January 2009 Archives

The Blind Assassin

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I know she's one of the Most Important Living Novelists and everything, but historically I've been kind of lukewarm about Margaret Atwood's work. The Handmaid's Tale is obviously important to read, and makes a point with which I agree, but it makes it in a way that feels like being hit over the head with a shovel. The only other Atwood novel I've read - The Edible Woman - left me similarly unsatisfied. So I was especially glad that I decided to give The Blind Assassin a chance, because oh man, I loved it. It was one of those books that I cursed every morning for keeping me up until one in the morning, even when I knew I had to get up at six. And then, even while cursing it, I would try to read a few pages before setting off for work.

This novel had all the elements that make reading nourishing for me: lovely, flowing prose, thought-provoking metaphors, a compelling authorial voice. On top of that, the characters were intriguing and the plot was ingeniously constructed in several interrelated parts (a "book within a book," as well as various newspaper articles and pieces of correspondence) that shifted their apparent relation to one another as the narrative progressed. Beginning with an old woman recalling her sister, a series of newspaper obituaries, and the perhaps-fictional story of two anonymous lovers making up stories together, the novel twists and turns its way towards a conclusion that's gut-wrenching, yet satisfying. Atwood's feminist passion is still here, but it's incorporated more smoothly and less didactically than in either of her other novels I've read, and is just one part of a seamless, enthralling story. Reading The Blind Assassin inspires me to pick up some of Atwood's other more recent fiction, and it's always lovely to discover that such a prolific author holds riches for me, after all.

Put the book back on the shelf


If there's one thing I'm taking away from Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, it's the fact that no technology is so basic as to be self-evident. I always thought of the humble bookshelf as a foregone conclusion: faced with a bunch of narrow rectangular solids, it only makes sense to place them vertically, front-to-back along a horizontal surface, with some kind of identifying label along their edges, yes? Petroski's book, a history of the development of book storage technology in the West, entertainingly disproves this assumption.

Petroski points out that, given the high value of early books, which were each hand-lettered and often bound between jewel-encrusted covers, a very secure storage technique was needed. In pre- and early medieval monasteries and universities, the few books available were kept in steamer-type trunks with multiple (often three) locks, each with a different key. The librarian would keep one key, and two other responsible persons would have the other two, so that all three key-keepers would need to congregate at the book trunk anytime someone wanted to withdraw a book. In this way, accountability would also be maintained: at least three people would witness each book withdrawal, which would minimize lost volumes. Not only that, but the ritual of book return is enough to chill the blood of a person like me, who nearly always returns her library books shockingly late, often without having read them:

The librarian shall read a statement as to the manner in which brethren have had books during the past year. As each brother hears his name pronounced he is to give back the book which had been entrusted to him for reading; and he whose conscience accuses him of not having read the book through which he had received, is to fall on his face, confess his fault, and entreat forgiveness.

Of course, I might be more motivated to finish my library books if I knew I would have to fall on my face and beg to be pardoned.

As more books accumulated, and architecture changed, the locked chest evolved into a system of tilted lecterns, with or without seats, to which individual books were attached with iron chains. The tradition of chained libraries was apparently preserved for a shockingly long time in some places; the last college in Oxford to remove the chains from their books did so in 1799. At first the books were left open or closed on their designated lecterns, but as library collections grew, each lectern began to have multiple books. This necessitated shelves added above the lecterns themselves, where chained books could be lain when not being consulted. These shelves are the ancestors of the modern bookshelf.

But lots of things still had yet to evolve about book shelving before it would be recognizably "modern." Books were usually shelved horizontally in piles, for example, and even when space considerations forced people to start shelving them vertically, the chains attached to their covers dictated that they be placed with their fore-edges, rather than their spines, facing outward. Based on an informal sampling of my friends and acquaintances, this is the single most disturbing part of Petroski's book. People react strongly to the idea of shelving books spine-inward; comments like "that's just wrong" and "I don't like to think about it" kept cropping up when I mentioned the practice. But in addition to the chains, which would have scraped the covers of the neighboring books if the spines had been faced out, there are other reasons that a fore-edge first shelving technique makes sense. There was no identifying information on the spines of books, for example, until well into the seventeenth century. For a long time, they were completely unadorned, in stark contrast to the elaborate front and back covers. In addition, Petroski brings up the fascinating point that, even when they began to be decorated,

The exoskeletal spine, which holds up the innards of the book structurally...was still the machinery of a book...and so it continued to be the part that was hidden as much as possible, pushed into the dark recesses of bookshelves, out of sight. Shelving books with their spines inward must have seemed as natural and appropriate a thing to do as to put the winding machinery of a clock toward the wall or behind a door, or both.

This is so interesting to me. I would, of course, never think of positioning a computer or desk lamp so that its electrical cords were on conspicuous display, and medieval and Renaissance folks apparently felt the same way about book spines. I wonder what this reaction, so seemingly universal, is about. Why do we find unattractive the parts of our technology that make it work? Do we only stop feeling put off by the functional/structural elements of a thing when we no longer perceive it as "technology"? The idea that book spines, so infinitely appealing to me now, once seemed distasteful bits of mechanics, makes me wonder how future generations will perceive our messes of wires and cords. Maybe my great-great-grandchildren will, like J.K. Rowling's Arthur Weasley, take to collecting plugs.

I found the last third or so of Petroski's book less interesting than the first two-thirds. Once the bookshelf assumed more or less its modern form, it was just a matter of optimizing space and usability in libraries, and I don't have the engineer's soul to enjoy such conversations as much as some people. Nevertheless, the book as a whole was highly enjoyable - the kind of thing from which I tend to read out tidbits as I find them to whomever is around to listen (usually David, who is a good sport). It was a great way to kick off the Dewey Decimal Challenge (000 century), and I'm looking forward to picking out an equally thought-provoking choice for next month.

Hot and cold

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I don't read a lot of war literature, so it's noticeable when I'm suddenly experiencing two stories of war back-to-back. David and I spent a few weeks listening to John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I kicked off the 9 for '09 challenge by reading Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. I tend to find Hemingway subtly optimistic, less dark than his reputation would lead one to believe. Sure, his characters are wounded and adrift in a harsh world, but there's always that glint of hope beckoning from afar, whether in nature, a quiet moment between friends or lovers, or the shooting of innocent animals, that hints at the redeemable nature of humanity. Nevertheless, I was not prepared to read Papa as the little ray of sunshine he seems in comparison to John Le Carré.

It is very tempting to read the differences in these two novels as representing the zeitgeists of their respective wars: in the Spanish Civil War of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the characters still believe that they are fighting for an ideal, that their actions, however horrific, can have an important and lasting effect on the country and the world. Concepts like "freedom" and "The Republic" are bandied about with un-ironic conviction, and romantic love is a saving force, even if cut short. When characters are thrown into doubt, despair, or fear, which happens frequently, they pull themselves out of it with some brusque self-talk about the ideals of the Republic. Even when they do things in the name of their cause of which they are later ashamed (as in Pilar's gruesome description of a mob massacre in her small town of origin), that shame is largely kept separate from the untarnished ideals for which they are fighting.

In the late Cold War Britain of Le Carré, on the other hand, any idealism has faded into a memory so distant and exhausting that it's not even nostalgic anymore. The characters perform their actions out of habit, and out of an idea that they have spent too long spooking around for "The Circus" to think of changing now. From a moral perspective East and West are largely indistinguishable, so tasks like ferreting out a Russian mole are performed by exhausted career spies as a matter of course, rather than by fiery young ideologues in a lather of righteous indignation. There are a plethora of scenes where the protagonist, George Smiley, does nothing but sit in a room sifting through files. Even the suspenseful scenes, especially the final apprehension of the mole, are laden with exhaustion and disappointment, yet performed with the careful attention born of long habit. And Le Carré probably has a point: if I had a tricky job I wanted done, I would recruit George Smiley over Robert Jordan any day.

For most people, the primary associations with "Hemingway hero" are of succinct expression, "the thing left unsaid," a character emotionally reserved to the point of inaccessibility. Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Bell, certainly thinks of himself this way: he's forever treading his precarious way among the "wrong" thoughts, reminding himself which subjects are safe to dwell on and which will put him in a mindset ill-suited to his task of blowing up a bridge. He warns himself against getting too attached to the people with whom he's working, but also against getting too angry at them. He calls himself on starting to romanticize the Spanish people, but also stops himself from descending into cynicism. He struggles to maintain that crisp, taut surface of clean action and minimal thought that is the salvation of the Hemingway protagonist; at one point he even claims that his "mind is in suspension until the war is over." Nevertheless, he thinks a lot, and some of those thoughts are downright paeans to the cause of Spanish Republicanism:

In all the work that they, the partizans did, they brought added danger and bad luck to the people that sheltered them and worked with them. For what? So that, eventually, there should be no more danger and so that the country should be a good place to live in. That was true no matter how trite it sounded.

If the Republic lost it would be impossible for those who believed in it to live in Spain.

So much of the poignancy of For Whom the Bell Tolls comes from thoughts like these: thoughts of how things will be when the war (or even the specific action) is over and life can return to normal. Wartime experiences, as well as dreams and memories of better times, are made more vibrant by the palpable abnormality of living in a guerrilla band in the pine forest, behind fascist lines. At some point in the novel, every character indulges in dreams of a more leisurely existence, full of the mundane but achingly evocative details of everyday life: sleeping late with a lover, raising fowl in the backyard, conversing in a bar, eating wine and cheese in a rented room in Madrid. Because odds are stacked against any of the characters achieving these modest dreams, the scenes of nostalgia can be heart-wrenching, although I thought Hemingway does a good job of not getting too maudlin about them or dwelling on them too much.

In Tinker, Tailor, the poignancy comes from quite a different source: the Cold War has been going on for so long, and permeated so far into the characters' psyches, that they no longer expend any imagination on what life would be like if it were over. They don't have the luxury of keeping their minds "suspended" for the duration of the war; they have no "normal" lives outside their profession. In fact, despite the thawing of Russian/British relations during the novel's timeframe, the idea of escaping from a Cold War mentality never seems to enter the characters' heads, except insofar as it means they will have spent an entire career in service only to be left behind when they're no longer useful. The saddest scene in the novel, for my money, involves Smiley visiting Connie Sachs, an old colleage who has been fired, supposedly for losing her sense of perspective, and told to spend some time "in the real world." Connie, descended into bloated alcoholism, sobs to Smiley that "I hate the real world. I like the Circus and all my lovely boys," while he, overcoming his sense of revulsion, reluctantly holds her hand. It's vastly darker than anything in For Whom the Bell Tolls, as far as I'm concerned. The Circus has come to exist, for these characters, as an end in itself, not a tool to create a better world.

The atmosphere of Tinker, Tailor was so dark, in fact, that getting through it occasionally felt like the same moral slog facing its characters. It's a testament to Le Carré's writing that it felt like that infrequently, just as it's a testament to Hemingway's prose that For Whom the Bell Tolls doesn't come off as a complete romanticization of the doomed-but-noble battle. The first book was full of lovely lines in the midst of pleasingly workhorse jargon (my favorite was Smiley's description of an interrogation: one should "learn the facts, then try on the stories like clothes"); the second was the classic, bone-taut style that made its author a household name. As it's really style and quality of prose that make or break a book for me, these were both winners. I don't think I'll be reading much war fiction for a while, though. A little goes a long way, even if they're such lovingly constructed and realized narratives as these.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography