Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Change your Scenery, Change your Attitude

I'm all about giving my opinions on books; hence, this blog, that I've been running for more than two and a half years now. So, would you like to know what my absolute, one hundred percent, least favorite book is, of all time?

It's shockingly easy to say, especially for someone who simply loves books in general: Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. It is by far and away my least favorite book, and I make this known quite readily. In fact, I've used my frustrated hatred of that specific book to mock all of Hemingway's writing openly: about how his terse, overly-condensed writing style is like eating straight, grainy bouillon cubes, about his deceptive descriptions that refuse to give you the full story, about how his penchant for drinking and eating took up more room than they would have in an issue of Food and Wine magazine,  about how I'm confused how someone who comes across as such a sexist pig every time he writes about women could ever have been married not only once, but four times. There was nothing about this man that I liked, and I was confused about his ability to make the reader sympathetic to the plights of his subjects, when he, himself, and in extension, his writing, could all be so thoroughly unlikable.

Now, would you like to know which book is the best that I've read in at least the past two years? Would you even believe me if I told you, that I truly fell in love with the tight-knit, yet not-easily-traverseable phrases, the setting and impeccable descriptions, the ability to make new friends across the span of a page, and the sheer wonder of the effects of complete time travel that came across in the fitting of a conversation, of another work by Hemingway: A Moveable Feast.

This collection of memoirs from Hemingway's life in the city of Paris in the 1920s is expertly crafted, like some kind of passport back in space and time, to what Woody Allen guaranteed us in Midnight in Paris was the most amazing time and place ever. The book includes such grandiose names and legacies as those of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maxford Ford, as well as one of Hemingway's closest friends, Scott Fitzgerald, as well as Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda. Overall, the inner workings of this elite set of almost-ex-pat bohemians living in the most romantic city in the world, making a mean and meager living in Europe while their home country was drowning in excess, and finding joy in their own humility and costlessness, was truly transformative to read. Involving discussions on Love, Truth, Bravery, and, of course, a lot of Food and Drinking, this book not only felt like a vacation for my mind - despite the unseasonably sunny weather we're getting here in Seattle - but also a bit of a trip of the heart.

However, that's not to say that old Hem's got it all right. His characterizations of people are still incredibly bothersome for me: he is incredibly condemnatory in the vices and follies of others, without looking to exorcise his own personal demons (and obviously he has many). He constantly labels other people as drunks,  racists, or idiots, without seeing the same in himself, and he really is sexist. The problem is, from the limited viewpoint of the reader, we take everything he says in truth, and because of his oftentimes extreme differences in what is absolutely good or absolutely bad, we can be left with a skewed view of Hemingway's reality in Paris. Despite his work in fiction, and his concessions to critiques that even his own work as a journalist or in his memoirs contains some elements of fiction, we are forced to believe - due to the limited scope of the author's viewpoints - that everything he says is right. And clearly, some of it is not right.

But that fiction he paints is so wonderful. The setting - the descriptions of Paris - make this an almost-guidebook, simply because of all the street and restaurant names he delivers explicitly. His work can be terse and over-condensed, just like I remember it to be, but occasionally, these chunky blocks of phrases and words swirl into a long and winding description, like a cobblestone street disappearing around a bend in the road. His elucidations of food and drink make an enormous amount of sense in the context of the setting, and , of course, the many appearances of his famous friends are incredibly interesting as well!

Overall, while my opinion has not changed, in regards to how much I intensely dislike Farewell to Arms, this book is really, truly something special, and I enjoyed it immensely. Now, my question is, what would a book like this look like now, if someone attempted to create something quite like it today? If there exists such a thing, I want to find it. Because I'm not quite ready to come back to the reality of a rapidly approaching Finals Week just yet.

1 comment:

  1. I really love this post. I am also going to suggest you try a few of Hemingway's short stories.

    Two I liked in particular were:

    "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
    "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"

    Both about death of course.