7.31.2011

Dragging My Feet through Snow



I should have seen it coming.  What could possibly derail a person more than a snowstorm in the middle of July?  I haven't posted in ages, and it is not because I've been so busy or dealing with the damage from the tree on our house or finishing a renovation that has taken 2 years or getting ready to go back-to-school-and-work.  It is because of Orhan Pamuk and his Snow.  I'm actually still not finished, but as this is the last day of July, and Snow was The Wolves pick for July, I thought I should post something now.  In the next day or so, when I finish this slogfest, I will do the official TPR post and offer some concluding thoughts.  But for today, here's what I can say about this book: it is exactly like trying to walk in knee-deep snow.  That is to say, not a quick stroll in the park.

I began this book with great anticipation, partially because my TPR Challenge has been so consistently enjoyable and partially because of the quote on the cover from Margaret Atwood:
Not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times.  [Pamuk is] narrating his country into being.
That blows my mind: narrating his country into being.  It is either beautiful praise or deeply offensive.  I mean, I'm going to assume Pamuk feels his country is already sufficiently "being."  Either way, it asserts a rather relentless pressure upon the novel, and for this reader, the novel isn't fully measuring up.

The story begins with poet Ka arriving by bus in the already blizzard-like town of Kars in Turkey.  He is there ostensibly to research a recent spate of suicides among girls who have been denied access to education because they choose to be "covered" or wear a religious head-scarf.  Over the next several hundred pages, we tag along as Ka meets and talks to numerous people, explores his own and the city's religious conflicts, pursues a passionate romantic relationship with a woman he knew years ago, and walks and walks and walks through the snow.  He also writes several poems and spends a substantial amount of time just looking at the snow and making various observations about the snow.

Though the story thus far has been fairly interesting and has informed me about several areas of global conflict, I feel like I have been trapped in this unending snowstorm along with the citizens of Kars.  To compound that feeling, the pacing of the plot is extremely slow.  Several times now, I have been shocked when Ka makes reference to something that happened yesterday when I feel it was probably over a week ago.  This stunning series of events has apparently been taking place in under 2 days, and I am having a great deal of trouble making that be true in my mind.

I still have about 150 pages to go, so I am going to withhold full judgment until the whole story has been told.  But what about you Wolves?  Have you been happy to escape from the heat of July to icy Kars?  Or are you slogging through it, chipping away, and wishing for beach umbrellas and bicycles instead?

7.19.2011

TPR Challenge #12 - Ernest Hemingway

Though he is best-known for novels such as A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway made his career through the early short stories he composed mostly while living abroad.  Paris was especially important to him during the 20s when he was among that most famed of expatriate crews comprising none other than Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Nice company to keep, don't you think?

Hemingway went on to explore Spain, Cuba, and of course, Key West before his early demise in 1961.  But it is Paris that is celebrated in A Moveable Feast; it is Paris that launched his career; and it is Paris that causes him to be an especially appropriate figure for this year's Paris in July celebration.  See, he is also one of the first interviews collected in the Paris Review interviews set that is driving my TPR Challenge, a particular focus of this July.  Unfortunately, this amazing story collection is taking me so long to read that I may get to nothing else and miss Paris in July altogether if I don't get something going, so I read the interview and am posting today even though I still have about 1/3 of the collection still to read.  Forgive me?

The stories in this collection, most of which are new to me, span from 1921 to 1938 (the time of this collection's first publication), and they are markedly Hemingway.  Being familiar but not studiously intimate with his work, I can identify characters, themes, and voice that ring true in the novels.  There are only a few stories that strike me as decidedly immature ("Up From Michigan" was the first and is one of my least favorites); most seem remarkably consistent to the Hemingway that we know and appreciate.  Like his sentences, his stories are usually quite short.  And appropriate to his respect for the painter, they often appear little more than sketches, rough drawings or outlines to capture a moment or an exchange.  I was surprised to find how much I like that snapshot technique.  It is impressive in how complete each small image is, and it seems, perhaps irrationally, to make the collection more cohesive rather than more fragmented.  Each tiny shard contributes something unique and vital to the whole collection, and unlike my reading of most story collections, I want to read these quickly in succession rather than feeling I must provide a proper break between each story.

Not surprising, though, was how entertaining and informative the interview was.  Conducted by George Plimpton in 1958, the interview reveals his discipline (he stood while writing, often for 5-6 hours a day), his oddly private nature, and his great mind.  I took several tidbits away from the interview:

On avoiding too much scrutiny of one's writing -
though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing (37).
On reading -
I'm always reading books - as many as there are.  I ration myself on them so that I'll always be in supply (47).
On politics in writing -
All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it (59).
And on the function of creative writing -
From things that have happened and from things that exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.  That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of.  But what about all the reasons that no one knows? (61)
 To conclude, I offer you this passage from "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" on Paris:
There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the Rives, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard.  The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died.  There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris. (70)
I love how uncharacteristically long (but appropriate to the character and context of the story) these sentences are.  And of course, I love the lived intimacy with which these details are recorded and transmitted.  This is the way I want to experience Paris one day.  For now, I will content myself with Hemingway.

7.11.2011

Hemingway and Paris in July


"I wish we'd never come," the woman said.  She was looking at him holding the glass and biting her lip.  "You never would have gotten anything like this in Paris.  You always said you loved Paris.  We could have stayed in Paris or gone anywhere.  I'd have gone anywhere." (54)
from "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" collected in The Short Stories

7.09.2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

A friend and I are were arguing vehemently talking the other night about a book I did not prefer (see here to see how much I did not prefer it).  He had read it several years before and remembered it much more positively than I did.  We had a good time yelling at each other bantering back and forth about it, and at one point, I stated some version of my "a book is only good if it changes me in some critical way" statement, and he countered that without having read that book, we couldn't have had the conversation, and thus, it too had changed me.  Though I disagree with the spirit of what he was saying, he was right in that every book, regardless of content or subjective quality analysis, offers us something, adds something to our experience in the world.


My first read for Paris in July (I know, it's been a slow start!) was The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  Set in Paris in 1931, this book was the first graphic novel to win the Caldecott medal, awarded each year for the best example of illustration in a children's book.  I have read perhaps 3 graphic novels in my life, so it should be obvious that this is a genre I do not gravitate toward.  And perhaps it should not be a surprise that I found myself kind of skimming over the pictures to get to the text.  The story was a pretty good one, and the art was (at times) well-executed, interesting, and strong.  That said, it was also dark (the artist uses a lot of pencil strokes for each drawing) and somehow slow-moving.  It wanted me to ponder the art more, and I just wanted to find out what happened.  As a unique form, though, the book more than deserves the accolades it has earned.  In the book, Selznick combines the novel, the picture book, and film in exciting ways.  He blurs the line between a page turn and a scene cut, and he incorporates stills from old movies and sketches from the filmmaker Georges Melies throughout.  It is an interesting juxtaposition, and it is this which I feel was the most substantial takeaway for me.

Though I didn't feel particularly changed by the book itself, it did lead me to this 1902 film by Melies.



Considered the first science fiction film ever, it is remarkable for its innovation and hilarious for its misinterpretation of what space travel might "one day" look like.  It was an excellent addition to my knowledge and a fun start to Paris in July for me, especially in light of Friday's final shuttle launch:



For your final piece of video today, I offer this from Selznick himself.  I was particularly interested in his explanation of how he puts it all together and impressed with the fact that the original art is much smaller and finer and tighter than how it was published.  Interesting stuff.

7.01.2011

Paris in July

Bonjour, Juillet!  I know I'm not the only one who is surprised to find July making what I would consider an early appearance.  Seriously.  How is it already July?  Despite my incredulity, it is indeed the first day of July, and that means Paris!  Thanks once again to Karen at BookBath and Tamara at ThymeforTea for hosting this summer's Paris in July event.  I am looking forward to a month full of exciting French delicacies. 

Here is my stack:

The top four are my TPR interviews and represent my intention to return to my TPR Challenge this month.  One definite choice is Orhan Pamuk's Snow.  It is this month's pick for The Wolves reading group, so I'll be killing several birds with one stone with this selection.  Are there others on the TPR list you would suggest for their particular Parisian connections?  I considered rereading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, but the Challenge is supposed to be about reading new material from these authors, so I've had to reconsider.

Below those are Belloc's Paris, Camus' L'Etranger (my French reading selection for the year), and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Selznick.  I need an English-language novel in there somewhere....

I'll also be finishing up Kathi Appelt's The Underneath, which has no connections to Paris but just happens to have crossed the line into this month.  Perhaps most importantly, I'm hoping Paris in July means I can stop being haunted by Montana.  In the last two weeks, I have been reading The Trumpet of the Swan with the kids (set in Montana), have completed A River Runs Through It (a book that has been recommended to me repeatedly over the last 15 or so years and rightly so - it was gorgeous!), and have read 2 magazine articles on the state.  I'm sure Montana's beautiful, but let's go to France instead, shall we?