Saturday’s ‘Splanation – Where I’ve Been all Week

So, I could wait and write this big long update tomorrow on Sunday, when it would fall oh-so-in line with those lovely Sunday Salons. But tomorrow I don’t have an entire day of class where I’ll be doing little else but sitting and listening (well, mostly listening, anyway), so you’ll be getting the big post today instead!

<– That’s me with my BEAUTIFUL parents this past Sunday at KU’s official commencement ceremony. Yes, yes, I graduated in December, and there was a nice little walk across the stage, but this was the big one. The big kahuna, the walk through the Campanile and down the hill to Memorial Stadium…to those of you who didn’t attend KU, that may not make much sense, but its a big deal. The big deal – the tradition and all that. So I put that attractive polyester robe back on again and, hand in hand with Beardman, walked down the hill and sat in the sun and heat through a bunch of mediocre commencement speeches…BUT I DID IT. After five years of talking/joking about it (the rumor goes that if you walk straight through the archway in the Campanile, you’ll never graduate. It may be suspicious, but I sure as hell never did) it’s come and gone and it feels, well, not that different. But it was still a lovely day! That kicked off this past week where, as Beardman requested and was given the entire week off work, I did nothing but sit around, watch Mad Men, slack on my recent exercising goals, and soaked up the time I had with him after not seeing him almost at all during his finals. It was fantastic!

Part of the other reason this past week was so wonderful was because, with his finals done and with both of us officially and traditionally graduated, we were able to get back to our shared guilty pleasure. Emphasis:: GUILTY pleasure. And I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but I’ll say it again with nerdy pride: Beardman and I LOVE

Yeah. That’s right. I’d also add to that list Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: TNG, and, of course, any of the first three Star Wars movies. To be honest, I didn’t ever play before Beardman came along. I wanted to. But I was broke and wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to actually jump off the “deep end” so to speak, so I never did. But he’s loved it for ages and, after playing for the past year or so, I can now say that I do too!

For those of you who don’t know – World of Warcraft is this huge online, live, multi-player role-playing game. Kind of like a computerized, global Dungeons and Dragons, with different rules and less cheese. You pick a “race” of people (orcs, anyone? humans? elves? WoW has them all) and then a “class” (here’s where you see shamans, priests, druids, and hunters) and then, well, you’re unleashed on the world and you run around and complete “quests”, level your character to the maximum level, and then spend the rest of your time fighting other players, running through pre-planned events, and buying and selling everything from clothing to honor. It’s great. And what’s quite possibly the best about it is that there is always someone better than you, always someone worse, and always something new to do if you get tired of doing whatever you’re doing. Beardman likes it because a bulk of the end-game content involves fighting other players and a bunch of dick-wagging to see whose armor is better and whose dad could beat up another dad. It’s great. I love it because there’s a great story behind the video game, and I love having goals to work towards. Even if they’re arbitrary ones. Even if there isn’t a reward. I’m task oriented, and in one way, that’s what this game is – a series of tasks.

So that’s what I’ve been doing this week that you haven’t seen me on the blog! I’ve been sleeping and playing and Mad Men-ing and I can’t believe that Beardman’s “stay-cation” week is over and as of Monday it’s back to the nine to five. For him. I’m still jobless, so I’ll still be around. Playing, reading, and finally finishing up my thoughts on The Illustrated Man, which will all be up in the next week or so! Happy reading!

Thoughts On: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, the First Four

Everyone wants to see the pictures, and yet nobody wants to see them.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of eighteen short stories published by Ray Bradbury in 1951. The stories are all connected through the man on the cover above, a wanderer and part-time circus worker whose body of deep, illustrious tattoos move and come alive at night, predicting the future and revealing the past. And, while I’m not completely done with the collection at this point, I’m starting to seem some major themes of religion, spirituality, technology, and the value of both life and death beginning to develop! It’s impossible for me to discuss short stories without spoilers, however, so beware now!

“Prologue: The Illustrated Man”

It’s in the prologue that we meet both our narrator and the Illustrated Man. Our narrator is a traveler just completing a hiking trip, and the Illustrated Man describes himself as a part-time carnival worker who occasionally finds work, but inevitably ends up losing it do to the tattoos he bears all over his body. He shows the man his tattoos and explains that at night they come alive, begin to move, and tell the stories of both the past and the future. On his shoulder, however, there remains a jumbled part section of skin that will begin to predict the future of whomever the Illustrated Man is around, given enough time. Night begins to fall, and as the Illustrated Man settles in to sleep, he warns the narrator to not spend too much time staring at the tattoos, or he may get lost in them and learn things he doesn’t want to know.

He was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body…There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest…The colors burned in three dimensions. They were windows looking in upon fiery reality. Here, gathered on one wall, were all the finest scenes in the universe; the man was a walking treasure gallery.

I LOVED the prologue that Bradbury provides us with! I immediately envied our narrator the chance to look at all the beautiful tattoos, and cursed the lack of detail on the cover of my copy, lol. I also liked the kind of sadness and almost-terror that the Illustrated Man seems to embody, a feeling that I think takes over a lot of the work, making each story a gut-twisting turn towards the least expected, or the most saddening. On the whole, I also enjoy the use of the mans body and his physical tattoos as a semi-psychological bond between the stories being told. Because while each tattoo and story are different, there is a basic commonality they do seem to share.

The sun was gone. Now the first stars were shining and the moon had brightened the fields of grass and wheat. Still the Illustrated Man’s pictures glowed like charcoals in the half light, like scattered rubies and emeralds, with Rouault colors and Picasso colors and the long, pressed-out El Greco bodies.

“The Veldt”

This story is TERRIFYING. We meet the Hadleys, George and Lydia, and their full-on technological smart house. Including a nursery that belongs to their children, where the walls turn in to whatever lands and characters and realms occupy the imagination of their two kids. When the story starts, the nursery has begin displaying a real, scorching, life-like savannah complete with hungry lions, where before it had displayed Wonderland and Aladdin’s cave of wonders. For many days in nights in a row, George and Lydia go to sleep and wake up to the lions, and occasionally hear screams that sound awfully familiar. Afraid of what this could indicate for the children’s imaginations, the parents decide to board up the nursery and shut down the house and take a “vacation” from technology for a few days. The children pitch a fit, and George consents to one last night in the nursery before the shut down begins. But when the parents hear the screams yet again, but louder, the rush in to the nursery hoping to help. What the find, however, is the door locked behind them and the lions prowling closer and closer. The two believe that it’s only an image on the wall until they realize why the screams always sounded so familiar.

How often had he seen Pegasus flying the sky ceiling, or seen fountains of red fireworks, or heard angel voices singing. But now, this yellow hot Africa, this bake oven with murder in the heat.

Like I said, I thought this story was truly, chillingly terrifying. Not in a, like, serial killer or GOTCHA! movie kind of way. In a Poe or H.P. Lovecraft kind of way. The coldness behind these two children, who clearly spent weeks imagining their parents death by lion eating, only to orchestrate in the end. And then! AND THEN! At the end, when a friend of the parents drop by, the daughter just offers him tea like nothing happened! Freaky Damien Demon Child! Plus the whole idea of your “smart house” somehow turning on you has always been something that kind of freaked me out about technology. I think that Bradbury does such a good job drawing the reader in to stories only to turn the tables and pull something gut-punching. Some people find it emotionally manipulative or schmarmy. I find it totally. addicting.

Long before you knew what death was you were wishing on someone else.

“Kaleidoscope”

This is so far my absolute favorite story in this collection. This is the only story that, so far, has kept me coming back to it, thinking about it day after day. It’s haunted me because the idea of just floating through space to your end is just…haunting. Daunting. It gives me the chills on a deep level, and one that I think will be with me for quite some time. It’s got a fairly simple plot: the story begins with the explosion of a rocket, and the crew members don’t have time to attach their gravity packs, so they all go floating off in to endless space. We follow one of them, Hollis, as he floats to his death, the only of the astronauts on a path for Earth. The astronauts communicate by radio, going through phases of regret, remembrance, apologies, and cruelty as they float further away. As Hollis hits the atmosphere, he burns, and on Earth a young boy makes a wish on what he thinks is a shooting star.

When life is over it is like a flicker of bright film, an instant on the screen, all of its prejudices and passions condensed and illumined for an instant on space, and before you could cry out, “There was a happy day, there a bad one, there an evil face, there a good one,” the film burned to a cinder, the screen went dark.

I’ve already explained some of the reason that I love this story so much. If this were to happen, I think that the emotional overload is nicely portrayed by Bradley. So many different phases, from anger to bargaining and finally to acceptance, when you know what is coming and there is nothing to do but wait and…well, make peace. I think that the writing speaks for itself. It most definitely speaks to me.

There were differences between memories and dreams.

The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?

Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There was only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires.

If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t.

“The Other Foot”

Of these first four, this was actually the story that I liked the least. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like it. Of course. Lol. This story again takes place in the future, in space, on the planet Mars. In the alternate history of this story, the African Americans left Earth for Mars shortly after the Civil Rights movement, and have been living there sense. On the day the story opens, white people are landing his rocket ship on Mars for the first time in history. Hattie and Willie and their neighbors are going to see the landing, and Willie puts in to action a hateful plan to remind the white people just how horrible they were once treated: he paints WHITES ONLY on the back seats of buses, and has the town begin designating sections for white eaters. He essentially establishes the Jim Crow south. And then the rocket lands. And it’s just one white man, an emissary from an Earth that is destroyed by nuclear war. As the man continues to talk, Willie learns that all the places he ever knew – his home town, the house where his mother was shot, the tree his father was lynched from – were all destroyed in the war. And, he realizes, with Hattie’s help, if the places that held his memories of hate are gone, perhaps he can let go of his hate. Willie tells the men to dismantle his racist plan, and Willie claims to have finally, for the first time that day, to have truly seen the white man.

She wanted to get at the hate of them all, to pry at it and work at it until she found a little chink, and then pull out a pebble or a stone or a brick and then a part of the wall, and, once started, the whole edifice might roar down and be done away with.

This story was nice! It was nice to see Willie realize how silly has plan of revenge racism had been, and I was glad that Hattie was basically vindicated, since she’d been trying to make him see that all along. I also thought that the story made an interesting point on hate and memory – if the peoples, places, or things that remind or embody what we hate the most are gone, destroyed, don’t we essentially punish ourselves by keeping that hate alive in memory only. I’m reminded of that scene in Forrest Gump where he takes Jenny back to the house where she was abused as a child and she just keeps throwing rocks at it until she’s emotionally broken, and then later in the film he has it torn down for her. That example has always been a great example of how we, as people, tie our memories up in things, in objects and places and even people.

Nothing, nothing of it left to hate – not an empty brass gun shell, or a twisted hemp, or a tree, or even a hill of it to hate.

I’m sorry all of that was so long! I won’t make it any longer by apologizing more, but needless to say I’m having a GREAT time really digging in to these Ray Bradbury stories, and am excited for what I’ve officially decided will be my summer of Neil Gaiman!

Thoughts On: The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

“It is not the emotion of love, solely and independent, that is important. It is the people I love who hold the world steady for me.” – Nina Sankovitch, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

This book is part of the reason I finally came to terms with the fact that my original purpose for this blog was no longer working, and I needed to change it up drastically if I wasn’t going to abandon this blog – and perhaps even reading – for a good long while. Hearing Nina’s story of a year spent reading a book every day for a year (literally. She stops working, cuts way back on cleaning the house, and delegates responsibilities to her family, all so she can sit in her purple armchair in her study everyday, starting and finishing at least one book) made me realize that reading wasn’t supposed to be a task or a chore – even if you’re making sure to carve out time for it every day. Reading is a life-affirming action, with the capacity to take us to different places and times and, while we’re there, teach us things about the how and now we’re living. And these lessons don’t just reside within the “classics”, but within all stories. After all, humans are a story-based creature. Long live the narrative!

“As old Aunt Elinor states in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, ‘Books loved anyone who opened them, they have you security and friendship and didn’t ask anything in return; they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly. Love, truth, beauty, wisdom, and even consolation against death. Who had said that? Someone else who loved books.'”

Anyway, Nina decides to read a book a day for a year a few years after her sister, Anne-Marie, passed away of cancer. Anne-Marie went from diagnosis to losing her battle with the disease very quickly, and although Nina spent the next few years afterwards rushing from place to place, person to person, trying to live double in order to make up for the life that Anne-Marie lost, she realizes that what she needs to do more than anything is to just. stop. running. To sit down and deal with the things she’s been feeling since Anne-Marie died: responsible, guilty for living, and, above all, heartbroken and missing her sister.

“Words of love will keep us warm, even through the last days of winter.”

Wow. Let me tell you. Reading about Nina’s journey through books was powerful in a number of ways. I didn’t recognize a single book title she mentions, but she made each one of them seem like a work of art, and there have been quite a few titles added to me Immediately To Be Read book pile (as opposed to my Read Soon pile or my Want To Read When I Have The Chance Between Other Books pile). But there is more to it than that. The way Nina writes about losing Anne-Marie, the pain and the feelings of guilt because she remains and Anne-Marie is gone, it was hard to read. It brought to mind thoughts of what it will be like to one day lose my mother, an inevitability that I don’t dwell on, but that frightens me more than any other possible event. There were some passages that were almost too hard to get through – moments when Nina describes the last few days she spent with Anne-Marie, both of them knowing that there wouldn’t be countless hours left or endless time to say what needed to be said. It was agonizing, but it was beautiful.

“Anne-Marie is defined by everything that she was to me…she will continue to shape me, direct me, and advise me. She pulled me toward my year of reading a books a day, spurring me on with our shared love of books and my desire to read all the volumes upon volumes that we might have read together. I have learned, through books, to hold on to my memories of all the beautiful moments and people in my life, as I need those memories to help me through difficult times.”

The second thing I loved most about Sankovitch’s writing is her ability to create multifaceted, deep, sensory-filled scenes. When she writes reflecting on her summers as a child, it’s enough to make me picture similar days of my own, and although our childhoods were spent years and miles apart, there is a kind of nostalgic longing and romanticism about remembering. Part of my love for these sections may come from the fact that, having recently graduated, and with my college town buzzing with impending summer graduation (I was a winter grad), its getting easier and easier to sink in to that year-end reminiscing that always seems to accompany the warmer weather this time of the year. Take this passage, which was one of the ones I’ve gone back to re-read about a dozen times in just a day or two:

“I remembered lying in bed at night with the windows open to let in the warm summer air. From the bed, I could hear the traffic on Gold Road and the radio playing on the neighbor’s porch. I smelled the dankness of freshly turned earth in our garden, the sweet scent our our grass, and the smoky smell of barbecues. The smells and sounds were like an invitation to me, a summons to run out and join the universe. I was older then, beyond hide-and-seek games and waiting for the ice-cream truck, but I still believed my future was limitless. I knew that the breeze coming in from the window was full of promises of adventure and love and fun, promises just waiting to be fulfilled.”

My sounds may have been railroad tracks and my sister and her friends’ hushed quiet conversation drifting up from our deck, but I know those smells she’s talking about, and I know that breeze. And the best part is, every now and then I still get that feeling of limitlessness. So damn, Nina. Way to hit that one, and just about every other not in this book, right on the head.

Re-Diagnosis

Look at that girl. Look at the way she’s holding her heart, so absorbed in her book she doesn’t even appear to be where she is. I haven’t felt that way about a book in a long, long time. And it’s getting frustrating. And I think part of this has to do with the fact that this project is not working for me the way I thought it would.

When I first set out on this project not that long ago, I was in a different head space. I had just graduated college with my English degree, and I had gotten fired from my first job. I was feeling sad and stuck and like, maybe I hadn’t gotten out of my college experience as much as I should have. I started looking back at things and I realized there were a great number of books that I was “supposed” to have read during school that, for whatever reason, I never actually got around to reading. So I wanted to change that, wanted a project that would give me “focus”, and wanted to be able to step away from my old blog, which had seen me through high school and college, but just wasn’t suiting what I needed anymore. And thus, this blog was born.

“Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.” – Angela Carter

But the truth is, I hated the project once I took it on. As is usually the case when I make lists and try to stick to them exclusively, I was at once overwhelmed by the number of titles to choose from, and felt restricted by my own rules of not being able to read some of the great books that have come out recently, or are looming on the literary horizon. Plus, once the books became “assigments” for this blog, I ended up disliking them every time I picked them up, and in the three months of this project I only actually finished two or three books that were for this list. It’s hard to type those words – to feel like I started out on this project with such lofty goals, and that I have somehow failed those project goals.

“We read to know we are not alone.” – C.S. Lewis

But then I just want to say fuck that! I’ve realized in the last six months of being out of school that the rigor of academia, the system I lived in and thrived in for so long, is not necessarily the field that will be best of me to remain in. And I can still read books, learn from books, talk about books with intelligent people, and in the long run being a public librarian will allow me to put books in to the hands of kids and teens who need to read and want to read. And I don’t have to do all of these things wading through classic tomes. I recently finished reading Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (a FABULOUS book that I plan on reviewing later this week) and that book taught me, more than anything, that there are lessons waiting to be learned in almost every book, and whether a book is hard or easy doesn’t determine whether it is a “good” or “worthy” book.

“To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.” – Gaston Bachelard

So I still think that reading is the way that I’m going to find my way through this mental haze that graduation and ensuing unemployment seems to have put me in. I still believe in the power of words and literature, and in the fact that we as people are composed of stories at our core, and by understanding the stories we can begin to understand each other, at least in part. However, part of me is also having some trouble giving up on the idea of this project. To be honest, I do feel a bit like a failure in the fact that I was so sure that this was what I wanted to do, that I could do it, that these classic novels held all the answers. And that’s not to say that I don’t still have every intention of reading those same classic novels on this journey. But I just no longer think that these are the only books with the answers. And, reading them in the situation I was in, I wasn’t able to get out of them the depths that I’m sure they contain.

“Read in order to live.” – Gustave Flaubert

But, as a very wise professor and very good friend of mine told me when I stopped in to see her last week, in tears over my copy of Persuasion because I JUST COULDN’T FINISH IT and that was yet another book from the list I just wasn’t able to get through: there will always be books. And I’ll always be reading them. I have a lifetime to read, but only one lifetime to enjoy what I read. Amen to that, and that’s my new diagnosis – to read, openly and indiscriminately, and without guilt or reservation. And I’m still hoping you’ll join me for the trip!