HELP US GET THERE!!! I tend to be a bit of an over-thinker. As a child of ten, I would lay in bed at night wondering if I was pulling my weight in making the world what it should be. I worried about my relationships and whether I was caring for people well enough, […]
“You can trust me,’ R.V. said, watching her hand. ‘I’m a man of my'”
– Final, incomplete sentence of The Broom Of The System, by David Foster Wallace
I was really eager to like this book…
As someone who has only ever read maybe 50 pages of Infinite Jest and an essay or two, my perspective wasn’t one of comparison on this read. But with all the hype surrounding someone as intelligent and well-received as David Foster Wallace, you feel like a real loser for not wholly enjoying his work. He reputation is openly built on pretense by his fans, bringing with it an aire or fear of intelligentsia snobbishness. Alas, while tuning the risk of being accused of “not getting it,” I still can’t help but admit disappointment with the way this one ended.
The characters Wallace employees are amusing and he does a fantastic job of fleshing them out. Just about every character is shown to be somehow complex and altogether shallow. It’s a striking and honest indictment of innate human hypocrisy and disconnection. The absurdity of the names and language all hark back to Wittgenstein and language games and I really enjoyed these elements as well. Most of the crazy circumstances throughout the plot are also really enjoyable. Overall, the plot and elements were dense and dripping with possibilities to make deeper connections and bring about some sort of fully developed concepts, but ultimately the only satisfying elements seemed to be the character studies.
I suppose, as I think about it, that most of my dissatisfaction with this novel comes from its post-modernness. It sets up about a thousand hilarious elements and characters. It contains about as small of a world as one could dream up, as every character ends up with previous connections among the cast. It rolls along on a ridiculous, often sidetracked plot, but as connections are made, nothing comes of them. In the end, the book goes nowhere. People’s fragile realities are crushed, they lean further into their insecurities and psychological issues, and then it just ends.
I enjoyed the book enough to keep plowing through, eagerly hoping for a grand, inspired finale somewhere between Flann O’Brien and John Kennedy Toole. I really expected an impressive and equally absurd resolution to come together, perhaps like A Confederacy Of Dunces. I expected to be dazzled. But there was no point. That was the point.
The last sentence of the novel is poignant in itself, but it would make more sense if followed by a trailing pen line. . .it feels completely unfinished. I suppose the only point is that there is none. When you search for answers from Wittgenstein in the midst of deep relational distrust and psychological breakdown, your story rightly ends by dismantling itself. Makes complete sense, but it’s not every satisfying.
I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.
It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.
Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.
– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships
– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.
– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”
– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”
– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”
Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.
The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.
Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.
The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.
While reading through The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, I came across a reference to this short poetic work.
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
I loved it immediately and, after thinking on it a few minutes, decided that I would have only changed it slightly to find it perfect.
I strove with none, my strife found aim at none.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
All things considered, my educational experience was a good one marked by privilege. I can look back now and wish that I had been given stronger theory by more passionate educators in some arenas, but overall I had the world handed to me. The most regrettable aspect of my formal education was my own perspective on its purpose. To me, paying attention in school was always more of an obligation, part daily work day grind and part proving my own capability or normalcy amongst my peers. Rarely was I ever self-motivated toward the ideas or subjects to which I was being introduced. It took leaving college and spending a year or two without any kind of spoon-fed, intentional learning before I began to become a self-motivated learning. Now I’m constantly on the learning offensive, looking out for new ideas to readily devour.
Why is it that learning is such a touchy cultivation? There are a thousand factors at hand in growing as a person who wants to understand. For many of us the education we are handed forever dims any idea that we would actually pursue learning of our own accord. An education system involves all sorts of standardization, enforced subject matters, and comparison, both in grading and in social interactions. As someone who didn’t care then and loves learning now, I have an immense passion to pass on to my own children the internal fire and confidence needed to find their places through self-motivated learning.
Step 1: Get to know your child personally so well that you understand what they are passionate about and why.
– It’s easy to know what they love, but a life time can be devoted to understanding why it excites them. It’s never to early to start this.
Step 2: Get them more of what they love.
– Books, relevant experiences, games, tutors. Don’t put all of your energy into diversifying their interests, focus on new ways for them to experience what they love.
Step 3: Repeat Step 1.
– Emphasis on learning their passions in the context of the new experiences.
Step 4: Repeat Step 2.
– Diversify and stretch your imagination and theirs concerning how they perceive what they are comprehending. Let them establish a launching pad and give them vision for directions they can take things.
Step 5: Ad Infinitum, Phasing Yourself Out Over Time.
Obviously, this isn’t to say that people who don’t like math shouldn’t learn to add or multiply. There are certain skill sets that are universally useful, regardless of your tastes or trade, and learning to push through to understand things that are of little personal interest is also a valuable skill in and of itself.
My end game goal is to have children who are confident in who they are and capable of seeking out and processing information. They would never had a capacity for all available information and to attempt to cram it in them would only snuff out their own desires. Don’t beat yourself and your kids up about reaching outside standards if the experience at hand indicates they are learning and flourishing.
It is an uncomfortable and disquieting thing to read an intimate, posthumous biography. One learns quickly of the experiences, perspectives, reactions, and pursuits of some previous individual and, despite the conclusions reached, is alarmed and jolted by the sudden ending or slow, spiral decay of the once thinking, reacting, dynamic subject of the text. For myself at least, death seems alway too close at hand to lose its freshness.
George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and lecturer who wrote many novels, religious texts, and books of poetry. His most lasting impressions include The Princess and The Goblins, At The Back Of The North Wind, Phantastes, and Lilith. He directly influenced Lewis Carroll’s writing and publishing of Alice In Wonderland and C.S. Lewis would one day claim that Phantastes provided a baptism for his imagination.
Greville MacDonald’s biography of his father (and mother) is extensive. It is a step-by-step look at every turn of events leading to and throughout their lives, and it’s really a good read for anyone with a knack for history in general. It also provides great insights not only to MacDonald’s faith and perspectives, but as to the hard artist’s lifestyle that he chose and which sometimes seems to have chosen him. He was a starving artist most of his life, even with friends like Twain, Ruskin, Carroll, and Tennyson and a pension from the Queen.
Unlike most artists, he raised about a dozen kids, along with and occasional orphan or street urchin. MacDonald’s family life was his world, and one into which he and his wife brought dozens of lifelong friends, who play heavily throughout the text.
The obvious flaw of the text is that the author inundates the reader with a sacred defense for nearly every questionable or confusing action his father ever took, whether personal, theological, or artistic. He tells us why his father’s ideas on all subjects were the best available at the time, even when his father’s own demeanor in his texts and letters implies that he questioned his own judgement. While it can make for grating reading, it’s worth recognizing that a son’s undying devotion is a pretty great legacy, perhaps the one of which MacDonald would be most proud.
Luckily, the book is heavy laden with text from many personal letters, both to an from MacDonald, so that the bias opinions of Greville MacDonald can be easily seen around to get the fuller picture, often from MacDonald Sr. himself. He deals often with poverty, often with death close at hand, often with disabling sickness, and often with misunderstanding of his work. Yet always he maintains an otherworldly self-possession, a capacity at least toward outward insistence on the rejuvenation of all things through the cleansing of death that brings new life.
As I read this book, I couldn’t help marveling at how much I could use a MacDonald in my daily life, coaching me on through my trials, my misgivings, and my fear of death. This book may hit close to home.
“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”
– David Foster Wallace, excerpt from The Is Water
Occasionally, I’ll read a claim here or there that we learn empathy from reading fiction. While I love reading fiction and I think that most people will agree that there is something of understanding gained through reading about and relating to diverse personalities, I also think we can easily deceive ourselves about how well this serves us. More often than not, it can delude us about our practical capacity for compassion.
If I don’t know how to relate to my downstairs neighbors, is this thing I call empathy valuable? Is assuming I can fully understand someone else’s life experiences respectful of them? Is understanding and comprehension really the goal?
David Foster Wallace goes on to claim that learning to consider others and serve them mentally is the point of higher education, what he describes as being well-adjusted. I have a difficult time knowing what to think here, because I find myself wanting to agree with him and also feeling that empathy, or perceived comprehension of another’s circumstance, is perhaps not the best resource for learning to care for them. Perhaps intellectual assent is useful, but is it the most genuine and natural route to caring?
Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.
Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.
Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.
The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.
This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.
Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.
“I received a letter from a parent who wrote:
‘Mister Rogers, how do you do it? I wish I were like you. I want to be patient and quiet and even-tempered, and always speak respectfully to my children. But that just isn’t my personality. I often lose my patience and even scream at my children. I want to change from an impatient person to a patient one, from an angry person into a gentle one.’
Just as it takes time for children to understand what real love is, it takes time for parents to understand that being always patient, quiet, even-tempered, and respectful isn’t necessarily what “good” parents are. In fact, parents help children by expressing a wide range of feelings–including appropriate anger. All children need to see that the adults in their lives can feel anger and not hurt themselves or anyone else when they feel that way.”
– Fred Rogers, excerpt from the text of The World According To Mister Rogers: Important Things To Remember
Living in a world where parents are constantly placing themselves and one another under a microscope, it’s refreshing to think on these words from the greatest of child (and parent) advocates. The most valuable asset we can impart to our children is the first-hand impression of a vulnerable adult facing their own inadequacies and growing through all sorts of positive and negative experiences.
Note: I recieved Sobriety for free through Speakeasy in exchange for an honest review. No opinions given have been suggested or coerced. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255
Sobriety is a graphic novel following five diverse addicts who share their stories with one another from different stages of substance abuse recovery. It begins with and is occasionally broken up by sequences where the author and illustrator step into the plot as characters in a manipulable comic universe. They take opportinity to provide historic and exotic detours to explain the development and concepts of the 12 steps in AA and NA.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the illustration style used in Sobriety. I like a pretty wide variety of styles, everything from Jeff Lemire to Art Spiegelman, but this one left me feeling mostly uninspired. It seemed like a very difficult text to illustrate in many parts. The illustrations didn’t often further the plot in any way, and any time the writing content stalled on a point, the images didn’t really seem be able to keep up any momentum. I occasionally found myself skipping the illustrations just because the text didn’t seem to benefit from them.
The writing of Sobriety is good. Even for a non-fiction graphic novel, its really information heavy. It reminded me immensely of an episode of The Magic School Bus. A story (in this case a series of personal stories) is broken up by the quirky delivery of facts and details on related subject matter by a fun-loving and endearing narrator who can manipulate the universe for any metaphor or detailed explanation they desire. If they had ever made and episode of The Magic School Bus concerning the creation and details of the 12 Steps, this book would make the perfect script. I found the passages that followed character’s lives and the history flash-backs really engaging.
As someone who has not personally dealt with addiction, the format felt a bit too long to keep my attention. I think this may be the delineation point for the engagement quality among readers. Perhaps those interested in pursuing the 12 Steps and those already in recovery can appreciate and connect with the entire book more readily, while those who haven’t had such experiences might lose interest in certain passages.