Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bleak House Week 4: And the nominees are . . .

In this week’s section, every character seemed to reach a personal high of either awesomeness or asshattery. So let’s do this awards-season style and announce some nominations.

Most Romantic Couple

Esther Summerson and Allen Woodcourt: Allen isn’t technically in these chapters, but Miss Flite brings news of his heroic deeds following a shipwreck in the East Indian seas. Esther expresses some pretty intense feelings of admiration and love (YES, LOVE) after receiving these tidings, and then she writes the most quietly romantic and selfless tribute to her love-affair-that-could-have-been-but-she’s-grateful-never-was-because-of-her-face:
Oh, it was so much better as it was! With a great pang mercifully spared me, I could take back to my heart my childish prayer to be all he had so brightly shown himself; and there was nothing to be undone: no chain for me to break or for him to drag; and I could go, please God, my lowly way along the path of duty, and he could go his nobler way upon its broader road; and though we were apart upon the journey, I might aspire to meet him, unselfishly, innocently, better far than he had thought me when I found some favour in his eyes, at the journey’s end.
Esther Summerson and Ada Clare: After her illness had done its number on her face, Esther walked all around the village in Chesney Wold and talked to Charley and John Jarndyce with no more than a passing twinge of sadness about her diminished looks. But when the time finally came to reveal herself to Ada, she LOST it. Overcome with the anxiety of waiting idly, she set off up the road to meet Ada’s carriage, but then she panicked and ran all the way back home, impulsively hiding behind her bedroom door . . . and then Ada was there, and they ended up in a heap on Esther’s bedroom floor, with Ada embracing and rocking her and crying and kissing her scarred face.

Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet: These two are a TREAT. First, Mrs. Bagnet tells George exactly where he can go if he is even thinking of defaulting on that loan and screwing over her trusting husband. And then Mr. Bagnet, out of her hearing, describes her various virtues to George in such sincere and halting language that I’m convinced one would be quite wise in striving to achieve a relationship just like theirs, founded on even a fraction of their implicit trust and teamwork.

Best Comedic Duo

Mr. Smallweed and Judy: This is the only nominee . . . because there’s really no competition.
Here Mr. Smallweed, wrought up to the highest pitch by his own eloquence, actually throws Judy at her grandmother in default of anything else, by butting that young virgin at the old lady with such force as he can muster and then dropping into his chair in a heap.

Most Amusing Use of a Wall

I tell you, there's a Supernatural GIF for every occasion.

Phil Squod: “Phil approaches in his usual way, sidling off at first as if he were going anywhere else and then bearing down upon his commander like a bayonet-charge.”

Mr. Jellyby: “‘He comes every evening,’ returned Caddy, ‘and is so fond of sitting in the corner there that it’s a treat to see him.’ Looking at the corner, I plainly perceived the mark of Mr. Jellyby’s head against the wall.”

Most Pitiable Wretch

Lady Dedlock: This woman. She’s spent 20-something years believing that her sweet baby died. And then she hears that the daughter she thought was dead and just learned is alive is sick with a disease that will likely kill her. And after that danger passes, she gets just one meeting with her long-lost daughter to hug her and cry over her and drop her façade of cold indifference, before she has to go back to being the honorable Lady Dedlock and never a mother to Esther forevermore, lest she disgrace her faithful husband’s most honorable name.

Richard Carstone: It was a toss-up whether Richard belonged in this category or the one below, but in the end, I’m pretty convinced that Richard sincerely believes he’s doing the only thing he can do in pursuing Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We know he had a gambling problem before, and he is now exhibiting all the signs of an addict trying to justify the continued pursuit of his self-defeating behavior.
I am young and earnest, and energy and determination have done wonders many a time. Others have only half thrown themselves into it. I devote myself to it. I make it the object of my life.
We have something to tell you, Richard:
You are not special.

Miss Flite: We learned a little bit more about the frail little woman who haunts Chancery, and her story makes Jarndyce and Jarndyce sound more like a far-reaching curse than anything has yet. Her little family was perfectly fine until her father was drawn into the suit and died in a debtor’s prison, her brother was drawn into the suit and died a drunk, and her sister was drawn into the suit and apparently ended up doing something worse than both of those things because we're forbidden to speak of it. And now it’s Miss Flite’s turn, and who knows what her end might be, but it will likely involve dead birds in cages.

Most Shameful Excuse for a Man That Ever Was

William Guppy: This cowardly son of a baboon in ribbons. After prostrating himself before Esther in what he claimed was helpless love for her and complaining to anyone who would listen about how she broke his heart and he could never be happy again, all it takes to expose that as a damn-dirty lie is for Esther to lift her veil and show him her scarred face. He barely fell short of making her sign a statement confirming that there was never an official engagement between them and such an offer could never be renewed . . . because of reasons. But he is devoting himself to finding and destroying that packet of letters that would serve as solid evidence of Esther's parentage. Credit where credit is due.

Effing Harold Skimpole: It can be argued that Skimpole hit his all-time character low when he suggested that Esther and Jarndyce throw a critically ill Jo back into the cold, cruel world. His current damaging influence on Richard is much more subtle and all the more insidious for it. And as much as he claims to have no responsibility for anyone, least of all himself, Esther has straight-up told him, “Look. Richard is heading for ruin and you are helping him to his destination sooner. THIS IS ON YOU.” He can’t claim ignorance after having it told him so plainly, but he insists on enabling Richard’s doomed course. If he is, in fact, a child, he should be grounded indefinitely—in a prison.

So those are the nominations, and I'm not picking any winners.

Also, I may have found the official GIF of the Bleakalong.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Rosie Project: It's like Bringing Up Baby...if Baby were an absentee father

Don Tillman is a tall, fit, intelligent 39-year-old associate professor and expert geneticist . . . and he is looking for a wife. He has exactly two friends: Gene, who is on a mission to sleep with a woman from every country in the world (he has a wall map; the wall map has pins), and his wife Claudia, who is not entirely pleased with Gene's enthusiastic pursuit of this lofty goal.

Social interactions are not Don's strong suit. He regularly misjudges the situation and almost always says or does the wrong thing. But he throws himself fearlessly into whatever he thinks the situations calls for, and we love him for that.

“I took her in the standard jive hold
that I had practised on the skeleton..."

He eats according to a Standardized Meal Plan (the same seven meals every week) and follows a strict schedule, and between work and practicing aikido and cleaning the bathroom he doesn’t have much time to meet women. Claudia sets him up, but despite Don’s enthusiasm (or because of it), the dates don't go well. Don just can’t make himself care about the same things other people care about.
“In evaluating Elizabeth’s suitability as a potential partner—someone to provide intellectual stimulation, to share activities with, perhaps even to breed with—Claudia’s first concern was my reaction to her choice of glasses frames. . . . This is the world I have to live in.”
So he decides to take matters into his own hands and designs a no-nonsense compatibility questionnaire that will quickly eliminate unsuitable matches and reveal the woman who should logically be his wife—the one who answers every question exactly right. SCIENCE.

But then Rosie, a free-spirited "barmaid" who defies every item on The Wife Project questionnaire, walks into Don’s office.

Rosie's arrival sets in motion a series of events that revolve around the search for her unknown biological father, a task for which Don is unusually qualified. Needless to say, she completely upsets his schedule of activities . . . and also deepens his relationship with alcohol.

As far as my personal commentary goes, let me first say that I wasted a good portion of this book picturing Don as Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory when I should have been picturing Cary Grant (the author said so, but then he hid it all the way back in the acknowledgments like an ass). Never miss an opportunity to picture Cary Grant, is what I say.

But the Sheldon connection is a natural one, because Don’s voice as he narrates could be that of a highly intelligent space alien trying to master the art of natural human behavior. And his missteps and misconceptions in this area are the main source of humor in the book.
“I realized that I had behaved in stereotypical male fashion, drinking beer in a bar, watching television, and talking about sports. It is generally known that women have a negative attitude to such behavior. I asked Rosie if I had offended her.” 
Thanks to Emily, from As the Crowe Flies and Reads, for being the first domino in what is sure to be a long line of recommendations for this book.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Bleak House Week 3: I’m too upset to talk about Jo.

This week was basically commandeered by Mr. George. “Bah,” I hear you all saying. “Mr. George’s chapters are booooooring.” WRONG. No scene is boring when there’s a Mr. George in it. I'm entertained when he’s begging Esther “not to desert him” as Miss Flite tugs him away by the arm; when he’s reminiscing with Phil Squod about their meet-cute (“I remember, Phil. You were walking along in the sun.”); when he’s pulling the elder Smallweed up by his shirt and giving him a good jostle; when he’s waking Tulkinghorn up to tell him, no he won’t be participating in this shady business with Captain Hawdon’s letters, good DAY, sir.

And it seems Judy Smallweed also has a bit of a crush on George, and her grandfather embarrassed her by announcing that she couldn’t be kept away because she so longed to see him. But Smallweed broke the first rule of being a helpless old coot: Don't piss off the person on whom you depend to keep you upright in your chair.
Mr. George is quite confounded by the spectacle he beholds from time to time as he peeps into the cab through the window behind him, where the grim Judy is always motionless, and the old gentleman with his cap over one eye is always sliding off the seat into the straw and looking upward at him out of his other eye with a helpless expression of being jolted in the back.
I'm relieved that Caddy is successfully married and I can stop raging at Mrs. Jellyby to care about her daughter. But I worry about the children (even though Peepy is the only one worth mentioning, apparently), and Mr. Jellyby's mental health is in further danger now that Caddy is gone. Maybe he'll meet Phil Squod soon, and they can bond over their shared fondness for touching walls.

President and vice president of the
Wall Appreciation Society.

I know we all hate Guppy, but whatever else he is, the guy is a pretty good detective. While Tulkinghorn is still looking for a sample of Captain Hawdon’s writing, Guppy is in Lady D’s private chamber telling her how it is. And did it seem as though Lady D was proud of Esther when Guppy said she turned him down? If so, she felt a connection to Esther even before she knew Esther was her daughter. Perhaps because THEY HAVE THE SAME FACE. Even Mr. George noticed that, and he’s “one of the roughs.”

About Esther’s face. Alice and I talked a little yesterday about how Esther must be pretty, because everyone is always remarking on Lady D’s stunning beauty and we’re supposed to believe that Esther is the spitting image of her. But has anyone else been picturing Esther as sort of . . . plain this whole time? We obviously can’t trust her to provide an accurate description of herself, so we have to look at what other people say about her. And other people have been dropping hints that she’s quite as stunning as Ada. This could go along with the theory that Dickens wanted to improve on Jane Eyre. He may have thought that plainness and virtue shouldn’t go together and so made his heroine a virtuous beauty instead. And I guess now she’s blind? And all the more virtuous and beautiful for it, I’m sure.

My suspicions about Guppy and Jobling were correct. They are plotting to relieve Krook of the bundle of letters he took from Nemo/Hawdon’s bag. Which is why I don’t feel bad for Jobling when Snagsby wanders up and inadvertently freaks him the hell out.

It’s a wonder you can stand to sleep in the same room where that young man died so gruesomely. Let me tell you just how gruesome it was, since you were spared the sight of it. And isn’t it curious that he was living there and law-writing for me and now you’re living there and law-writing for me? It’s almost like a dark fate connects you to him. Well, anyway. SWEET DREAMS.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bleak House Week 2: So far, this puzzle is mostly corner pieces.

We're not anywhere near getting a full picture at this point, but there have been definite developments.

Lady Dedlock continues to be a difficult woman to entertain. Most recently, she showed that she is also hilariously bad at undercover work (“I am but a lowly servant woman. DON’T TOUCH ME, PEASANT.”)

Richard has his hands full sorting out what he wants to be when he grows up.

We've ruled out priest and surgeon,
but little black rain cloud is still a viable option.

And what of our dear Esther? As practical as she is in the matters of the Jarndyce household and other people’s lives in general, she can’t seem to afford herself the same no-nonsense treatment everyone else gets. Guppy is stalking her. Brazenly. And yet she says, “It was at the theatre that I began to be made uncomfortable again by Mr. Guppy.” Never has there been a more telling use of passive voice. Repeat after me, Esther: Guppy is making me uncomfortable.

She still seems to be in love with Ada (“It was so pretty to have her clinging to me in that way . . . that I would not help her just yet”; “To see Ada lift up her flushed face in joyful surprise, and hold me round the neck, and laugh, and cry, and blush, was so pleasant!”), but now Mr. Woodcourt, the young dark surgeon (who I think is the same young dark surgeon present at Nemo’s death scene) has entered the picture. I'm not sure how Esther feels about him. She gets a bit squirrelly on the subject of Woodcourt, talking out of the corner of her mouth about his participation in the events of her narrative, if she talks about him at all.

Dickens is providing plenty of commentary on the disparity between the upper and lower classes, but along with that, he seems to be showing us that children are the most vulnerable casualties of this system, even below unattached women. Just look at Tom and Charley.
It was the first time since our entry that a tear had been shed among these children. The little orphan girl had spoken of their father and their mother as if all that sorrow were subdued by the necessity of taking courage, and by her childish importance in being able to work, and by her bustling busy way. But now, when Tom cried, although she sat quite tranquil, looking quietly at us, and did not by any movement disturb a hair of the head of either of her little charges, I saw two silent tears fall down her face.
Not crying. Not . . . crying.

And then there’s Jo, who is even more alone in the world than Tom and Charley, because he doesn’t have a Tom or a Charley. And he is further victimized by his keen awareness that society considers him more an animal than a human, and also that he quite agrees with that judgment in the end. But what can he do to improve his standing? Nothing whatsoever, because the system is stacked against him. Even when he’s given money—the great equalizer—the more powerful rob him of it in one way and another, and then nobody believes his story about how he obtained the little he has left. He cannot win.

In other developments . . .
  • My fondness for Boythorn grows, helped along by his outspoken distaste for one Harold Skimpole and one Harold Skimpole’s continued lack of principle, and sealed by his extreme commitment to this dispute with Sir Leicester. The man posted cheeky “No Trespassing” signs and set up an elaborate bell-and-bulldog attack plan. He’s my hero.
  • I think that Mrs. Chadband is Mrs. Rachael Chadband. This gives me hope that we may yet see her get her comeuppance for being an evil hag to little Esther. Regardless, she’s married to Mr. Chadband, so her suffering has just begun.
  • Guppy and Smallweed are up to no good. I don’t know exactly what they’re up to just yet, but they’ve put Mr. Jobling in Krook’s open room and connected him with work law-writing for Snagsby and introduced him to Krook by a made-up name (Mr. Weevle? At least let the man choose his own alias). It feels as though Nemo’s mysterious history may be repeating itself with a new mark. And Guppy may be even worse than he already seems.

We can ALL see your bad-guy costume under that top hat.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Goldfinch (and the Crow): "Sometimes it's about playing a poor hand well."

It’s a funny thing about this book. Despite several people I know and trust speaking well of it, I couldn’t muster much excitement to read it, and the length was an extra deterrent there (who writes an 800-page non-fantasy book nowadays, I mean really?). But I’ve found that waiting on the library hold list for several months is pretty good incentive to read just about anything.

And I’m glad I read it. The writing is gorgeous. The descriptions are often heartbreaking, and the prose is impeccable without seeming to try. I didn’t take any notes. I wasn’t reading critically or looking for themes or seizing on any particularly gorgeous turns of phrase. I just wallowed in it. And as a direct result of that immersive reading experience, when the guest speaker at church a couple of weeks ago was talking about pain and how we will generally do just about anything to avoid it, instead of scrutinizing my own dealings with pain, I thought about Theo.

Oh, was I . . . supposed to be examining
my OWN heart just then?

Theo is just 13 years old when his mother is killed in a museum bombing. He escapes with minor injuries, but in his disorientation from the effects of the bomb and because of some other reasons, he picks up a petite painting called The Goldfinch (one of his mother’s favorites) and leaves the museum with it unnoticed. The book is essentially, and quite simply, about how he deals after that—with the loss of the most important relationship in his young life, with his guilt over being the reason they were in the museum that day, with his anxiety about possessing a piece of stolen art (and, coincidentally, being the stealer of that art), with forming new relationships, with growing up in general. Basically, it’s a struggle for Theo from then on out.

Probably just about anyone who reads this book will come away with a different idea of what its pivotal theme is, and that's one of the reasons it deserves all the praise it gets. For me, The Goldfinch is about pain. Even the minor characters are defined by their struggle, and the story is in how they each choose to respond to their own special brand of pain. Some characters run “head first and laughing into the holy rage calling [their] name” (Boris); others will do just about anything to escape it (Theo).

And maybe it’s a bit dense of me to be realizing this just now, because this:
That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.
And all this talk of pain makes me think of an altogether different bird.

I came of age in the ’90s, so OBVIOUSLY I had seen the movie adaptation of James O’Barr’s The Crow, starring Brandon Lee. And it was with the background of that movie and its lead actor’s tragic, on-set death that I picked up the graphic novel on which it was based.

Lightning synopsis: Eric Draven and his fiancée, Shelly, are accosted on the road by a group of meth heads who, because they are senseless people who commit senseless crimes, shoot Eric multiple times (including in the head at such close range that his hair catches fire) and then repeatedly rape and murder Shelly. Eric is allowed to come back from the dead and take his vengeance, one by one, on the miscreants who murdered him and his one true love. It's a simple supernatural revenge story. Short and bittersweet.

And tragically HANDSOME.

And this is a bit of the introduction to the graphic novel:
James did this book because he died inside. But found he was still breathing. The Crow comes from some lonely void far beyond pain, sorrow, and words. This book you are holding was a place for James to put all the rage and anger he felt at having someone he loved torn away . . . and it is an attempt to find order and justice where there is none . . . for some things there is no forgiveness . . . absolutely none. That hard fact is impossible to learn to live with. The event—the split second of time that brought you to this lonely place—cannot be forgiven. No matter how inevitable it was. It took away the future and it ended everything. Except for this: the emotional inertia of a relationship. That is forever and it is all that you have left. Learn to live with that. Influence it. Access it.
And that’s kind of exactly what Theo had to do. I’m not saying Theo is Eric Draven . . . but they both have a bird fixation and I’ve never seen them in the same room together. Have you?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Bleak House Week 1: PHENOMENAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. Itty-bitty plot line.

**Declaration of Intent to Readalong: This post is part of a group read of Bleak House, hosted by Alice at Reading Rambo. If you are not currently or have not previously read this book, the words that follow will make no sense to you. I'm not giving you a synopsis. I'm not your mother. Alternatively, you can join the readalong and then we all win.**

Somehow, in 166 pages of book and very little in the way of actual plot, Dickens has said so VERY much. And I have taken several pages of scribbly notes.

Hosted by Alice, not Cecil Baldwin.
Let’s talk about Esther first, just in case I run out of time and space and will to live before I get to anything else.

She had a rough go of it in the beginning, with that godmother who kept reminding her it would be better if she were never born. (“Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers. . . . I have forgiven her the wrong she did to me, and I say no more of it, though it was greater than you will ever know—than any one will ever know but I, the sufferer.” I do not think forgiveness means what you think it means, m'lady.)

As a result of which Esther’s only friend is her doll, and we are made very sad by this (especially when she inexplicably decides to bury her only friend in the garden-earth).

When her godmother dies, her situation immeasurably improves in the capable hands of her benefactor, one John Jarndyce. But the damage to her psyche seems pretty well done, because she insists on being persistently self-deprecating.

A sampling of scenarios in which I fantasize about giving Esther firm guidance:
  • Rachael, a servant who essentially watched Esther grow up, shows no emotion when Esther is about to leave, never to return. And Esther blames herself for not being a better little girl so that Rachael would love her more and thus be sad to see her go. “I felt so miserable and self-reproachful that I clung to her and told her it was my fault, I knew, that she could say good-bye so easily!” NO, ESTHER. Rachael is dead inside.
And this is how mean Rachaels
should be dealt with.
  •  Esther leaves the school where, for 6 quiet years, she has been teaching and learning and soaking up the never-before-experienced adoration and appreciation of others. And she cries about it. And she scolds herself for crying about it. LET YOURSELF CRY, ESTHER. Crying feels nice.
  • “I don’t know how it is that I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say, ‘Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t!’ but it is all of no use.” YOU ARE THE FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR, ESTHER. It's OK to first-person narrate.
  • When Harold Skimpole (effing Harold Skimpole) is ever so subtly asking Esther and Richard to pay his debt for him so he won't be carted away by the lawman: “It was a most singular thing that the arrest was our embarrassment and not Mr. Skimpole’s. He observed us with a genial interest, but there seemed, if I may venture on such a contradiction, nothing selfish in it. He had entirely washed his hands of the difficulty, and it had become ours.” BECAUSE HE IS PLAYING YOU LIKE A FIDDLE, ESTHER.
  • When she first meets Ada and Ada actually wants to talk to her: “What a load off my mind! It was so delightful to know that she could confide in me and like me! It was so good of her, and so encouraging to me!” MAYBE YOU ARE JUST A DESIRABLE CONVERSATIONAL PARTNER, ESTHER.

Speaking of Ada . . . we’re all in agreement that Esther is in love with her, yeah? Poor Richard. He and Walter Hartright from The Woman in White should form a support group for men who marry the women they love but also have to be OK with the women who also love their wives hanging around all the time. Because I get the sense that Richard and Ada will get married and Esther will go ahead and move in with them.

Or not? Depending on one's outlook.

There is TONS of subtext to support Esther's interest in Ada, but I’m relying on Alice to address it in depth, with evidence from scholarly sources. I will just say that when Esther is retelling the instance of her first meeting with Ada and Richard, it goes a little something like this:
There was a young lady whose hair shone like spun gold and the fire's glow fell upon her angelic face, which was innocent and trusting. And her blue eyes. OMG . . . her blue eyes. And she nestled with me in the window seat and captivated me completely, and I can’t believe my luck that she would deign to converse with such a lowly creature as I. And, oh yeah, Richard Carstone was there, too. He was handsome and nice.
And now a cursory discussion of Things That Are Not Esther.

This is the first Dickens I’ve read that was not one of those illustrated children’s editions (also how I read Moby Dick, which I realize possibly doesn’t count). So I’m realizing that he’s a ridiculously good writer? He knows how to use the words and put them together to make the nice sentences. I’m thoroughly impressed by the level of detail he packs into every page. And, yeah, not much of anything has really happened (there’s a never-ending lawsuit and Lady Dedlock recognized someone’s handwriting and was UPSET about it and a law-writer named Nemo has overdosed on opium the end), but his characters are an event in themselves.

There's Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle (and their poor husbands and children—the Pardiggle children being much less sympathetic than the Jellyby children on the whole, I would say). And Harold Skimpole, who is essentially a freeloader who had a ton of children and then abandoned them and continues to get into debt and ask other people to get him out of it, but it’s OK because he’s no more than a child himself (NO IT IS NOT OK, although I do enjoy his opinions on bees).

And then there’s John Jarndyce, with his tendency to feel the effects of an east wind whenever someone brings up something he would rather not talk about. He seems perfectly lovely, but I’m not sure I agree with his being the source of Esther’s weirdly insulting nicknames (Old Woman, Little Old Woman, Cobweb, Mother Hubbard . . . the poor woman is, like, 20 years old and already has record-low self-esteem). And most recently, we met Mr. Boythorn, whom I’m inclined to like for many reasons, not least of which being his hilarious feud with Leicester Dedlock over who owns a dirt path. But that canary. The way he trained it and has it eating out of his hand . . . it reminds me of another large man who enjoyed tiny animals and ended up being the most dastardly of villains.

Remember Count Fosco and how he looked like this
when he was being a badger?