Alaska

I finished The Yiddish Policeman’s Union awhile ago. In fact. I also finished the book after it too but apparently I’ve been bad at updating this. I must conclude that Michael Chabon, although he may not write what is typically to my taste, is a genius. I did not see myself enjoying a murder mystery, especially one where the protagonist is an alcoholic cop, but I must say this was the most enjoyable mystery I’ve encountered since the Boxcar Children. I promise, that’s more of a compliment than it sounds like. I adored the Boxcar Children…and their little dog too. heh.

This wasn’t you’re typical mystery. It’s set in the present, as I think I’ve mentioned before but it’s not the same present. it’s the present as if The United States Government had offered a temporary home in Alaska for European Jews during the WW2 era. Chabon imagines an Alaska that the Jewish community has made their own. The world he builds is complete and completely new to me. That alone held my attention. The setting need not carry the novel though because the storyline was well crafted and so well woven into the fabric of the setting that I didn’t think to separate them while reading.

 

I get the feeling that Chabon must be Jewish. At least he must have Jewish roots. I don’t know that it’s possible to write as fluidly about a culture without sounding like you’re trying too hard as he writes in this novel. There was a lot that I did not understand and I was grateful that I was reading on a Kindle so I could hold down on a word until the definition came up. I found out at the end that there was a glossary in the final pages but I still that even had I known about the glossary I would have needed to spend some quality time on Wikipedia. Before reading this novel my brain understood Jewish people in three categogies: reformed, orthodox, and hasidic. My knowledge about these three groups was also pretty scant. I would expect that orthodox Jews eat kosher and obey mosaic laws more literally. When I thik of reform Jews I think of female rabbis with no qualms about eating peperoni pizza. Hasidic Jews…they have curls…and might be Amish. I saw one once and he wouldn’t talk to me but he spoke to the man I was with. Maybe hasidic Jews find it improper to speak to strange women. That was my knowledge base going into this, a paltry collection of facts varying in degrees of truthfulness. Now after reading this, all I know if that I do not know anything at all. There were some Jews which Chabon called “black hats” I can’t tell if that is a synonym for hasidic or not but there were different groups of “black hats” that obeyed laws that I’d never heard of. The story focused on one group called the Verbovers. The Verbovers are, as far as I can tell a fictional group. I’m glad for that because if not this book could have made of them what Dan Brown made of the Opus Dei. They were portrayed as strange overly pious gangsters. While that was clearly fictional I wonder if there are tensions between certain communities or sects of Judaism that the secular world knows nothing about. There were laws and occupations and concepts that I never would have dreamed of. One such law had to do with the Sabbath and what could be carried out of the house on the Sabbath. There was a guy who was called a boundary mason and it was his job to construct boundaries made of string so that people could stay in certain zones and not break any Sabbath laws. I’m not explaining it all that well but it was great in that it was something that my own mind never would have fathomed and I go the idea that boundary masons do actually exist because it seemed too outlandish to have been made up. Maybe it was though. Chabon seems to have that degree of unbridled imagination.

My Yiddish vocabulary has increased about 500% I hope some of the words are stored in my long-term memory because many of them were truly entertaining. I read an article by Chabon that the saddest book he’d ever owned was a Yiddish language book, the kind meant to help tourists get around. I wonder how many people still speak Yiddish fluently. Before reading this novel I didn’t realize it was a language that anyone ever spoke fluently. I thought it was a kind of elaborate slang used by certain types of grandmother. I hope that’s not a horribly offensive statement. I simply didn’t know. I’m realizing more and more that I’m an exceedingly ignorant human being. I recently tried my hand at a quiz involving the flags of different nations. Not only could I not identify the flags, I couldn’t tell you with any amount of certainly which continent some of the countries that came up are on.

God Bless America?

Also, I finished the book for Arizona but that will have to be a separate post because my right foot is asleep and I actually have homework to do. Oh! and it’s New Year’s Eve. Yes there’s that and I have…plans. Ha! No I don’t because social gatherings are actually the worst.

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Alabama

Which believe it or not is a book called Finding Alaska. It’s a YA novel so I was able to finish it in one day. Now, though, I’m too tired to write. Goodnight.*EDIT*

PRE-Script: This post is free of spoilers. I’m not out to ruin endings or help anyone with their homework.

Wow, I must have been quite tired. I didn’t even get the name of the book correct. The book is called Looking for Alaska. I’d apologize to John Green but I’m fairly certain that he does not frequent my blog.

There are several good things about reading an entire coming of age novella/novel on a Thursday night.

a. You won’t be tempted to go out to some “ladies’ night” and get hit on by old men while your shoes are sticking to the floor thanks to the healthy layer of cheap beer that coats the floor of every evening establishment.

b. You will spend the rest of the weekend feeling young, but grateful that you made it out of puberty just a bit less traumatized than your average Holden or Charlie, or in this case, Miles.

c. You will begin your weekend feeling accomplished, which will in turn motivate you to be more… well, motivated. I cannot, f course, guarantee this. I can however, tell you that on Friday I was an unstoppable force, a regular aficionado of getting sh*t done. I even paid my library late fines.

d. and if a, b, and c weren’t enough for you there’s always the consolation that you escaped your own life for a few hours and lived an entire story as someone else. In my case it was a whole school year. It’s like free life.

Looking for Alaska was overall, not a disappointment. I was tentative to read it when I realized that John Green is the same author who penned the popular, The Fault in Our Stars. I guess it’s not fair that I immediately am turned off from popular literature but it’s hard not to gag when popular literature continues to spew innocent female main characters with no personality who fall desperately in love with dark men with supernatural/disturbing secrets. I’m looking at you Bella Swan and girl from 50 Shades of Gray.

I enjoyed this book, but is scared me. I know I led a sheltered childhood. I wouldn’t have dreamed of misbehaving in the ways I saw other teenagers doing so in movies and in books. I’d venture to guess that there will always be kid like me, kids who are spectators in mischief and never participators no matter how enticing the activity becomes. And I don’t want to be a book banner or anything but I think if this book were assigned to my child in school I would be really conflicted. There are a lot of experiences in this book that I wouldn’t want my child to imitate. Certainly John green does not create a world where his characters live without consequence, in fact, there are terrible and real consequences to reckless and thoughtless behavior that the novel make abundantly clear in a way that I admired. It’s just that I sometimes worry that reckless behavior is displayed as the norm, therefore, making it normative. Once I get past the maternal goo in my female brain though, the story was captivating, even if often predictable. The three main characters were well developed. Others were not so much but what can you expect a guy to get done in 221 pages?

I liked it. It was entertaining. I think that if a book is well written you don’t have to be overly fond of the characters to feel a connection to them. If I had met any of these characters in the halls of my own High School, I can say almost certainly, that we would not have been friends. I understood the characters though, and I was happy to get to know them. The main character, Miles, is very fond of one of his teachers in a way that I found interesting. The teacher is not very kind to Miles on several occasions, but Miles doesn’t take it personally and still believes the teacher to be brilliant. Maybe that is true and it’s probably wise not to take it personally when reprimanded in class, but I’m not sure it’s a wisdom that most teenagers, or adults for that matter, have attained. In my experience, teenagers take reprimanding quite personally. Maybe in some ways Miles is wise beyond his years; there are definitely many moments in which he is not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this book beginning to appear on High School summer reading lists. I hope though, that it will be for Juniors and Seniors and not for eighth graders just entering their freshman year. That is the summer that I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Supposedly, a modern classic, however, I can’t bring myself to reread it since that first terrifying time.

So, on a scale from 1-10 I give Looking for Alaska a 6.5. It’s brief and entertaining without being trivial. It wasn’t a game changer for me but it easily could be for someone else.

The next titles on my list is The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon. Set in Alaska, near present day it is not at all the Alaska that currently exists. Chabon imagines a world where instead of suffering persecution in Europe during WW2, European Jews were offered temporary refuge in Alaska…How thoughtful. I’m only about 150 pages in. It’s a murder mystery- not really the genre I seek out on my own. It’s interesting enough though. There are a lot of Yiddish words that I need to Google. It feels similar to when I read in french with a dictionary and verb book handy. So far, I’m undecided. He is a celebrated author. I’ve heard him described as the best living author. I am unconvinced. It could just be that I despise cops. I’ll keep reading and let you know.

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”-Mark Twain

So it’s been awhile. I nearly forgot about this site, to be honest. I remembered it again because I’ve been leading a book club on The Screwtape Letters, which was the topic of my one and only post. The world of blogging and I have a long and tumultuous, on again off again, type relationship. So it should be no surprise if after today, the World of WordPress never hears from me again.

Anyhow, my reason for resetting my password and logging in today is that recently I’ve been feeling a little lost. I just turned 26 a few days ago; maybe it’s a quarter life crisis or some made up crap like that. I try to look in the mirror in the morning (not to closely) and decide whether or not my 4-year-old self would approve. I chose my 4-year-old self over all my other selves because she somehow manages to both have high expectations and be easy to please. She is blissfully unaware of this dichotomy however, and while she insists that I wear bright pinks and purples with orange leg-warmers, and that I try to be good even when others aren’t playing nice, she is not overly critical of my professional and intellectual failings. She never went to school so she doesn’t allow me to dwell on the 5,000 ways that I messed up my education. Sure, she has me dressed like a delusional idiot from time to time but all in all she’s a good kid to have around.

Recently though some of my other selves have made unprompted, unwelcome guest appearances. My High School self, I cannot take seriously, which is a bit sad because no one ever did. No one takes dolphins seriously, but “they can kill Sharks! With their noses!”. A self that I take a bit more seriously is my 8th grade self. She was just realizing that she wasn’t going to be a rock-star. She was just realizing that she never wanted to be a rock-star. She had some good ideas though, about who and what she wanted to be. Those ideas weren’t polluted yet by peers, or doubts, or nasty teachers. So I think, even though she’s awkward, unrealistic, and a bit self- centered, I ought to hear her out.

I’ve also got this strange current self. This conflicted mess of contrary emotions that loves to travel but hates to leave the house, that’s afraid to answer the phone, but craves social interaction, that reads Russian literature but loathes academia. That has perfectly logical plans but refuses to commit to carrying any of them out. She’s really getting on my nerves. Who is this girl who once thought that the Babysitter’s Little Sister books were cream of the literary crop, but now pushes herself through Hugo, Tolstoy, and Austen even when she’d rather contemplate a life lived inside an abandoned boxcar?

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the classics. I do. And it’s not that I want to trade in Jane Eyre for Bella Swan. I don’t.

It’s just that, how you do one things is how you do everything. And I push myself through things I’m not ready for and have no motivation when it comes to taking the next logical step. I wasn’t ready for college. I should not have gone. When I got there, I tried to do things I knew I didn’t excel at because of things people said. It’s not that you shouldn’t take advice, but I took advice from every distributor of awful advice I could find. I had bad reasons and a bad attitude. It got me nowhere.

I find myself again, on the verge of making choices for the wrong reasons. It’s tempting to choose the path that looks safe, or the path where you can’t screw up or embarrass yourself too badly. Then there’s the oh-so-enticing path of leaving the continental US and giving myself the illusion of a fresh slate.

That’s not fair though. I realized recently that I haven’t even been to 30% of the states. And I can’t keep existing in this realm where it’s not cool to try something that you actually want to try. I did not expect to enjoy reading Anna Karenina; I just made myself do it. To see if i could. Trying is only cool when success is trivial- where did that attitude come from?! Fear, I guess. It’s pretty self destructive though.

So in a spirit of commitment to lengthy, but realistic goals, and with the intention of learning a bit about being an American who isn’t roaming around with a lofty sounding inner monologue which uses exclamations such as “capitol”, I’m going to spend the next 4.16 years reading contemporary American novels. I’ll read other stuff too. I found a list from another WordPress.

http://qwiklit.com/learn/american-literature/

A lot of the stuff I read is all stuff I would pick out which doesn’t give it a lot of variation.  think this will be a strange challenge for me. I I will try to go in order but I may not be able to, due to unavailability or whatever. Also, there are a few I’ll have to substitute, as I’ve already read The House on Mango Street and I refuse to read Infinite Jest. Most novels are a reasonable length. There’s no way that I can submit myself to the ramblings of David Foster Wallace for over 1k pages. You have to really trust an author before you let him invade your mind for that long. I barley trusted Hugo for that and he was a good Catholic. Wallace seemed insane.

Anyhow, we’ll see how I do. I will begin tonight with John Green who is a popular YA author. Wish me luck and we’ll see if my logical, well planned, committed reading life translates to my real life problems of avoidance and stagnation.

à bientôt 

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Be Careful Little Eyes What You See

First of all if you’re going to waste your time reading what I have to say I’m going to ask you to read this first: Mt 13:18-23

“In the Heat of Composition I find that I have Inadvertently Allowed Myself to Assume the Form of a Large Centipede”

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I began reading it because it jumped out at me while I was in the library looking for a hard copy of Anna Karenina to replace the more portable electronic version after my ipod experienced an unpleasant encounter with the pavement.

While I waited for someone to move out of the QRSTUVs I scanned the LMNOPs. The name “C.S. Lewis” caught my eye. There were a couple of his books there including Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and of course, The Screwtape Letters. I hadn’t read any of them and I thought to myself “for someone who spends as much time looking for Narnia and claiming to be a Narnian as you do you certainly don’t know an awful lot about C.S. Lewis. What is this collection of letters he wrote and what is a screwtape? Did they come before 8-track tapes?”

I pulled the book out and saw the sculpture on the front cover. I found it simultaneously dull and creepy. I slid the book back into place and went off to find Anna. After all she’d been in crisis when my ipod met its demise and I was eager to see how things had worked out for her while I was gone. For some reason though when I walked again by the LMNOPs I pulled out The Screwtape Letters and took it with me.
The next time I became frustrated with Anna’s behavior I took this odd collection of letters outside with me. I skipped the preface as I always do because it reminds me too much of reading the instructions before beginning a task. I began reading. Stopped. Went back to the beginning. Stopped. Conceded to reading the preface. Oh! It’s a satire! and I am an idiot.

Understanding what I was reading made it much more enjoyable. The entire work is tremendously clever. Parts of it were rather funny is a slightly twisted way. I suppose sin should not be funny but the way human tendencies were described though the eyes of something not human and not good were amusing. I found this observation especially amusing:

“When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy – if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this easily managed.”

Other quotes like these two made me feel a sort of disappointment a how easily the human mind can be perverted:

“Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility.”

“You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to him employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which h allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.”

I enjoyed the collection though, almost until the end but near the end I found myself wondering if writing like this took a toll on Lewis. He said himself, through Screwtape that you become what you pretend to be. I wonder if that statement concerned him as the ink rolled of his pen did he worry that maybe writing 31 letters under the pen name of a demon wasn’t going to leave him unchanged?
Then I thought to myself “maybe reading 31 letters of correspondence between demons won’t leave me unchanged.”  And it won’t. Nothing I read, write, or watch on TV is going to leave me unchanged. I’m human and I was made to take things in that I see and hear and think about them and form opinions. To say that what I read won’t alter my brain is like saying what I eat won’t alter my body. (Ironically, I’m currently eating cake and drinking wine.) Now I don’t think that reading C.S. Lewis was bad for me. I n fact I think it was a good thing but it does make me question other things I watch on TV and read online and in books.

I keep seeing all these “shocking statistics” on the internet on what porn does to your brain. This just in! A diet of french fries, Twinkies and soda will make you fat! I’m not sure why it’s such a shocker. Porn is a total perversion of human sexuality. Of course it’s going to mess with your head. Whatever. I guess people will continue forever to be surprised that the things that are bad for your soul can also be bad for your body. I’m not saying that I’m one of those people who goes around condemning people for reading the Harry Potter series either. I really liked those books and I think everyone should read what they want to read. I just think that consuming literature and film that has compromising moral integrity day after day and year after year without examining your conscience from time to time or without having a formed conscience is going to be detrimental in the end. That’s why there’s a rating system on movies. Not because violence is bad for kids but okay for adults but because supposedly the adults have had a chance to form their conscience where children have not. I don’t know if that’s true anymore though. I don’t meet a lot of people who believe in sin anymore. How can you form your conscience without it? We all need a little cricket to sit on our shoulders until the blue fairy brings back morality and makes us believe we are real again. First though don’t we have to spend three days in the belly of a whale? Do we need a sign or was the sign of Jonah enough?

 

Aaaaand I just realized that I’m going to have to rewatch Pinocchio.

 

 

 

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