Friday, August 28, 2009

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabrial Garcia Marquez

Before reading this book, I had only read Marquez's more recent novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores. I read it for a World Lit class. We were asked to read any novel by Marquez, and due to the pressures of other classwork, I chose the shortest, smallest book I could find--Memories of My Melancholy Whores fit that bill nicely. It was a quick read and I read it twice, the second time so that I could better write an essay about it for class. I found Marquez's writing magical and illuminating--simultaneously gritty and ethereal. One Hundred Years of Solitude, which must be at least 4 or 5 times the length of Memories is also a beautiful tale, apparently heavily influenced by his grandmother's storytelling. This novel seems much less obviously personal than Memories (in which the narrator/main character seems to be Marquez himself in many ways). Nonetheless, there is a sense of childlike wonder, as though Marquez has placed himself simultaneously in the position of storyteller (with his grandmother's straight face--even at the most absurd moments--and fantastic stories) and avid listener, eyes wide with excitement.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel is the sense of time that is created as the story progresses. Ursula, a strong woman and the character who most clearly ties together the various generations (aside from her son Aureliano perhaps), represents a "wise" and grounded sort of figure--a woman who has seen everything and is ready to meet life head on. She repeatedly sees in her own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren the repetition of time, old habits, and dark family secrets. Despite the passage of time (100 years or so sounds about right!), one gets the sense that time is standing still, with new characters inhabiting a simultaneously different and similar realm as their ancestors. Almost like a parallel universe, but with the lingering shadows of the past very much present rather than completely unseen.

Unfortunately I'm writing this quite a few weeks after I finished the novel. The start of school has interrupted my thought process on this book. There are many characters with similar names, which gets confusing (thank goodness for the family tree at the beginning of the book). In a way I think this is appropriate, however, especially in light of Ursula's viewpoint, from which history appears to repeat itself. A somewhat disheartening notion lined with optimism...the idea that no matter how far we feel from our roots, we are all connected in an inescapable way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I decided to mooch this book on a whim because I read Annie John a few semesters ago for a World Lit class. While Annie John wasn't exactly my favorite book from the class, I remember feeling like certain major themes in the novel stood out to me and stayed with me, and I was curious to see how it compared to some of her other work. It seemed like Lucy was a continuation of Annie John, which, if I remember correctly, ends with the main character leaving her family in the West Indies for North America to begin nursing school. Lucy is about a 19 year old girl who has begun a new life in North America as an au pair for a seemingly perfect family (which quickly unravels as the novel progresses) while pursuing an education to become a nurse. There's also a similar love-hate relationship between the main character and her mother and father. Again, this relationship and even the parents are almost identical to those in Annie John. I'm guessing Kincaid's novels are autobiographical in nature and that's why there are recurring characters and this almost obsessive examination of mother-daughter relationships. I've yet to read her book Autobiography of My Mother but I'm sure that would answer some of my questions.

Anyway, I was not terribly impressed by this book. It seemed bland and Lucy, the narrator, is so cold and pessimistic that it's difficult to feel any sort of connection to her. Perhaps a feeling of alienation was what Kincaid was going for, but I found it off-putting. Throughout the novel Lucy begins to realize herself sexually and also remembers some of her early sexual experiences back home. These too seem cold, like recollections of someone else's memories. Overall, I got the feeling that Lucy did not feel like a part of anything, nor did she desire to be a part of anything or create a deep connection with anyone. However, she has a "best friend" named Peggy and she claims to be friends with Mariah, the woman for whom she works during the first 3/4 of the book. Maybe Lucy is supposed to be a more dynamic character with a wider range of emotions, but the writing style (which is very straight-forward and dry) doesn't communicate that very well.

I did think Lucy was interesting because of her rebellious spirit. She is determined to carve out a life of her own, away from her family, and she does this without hesitation or excessive emotion. Perhaps she realizes that by moving to a new country and burning her mother's letters, she is violently cutting an essential part of herself off: her homeland and her family. Lucy certainly makes no attempts to cover up her bitterness and while she moves forward and gets an apartment with Peggy, begins a new job, and pursues photography as a hobby, perhaps the most crucial element that seems to be missing from Lucy's attitude is hope. Maybe that's the component that I felt was lacking here, but maybe I'm also being a little naive in that expectation.

Aside from Lucy as a character, I thought that Kincaid made some interesting commentary about colonialism and how the world as seen through the rose colored glasses of the coloniser is quite different from the shattered view of the colonized.

Overall, I think this book is worth reading but not fantastic...I definitely enjoyed Annie John more. However, if you're a fan of Kincaid's work then you'll easily make connections to her other books and admittedly, I did feel like having previously read Annie John added considerable depth to my reading of this novel (perhaps it would have been even better if Annie John was fresh in my mind!).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Body Outlaws edited by Ophira Edut

This book is a compilation of essays about body image and identity. I think there is something here for everyone, and the women in this book have had a wide range of experiences. Nonetheless, a lot of them project similar messages, and because of this many of the essays seem to run together. That's not to say that those messages weren't delivered differently--they weren't just all about how you should learn to love your body and many admit that they are still working on learning to love themselves. Many end on an ambiguous note, such as Meredith Mcghan's essay "Dancing Toward Redemption," in which she recounts her brief experience as a stripper--an experience that had a profoundly uplifting effect on her self-esteem, but remained problematic for other reasons.

Many of the essays note the problems of adequately unifying mind and body in a society that demands you be instantly identifiable and ready for judgment based on appearance.
The symbiosis between body, emotions, identity and appearance is still deeply mysterious to me. There is a delicate feedback loop here, which in a society hooked on images of perfection and technologies of control is easily corrupted, its pathways turned back against us. The notion that our bodies make us who we are is twisted into an equation between our appearance and our self-worth. Feeling bad about our physical selves puts us on a fast track to self-hatred. When we're growing up and get caught at the body's surface, we never reach the place where intuition, feeling, and a sense of who we are live inside us, and our spirits never reach escape velocity. (Lee Damsky, "Beauty Secrets")

Overall, I enjoyed reading this compilation. However, I enjoyed Listen Up! more because I felt the diversity of topics helped create a stronger overall message. I realize that the entire point of this collection is that it focuses on body image but at times it was redundant.

Another quote that I marked:
In a women's studies class I took, we talked about the idea of women 'being' bodies rather than merely possessing bodies. A reading suggested that women were taught to separate their identities from their bodies, which distorted their self-image. (Allison Torres, "At Home in My Body")

I'm curious what the reading was that Torres refers to; I would be interested in reading it myself. Torres' essay focuses on her identity as an athlete, an identity that obviously would not be possible without feeling deeply connected to her body (and paradoxically, identifying the right times to separate her mind and body). Since I'm not an athlete myself, this was one of the essays that didn't particularly strike a nerve with me, however that one short quote caught my attention.

I do feel that women are taught to separate their identities from their bodies--more than that, I believe that women are encouraged to wage outright war with their bodies. The media provides no shortage of propaganda and the beauty industry provides an ample arsenal with which to alter our bodies into submission. This "war" wouldn't be possible unless women felt separated from their bodies, but I think that inevitably hatred toward one's body leads toward a more general self-hate that further prevents a unification of mind and body.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

One of the subtleties that I immediately fell in love with in this book is the title. Not The History of Reading (although Manguel does postulate about the potential existence of such a book in his "Endpaper Pages") but rather A History of Reading. Because there are many histories of reading, completely dependent on the reader. Manguel realizes and celebrates this fact, jumping throughout history and drawing together writers and readers of seemingly disparate relations into close proximity, letting them share the page together based on an idea or a memory that connects them in his own mind. This is a thoroughly researched book, but it still reads like a memoir. Manguel writes in a way that is formal and educated enough to be "scholarly" but remains personal and oftentimes whimsical.

Manguel covers a lot of ground, from hard facts to fleeting impressions, and there's a lot of information here to be processed! I got this book from the library but will probably buy my own copy so I can read it again and make my own notes to go back to (something I rarely do, but I feel like this book invites such scribbling).

I found this quote hilarious, from the chapter "Stealing Books." It's an inscription in a book from the library of the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, attempting to deter people from stealing it:
For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.
Well then, if that curse doesn't cure your case of sticky-fingers, I'm not sure what will!

At the end of the chapter entitled "The Missing First Page," Manguel quotes Kafka:
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
And in the last section of the book, "Endpaper Pages," in which Manguel describes an imaginary tome of The History of Reading, he writes a passage that seems to aptly pay respect to his own admiration of the individual reader:
And yet, in its apparent randomness, there is a method: this book I see before me is the history not only of reading but also of common readers, the individuals who, through the ages, chose certain books over others, accepted in a few cases the verdict of their elders, but at other times rescued forgotten titles from the past, or put upon their library shelves the elect among their contemporaries. This is the story of their small triumphs and their secret sufferings, and of the manner in which these things came to pass. How it all happened is minutely chronicled in this book, in the daily life of a few ordinary people discovered here and there in family memoirs, village histories, accounts of life in distant places long ago. But it is always individuals who are spoken of, never vast nationalities or generations whose choices belong not to the history of reading but to that of statistics. Rilke once asked, 'Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false, because we've always spoken about its masses, as if we were telling about a gathering of people, instead of talking about the one person they were standing around, because he was a stranger and was dying? Yes, it's possible.' This misunderstanding the author of The History of Reading has surely recognized.
This was overall just such a fun book. Reading is usually a solitary activity, pursued in silence. But after finishing A History of Reading I realize that the community of readers, both contemporary and historical, share their experiences through that silence and simply by taking part in the legacy of letters on the page, each of us weaving our own "history of reading," contributing to a larger history of common experience, teeming with unique subtly for each of us who can relate to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobson

In Fruitless Fall, Jacobson addresses the sudden disappearance of bees over the past few years which has come to be known as CCD--colony collapse disorder. A mystery to scientists and beekeepers everywhere, CCD may not be a disorder (in the sense of something being wrong with the bees) as much as it is an indication of environmental degradation and the destructive impact that humans have had on ecosystems. Globalization has also undoubtedly had a hand in CCD, with bees being carted across the country and imported from across the globe, allowing pathogens to enter into bee populations without any immunity. This of course combines with issues of pesticides and antibiotics which--though they may provide a quick fix--ultimately weaken the bees and prevent them from building up a natural resilience that could be passed to future generations.

Jacobson manages to cover an immense amount of information in this relatively small book, ranging from the inner workings of hive life to the global impact of honey bees to the healing power of honey, and beyond honey bees to industrial agriculture and factory farming, all of which have to do with CCD, as much as we would probably like to hope that it's an isolated problem with a simple solution.

Unfortunately for bees and pollinating insects everywhere, humans have their own plans when it comes to making food, and nature's way usually isn't fast enough or hyperproductive enough for our tastes. Almond growers must saturate their carefully planned and planted fields with bees to ensure pollination of a maximum number of flowers. Obviously, this isn't quite what would occur in nature:

If you're wondering how almond trees ever got by before mankind figured this out, remember that, in their homeland, wild almonds didn't evolve to grow in great stands of clones. There was plenty of genetic diversity in the forest. They also didn't need to produce banner crops of almonds every year; a few new seedlings was enough. Only in the weirdness of hyperproductive clonal forests do you need weird pollination strategies.

We've ignored the natural tendencies of the bees (and the very plants that we grow and harvest) and have attempted to change their nature to fit our needs. Unfortunately, this sort of stress can only lead to collapse.

Although Jacobson attempts to get to the bottom of CCD throughout the book, he concludes in the end that CCD is not a single problem with a single solution. Jacobson insists that a more holistic approach must be considered if we value the environment and our most treasured sources of food:

...To me, trying so hard to find a single cause of CCD misses the point. CCD, like varroa, is a symptom of a larger disease--a disease of fossil fuels and chemical shortcuts, of billion-bee slums and the speed of the modern world. An imbalance in the system. Maybe IAPV or imidacloprid or fluvalinate is the latest manifestation of the disease, but until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse. 'You keep digging to the bottom,' said Webster, 'that's what you'll always find. It's not a problem with the bees; it's a degradation of the whole environment.'

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Latin Vulgate at the Boston Public Library

A few days ago I traveled to Boston to take care of some business before schools starts. The professor I work as a research assistant for primarily focuses on Medieval literature. Next semester she is teaching a course about Medieval History and Literature. One of the assignments she plans on giving involves transcribing a Psalm from a 15th century Italian psalter and comparing that text to the Biblia Sacra as well as the full Latin Vulgate text. This demonstrates the differences between words and also brings to light things like abbreviations and unfamiliar symbols. Essentially, my job was just to test-drive the assignment to ensure that it was clear and could be completed as planned.

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Room in the BPL is tucked away behind a gallery space and through the Art and Music section of the library. I thought I would never arrive but old, worn hand-painted signs told me I was headed in the correct direction. I eventually made it to a serene dimly lit room, lined with glass cases that were full of old books.

After filling out some paperwork I was finally buzzed into the reading room and the librarian behind the desk showed me the books that had been pulled, waiting for me on the table. I had no idea the manuscript was so huge--literally, over 2 feet tall and with each page more than a foot and a half wide with heavy leather covers and vellum pages. To the right you can see the Latin Vulgate next to one of the volumes of the Biblia Sacra (a thick book as well, but dwarfed in the presence of the medieval beast next to it). The cover is adorned with metal and has leather straps to keep it closed. Along the bottom are metal spikes and there are also metal bars to support the pages when the book is open and propped up (presumably in front of the choir or congregation). It's an absolutely gorgeous book and it was an amazing experience to open it and turn the thick pages for myself, pages that were painted and written on over 500 years ago.

To the left is a photo of the historiated initial of my assigned Psalm (5). The text is almost entirely composed of abbreviations, with very few full words. Given the size of the text, this makes perfect sense since if the words were written out the book probably would be quadruple its current length. Also, since it was written and illustrated by hand, a longer text would obviously require more time to write.

As you can see, the illustrations and writing are in beautiful condition. Some pages are more faded than others, but almost all the illuminations are equally vivid and crisp.

I've never been terribly interested in Medieval books, although I think illuminated manuscripts are wonderful pieces of art. However, this was an amazing experience--a million times better than seeing a manuscript in a museum (and--horrible as this sounds coming from an Art History student--even I have to admit that museums can be very dull places). Being able to open the covers, turn the pages, and look closely at the illuminations is an experience that I wish all people could have. I'm sure it would promote far more respect and admiration for the past, and for books in general, if everyone could have such an intimate experience, bridging hundreds of years and brushing their fingertips over the very same pages that human hands constructed centuries ago, hands not so different from our own.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

This post is not about a book I've read or am reading, but a book I read about and would love to see in person. I'm currently reading A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. He discusses "picture reading" in one chapter and mentions a book by Luigi Serafini entitled The Codex Seraphinianus. I found quite a few nice scans of pages on an ebay listing (and I'm sure a google search would yield plenty of results), but these images are from an article in The Believer: The Codex Seraphinianus.

(click to see them bigger)

Manguel writes about how the publisher he worked for received a strange parcel in 1978, one that contained the pages of Luigi Serafini's book:

The accompanying letter explained that the author, Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Serafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations' intricacies. Ricci [the aforementioned publisher for whom Manguel was working], to his credit, published the work in two luxurious volumes with a delighted introduction by Italo Calvino; they are one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know. Made entirely of invented words and pictures, the Codex Seraphinianus must be read without the help of a common language, through signs for which there are no meanings except those furnished by a willing and inventive reader.