least some liquid encouragement.)  There were affairs with women you aren’t supposed to love (a prostitute, the commanding officer’s wife.)  I think what bothered me the most was both main characters’ refusal to do the things that would make them happiest.  Warden hated the idea of becoming an officer.  He was constantly referred to as the best soldier in the Army by superiors and subordinates alike.  He was immediately accepted into the program and the future happiness of his affair hinged on his becoming an officer.  In spite of all that, he just couldn’t become “one of them.”

Even more infuriating was Prew.  I understand that even though he was a very talented boxer, he didn’t want to join the boxing team of his new Company.  He was haunted by a sparring match where he blinded one of his friends, so I can grasp how that might turn someone away from something that once gave satisfaction.  But then he also turned away from his bugling.  In his recent Company prior to the start of the novel, he was First Bugler.  He played taps at Arlington and was known, not only on the islands but in the states as the best bugler in the Army.  The author gives insight into the passion Prew has for his art, the transformative power it has over him and the people who hear it.  It is unfathomable to me that he could just walk away from that.  Just not play anymore.  For no good reason.

Until I typed that first paragraph, and I unexpectedly saw myself in Prew.  Not doing the thing I love.  For no good reason.   Hello, mirror.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

The Picture of Dorian Gray

To borrow a phrase from a song in the Broadway musical Rent, that’s how long it’s been (approximately) since I started my project to read the 101 greatest fiction novels ever written.  525,600 minutes = one year.  What have I accomplished this past year, you may ask?  Well, you certainly should ask because I’ve been asking myself that very question as my birthday draws near.  For the blog, I’ve written 17 insightful and clever posts (including this one) plus three background pages, and I’ve completed 10 books on the list.  Yes, only 10.  At this rate it will take me a decade to finish this task I’ve set for  myself, at which time, I’m sure, blogs will be replaced with some as yet un-invented mode of communication that will likely involve a plug placed into the base of my skull.  The above accomplishments would seem fairly shameful if I hadn’t lived through what has become one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my life.  Top five for sure, if not the best of all.  The satisfaction and pleasure derived from the year are directly proportional to the effort involved in attaining them.  I feel like much of the good that has been “given” to me was earned in this and prior years, literally, in blood, sweat, and copious amounts of tears.  I recognize the role of good fortune in my life, because I’ve benefited from it many times in many ways, and I hope that I am adequately appreciative of it.  But it is the weight I slowly struggled to lose, the words of the novel locked in my brain that I battled to drag forth into the sunshine, the new job that has taken me a year and a half, hundreds of resumes, and more than one emotional breakdown to finally win that are most deeply gratifying because they teach me about me and my astonishingly boundless inner strength.

Part of what has led me to these reflections is my most recent read, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and its title character who was given everything without any personal effort:  money, youth, beauty . . . all the trappings of success and happiness that nineteenth century England and even today’s society seem to most value.  It is a morality story where most any reader can guess the ill-fated end of the handsome protagonist, but for me, the ability to generally know where I was going in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the journey.  I’ve always been a fan of snarky Oscar Wilde on principle, having seen the 1997 biographical movie Wilde and thoroughly enjoyed becoming familiar with his popular, if frequently contradictory, witticisms.  So familiar, in fact, that the dialogue in the book is overflowing with epigrams that would seem tired and trite were it not for the knowledge that Oscar Wilde was their originator.  Much like how the movie Casablanca could appear to be full of clichés if the viewer were unaware that within the movie is where those clichés were actually born.

The descriptions are artful, the storyline is unique, and the dialogue makes me wish that I were seated at the dining tables and salons of the individuals lucky enough to host the sparkling conversations of the main characters of the novel, particularly Lord Henry Wotton who I take to espouse at least part of Oscar Wilde’s personal world view in his own voice.   I believe that my only real complaint with the story is that the climax came upon me very fast, in just a couple of paragraphs, and just ended, like a slammed door.  No gentle extrication for the reader who has grown to enjoy the voices in the book.  No dénouement.  Just the abrupt end.  Like a sudden death.  Which *spoiler alert* is what happens, so I suppose it makes sense.

The same day I finished the book, I watched the 2009 movie Dorian Gray.  There was ample departure from the book and much more specificity about the hedonistic practices of Dorian.  I imagine that Wilde probably would have approved of the embellishment as needed elaboration since he raised harsh criticism from Victorian England over the slightest homoerotic allusion that was in his original serialized version of his work, so that didn’t bother me much.  I was slightly put off by the selection of the dark-haired Ben Barnes as Dorian since I had it in my head somehow that he was supposed to be blonde . . . I haven’t checked to see if that’s my projection or something actually written in the book.  He turned out to be fairly good and the dark hair eventually made him more evil and sinful looking, so it worked.

It took Dorian much more than a year to meet his grim end and he enjoyed a multitude of pleasures during that time, exploring each sensual trigger and response in great depth, but at the cost of his happiness, his soul, and ultimately his life.

At one point he remarked, “I have never searched for happiness.  Who wants happiness?  I have searched for pleasure.”

I would think that even for the luckiest among us, those endowed with all the benefits of our age, that happiness is a much more difficult quarry to capture than pleasure since pleasure can simply be purchased or stolen.  But to attain happiness?  How exactly does one go about that?  I’m no expert, but that has been the reward for many of the things for which I’ve fought.  Perhaps labor is essential to finding real happiness.

What have you done in the last twelve months that has made you truly happy?  What are you going to do in the next year?

. . . “the letter A, gules” . . . look it up!

On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.

One would think, with all of the “spare time” available in an unemployed life, I would be halfway through reading my list of 101 novels. Alas, it is not so. I am, however, happy to report that I finally finished reading Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter, though I was apparently far too busy on vacation. Because I broke my promise to finish it while laying by the pool in Mexico, I forced myself to finish it while laying by the pool in Florida as soon as I returned, and I have something odd to report. I liked it far less than I did when I was a young adult, and I think that I have come up with a plausible reason (although it may partially be the fault of the long, drawn out period over which I read it.)

I found the long-suffering, self-flagellating Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale to be an annoyingly distasteful character, particularly since he was cast as kind of hero (or at least good guy) in the book. I cannot comprehend how a seemingly intelligent, strong, courageous woman like Hester Prynne could be so completely devoted to a sickly man of such weak character. I recognize that it was at least partially his inner turmoil that made him so physically weak, and his supposed charisma and intellect may have been blindingly appealing to Hester in the beginning, but it was his emotional feebleness that had the most effect on my opinion. Oh, I imagine that as a teenager I romanticized the ill-fated love of the couple and saw his infirmity as a sign of his deep, consuming attachment to Hester. However, now that I have a few relationships under my personal belt and I am older if not somewhat wiser, I know how unattractive that sort of weak, grasping personality can be. Maybe I lack the appropriate understanding of the religious fervor of the time. Maybe I am less forgiving and more jaded in my old age. But I would certainly not have been surprised if Hester completely turned her back on the Reverend after a time were it not for the fact that she was so utterly lonely and without alternatives . . . that and the additional fact that it would make for a fairly anti-climactic story arc.

Upon finishing the book, I also watched a DVR’d movie version of the The Scarlet Letter from 1995 which featured Demi Moore as Hester Prynne and Gary Oldham as Reverend Dimmesdale.  I have no problem, in theory, with Demi as Hester, although the old English speech did not suit her well, but Gary Oldham was a much more appealing Dimmesdale than in the actual book.  My main complaint is that the movie is such a complete departure from the story in the novel that it really should have been called something else.  It DID say at the beginning that it was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s text, but other than the setting, character names, and basic antagonistic love triangle, it bore very little resemblance to the original story.  Robert Duval was an excellently twisted Roger Chillingworth, though.

With that piece of classic literature behind me at long last, I quickly read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland  (commonly shortened to Alice In Wonderland) and began to search through my list for the next book I would attack.  I love crossing things off of a list, whether on paper or on a computer screen, and as I put what I considered to be a decisive black stroke through my two most recent accomplishments, I realized that at some point during my hiatus, before I began the arduous task of reading The Scarlet Letter, I had read Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and wrote not a single word about it.  But never fear!  I will rectify this and also share my thoughts on Alice in my next post.  I’m still not sure what book comes next . . .

I’m baaaaack!

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"

I'm baaaaack!

Yes, I’m back after an unexpected and drawn out hiatus.  It’s amazing how life can change in such a short time, and what’s equally amazing is how I have not spent one drop of that time reading or writing.  For some, this would not be unusual, but for me, it’s akin to living in Opposite World.

A quick update for those keeping track:

1.  I finished NaNoWriMo and actually submitted 50,000+ words by the end of November.  Now I need another November and possibly another 50,000 to get to the end of the story, but I was really proud of myself for reaching that goal. It makes me realize how much really is possible when I put my focused will into it.

2.  After the holidays, the business of which kept me away from my books and writing, I ended up relocating back to South Florida in a relatively sudden development, so the month of January was spent packing, cleaning and actually moving.

3.  I started and recently finished a temporary job which involved standing on my feet for interminable hours without the ability to sit, read, write, or do anything other than smile and chat up virtually non-existent customers.  My mind quickly proceeded to turn to jelly, and it was all I could do to arrive in my hotel room before passing out from physical exhaustion and mental stagnation.  As much as I appreciate the opportunity, I cannot express how glad I am that it is over.

4.  Of course, this now means that I am officially unemployed . . . but it’s May in South Florida and I’ve got a pool so it can’t be all bad.  Right?  Right???

5.  Relating to my previous post on technology, I acquired an iPhone 4 due to the infinite wisdom of Apple to share its hardware with a cellular provider other than AT&T.  It’s the only thing that kept me sane during #3 as I surreptitiously
checked FaceBook and email and text messages every 15 minutes all day.  It’s remarkable how quickly I was able to drain the battery during the long work day, not to mention pathetic how dependent I was on social media for a feeling of connection.

6.  Also relating to technology, most recently, I purchased an e-reader in anticipation of a vacation that I will be taking in about a week.  I went with an e-ink (black and white) version of Barnes and Noble’s Nook.  (Disclaimer:  a week or so after I received my cheap-o refurbished Nook from B&N, they came out with a new e-ink one which is where this link will take you.)  I agonized over the decision for quite a while before making a commitment, but the main reasons for selecting this particular item were the ability to “borrow” books from the local library because of the compatible file types, the capacity to “lend” books for two weeks for free to others who use a Nook (and I do know a couple), and I went with the e-ink because, bottom line, I have to be able to read it in the sun and that’s just not possible with any of the color readers currently available.  I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually and I’ll probably upgrade at that point, but I’m really loving the look of e-ink right now.  So far, I’m delighted with my choice.

7.  Oh yeah . . . since this is supposed to be about classic books . . . I’ve read about half of The Scarlet Letter in the last 6 months.  Anybody familiar with that book knows that it should take a serious reader approximately 4 hours to read such a slim volume, particularly a reader, such as myself, who has already read it at least twice and written two separate research papers on it.  I actually enjoyed it in the past, so I choose to blame my inability to finish it to life circumstances rather than any fault of the book or the author.  I promise to finish it before the end of my vacation and report back.  Or maybe I’ll just copy an old research paper onto the blog.

8.  One final note or actually a plug.  My high school drama class friend Christy English has just released her second novel published through Penguin Books historical fiction division.  It’s entitled To Be Queen and I’m using it to christen my Nook.  It’s sort of a prequel to her first book The Queen’s Pawn which was on an earlier post of books I read last summer.  It deals with Eleanor of Aquitaine’s earlier life and marriage to the King of France.  It’s incredible to me that I actually KNOW somebody who is really making a living as a writer, and a darn good one at that (a good writer, I mean.  I have no insight into the magnitude of the good living she is making.)  It’s inspiring to me, and more than a little annoying that I haven’t been able to do it. I suppose I’d have to actually finish writing a novel first.  Details, details.

Go buy her books.  I’ll let you know when mine is available for purchase, but, uh . . . don’t hold your breath.

On being Southern

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

The Northern Mockingbird

Last night, I finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and it was the first novel that I have read so far in this project that has felt like a contemporary popular novel:  natural feeling dialogue, dynamic characters and situations, descriptive though not overly so, a captivating plot.  I can see why the freshman novel immediately became a bestseller when it was published in 1960.  I will also be watching the movie version of the Pulitzer Prize winning book starring Gregory Peck, since it’s waiting for me on my DVR.

I must admit that I am strangely drawn to the Southerness of certain novels, since it reflects a particular culture with which I am familiar.  Seeing colloquialisms and superstitions in print is a fascinating lesson in observation.  These are things I know, but do not notice, and therefore see no need to mention them in writing because of their very prevalent nature.  But putting burlap sacks and towels over your azaleas when a frost is coming doesn’t happen everywhere, and mentioning details like that points out to me the value of the unique Southern traditions I take for granted.  It makes me oddly proud of where I come from, warts and all.  My brother has an amazing retention and recall of movie lines and can mimic other people’s personal catch phrases and personality ticks with skill.  His powers of observation are like that of a really good author, and I realize that I need to try to learn a little more of that skill from him. 

It is fascinating to me that To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only novel.  It took her two and a half years to write and she once threw it out the window into the snow she was so frustrated with her progress.  Her publisher made her retrieve it, but tried to set her expectations low about how few people would probably read it.  Lee had sufficiently low expectations, but they were both wrong.  She has refused interviews about the book since 1964 saying that its unexpected popularity was almost worse than the quick and painless death she thought the story would die when it was originally published.  Her actual response to interview requests, apparently, is “Hell no!” 

As of yet, she has not written a follow-up novel.  It makes me wonder why.  Was it the only novel she had in her?  Did fame and acceptance jade her about the possibility of another success?  Was she afraid to try again and possibly not do as well as the first time?  Was the creation process just too difficult?  I could see any of those explanations being likely.  The title is an analogy.  When you say something is like killing a mockingbird, a bird that is not a pest and does nothing but provide beautiful song, it means that you are destroying something beautiful that does nothing but provide joy.  Predominant themes in the book are rape, racial disparity and loss of innocence, so the title obviously reflects those losses as well as an important event at the end which I will not divulge for a change.  Perhaps for Harper Lee, the fame the book achieved killed the original passion she had for writing and she accidentally killed her own mockingbird.  

This is the kind of novel I aspire to write, and being in the throes of that attempt has made the reading of this book even more interesting to me.  I found that despite my best efforts to read critically and parse the techniques used to move the plot or describe the characters, I was continually swept up in the story and forgot to analyze it.  Maybe I’m just not good at that sort of analysis.  Maybe I just pick up the few things I’ve learned about writing by osmosis.  But maybe this novel is just that good.

I know what I DON’T what to be

American Author Ernest Hemingway aboard his Ya...

Papa Hemingway on his yacht

Yesterday was Day One of the NaNoWriMo contest and I also finished reading my latest book selection, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  There is a thread that holds these two disparate items together, other than their appearance on my blog (and their obvious relation to writing and literature.)  After reading Hemingway and beginning my own writing exercise, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I do NOT want to write like Hemingway.  I understand that his choppy, terse prose was revolutionary at the time and it earned him a Nobel Prize for literature and a Pulitzer Prize.  I should be so lucky, talented and groundbreaking, I know.  But it is not very appealing to me.  His work is not without interesting descriptions and word choice . . . one that has stuck with me was the main character’s sighting of a “candelabraed pear tree.”  Nice visual.  But the dialogue is weird and unnatural.  I imagine it serves its purpose, but I still found it difficult to enjoy.

The thing that I appreciate most is that this particular book is obviously based on his life, and really, the story is the thing that I enjoyed most.  Hemingway, too, served as an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI, although he worked for the Red Cross and not the Italian army.  He was also seriously injured during his service, like his main character.  Also similarly, they both drink . . . a lot.  The novel that I am attempting to write during NaNoWriMo is also based on my life, but it is definitely not a memoir, so it is interesting and empowering to see how another author has successfully handled a similar situation.  I am also curious to see how it was treated on-screen and plan on watching the movie version tonight if I have time.

They say write what you know.  What does anybody know better than themselves?

Taking the plunge . . .

Count Dracula in his castle.

If you are on my blog, you see a new background theme and a web badge for 2010 NaNoWriMo Participant.  Yes, I’m going to grit my teeth, swallow my self-inflicted fear, bite the bullet, take the plunge (and, hopefully, avoid clichés) by participating in a 30-day writing free-for-all.  At the end of the month of November, I hope to have a viable draft for my first novel.  It may never see the light of day, but I plan on owning the title of “writer” thereafter.  It certainly sounds a lot better than under-employed, even though the pay is potentially the same.

In the meantime, a quick note on the 1992 movie version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I watched a couple of nights ago.  It has been many years since I saw this movie. I vaguely recall that I saw it when it was in the theaters, but that very well could be a false memory.  Although I have flashes of remembered scenes and impressions from the movie (such as thinking “Where the heck did the hairdo in the picture above come from?”), I was able to look at the movie with relatively fresh eyes.  I am always amazed at the liberties that screen writers and directors take with the content of a book.

The movie opens with a young Count heading off to defeat the Turks in battle, his weeping love Elizabet begging him not to go and eventually flinging herself off the castle tower because she believe the Count to have died in battle.  The victorious Count returns and is devastated by her death, renounces the church, and somehow becomes a vampire . . . the specifics are unclear except that he drinks blood that pours forth from a stone crucifix that he ran through with his sword.  Fast forward a few hundred years, and Miss Mina Murray looks exactly like the old Count’s love creating the basis for his move to England and pursuit of Jonathan Harker‘s fiance.  Considering that this love story is, in large part, the basis for the movie and the genesis of the vampire’s curse, it is completely without foundation in Bram Stoker‘s classic novel.  In the book, Dracula has no knowledge of Mina until after he has come to England and killed Miss Lucy and the band of gentlemen set out for his destruction. 

Much of the rest of the story follows the book, although large portions were left out due to the manufactured love story and the constraints of a two-hour film.  I wasn’t so much opposed to the love story being inserted into the plot, but it did bother me that the final death-blow to Dracula was delivered by Mina in the movie, rather than her husband Jonathan.

By the way, have I mentioned what a horrible actor Keanu Reeves is?  Ugh!  Beyond Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures and The Matrix movies, there is no excuse for him to speak on film.  But that’s just my opinion.

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