Brush with Infinite Jest

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So BJ and I went over to Ann Arbor for a nice lunch and to visit one of our favourite bookstores (that’s Literati if you are wondering, and I would highly suggest you seek it out if you are in the area).

Picture if you will: We are at lunch and can’t help but overhear the two young women who are at the table behind us:

“Some people say that Infinite Jest is over-wrought writing, but I just think that David Foster Wallace was using language as an analogy.”

Wait…what. We both were like…THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT INFINITE JEST!!

First, we found someone who actually read Infinite Jest (other than BJ and I). And second, someone, a real-life person, who actually liked it. It’s like I found big foot, the loch ness monster and a unicorn all in the same place.

Let me confess something right here, I am an introvert by nature and I don’t seek out conversations with people…never mind strangers. But, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I told BJ I was going to go over to their table and ask some follow up questions….and he looked a bit like this

say what

I will admit, it was a bit unconventional, but how many chances to you get to talk to a unicorn…I mean someone who has read Infinite Jest.

Luckily, they were pretty chill and happy to talk about literature. I started by confessing that we overheard their conversation and that I pretty much hated Infinite Jest. I did get two nods of understanding on that point. So I asked, why they liked it.

Their response was interesting – basically it boiled down to a couple of things:

  1. Trying to read Infinite Jest as a novel will lead to disappointment. If you approach it in small essay type chunks that is a better approach.
  2. The “story” is an allegory for other things – so it’s not the story itself but what it represents.

I get both of those things. I also admitted that I do think DFW is a brilliant writer, but more of a sprinter writer and not a marathon guy.

I respect their view and found it helpful. But here is the thing for me – when I read I want it to be an escape from my day-to-day drudgery – I want to either be transported or informed. Infinite Jest did neither of those things for me. It was tedious and irritating. Which I don’t find an escape in, since it’s kind of like my regular life.

There is a teeny-tiny part of me that has considered re-reading it to see if I might have a better understanding of it. But here is the thing, life is too short to waste on books that irritate you. So unless I run out of reading material, or I am stranded on a desert island with a copy if Infinite Jest – I don’t see myself trying to crack the code.

 

 

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

16201This book was gifted to me. (Thanks Amber!) It was not on my radar, but I am very grateful to Amber for giving it to me.

I loved this book. It was funny, inventive and relevant.

The premise is that a fictional country/island, just off the coast of South Carolina. It is named after Nevin Nollop, the fellow who authored the sentence “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – which contains all the letters of the alphabet. (I know I age myself here, but I spent a lot of time in typing class pecking out this sentence…yes typing on an actual typewriter.) The island council starts banning letters as they fall from the memorial statue of the founder. The book is written via letters between the characters.

(Note: following on BJ’s review of the book, my 9th grade typing teacher was Miss Gilchrist.)

This is a book with many levels. First, it’s quirky and cute – I mean, look at the cover. Second, it’s well written. The characters are well formed and you get to know them and empathize with them through their correspondence.

The other level of this book demonstrates what happens to society when your basic rights are taken away. Language is such an elemental function of our lives and our society and it’s something we take for granted. This illustrates how slowly and stealthily these changes take place. Today you can’t use the letter ‘Z’ and tomorrow you can’t use the letter ‘N’, and then all of a sudden the government is reading your letters and people are being deported because of too many infractions.

In the reviews I read, people criticize this because there are ‘better’ dystopian novels out there. I would agree 100% (I’m looking at you Handmaid’s Tale). However, this is not that. What I appreciate about the author is that he embraces what the book is and runs with it – see earlier comment re: quirky and cute. But there is this undertone of fear and evil to it. That, in my opinion, is what makes this a 5 star book.

The other extremely cool thing about the book is because the book is written in letters between the characters, they have to abide by the new laws and not use the banned letters. This could be a ‘look ma no hands’ ploy to show-off, but it doesn’t come across that way. Kudos to the author for writing the last part of the book using 10 letters (or whatever it ended up being).

What I took from this book, and what I think is 100% relevant today is that innocuous changes and rules can end up with dire consequences. It’s the old ‘frog being boiled’ scenario – if you put it in boiling water, it jumps out, but if you put it in and slowly warm the water, bam!

Overall you can read this on any level you like – it’s a quirky cautionary tale that is more relevant today than it was when it was written in 2001.

 

Barb’s Year in Review

booksale-champagneIt’s that time of year when people make lists and look back on the year that was. I’d like to say this will be different, but who am I kidding. As we wind down 2018 here are some of my thoughts on the year that was….in book related terms.

This past year was our first full-year of having this blog. So that’s a thing, right? There is probably another post that I can write about what I’ve learned – good and bad – about the blogging process. It’s been fun to have somewhere to write about books. Also, it’s been a cool thing for us as a couple to have something to talk about – other than football and who is going to clean the bathroom.

It was a big year for me in non-book related things – moving and settling into a new city (well, actually country). I had a lot of downtime after I moved, so I was able to plow through many books. That was a pretty good way to spend some time. As a result I managed to read 52 books without breaking a sweat.

As for the ‘top’ books out of that 52 – here is what I’ve got:

american marriageAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a standout for me. It was a great book – both in storytelling and the subject matter being heartbreaking and topical. For me, it was cool to get to review it before it was published, have it be an Oprah’s book pick and be a very popular book (it made former President Obama’s read list).

firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was just a superb book. It was engrossing and so well written. I literally can’t say enough about that one. I am always skeptical about books that get rave reviews but this one stood up to the hype. Also, she is from Ohio – my new home state. So yay Ohio!

16201Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn was a quirky and cool read. I haven’t reviewed it yet (stay tuned) but it was a reading hi-light for me, for sure.

KaramazovAnd then there were the Karamazov Brothers – our 2018 reading project.This was a surprise to both of us that we enjoyed it as much as we did.

Overall, I was, and am grateful that I am able to read and enjoy as many books as I do. And equally grateful that I can share my thoughts and reviews. Here is to a great 2019 filled with love, laughter and books! Cheers!

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Brothers Karamazov: Thoughts

big_1409082380_1382454022_imageThe most surprising thing about this book is that I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. It is extremely readable and understandable. And, even more surprising, it’s funny. Ok, I mean parts are funny – it’s not like it’s a comedic book.

I think that one of the masterful things about art when done well is that there is depth to it. On the surface it might seem simple, but it has layers of complexity to it – if you choose to look at it that way. That’s what Dostoevsky does masterfully with this novel. On the surface it’s a story about a family and the relationship with the brothers and their father. You can read it that way and actually enjoy it. The thing that great artists do, and what Dostoyevsky is masterful at is people and how they work. He gets at the heart of how and why people operate as they do. You don’t feel like you are reading about people from 1890’s Russia – you could be reading about a family from any time or any place. The things he unearths are universal. It’s what makes Shakespeare classic, unveiling these universal truths about human beings.

Here is the thing that I appreciated, and I think what makes this readable and enjoyable: he doesn’t ram this stuff down your throat by spending hundreds of pages going on and on and on about a point (I’m looking at you Tolstoy). He weaves these lessons and ideas throughout the story like a thread. You don’t even notice that you are being taught.

I was watching some videos on Dostoyevsky and the Karamazov brothers and one thing that came up, was that Tolstoy is a sociologist and Dostoyveky is a psychologist. Hashtag mind blown.

Here is what surprised me most about this book, I would totally read it again. I think it’s one of the rare books, at least for me, that would get better with every reading. There are so many layers and nooks and crannies to figure out that I think you would definitely get more out of it each time you read it. I now have the answer to the question what book would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

 

Brothers Karamazov: Epilogue – tying up loose ends

8202807482_d28fd5ec54_bAs much as I enjoyed the book, I was not looking for a verbose epilogue. And, I should have trusted Dostoyevsky in this regard, since he has been pretty good at pacing up until now.

In the final 25-ish pages we get (most of) the threads of the story tied up.

There is an elaborate plan in place to get Dmitry out of his prison sentence. He is going to escape from the march to Siberia. There is a whole thing where he is going to escape to America, not to live there but to become “American” then return to Russia as an immigrant. This will allow him, and Grushenka to live without the pall of his sentence and his past hanging over him. Good luck with that.

The book also ends on an interesting note. The sick child from earlier in the book has died. And they are going to bury him. Aloysha makes a speech to the young boys about how to live life and not to forget the friends that they have made, and to go and live life to the fullest.

Ah, my children, my dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something noble and true!

This is obviously a message to the reader. Go! Embrace life and (basically) try not to be a jerk. I think that was about the right note to end the book on.

I think it’s going to take me a bit to absorb the book and reflect. Stay tuned for my thoughts.

Brothers Karamazov: The End….not quite

upcomingSo we have come to the end of the regularly schedule part of the Brothers Karamazov. There is an epilogue…but I am counting the book technically finished.

So this last part was the murder trial of Dmitry. It is the OJ Simpson trial of 1870’s Russia. Because the Karamazov’s are a high profile family and it’s a murder trial of a father, this is getting high attention from literally everyone. Also, the added drama of the spurned lover (Katarina) who will be in the same room as the woman Dmitry left her for (Grushenka) and the fact that Grushenka was an alleged paramour of Dmitry’s father. VERY high drama.

I am not going to go through the whole thing, you can read the book if you want that kind of detail.

One thing that Dostoyevsky does well is showing what a spectacle this trial is. He has scenes where those attending the trial are chatting – and it’s obvious they are there for the gossip and for the drama. As an invested reader and observer, you are like…HEY! This is a murder trial. Be a bit more sympathetic. But I think that’s the point D. is trying to make. This is entertainment for people. What makes this impressive is that it’s as true today as it was back then. People are people.

The other thing that I found interesting is that as the reader, we know what happened. We know who killed the father and all of the other things around it. We have been inside Dmitry’s mind and know what he was thinking. But as we progress in the trial, we see how the facts, “facts” are turned around and each side uses them to their advantage. What the prosecution says isn’t untrue, it’s just not the entire truth. So this is an inside look at how facts are distorted.

There is a very interesting part near the end of the chapter where the defence attorney is talking about fathers and what makes a father – that’s it’s not just sharing a DNA that makes someone a father. And he goes on to explain how the lack of that influence on a child, especially a son, can have a negative effect. I think this is the crux of the book – or one of them (can you have multiple cruxes?) – which is, how much does a father’s love and attention, or lack thereof, influence his children?

Well, it’s on to the epilogue….then we are done.

 

Brothers Karamazov, Book Eleven: Non-Stop Action

downloadWe are getting pretty close to the end of the book, I think this was the second-to-last section (excluding the epilogue). Holy cow! Dostoyevsky basically threw all the action in this section, and the kitchen sink.

Everyone is getting ready for the trial of Dimitry – and most people are in high states of agitation about it. Ivan is back and apparently has been back for a while. He was plotting with Katherine to break Dimitry out of prison and hide him away. Dimitry and Grushekna are still together, however they are having a bit of a love/hate relationship (no one here finds this surprising).

The very interesting thing that Dostoyevsky does in this section is basically ties up a lot of loose ends by having all the characters visit each other. You find out what’s been happening during the two-ish months that have passed since Dimitry was arrested. There is no exposition, it’s all conversations and action.

We find out that Ivan is really sick and is basically going (or gone) insane. He ends up visiting Smerdakov a bunch of times – who is the “faithful” servant of the Karamazov family. Smerdakov is cagey and toys with Ivan, sensing his illness. He basically bats him around like a cat with a mouse. Over the visits S. tries to convince Ivan that IF he were to have murdered his father, then it was basically Ivan’s doing – because Ivan wanted it done. In the last meeting of the two, S. completely confesses to the murder. Up to that point Ivan wasn’t sure if Dimitry did it or not.

So we are merrily reading along to Ivan having a crazy chat with a hallucination of his inner-self……when….<insert dramatic music here>

We find out that Smerdakov killed himself.

What? No one was expecting that.

Truthfully I have no idea what is going to happen in the last section.