War and Peace: 100%

I really wanted to add an exclamation point to the title of this post. But with the percent sign, it may look like I’m cursing (War and Peace: 100%! — though it probably needs a hashtag and an at symbol, too, to really look like I’m cursing…War and Peace: 100%@#!)

Anyway, I don’t want to curse, I just want to shout from the rooftops: I’ve finished War and Peace!!!

It was definitely a challenge, probably the most challenging thing I’ve read via Serial Reader. (Moby Dick was tough, too, but only about 1/3 as long. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was no picnic, either, but it was mercifully short — I was done within two weeks.)

War and Peace was challenging, but ultimately worth it. It wasn’t so much the language or story that was challenging; it was processing all the human experience that is packed into that book.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. In my first post about War and Peace (War and Peace: 19%), I complained about not liking the characters and not caring about the translation.

Fast forward to now. I wound up buying a hard copy, (pictured at the top of this post), mainly because I wanted to be able to reference chapters I’d already read more handily than the Serial Reader interface allows. But it’s also a more recent translation (by Anthony Briggs), and when Tolstoy gets into really deep and heavy stuff, I found this version helpful.

And speaking of deep and heavy stuff, I can no longer say that I don’t like the characters. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily like them now, either. What I can say is that I feel like I know the characters, inside and out, especially Pierre, Andrey, and Natasha. I’m having a hard time thinking of another book I’ve read where the interior life of multiple characters was so expertly portrayed.

On balance, it feels like the past four months was a very good time for me to read War and Peace. Even though the story takes place at a time 200 years in the past, it was so immersive, so much still rings true, and there’s so much that’s transcendent; that it offered a welcome, alternative, perspective on the current state of things. An escape, if you will.

I’ve leave you with a recent photo I took that makes me think of the character Andrey. He has several epiphanies in the story — one occurs while he’s laying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, gazing at the sky. And a separate epiphany occurs as he passes an oak tree in a carriage. For an oak tree and sky — things I see and pass, literally, every day — to make me think of a character in a story…it feels notable, certainly. And maybe even a bit transcendent.

 

 

 

War and Peace: 54%

N for Napoleon? Photo by William Krause on Unsplash.

Okay, so, I can say this about Tolstoy’s War and Peace: it’s certainly immersive. And those privileged characters I found unsympathetic when I was roughly 20% through? I have a bit more sympathy for them now.

I feel like that immersion is definitely expanding my knowledge base. Right now in the novel, it’s the summer of 1812, and Napoleon has commenced his invasion of Russia. I don’t remember learning much about this in school, other than it was one of the times Russia employed a scorched-earth policy. When you grow up in New Orleans, and learn about the War of 1812, it’s about the one where the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. And inevitably, how Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans. Fought after the British has ratified a treaty ending the war. Reading about Napoleon’s campaign against the Russians, I’m getting the sense that things were pretty bad all over in 1812.

About my changing sympathies for the characters…I have to admit, I got caught up in the whole storyline of Natasha getting engaged to Prince Andrew, having to wait a year, getting impatient and almost running off with the louse Anatole. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Really engaging? For me, yes. Tolstoy had a way of capturing the inner life of his characters that is worth some attention.

And don’t get me started on the Freemasons! You’ve got Pierre, the same character who tied a bear to a policeman at the beginning of the story, becoming a Freemason. This might be the most I’ve learned about Freemasonry since the “Stonecutters” episode of The Simpsons. I have more sympathy for Pierre, now, too. The last chapter I read featuring Pierre showed him realizing he’s in love with the aforementioned Natasha (who’s in a love quadrangle?), but nothing’s happened between them yet. I get the feeling that things are going to get real messy when Napoleon starts making his way toward Moscow.

So, yeah, I guess I’m enjoying the reading experience a bit more than when I first began. I still wish War and Peace was a little shorter. 🙂

Happy 2020

The last sunrise of 2019, in New Orleans City Park.

It seems we all have a pre-programmed tendency to take stock of things, this time of year. Add to it the impending start of a brand new decade, and “taking stock” gets turbocharged.

I have just two personal reflections I’d like to share: one on the past decade, the other on the past year.

Regarding the decade: it will be forever inked in my memory as the decade I became a writer. And I mean that in the sense of finding my vocation. When I first put pen to paper, on March 27, 2010, little did I suspect the transformation that awaited me. There is something about giving my imagination a form, a shape into words, that has wholly changed me. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how I’ve changed, since there are multiple factors at work, and the cumulative effect of 10 years of living. The best way I can describe it is that I believe writing has made me both more of myself, and a better-defined version of myself.

And regarding 2019: it’s the year that reading finally resumed its rightful place in my life. I began Moby Dick on January 1, 2019, and actually finished it! (Sometime in March.) That experience, and the Serial Reader app, reawakened my appetite for reading. I read The Count of Monte Cristo, Great Expectations, the first two and a half volumes of the Wool series, and several shorter works, all digitally; and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend as an old-fashioned book. This is pretty significant for me, since I’ve always been a slow, meditative-type reader. I plan to say more about Great Expectations and The Friend in future posts; I’ll just say here that they were my two favorite reads of this past year.

I’ll conclude with this: I feel well-positioned for the next decade. In the early days of my writing, something always nagged at me. I knew if I didn’t read more, my writing would never develop in the way that I want it to, the way I want it to improve. Some of that “not reading enough” was just not being able to make the time, and some of that was a fledging writer’s concern of being unduly influenced by another’s style. I feel like I might have finally arrived at a balance.

Happy 2020, y’all.

Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

The Fourth Age

Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

I had some time to reflect this past weekend, and a phrase occurred to me: the fourth age. I applied it in very personal terms, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, the references.

The first thing that came to my mind was Tolkien. Though I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (many years ago); and I’ve seen the LOTR movies more times than I can count, I couldn’t tell you exactly what transpired in Tolkien’s “Fourth Age.” I just knew the term sounded very LOTR-ish.

The Internet tells me “the fourth age began when Sauron was vanquished and the One Ring destroyed.” Meaning the events depicted in the books (and movies) happened at the end of the third age.

But the Internet also revealed some meanings I was not aware of. There’s a book by Byron Reese that came out last year, titled The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. It appears to be about the times in human history when technology has reshaped our world. Sounds interesting enough, but it’s not what I’m getting at.

There was also a search result that stated the fourth age is “an era for the final dependence, decrepitude, and death.” Yikes. Still not what I’m aiming for, but perhaps a little closer.

No, it occurred to me that I am entering my own, personal, Fourth Age. As I look back, I can identify two, roughly three-year periods, that encapsulated major personal transformation. The first, when I was 16 to 19-years-old, the time when I left home and headed west. The next, the years from 32 to 35, when I returned home for good. If that pivot to home was the start of my Third Age, I sense I am at the end of it.

So if I am smack-dab in the middle of my shift to the Fourth Age, what do I expect it will bring? I don’t anticipate a physical move, the return to New Orleans was always intended to be permanent. But I do hope it will contain as much reading as my first 1.5 “Ages” did. I also hope it will contain more of the special type of magic I always sensed around me, as a child growing up in this magical place. I still sense it, but the obligations of adulting (sorry to use that word) can deaden that faculty.

But most of all, I intend for my Fourth Age to contain more writing than any age that preceded it. I can think of no better way to tap into that magic and share its wonder with a weary world.

Great Expectations: 4%

“As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with gray, I got up and went downstairs” — Great Expectations, Chapter 2

So, not much has slowed down since I last posted here. I’m still struggling to find the time to put the finishing touches on The Conclusion on the Causeway, and my hopes of having it ready for public consumption before the holidays are dwindling.

But — I’ve started a new book on my Serial Reader app. I found I was missing the 15 to 20 minutes I put aside each day for the specific sort of reading Serial Reader enables. That little chunk of time is like an anchor, connecting me to my writing vocation, and helping me not drift too far on the currents of my day job and other obligations.

Up ’til now, the authors I’ve read via Serial Reader (Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas, et al), were completely new to me. I’d never read any of their works before. I can’t say the same for Dickens. I remember enjoying A Tale of Two Cities when I read it in high school, and I remember really liking Sydney Carton.

I was considering David Copperfield, because it’s supposed to be a semi-autobiographical account of “a young man’s journey to becoming a successful novelist.” (I’m hoping to pick up a few tips.) But Great Expectations is about half the length of David Copperfield in Serial Reader issues. So I can reasonably expect to finish Great Expectations by the end of this year.

My way of managing my own “great expectations” into at least one goal I’ll be able to reach by year’s end.

The Book of Tea: 100%

Last week, I shared two of my favorite quotes from Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. Since that time, I’ve managed to have a few cups of Lady Grey tea. And I thought I’d wrap up my “return to tea” with more quotes that spoke to me from The Book of Tea:

  • Regarding Taoist ideas on art: “In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it.”
  • These next two, from a very long chapter all about flowers:
    • “Alas! The only flower known to have wings is the butterfly; all others stand helpless before the destroyer.”
    • “We boast that we have conquered Matter and forget that it is Matter that has enslaved us.”
  • This final quote, on the mystery of art appreciation, is perhaps my favorite: “At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognize, stand forth in new glory.”

That’s it for now!

The Book of Tea: 44%

Teapot
My beautiful, underused, teapot. A gift from my mom.

So, my latest serial on my Serial Reader app is Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, first published in 1906. It’s only six issues, so I should be finished by this weekend.

I haven’t been ready to commit to a long read since finishing The Count of Monte Cristo. In the coming weeks, I’m determined to finalize the manuscript for The Conclusion on the Causeway, the final story in the Lacey Becnel trilogy. Thus, I’ve subscribed to some shorter serials in the interim. I’m hoping to pick up a longer story in another month.

Since Monte Cristo, I’ve finished The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was a chore at 14 issues. And also “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick, which was much easier, and only seven issues.

Reading The Book of Tea is making me long for my tea-drinking days. Many years ago, I drank tea exclusively, in place of coffee. But the convenience of a cold-brewed coffee concentrate has made it my go-to caffeinated beverage. It’s easy to make iced or hot, and one container lasts me a good while.

Once the weather turns colder, I’ll have the occasional cup of tea. One of my favorites is Twinings’ Lady Grey black tea. It has a much lighter flavor than Earl Grey.

Anyway, here are some interesting tidbits from The Book of Tea so far:

  • One of the earliest ways of preparing tea was “Cake-tea.” Okakura Kakuzo has this to say about Cake-tea: “Yet the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions!” Call me crazy, but that description really makes me want to try it.
  • Second favorite quote so far: “It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”
  • Favorite quote: “Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

‘Til next time!

48 Hours in Baltimore

Water tower space ship

Or rather, the outskirts of Baltimore. Have been on the run, more or less, since Sunday. I sent off a draft of The Conclusion on the Causeway (the final story in the Lacey Becnel trilogy, and my third novel) to an editor on Sunday evening, and then caught a flight to Baltimore. Attended meetings there (for my day job) Monday and Tuesday, and just returned home last night (late).

A few quick observations:

  • The water tower pictured above is in Hanover, Maryland, and is very near to the hotel where I stayed. I like how it looks like a propped-up flying saucer. This picture was taken at sunrise; at night, it has red lights around its perimeter, and looks even more like a flying saucer.
  • I was waiting until I sent off the above-mentioned manuscript before subscribing to another serial on my Serial Reader app. I’m now reading “The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it’s a tough one. Full of dense language like: “The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.”
  • Related to bullet #2: I’ve learned Jean-Jacques Rousseau was Swiss. I was curious about this author’s provenance, because his name sounds French, and I know “The Social Contract” influenced a lot of the revolutions of that era. Including the French one.
  • Related to bullet #2, part 2: Speaking of revolutions, amidst the dense language, there is also stuff in there that seemed to influence our founding fathers. Lots of talk of unalienable rights and the common good. And “the people” as a sovereign state unto themselves. Kind of interesting to read this 250-year-old text in a spot so close to our nation’s capitol.

Finally, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from “The Social Contract” so far: “Moreover, truth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions.”

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 100%

Count of Monte Cristo 2002
I’ve never seen the 2002 movie version, a deficiency I plan to correct soon.

Well, that was an interesting read over four and half months. I just (finally) finished The Count of Monte Cristo on my Serial Reader app. While I can’t say I loved the book, I definitely feel enriched by the experience.

Here’s my two-sentence review: Edmond Dantes is a likeable character, the Count of Monte Cristo is not. The set-up for his vengeance takes up a boatload of the narrative, and the final pay-off for all that plot building is a mixed bag.

Since the book is really about two people, Edmond Dantes and the Count of Monte Cristo (okay, two sides of the same person, but, I’m going for theme, here); and I just gave a two-sentence review, I’ll attempt to keep up with the “two” lists.

The two characters I liked the best:

  • Maximilien Morrel: dashing, brave, loyal — I loved this guy. Though his mopeyness toward the end was very off-putting.
  • Abbé Faria: Witty, warm, full of faith — I like to believe he would not have been so bent on revenge, had he made it out of the Chateau d’If alive.

The two scenes I liked the best:

  • Chapter XXIV: “Dazzled” — When Edmond Dantes finds the treasure on the island of Monte Cristo.
  • Chapter LXXI: “Bread and Salt” — When the Count and Mercedes talk at her summer party.

Hmph. Don’t get me started on poor Mercedes. I really like the character, but I hate how Dumas ties up her story line. There’s a line in V for Vendetta, when Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman) says, after watching the 1934 movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo with V (played by Hugo Weaving):

Evey: …it made me feel sorry for Mercedes.

V: Why?

Evey: Because he cared more about revenge than he did about her.

Now I totally get what Evey meant.

I’m off the “two” kick now, because there are a lot of thoughts spinning around in my head, many more than two, mostly revolving around the nineteenth century world of Dumas. Slavery was legal (although not in France). Women were second class citizens. Dueling was a thing. All these things factor into the book in some way. And not as a statement, as they might if the story were written today as historical fiction. It was all just part of the story, part of the culture.

Invaluable for gaining insight into an ancestral mindset. And very troubling when regarding the legacy of that mindset.

To conclude on a more positive note, I did find the ending pretty satisfying. Of course, Monte Cristo leaves Maximilien and his betrothed, Valentine, without saying goodbye. It’s just like him to be so annoying. But he at least leaves a letter, which kinda makes up for it. I’ll leave you with that letter’s last lines:

…until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘wait’ and ‘hope’!