Sunday, October 28, 2012

On Edge

I beg your pardon for the unjust emptiness I'm sure you've all felt dwelling in the pits of your souls, during what I'm sure has been a very tumultuous time, in my extended absence from this blog. The lack of my constant wit - all but bedazzling and enlightening in an instant - and my well-crafted prose - cobbling the odds and ends of the Universe into a pure pantheon of distinguished ingenuity - must have felt a tremendous burden for these past few weeks. One might only hope, that my exceptionally crafted apologies must alleviate your deep misery, assuage the heart that has grown tender and raw after being subjected to the cruel, slicing pages of books not yet read and recounted by me, and renew the blushing joy you feel in accompaniment with the accelerating swells of your chest, when you see that yes, I have returned, and I have a new blog post.
Unless, of course, you didn't experience such pain? Unless the only pain you're feeling at the moment, is an abject embarrassment in regards to my use of such an obnoxiously effusive and flowery writing, and assumption of deeper emotional connections to trivialities, as is demonstrated above? 

If that's the case, then good. Move on from my temporary struggles in reading and writing, by eliminating the cause of such struggles from this very dialogue. I have finally finished W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. 

The novel revolves around a group of friends hobnobbing around Chicago and Europe (and for one of them, India), and takes place, in total, over about forty years. It is one of the new genre that my friend Maggie and I, over a mutual bowl of pomegranate seeds, have dubbed, "the Marathon novel." It's the kind of novel where, upon turning the last page, you are able to salvage some semblances of accomplishment and self-pride, while still feeling numb and exhausted, murmuring to yourself "I can't believe I just did that." (Examples of the "Marathon": The Grapes of Wrath, The Fellowship of the Ring. ) "Marathon" novels typically gain their heftiness from heavy subject matter, nigh-indomitable writing style, and sheer bluntness of force, whether it's the emotional impact of content, or your head smacking against the table once you've fallen asleep. Such is The Razor's Edge. 

First off, the title itself refers to the path to salvation - religion itself being almost a tell-tales sign of a marathon novel - as one of the main characters forsakes all luxuries of life to pursue deeper meaning. Then, upon immediately immersing myself in murky wording, the likes of which I have previously displayed, I should have checked the second red flag. However, it is not until I fully reached the end, that I finally realized the extent to which this book has the capacity to bore someone into a headache.

Ironically enough, the contributing factors to my discontent with the plot line were what I initially appreciated about the novel itself: it's conversational nature and religious pseudo-monologues. 

When I say "conversational nature," I mean it. Not only does the book bank on conversational writing style, flowing in the way only a winding story from a friend can be told - frequently peppered with self-interruptions and mild-mannered observations about the narrator's surroundings - but it is built mainly of the conversations had, or recounted, by others. Initially it was a novel concept to me; however, after coming to the quick realization that no normal person talks like this, not even an well-culture Englishman from the '20s, and to be honest, I don't think anyone should. Ever. 

And when I say "religious pseudo-monologues," I mean it. I understand that the novel focuses primarily on the inner journeys and real travelings of a man seeking the meaning of life in the form of a question he doesn't fully understand, but come ON. It's one guy. And it's not the narrator. So do I really have to sit through ten pages of him borderline-soliloquizing about the nature of faith? (I'm saying "soliloquizing" here because I'm guessing that even after one minute of this guy spilling his heart out, everyone would have stopped paying attention, and it would be almost as if no one else was even there. He's rather self-infatuated for someone who strives to be selfless.) 

However, with that last semi-comment, I do find myself having to make a distinction: it wasn't the greatest book, in my estimation (obviously I'm disagreed with by most critics), but if there was any shadow of greatness within it, it shone forth in the expert crafting of the characters. Well-made, multi-faceted, realistic and all-at-once sympathetic and worthy of hate, I loved how each of the players that walked this stage could have just as easily walked down the street. Maybe it did owe a little something to the conversational presentation, but this book could have easily been a gossip-fest rather than a sermon if fit into a different format. Not an archetype was present, not a stock character in sight. I loved every last detail that went into the ultimate ruin of an almost-martyr and the self-made salvation of a snob. These people were grand, even if the plot was not such, and the styling was too much so. 

Anyways, those are my feelings on a book that has been sitting on my desk, accompanied by class readings and Scantrons, for the past two weeks. How about this time, I pick something a little lighter... :) 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shadows and Rain

As I am currently living in Seattle, you cannot imagine my immense gratitude and relief when it finally started to rain two days ago.

The city has been clouded over with the distinct lack of clouds since school has started. The unnatural sunshine and prolonged summer temperatures have been keeping me awake at night in an unseasonably warm sweat. Each time I dropped another ice cube in my tea, another little part of my soul flaked off, like the dry skin that came with the unwelcome heat, the heat that kept me in tee shirts, instead of in my prized, oft-worn sweaters. The brightness blinded me to all books - school-related or otherwise - and I was suspended in time, just like my favorite season, who was still anxiously waiting for its leaves to change, and its carved pumpkins to appear on doorsteps. Now that the weather has finally caught up with the calendar, I am released from the stupor of the clashing seasons, and I can actually focus.

To a point. It may be argued that what emerged from the new-found morning fog was a misdirected focus; instead of an actual attentiveness to the tasks at hand (namely, managing to pay attention to Appreciation of Architecture lectures...), instead of applying myself to the textbook and keyboard, as I should have... I was desperate for more gloom. Suffering under this odd ailment - desiring the murky and cold, and despairing of all that was clear and warm - I turned to the book that mentioned both darkness and seasonal weather changes in its title (it's allure only magnified by the fact that Stephen King's quote was on the cover): The Shadow of the Wind: A Novel, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Largely taking place in the heavily political post-war decade of 1945 to 1955 in Barcelona, Spain, the story follows the trial and travails of the love life of young Daniel Sempere, a teen trying to avoid the pitfalls of friendships and relationships, while keeping hidden the secret he has sworn to protect: a mysterious book, the Shadow of the Wind, of which only one manuscript exists. The rest - as well as the rest of the collective works of it's secretive author, Julian Carax - have been meticulously burned, by a man scarred by fire, operating under the name of one of Carax's villians, representative of the devil. What follows is a tangled web of many characters, their lies, and the timelines in which they operate, and the great question, of whether they can unravel the mystery before their time runs out.

I'm not entirely familiar with any European literature - especially recent literature - that doesn't come from England. I'm used to the Gothic, and the Romantic, and everything that has to do with the prude and privileged ladies of Austen and the Brontes. I was unprepared for this book - which was a bestseller in Spain and France, among other places, before being translated into English - and its... well... differing sensibilities. What I'm talking about are lines like these:

"You're a dish fit for a pope, Rocito. This egregious ass of yours is the Revelation According to Botticelli." 

You see what I mean? Not to say that this line didn't leave me laughing uproariously... it's just that the book displays an abundance of that sort of mindset. And if anyone has heard me complain about the Game of Thrones before, it's like this: I just have a minor problem with major intrigue being upstaged by the inability to keep certain things to yourself. But that's just my point of view.

The rest was great, though. Instead of existing on some limited scope and scale, it existed - to me - in some supernatural soap opera, populated with nefarious characters of dubious origins, liars and double crossers, those who looked like angels and those who acted like angels, those whose religious piety concealed a broken soul. The grandiose nature of the entire novel, the infinite supply of source material, was interesting, as most of what I've been reading recently seems kind of limiting in comparison. The strange, almost postmodernist view of the politics at the time, especially in reference to the corruption in government, which is a hefty topic in itself, took a backseat, when it came to the paranormal and the mystical. The result was a hodgepodge of the religious and the secular, the magical and the evil and the real. This novel contained a lot of varying elements, all moving and acting of their own accord, with their own connotations and purpose.

The problem is that the result of that grew a little too hectic. Towards the ending, I got the vague impression of sending sand through a sieve - throwing a million little particles your way a mile a minute - in the hopes that something is going to fill all the holes. Simply by reading it, I was finding suspense not only in the story itself, but as an outsider thinking, "come on, it's been a great one so far, don't let it all fly out of hand now...don't stuff the ending so full of surprises you'll blow your own story to bits." Thankfully, the acceleration finally stopped, and the story came together at the end. Unfortunately, in a double blow to my heart, it was a predictable outcome. So I had endured such stress at the hands of frenetic plot movement, then frustration through the stagnation as the exact same ending I had predicted came to fruition?

Believe it or not, the masterful imagery and inventive storytelling made it all worth it, and I'm not joking. Normally I'm a stickler about the "moral values" and "plot consistency and regularity" things, but this one was probably the exception. The length was pretty fantastic, too, as it was small enough for me to finish within the span of a week, and yet, it was long enough to let me get familiar with the texture of its binding and the font on its pages. A large-portioned meal, but a tasty one. Maybe I'm just feel so much gratitude for the man who mentally sent me to Barcelona for the past week, but it was a nicely worded vacation, and I appreciated the gloom.

Now, back to my rain. :)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ice Cubes Melt

Pardon me for the lack of updates in the past more-than month or so. Unfortunately, I've been busy making the most of my freshman and sorority experience, which requires copious amounts of laughing, hugging, chocolate-chip-cookie-consuming, belly-dancing, spandex-skirt-shopping, and all around fun (as well as trace amounts of other substances, like sequins, headbands, and crying). So, my work on this blog has been neglected. Now that I'm reasonably settled into my roles as class-goer, homework-doer, weekend-dancer, and new Sigma Kappa (one heart, one way!) member, I actually found the time to crack open a book I did NOT buy bound in cellophane from the basement of the University Bookstore, and relax. Between late-night runs to the kitchen for more apple cinnamon caffeine-free herbal tea, of course.

Now that I've got you all settled into the notion that my life has become some fairy-tale-worthy amalgamation of a Spice Girls music video and a tampon commercial, prepare for the pain, because this book packs a certain emotional "one-two" that left me reeling. Maybe it's because I'm a born-and-bred American living in a new century, one who grew up almost without the concept of skin color as a friendship barrier, or maybe it was the fact that this novel is set majorly within the very limits of the city I now call home. Whatever it was that left me sprawled across the study room couch, fighting back tears, it's not fading terribly fast. Not when I remember having walked across some of the very pavement on which such atrocities were committed.

I knew about the evacuation from the West Coast, and the Japanese internment camps during WWII, because our teachers glossed over what bare bits of it we discussed about our WA state history, all the way back to the first grade. When you stand by the bridge near the Japanese Pagoda at Point Defiance at night, so I was told in whispers, behind the wooden shed on our Montessori-school playground, you can hear the quick patter of ghostly footsteps, of those fleeing, those who didn't want to be taken away. They were shot, and now, they'll be forever running. Grave and sinister, for someone so young, but we did what we could to understand that which we couldn't understand, subjecting it simply to the stuff of ghost stories, and moving on (completely dismissing the fact that the Park, and the Pagoda, are definitely closed to the public at night). I grew up side-by-side with those kids, whose parents spoke a different language, liked different foods, dressed a different way, or prayed to a different God, and it was never a problem. We weren't bred to war, so we simply couldn't comprehend. These weren't things we were taught in Molly's American Girl series. It wasn't until public school that I realized just how cruel people could be, and why no one in Tacoma ever wanted to talk about it.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books, 2009), is set halfway in the 1940s, when those unjust sanctions against Japanese Americans were enforced, and halfway in the 1980s, when the repercussions of those actions are still being felt, by Mr. Henry Lee, a recent widower with a tenuous relationship with his grad-school son, and leftover memories of a girl named Keiko Okabe. Throughout the novel, the threads unwind to find that Lee had deeper ties to her than his son ever knew, and his son comes to realize that his father was less like his father than he had previously thought. It's a beautiful and moving love story, set across the backdrop of two different timelines, where two different people can find an imperfect love in their own hostile nation, and still feel the effects of that love after all the smoke has cleared.

An imperfect novel as well, as the presence of some anachronisms within the story pointed out. But I'll let 'em slide (still less cringe-worthy writing than my Architecture textbook. Yikes).

Whatever the case, the true takeaway from this novel, for me, was the fact that I was already so familiar with the setting. I've been to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, I've seen where they keep the livestock. Imagining a family of four, trying to live within the bounds of one horse stall? Not pleasant, not easy. Now take this description:

"...the quaint town of Puyallup, a small farming community surrounded by lush acres of daffodils." (Pg 153).

Holy hell. I'm a Daffodil Princess. Our HQ is in Puyallup. We're the Daffodil Princesses BECAUSE of that agriculture in the Puyallup Valley. This is all within a half hour of my house! Oh my gosh! (Describing my train of thought, here.) How horrifying is that? All of this kind of thing occurred within 50 miles (and about 60 years) of my doorstep! Not to mention Seattle... the entire reason my mom had me read this novel is because I'm now LIVING in Seattle as a student! She wants to have a field trip day with me, to go explore some of the real-life inspiration down in the international district, the streets named IN THIS BOOK.

How sad.

I'm not sure what it would be like for those who DON'T live in this city I've grown to care so much about since the advent of higher learning, but for me, it really struck home. Literally. My appreciation for the history of where I came from, and where I am now, is ever-increasing. I love it when a novel can involve you so deeply, that you feel the need to do extra background work afterwards, almost like you don't want the story to end, so you need to find out more of its beginning. I'll definitely be on the lookout for more locally-set works now, and my interest in the racism of WWII isn't dying down either. Sure, awful, truly-terrible, no-good things happened here, in Seattle, but bad things happen everywhere. I'm still just learning to appreciate the past, and how it relates to where I am now. And this novel definitely helped.

Note: Look out for my favorite character, the son, and the quote of his from which this post title was taken. It's been ringing in my head since finishing the novel, and I don't know why. :)