Thursday, September 30, 2010

Somebody's throwing stuff.

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Pages read: 243 - 360

After they leave Saruman stewing in his tower, Wormtongue throws a palantir at Gandalf. A palantir is basically a crystal ball, when it comes down to it, that has a mental and visual connection to Sauron. Pippin, like an idiot, sneaks off with it in the night because he thinks it's cool, and ends up face-to-face with Sauron himself, via the palantir. Nothing terrible comes of it, other than the fact that Sauron seems to mistake Pippin for the ring-bearer, and so marks him for pursuit. Gandalf takes Pippin off to Minas Tirith to try to convince Denethor, steward of Gondor, to help the war effort, while the rest of the heroes hang around Edoras.

Sam and Frodo, during all this time, have been making their way toward Mordor. Gollum follows them for a while, and they eventually catch him and force him to promise to lead them to the Black Gate of Mordor. He agrees, but is clearly untrustworthy and completely insane. They trudge around for a while and finally come to the Black Gate, where it's instantly clear that they'll never be able to enter Mordor that way. Gollum promises to show them another route, and they backtrack through Ithilien, a nearby part of Gondor. There they meet Faramir, Boromir's brother, who tells them of Boromir's death and, eventually, reveals that he knows about the Ring. Faramir decides he has to take the hobbits back to Minas Tirith, because the power of the Ring can't be left to fate in the wilderness.

Wow, so, new levels of boring in this part. (I say that, but honestly, is it more boring than F. Scott Fitzgerald's rich people whining about the meaninglessness of their lives and falling into decadence and debauchery? Not really.) I don't know why, for the life of me, Tolkien didn't alternate chapters between Sam and Frodo and the other group of adventurers. Maybe it was because he was already skipping back and forth between Merry and Pippin and Aragorn et al.? Trust me, though, Tolkien, I could have handled it. The way it is, however, there's just eons of Sam and Frodo struggling through the Dead Marshes and arguing with Gollum. It's pretty annoying. Gollum's writing is decent, though. The films are a lot closer to the books that I would have given them credit for with Gollum. The way Tolkien presents him as having developed multiple personalities is pretty clever; I'd actually go so far as to call it well done.

I'm going to go ahead and take this moment to apologize for all the inadvertent mistakes I'm making with terminology and names, also. I'm sure I'm screwing up a bunch of stuff, and that those of you who have read these a million times are like, "Christ. Get it right." Some of it's rather confusing, though, and I never want to refer to the map in the front because I'm lazy. (Lazy and on the elliptical. Which is a bit of a contradiction, really.) For example, I'm unclear on the difference between Orthanc and Isengard. Orthanc is the tower at the center of Isengard, yes? And Isengard is what, exactly? The fortress around it? The lands around it? Any land touching the river Isen? I'm just saying; this stuff is pretty unclear, and Tolkien doesn't try very hard to help you out with it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Now for ruin

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Pages read: 143 - 243

The ents go medieval on Isengard and win handily, trapping Saruman in his tower at the center. Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn find Theoden bewitched into poor decision-making by Saruman's servant, Grima Wormtongue. Gandalf breaks the spell on Theoden and convinces him to go to war against Saruman and his army of orcs. The Rohirrim ride out against Saruman, and after holing up in their fortress at Helm's Deep, are victorious. They have the aid of Gandalf and a huge wood full of trees sent by the ents near the end, and all the orcs are killed or driven off. Afterward, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, and Theoden go to Isengard to find out its fate. They meet Merry and Pippin there, along with Treebeard, and try to reason Saruman into joining the side of good, but he will not.

No time for analysis tonight, but the battle wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be. I often have this problem with written descriptions of combat, though, so I don't necessarily think it's Tolkien's fault. This time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What news from the Riddermark?

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Pages read: 17 - 143

Wow, so when Tolkien starts where he leaves off, he really starts where he leaves off. The first sentence of this book just keeps going exactly where the last book ended. There was a little synopsis first, in case you forgot anything, but still.

Anyway, so, while Sam and Frodo are leaving, everyone else is fighting the orcs that have just come pouring into the woods. Boromir tries to defend Merry and Pippin, but there are too many enemies, and he's eventually killed. The orcs tie Merry and Pippin up and carry them off. Aragorn finds the dying Boromir, swears to him that Minas Tirith won't fall, and then meets Legolas and Gimli. Together they decide to pursue the orcs and try to rescue the hobbits. They follow the orcs cross-country for three days, all the way to a place called the Riddermark (which, I have to say, I did not realize had that second R in it, because you can't hear that when it's spoken aloud by actors with pseudo-English accents), but fail to catch up to them. Eventually, though, the meet the Rohirrim, the horsemen of Rohan (a kingdom of men) who tell them that they've killed all the orcs and there were no hobbits with them.

Merry and Pippin, meanwhile, escape the orcs and flee into the nearby Fangorn Forest. There they meet Treebeard, an ent (which is like a big walking tree guy, pretty much) who listens to their tales of the war and decides that he and his fellow ents should have a meeting to discuss their involvement in the war. They do, and decide that Saruman, who has burned a lot of the forest, should be stopped. They set off to destroy Isengard, his fortress-tower.

Back on the Riddermark, Aragorn finds the tracks of the hobbits and the three heroes follow them into the forest. There they meet Gandalf, by whose appearance they are all astonished, of course, since he was supposed to have fallen into the black abyss of Moria. He tells them how he fought the balrog and won, but has clearly gone through something of a transformative experience. He seems sort of ethereal and disconnected at this point. Together, all four of them head to Edoras, the capital of Rohan, to see Theoden, the king.

You know, I have to say that this isn't nearly as mind-numbingly boring as I remember from the first time I tried to read it. I have a couple of theories about that: one, I'm reading it faster because I know what happens; two, I'm reading it faster because I'm on the elliptical machine at the same time; three, it reads a lot better the second time through; and four, all of the above. I honestly think a lot of it is that it reads a lot better when you're already familiar with the world. Tolkien was so wrapped up in the mythos of the place that he'd been inventing for years that I think he forgot that the rest of us wouldn't be so familiar with it. The first time I tried to read these I had an overwhelming feeling of missing a great deal of information. Coupled with the feeling that I was also getting too much information, it was pretty off-putting. It's as though I was supposed to a member of the society of Middle-Earth who was reading the story, but I wasn't, so I was left feeling like I was reading a mythology in translation and missing a bunch of culturally-dependent information.

Ents, though - gotta love 'em. There are a bunch of cool things in here, really. They just don't always string together that well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Way to get yourself killed.

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Pages read: 432 - 527 (end of the first book)

After they get out of the mines of Moria, they head to Lothlorien (No, I'm not doing accents for anything in here. It was bad enough for the German guy's name in Sophie's Choice, and Tolkien will just have to forgive me.), an elvish territory that consists of tree-constructions. (Cities in the trees are pretty much just always cool. In case you were taking notes on what I think is cool.) So, anyway, they get there, and the queen of the elves, Galadriel, greets them and gives them leave to stay for a while and rest (which is fairly unprecedented, especially for Gimli, since the elves and dwarves have been on unfriendly terms for a couple of hundred years), as well as to inform Lothlorien of the events surrounding the Ring and the Fellowship. In the evening, Galadriel talks with Frodo and Sam and allows them to look into the elves' magical scrying pool. They see disturbing scenes of trouble and destruction in both the Shire and the rest of Middle-Earth. Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring, but she refuses, saying that its power is too great even for her. Eventually, the whole party leaves the elves, determined to continue on their journey, and Galadriel gives them all magical gifts.

After leaving Lothlorien, they travel by boat further toward Mordor, where Sauron waits, and Minas Tirith, one of the strongholds of men. Boromir and Aragorn had originally intended to split off and go to Minas Tirith together, but now that Gandalf is gone, Aragorn says he must stay with the rest of them. Before they can really make headway, however, Boromir, overcome by the enormous power of the Ring, gets Frodo alone and tries to take it from him. He doesn't succeed, but Frodo realizes that he can't stay with the others and sets out on his own. Sam chases after him and manages to convince Frodo to take him along. The two set off together, leaving the rest of the party behind.

And that's the end of the Fellowship, both book and group of people. This part is not terribly exciting, since there is a lot of discussion of various elf things, but not a whole lot of action. Lothlorien is clearly very cool, though, and I like Galadriel. She has considerably more character than a lot of the others (which is funny, really, since she's fairly minor), most notably because she's tempted by the Ring and realizes the devastation it could wreak upon both her soul and her people if she were to take it up, even in the name of good.

On a more whiny note, I was annoyed by a moment that occurs right after they leave the mines of Moria, when Aragorn looks back toward the mines as if in mourning for Gandalf. They've just come out from where Gandalf has been dragged into the black abyss, and Aragorn turns around and goes, "Farewell Gandalf! Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true." I mean, I know what we're going for there, which is that Aragorn is regretful about the outcome of the situation, but it pretty much sounds like saying "I told you so" to a dead guy. Not particularly inspiring.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Too greedily and too deep.

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Pages read: 336 - 431

At the Council of Elrond we also get to hear about what happened to Gandalf. He met Aragorn, who'd found Gollum for him, and they interrogated Gollum about the Ring for a while and then threw him in prison to be guarded by the elves. Afterward, Gandalf went to Saruman, a leader among the wizards and a supposed ally, to ask for help. Saruman had turned traitor, however, and tried to get Gandalf to join him, then imprisoned him atop a tall tower when he refused. Luckily, Gandalf's giant eagle friend came to save him. (Because who doesn't love a giant eagle?) Anyway, we also find out during the Council that the elves let Gollum escape, and that the Ring must be destroyed or Middle-Earth may soon be annihilated. The group decides to send Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir (leader of the men of Gondor), Legolas (the elf who came to report about Gollum), and Gimli (a dwarf warrior and son of the dwarf leader) to take the Ring to Mordor and destroy it in the only place it can be destroyed - Mount Doom, where it was forged, and which is also pretty much the dead center of Sauron's domain. (Best mission ever. Woo!)

They spend a long time preparing, and eventually set out, first trying a dangerous road through the mountains, but getting turned back by storms sent by forces in league with Saruman. They therefore must go through the mines of Moria, a long-abandoned dwarf stronghold that has been overrun by evil orcs and other monsters. They make it quite a long way without trouble, but are, in the end, beset by orcs. They fight the orcs off and run, but, when they're almost free, meet a balrog, which is a sort of fiery-demon guy. Gandalf uses his magic to save them, but in so doing is dragged down into a gaping abyss by the balrog. The rest of the companions escape the mines and carry on.

Once the Council of Elrond was over, this part is fairly exciting, too. They spend kind of a long time traipsing around the countryside, but the part in the mines is pretty great. There's a lot to capture the imagination there; the idea of a huge underground city, carved and embellished and long-ago populated by a whole race of people is just cool. So that was nice. Having seen the movie, I had a really good idea of what a balrog should look like, which turned out to be helpful, since Tolkien's description was obnoxiously amorphous. All he said was that it was shadow and smoke and it might have a man-shape. But then, afterward, he talked about a bunch of details, like the fact that it had a fiery mane, and fire came from its nostrils, and I couldn't help but remark on the fact that we hadn't gotten enough description of its frame to place the details of a mane and nostrils upon. I was annoyed.

On another note, I'm sure I'm completely unoriginal here, but it struck me for the first time that this book is clearly a product of immediately-post-World-War-II society. I mean, really - a great evil rises from nowhere that threatens to engulf the world, and those who have never before banded together must fight it or be overwhelmed? You could say that that's any war, but Hitler represented a new kind of uncontrollable darkness that Sauron strongly echoes. I want to parallel the French with the elves, the English with the dwarves, and the men of the West with Russia, too, which leaves Aragorn as the American savior figure, but honestly, I'm probably getting too literal with all that. Still. It's an interesting way to look at it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Deep roots are not reached by the frost

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Pages read: 230 - 336

Gandalf's message says that the hobbits are in more danger than he'd thought and that they need to be on their guard as much as possible. It also tells them that Strider is a friend, that his real name is Aragorn, and to trust him. They do, and, on his advice, don't go back to their bedrooms that night, but sleep in the common room. It's a good plan, which is made clear by the fact that their beds are torn apart and slashed when they check in the morning. They set off as quickly as possible for Rivendell. The road is difficult and treacherous, but they make headway until they get to Weathertop, a high hill with a good view. It's here that the Black Riders catch them. Frodo, entranced in some way by their magic, puts on the Ring (I feel like I should be capitalizing it now, so I guess I will.) and sees the Riders' true forms - ghost-like spirits with crowns - but is also made visible to them. One of them stabs him in the shoulder with a poisoned, enchanted blade, but he calls out in Elvish and his sacred words scare them off.

Frodo is made very ill by his wound, and Strider tries his best to move them along to Rivendell as quickly as possible so that the elves can treat Frodo's injury. Luckily, an elf called Glorfindel has ridden out to meet them, and he leads the party quickly toward Rivendell. Before they can reach it, however, the Black Riders catch up to them. Glorfindel puts Frodo on his magically swift and nimble elf-horse and sends him on ahead, and Frodo makes it across the river that serves as Rivendell's border. There he is protected by elf-magic, and so is safe.

Frodo wakes him days later in the luxurious and comforting guest houses of Rivendell, where he, Sam, Merry, and Pippin rejoice to find themselves whole and well fed. Eventually, they discover that Bilbo is also there, as well as Gandalf. Many others have gathered in Rivendell, too, to discuss the problems of the encroaching darkness and what's to be done about it, and together they hold the Council of Elrond. There, Elrond, a super-ancient elf (seriously - so old), recounts the history of the Ring, and we learn that Sauron forged it to control the world and that it is the seat of all of his powers, but that it was cut from his finger at the last moment of a great battle. Unfortunately, Isildur, then king of men, chose to keep it rather than destroying it. It has passed from hand to hand ever since.

The action in this part was really quite exciting. The Riders attacking the inn in the dark and the subsequent flight of the hobbits was engaging, as was the attack on Weathertop and their race to Rivendell with the Riders in hot pursuit. The Council of Elrond is kind of boring, but at this point, we probably actually need the back-story, so it's not terrible. There's too much of it, especially since we get the stories of most of the participants in addition to that of the ring, but it's serving as necessary, though overdone, exposition. The dialogue is kind of an issue, though - and, again, I'm coming back to seriousness as a problem with it. There's just some kind of quality to it that makes it sound so stilted. I feel like I'm not really hearing the voices of any of the characters. Strider and the hobbits are the biggest problem - Gandalf is a little better, and Bilbo quite good, but nobody else seems to have any discernible character. They seem like constructions rather than people. And sure, you can argue that they are constructions, not people, but in good books characters don't come across that way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So, you're sitting around in a tavern...

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Pages read: 124 - 230

After the elves leave, Frodo and his friends try to get to Buckland, where Frodo's new house is, as quickly as possible. They get a bit of help from Farmer Maggot (Seriously, Tolkien? Maggot? Who does that?), who warns them that the Black Riders have been asking for Frodo by name, and then gives them a ride to a nearby ferry. They make it to the house, where they meet up with Peregine (Pippin) Took. (I think. I might have gotten Merry and Pippin switched around in this bit. Honestly, it really doesn't matter at this point, since neither of them have achieved any character development.) Sam, Merry, and Pippin get together and tell Frodo that they've known his plans to take the ring to the elves all along, and that they all intend to accompany him on his dangerous journey. He is appropriately grateful, and they all agree to spend one night at the house and leave the next morning for Rivendell.

Frodo and his friends decide to take the cross-country route to Bree, their first stop along the way, so as to avoid the Black Riders on the road. Unfortunately, their path takes them through a dangerous forest in which the trees are hostile, and they end up being attacked. Tom Bombadil, some sort of immortal forest overseer, rescues them, and, after feeding them and letting them rest, gets them out of the forest and sends them on their way. They run into trouble soon after, however, when they're enthralled by wights (which are undead guys of some kind, though it's unclear) and trapped underground by magic. Luckily, Frodo keeps his wits and calls Tom Bombadil for help. He saves them once again and, once again, sends them on their way. This time they make it to town and find lodgings at an inn, The Prancing Pony. There they meet a man called Strider, who has a reputation for being a wanderer and at first seems threatening. Soon it becomes clear that though he is ominous, he means well, and he offers to be their guide and to try to protect them from the Black Riders. At the inn, they also discover that Gandalf left a message for Frodo three months since, and that is why he has not met them as promised.

That's where I stopped, so I don't know the contents of the message yet, though I'd predict dire warnings, most likely. You know, I'm struck at how serious everything is right from the get-go. I mean, I know it's the One Ring, and it could lead to the destruction of all Middle-Earth and everything, but at the beginning of a journey, it seems as though it would be hard to foretell all the dangers and hardships that it's going to entail. Yet there's all this rather clumsy foreshadowing, in which Tolkien has the characters say that they feel that there's great evil and darkness ahead, and that kind of stuff. It would create a better contrast to what's going to happen later if the hobbits were more happy-go-lucky in this part, more excited by the prospect of travel and adventure. Instead, we're set up for the great conflict and drama, and the poignancy of what could have been is lost.

Also, Tom Bombadil annoys the hell out of me. He shouldn't even be in the book. Bascially, Tolkien creates not one, but two dangerous situations that the hobbits cannot extract themselves from and then uses Tom Bombadil as deus ex machina in each of them. Why? I only assume it's because he created the character and he couldn't bear not to include him in the story, regardless of the fact that he is not only completely unnecessary, but results in the use of an extremely clumsy literary device. (Deus ex machina is poor form, in my opinion.) Also, he talks largely in rhyming couplets, and it's obnoxious.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Concerning Tolkien

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Pages read: 20 - 124

Just to clarify the title part up there, the list counts these three books as one book, which, considering their content, is fair, but I thought I'd differentiate my post titles so that you could tell I was actually making progress. Full disclosure on LotR: I have read one-and-a-half of them before, and that's as far as I got. I have seen the movies...a lot of times. So I know what happens and am inclined to be gentle toward these books because I love their film incarnations. That said, Tolkien's writing style drives me up the wall, so I'll probably whine fairly frequently. But you're used to that.

I was surprised, on starting this one, to find that it's more entertaining than I remember. I don't know, maybe it just improves in comparison to the last 18 months of early-20th-century lit I've had to endure, or, in the same vein, maybe I'm used to the more wandering plots and complex sentence structure of that period, but it's easier to tolerate than I remember.

So far, we've learned about the general history of hobbits, a small-statured race living in Middle-Earth alongside elves, dwarves, and men. They are fond of food, smoking, and comfort, and are largely agricultural. Right. That part done, we move on to actual story. Bilbo Baggins, having been one of the few hobbits to travel outside the Shire, their land of origin, and having had a great adventure in which he acquired, by rather underhanded means, a magic ring that makes one invisible, has since lived in relative quiet for many years. He has, in the more than 60 years since he returned from his journey, not aged a proverbial day. As the story begins, on his 111th birthday, he's decided to leave the Shire for another adventure and never to come back. He does so, disappearing abruptly by means of the magic ring. That evening, he discusses his plans with Gandalf, an old wizard and friend of his, who convinces him to leave the ring with Frodo, his nephew, to whom he has also left his house and possessions.

17 years later (and I'm not making that up) Gandalf comes back to Frodo and tells him that the ring is dangerous magical object, forged by a cruel and evil ruler/creature/monster/giant eye, Sauron, in order to hold the leaders of all other races in its thrall and overwhelm Middle-Earth with his dark power. (Pretty much.) Gollum, from whom Bilbo stole the ring, and who is a twisted creature maddened and destroyed by the ring, has given up its location to Sauron, who will now be searching for the ring and anyone with the name Baggins. Frodo is horrified, and decides, partly from Gandalf's council, that he has to take the ring from the Shire and hide it and himself. He sets off, several months later (because seriously, everything takes a million years in this book) with his friends Meriadoc (Merry) Brandybuck and Samwise (Sam) Gamgee.

During their trip to another part of the Shire where Frodo has bought a house (by way of cover - he intends to go further, on to Rivendell where the elves live), the three companions are threatened by dark riders on dark horses that seem to be hunting them out. Though they aren't caught, they escape only narrowly. Just afterward, they meet a group of elves that escorts them a fair distance, feeds them, and warns them that the black riders are, indeed, a great danger. They are further warned to exercise great caution and move with haste, lest things go terribly awry. (Elves. They just never stop with the dire warnings. It seems to be their raison d'etre.)

Like I said, more entertaining than I remembered it, so far, though Tolkien feels the need to give a great deal of background information about everything and everyone in the world. The entire preface, "Concerning Hobbits," is completely unnecessary and fairly stultifying. The problem is that Tolkien is an academic, and, as an academic, feels the need to write in an informatively complete manner. Stories are not informatively complete. Half the point is that you leave stuff out because it makes the rest more interesting. So, you know, it's impressive when you develop an intricate, developed mythology and history for the world your story is in, but you have to let that mythology and history peek through where they naturally ought, not wedge them in in huge, didactic chunks whenever something obliquely related to them occurs.

The characters are ill developed at this point. I feel like Frodo seems incredibly serious for no reason, and I'm a little bit like, "Why do I like you right now?" So I'm waiting for some interesting characteristics to arise in him. Gandalf's pretty good, though - archetypal, I suppose, and weak in that way, but we still like him because he's a wise old wizard with fireworks. I mean, really. (Also? He's Ian McKellan. I'm sorry, but it will just always be that way for me now. But it makes me love him.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

He who saves one life saves the world entire.

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 326 - 397 (end)

The war ends! All Schindler's Jews survive! Schindler is exonerated of any possible crimes, but is pretty much impoverished and never finds business success again. Fortunately, he is taken care of by the Schindlerjuden and goes to Jerusalem every year to visit. He is recognized as a Righteous Gentile by the state of Israel, and, at his death, is mourned throughout Israel and the world.

I don't have any particularly new insight about the end, though it's nice that Schindler was taken care of because of his good deeds. Keneally makes the point throughout that he isn't a perfect, monolithic hero, and that his personal life and business dealings were never pristine, but, in the end, Schindler's deeds surpass all of that. He is a hero for saving lives at the risk of his own, and the mere fact of that salvation supersedes his fallibility.

However, my verdict from earlier stands: it's not a novel. It was pretty interesting, and it certainly makes one reflect on the Holocaust and the meaning of relative merit, so, in that respect, it's a pretty good book. But that doesn't make it a novel. It is unworthy of the list by virtue of disqualification.

Next up: Lord of the Rings. It will last for all eternity.

Friday, September 17, 2010

You love it. Don't lie.

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: None

My recap for the week goes like this: this is not a novel; the Holocaust sucks.

I'm just so pithy, aren't I?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The hottest places in hell.

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 241 - 326

Hey, action kind of started to happen! So, the Reich decides that the Plaszow camp and Schindler's factories need to be liquidated and all prisoners "relocated" to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Schindler, as soon as he hears, spends the next few weeks desperately putting together money and goods with which to bribe all and sundry. He manages to get permission to move his factory and establish a new one and an accompanying camp for his workers at a place called Brinnlitz. In order to do so, he composes the titular list of names of the Jews he requires. Just before the move is to take place, Amon Goeth is arrested for embezzlement from the Reich. Schindler is implicated, but, though he's arrested, is let go because of a lack of evidence against him. Meanwhile, Schindler's workers make their way to Brinnlitz, but it takes time; the train cars they're loaded onto stop at Birkenau for several days. The men are only there for three days or so, though they're subjected to very poor conditions for those days, but the women are held up for several weeks, and begin to wonder if they'll ever get out. Eventually they do, but the Gestapo maintains fiercer control over the Brinnlitz camp than Schindler would like, and ends up "selecting" some of the children to go to Birkenau because they're unsuitable for work.

Keneally is making a big deal here about how much money Schindler is spending to get the Jews out of his camps. While that's certainly important, and, in some measure, shouldn't be ignored, I feel like the bigger issue is the risk that he's incurring by attempting it at all. Yes, he's a businessman, and therefore money is important to him, but his life and the lives of many others are continuously at risk during this process. That's the more striking idea to me - he could have bowed his head and let them go rather than put everything and everyone he knows in the path of danger, but instead he looked upon it as his duty to save them.

Really, the horrifying part is how few people did the same. Yes, Schindler is a hero, but he's also doing what common decency demands. Do I blame other people for not standing up for the Jews during World War II? The PC answer, I think, would be to say that conditions were so difficult, and the time so different, that it's hard to understand and therefore also hard to condemn their choices. But you know what? I say bullshit to that. It is not only our duty, but our very definition as human that requires us to act in situations like this. Overseas, it's harder, and I don't really blame people who are far away and fairly ignorant of the realities of situations like this. But when your neighbors are getting dragged out of their front doors and shot in the street? For the love of all that is good in the world, you have got to do something. Whether that's hiding someone, forging papers, swearing that that person is Aryan when he isn't...whatever it takes. There were lots of people who did such things. But there were also lots of people who stood by and watched.

I just don't know. Historical horrors are so difficult this way. American slavery causes me similar problems: conventional wisdom seems to say that we extend a certain amount of understanding to the people who practiced it, since it was the social atmosphere of the time. On a conceptual level, I suppose I can understand that, but on a practical level, I don't excuse them. You don't keep someone in chains and beat them for not working for you, you don't separate husbands and wives to make a profit, and you don't exploit people for your own gain, torturing and maiming them on a daily basis, and still get to call yourself a respectable human being. I'm sorry, but cultural and social mores aren't a free pass to forgiveness. They sure as hell weren't for the Nazis. If no one stands up against them and calls them wrong, then we will never change.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

adj: new; not resembling something formerly known

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 185 - 241

I don't really know how to describe the plot of this book, as you may have gathered from the previous posts about it. Basically, this entire 60 pages or so was about the various ways in which Schindler contrives to get as many Jews into his factories as possible. Sometimes he helps out individuals at the request of their families or in other special circumstances, but mostly it's just as many people as possible as often as possible. His workers get fed well, are housed in barracks that have no SS supervision, and even get the chance to bathe on occasion; all of these privileges, of course, are amazing in comparison to the work camps. There's also a lot of information about all the bribery and double-dealing Schindler has to do to continue to run his operations this way, and about the great risks that he takes to do so. (There are also lots more horrifying Holocaust stories, but I will, once again, skip those.)

I'm taking this moment to point out Webster's definition of a novel: "an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events." The key word here is "invented." This has not been invented. It has been altered slightly to include dialogue, but that's hardly the same thing. So, I maintain my "this is not a novel" stance. At some point in this part, Keneally mentions a survivor who has a story about Schindler, but calls him M, which, he explains to us in a footnote, is because he doesn't want to be identified by name. Protecting the names of your sources is a perfectly responsible thing to do, but it's not required when you're writing a novel. I'm not sure what Keneally's definition of "novel" actually is, but it's clearly not the same as mine. Or Webster's.

Not terribly much more to say today, I'm afraid. I'm sure that at some point soon something is actually going to happen that resembles a climax, and then I'll have some material to work with. Until then, just go read anything about the Holocaust and you'll get the idea.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Problem of Evil

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 130 - 185

It's time for the catalog of Holocaust horrors. I won't reproduce it for you, because chances are good that you're fairly familiar with it, and frankly, I don't really want to write about it. Suffice it to say, as things worsen in Nazi-occupied Poland, more and more terrible stuff starts happening to Krakow's Jews, and Keneally details it for his reader. (Is it wrong of him to do so? No, not really - it's simply hard to take. It's important to remember that these things happened; it's just incredibly unpleasant.) Most of the Jewish population has already or is in the process of getting shipped to the concentration camps at this point, and Schindler is maintaining as complete a workforce as he possibly can, since he can save almost every person he employs.

Amon Goeth, a Nazi commander, moves his operations to Krakow, where he's put in charge of the work camps that have been populated by the emptying of Krakow's ghetto. (The camp is located at Plaszow, and I'll refer to it by that name in future.) Goeth wishes to continue the lucrative relationship between the Nazi forces and Schindler's factory, and asks him to move the operation inside the camp so that there won't have to be foot traffic between the locations each day. Schindler coaxes Goeth into letting him keep the factory separate from the camps, and it's clear that Schindler thinks this will allow him to maintain better working conditions.

Schindler clearly despises Goeth, who takes pleasure in his assigned task: the brutalization and extermination of thousands of innocent people. He, Schindler, is beginning to develop a sense of desperation and helplessness at the massive number of murders that occurs on a daily basis and his own powerlessness to save anything resembling a majority of the innocents that are at risk. However, Keneally is careful to address the fact that Schindler is almost forced into his heroic role. He is, after all, something of a war profiteer, especially at the beginning, using Jewish labor because it's cheap. He knows that his working conditions are significantly better than anyone else's, but he still signs up to be part of a slave labor market. It's clearly the lesser of two evils, but does that make it right? Is it acceptable, even necessary, to sign up to be part of a great dark machine of malice in order to save some of the lives it's working so hard to destroy?

It's the same question, really, as saving your own life by dismissing, even if only temporarily, your principles. It boils down to the question at the end of The Crucible. Do you stand up for what you believe, even if only verbally, and die to no end but that of your personal honor? Or do you denounce what you've formerly espoused, stain your honor forever, and live to prove that you're the person your words have belied? I've never come to a conclusion about what I think is correct. It is, perhaps, the most important question.

On another note entirely, the author makes a point through one of the characters in the book that the Nazis might have won World War II if they hadn't devoted so much manpower and so many resources to the extermination of the Jews. That hadn't occurred to me before, but it sure sounds plausible. It's rather a cruel irony that the obsessive, horrifying destruction of millions of people was, perhaps, responsible for the salvation of millions more - or even the salvation of the world itself.

Monday, September 13, 2010

To act without asking questions

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 70 - 130

Well, I'd like to tell you about the plot of this book, but there isn't really one. It's pretty much, "Watch the dark, encroaching tide that is the Holocaust slowly engulf Krakow." I don't know, I mean, Oskar runs his metalware factory in Krakow, which makes pots and pans, and, as the situation grows more dire for the Polish Jews, he begins to hire more and more of them. He assures his Jewish workers that their positions will guarantee them survival because he has made it clear to the SS that the supplies and cut of his profits that he gives to the Nazi regime can only continue if his business remains successful.

Eventually, Krakow opens its ghetto, and all the Jews are forced into it. Even Schindler can't stop his Jewish workers from being forced to live there, although he does open dormitories at the factory for some of them. More and more Jews are disappearing, however, and, at one point, Oskar has to rescue his office manager and 11 other men from the cattle cars of the trains going to concentration camps. Oskar himself is arrested several times for minor offenses like kissing a Jewish worker, but always manages to call on his powerful German contacts and thereby escape. Meanwhile, the situation continues to worsen, and the SS begins systematic "relocation" of Jews from the streets of the ghetto to places unknown. Oskar and his mistress, Ingrid, witness the first day of these "relocations" (as well as the multiple shootings and beatings that accompany them) and are horrified.

I still maintain that this isn't really a novel. Every single time we meet a new person, we're treated to an explanation of his connections to other people in Krakow, and a paragraph or two about what happens to him during the course of the war. It's almost like a little encyclopedia of what Keneally discovered during his research rather than an actual story. I just find it obnoxious when the purpose of an entire book seems to be show off research, not to actually communicate something about humanity (or even just tell a good story). Like I said, it seems to me that this is more about what it's like to be in Krakow during the Holocaust than it is a work of fiction. I'm sure that some of Schindler's experiences and conversations are fictionalized, and that's why Keneally felt a responsibility to call this a novel, but really, he's just covering his ass for taking small creative liberties with history. He ought to have written a biography.

That doesn't mean it's not interesting and engaging, however, because it is. Sure, it's fairly informational, but Keneally is a good biographical writer, and he keeps you interested. He's doing fairly well with balancing what he's willing to report about the horrors of the Holocaust against the more mundane details of surviving a pogrom in Krakow, too. While I've read a lot of books about the Holocaust, Schindler's removed perspective - that of someone who is not immediately threatened by extermination but also does not buy into the Nazi message - is informative in a unique way. We're able to see that things are escalating and growing more horrifying, but also that are avenues through which "normal" citizens are able to influence the situation. The experience of attempting to live something that resembles a regular life during the period is interesting too, in that it's both completely understandable and a little reprehensible at the same time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eat it, too.

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 13 - 70

Sorry about the lack of post yesterday; frankly, there was just no energy left. 12 and a half hours door-to-door doesn't make for a day that lends itself to blogging.

Anyway, exciting Holocaust action time! (Forgive me if I sound flippant; I've read so many Holocaust books that it sometimes causes me to lose perspective.) Oskar Schindler is a wealthy young man living in what was then Austria-Hungary and is now the Czech Republic (and was also Czechoslovakia in between - woo!). He marries a young but wealthy farm girl, Emilie, and becomes a businessman and a spy for the Germans in the Czech Republic. He's basically spending a lot time hanging out with the Nazis and is a member of the party, but Keneally (the author) makes it clear that he's a Nazi of convenience, as it were, and doesn't actually believe in the party's ideals. He warns several Jewish business associates of the coming German invasion of Krakow, as well.

That's where we are. I have to say, I'm pretty annoyed with Keneally at this point. He makes a big deal in the introduction about how he's written the book as a novel because he has a novelist's skills and because he wants the reader to be clear that not every detail is the truth. However, so far he's spent most of the book falling all over himself to be accurate at the expense of good writing. He keeps saying things like, "if we were to assume this were true," or, "one might imagine it, but there's no evidence," and I'm a bit like, "Are you writing a freaking novel here or not, Keneally?" It's fiction or non-fiction, and you can't have both. I'm going to give it time, but I'm skeptical as to whether I'd call this a novel at all. It's still sort of interesting, but it's more biography than it is fiction.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Make love, not polite conversation.

Current book: The Age of Innocence
Pages read: 186 - 270 (end)

So, May and Newland get married and do ok, though he's often annoyed at her simplicity and lack of adventurousness. Eventually, Ellen comes back and Newland is tempted by her, but in the end, resists the temptation. Well, sort of. Mostly, they don't do anything because May tells Ellen she's pregnant and Ellen feels duty-bound to leave Newland alone. There's also some drama about Ellen's husband wanting her to come back, but it comes to nothing. In the end, we skip forward 30 years to Newland's future life. His children are all grown and May has recently died, and he has the opportunity to see Ellen in Paris. He gets all the way to her hotel, but cannot make himself go upstairs because he's afraid that finally seeing her again will burst the bubble of his lifelong fantasies.

Society is bullshit and gets in the way of true love.

Succinct, no?

It was all right. It was fairly predictable and not particularly interesting, but the writing was good and the point well made. The end was surprisingly poignant. Not bad, but not one of the best 100. I've had a long day, once again, so you don't get much analysis.

Tomorrow, Schindler's List. I'm hoping to avoid Holocaust nightmares.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tempus fugit

Current book: The Age of Innocence
Pages read: 132 - 186

No time. No time at all.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Etymology, my dear Watson!

Current book: The Age of Innocence
Pages read: 66 - 132

Poor Ellen Olenska decides she wants to ask her estranged, abusive husband for a divorce, and Newland's family is desperate to stop her, due to the fact that divorce is a great scandal amongst the best families of New York, no matter the circumstances. Because he is her most trusted friend, Newland gets saddled with the job of convincing her not to sue for divorce and manages to accomplish it. He is under the impression that Ellen had an affair with the secretary who helped her escape her marriage, and that to bring the divorce to court would reveal that information publicly.

Newland desperately wants to get married to May because he is afraid, if they have a long engagement, that'll he'll have an affair with Ellen. He hasn't admitted to Ellen that he loves her, but he clearly does, and she clearly loves him back. May goes down to St. Augustine for a few months in the winter, and Newland stays in New York to work at his law firm (because he is, apparently, a lawyer, regardless of the fact that he doesn't need any money). After some time, which he spends thinking mostly about Ellen, he goes down to Florida to see May and ask her, once again, to shorten the engagement, regardless of convention. She, suspecting his real motives and citing said convention, refuses.

Newland returns to New York and goes to see Ellen. At their meeting, he discovers that she never had an affair at all, but was, in fact, in the right all along. At this, he proposes that she petition for a divorce after all, and that they get married. She tearfully refuses him, saying that he's right, after all, about the social stigma, and also that it wouldn't be fair to May. Newland says that May would marry him quickly if she really wanted to keep him, and her insistence on the long engagement proves that she wants to give him the chance to choose someone else, if he truly loves another. Ellen still refuses, but there's a sense of possibility - that is, until Newland returns home to find a telegram from May saying that she's changed her mind, asked her parents, and initiated preparations to be married in a month.

Oh, the irony! Well, Wharton is making a statement about the ridiculousness of social constraints by pointing out the fact that society would much rather have Ellen remain married and have a series of affairs than it would have her get a divorce and happily remarry. I have to admit that I always forget that the stigma attached to divorce stuck around for so long. I mean, this novel is taking place in the early 20th century, and yet, still there's a sense of any (female) divorcee being somehow tainted. I surmise that it stems from the basic institution of marriage itself as a device to ensure monogamy; after all, if a woman has been divorced and wishes to remarry, she's clearly stepped outside the bounds of monogamy. However, it's ridiculous that monogamy only matters for a woman, and a man is free to sleep around as much as he wants to before marriage. Newland's repeated notion that women should be free is Wharton's notion, too, and she's proceeding to point it out by tragic circumstance.

On an etymological note, this novel uses the word appertain, and it made me wonder what the difference between pertain and appertain was. As it turns out, there isn't one. Which made me wonder, in turn, why the hell we've got two words that sound the same when one will do. I suspect bastardization may be the culprit. This is why I need a copy of the OED. Etymological mysteries require a good casebook!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tree pretty

Current book: The Age of Innocence
Pages read: 6 - 66

Pages read of the Beast! Right. And...moving right along. This book is about Newland Archer (Yes, you read that right. Newland.), a young New York socialite who has just been affianced to May Welland, another young New York socialite. Ms. Welland's cousin, Ellen Olenska, has recently come to town. Ellen, it turns out, is a disgraced woman who is still married to her estranged Russian husband, but left him with the aid of his (male) secretary because he was abusive. As a result of her checkered past, New York society, and, initially, Newland himself, try to reject her. However, upon rumination, Newland decides that women shouldn't be shackled by their misfortunes, and so moves to include her in society by exerting his personal influence. So far, he has introduced her to some Old Families and given her a lot of attention at parties. He finds himself dwelling on her and her situation and comparing her to his fiance.

Gee, do you think he'll fall in love with her? Do you think he might realize that he's straitjacketed by social convention? Do you think it'll end in tears? I do. It always ends in tears. Anyway, the point is this is shaping up to be a pretty classic early 19th-century novel about the pressures of class and society. Wharton's a fairly dense, but also fairly decent writer, though. It takes a long time to read her prose, but you get lovely little gems of imagery along the way:
"The bare vaulting of trees along the Mall was ceiled with lapis lazuli, and arched above snow that shone like splintered crystals. It was the weather to call out May's radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost."
Ceiled! How awesome is that? I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do unto others

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 620 - 727 (end)

Well, in the end, Keating's housing projects (designed, as you recall, by Roark) get amended and therefore ruined by other architects. Roark responds by blowing them up with dynamite. (Jerry Bruckheimer should make a movie.) He allows himself to be arrested and tried for the crime, though he pleads not guilty. While awaiting trial, he is condemned by the public and made a scapegoat for all social ills.

Wynand defends Roark in his paper, earning the contempt of the public and his board, and eventually instigating a strike against the paper. Though he gamely runs it himself with just Dominique's help for two months or so, eventually he gives in to the strike and relinquishes editorial control. He hates himself for it and realizes that he is not a paragon of the virtues of selfishness and integrity that he's learned to appreciate from knowing Dominique and Roark, and sort of shuts down. Meanwhile, Roark and Dominique become lovers again, due to the fact that she has finally accepted the idea that standing up as a model of integrity is the only way to show that you are truly an individual, and therefore is willing to let herself love Roark again.

At Roark's trial, he gives an impassioned speech about the virtue of selfishness in which he says that it's the individual who deserves all the praise in our society. He says that the public good is the greatest of all evils, and that countries are ruined by being governed by committees. To be ruled by the will of the people is to be ruled by the lowest common denominator. The man who invented fire was probably burned at the stake for his own invention, but he was the most heroic and deserving of all men. The creative urge is purely individual, and man has no instinct toward altruism, which is only a fictitious virtue. The jury, convinced by his absolute conviction and calm, declares him not guilty.

At the close of the book, Wynand hires Roark to design the tallest building in New York, the Wynand building, and swears that it will be devoted to only the virtues he espouses. Roark agrees and begins building it (though Wynand still seems to be broken by his own failure), and the novel ends with Dominique (now Mrs. Roark) visiting the half-built tower, where she sees, at the top, a vision of Roark standing above everything, with only the sky and sea as a backdrop.

Well, it's vastly better than Atlas Shrugged in that it actually held my interest for 725 pages, rather than making me want to shoot myself. I was surprised by the fact that Roark won his trial; I think it shows that Rand was much more optimistic at this point in her career than later on. While Atlas focuses on failure after failure after failure and ends by predicting the coming revolution, The Fountainhead seems to suggest that individuals who have been part of the ignorant masses (in this case, the men of Roark's jury) are already able to assert themselves and recognize what is important when the choice is offered to them.

What about the message? Well, it makes its point more convincingly and more moderately than Atlas Shrugged, I think. It says that selfishness is the virtue by which we should all live, and that the greatest examples of mankind have done so. I think that in the realm of the artistic, literary, and technological, the idea of the individual being the most important of all things is probably the correct one. However, I also think that Rand's logic fails when she tries to apply this idea to the political, the economic, and the social. In the case of the political, she posits the idea that the individual leaders of men are not exemplifying the selfish because they are working for power, which is, in effect, the approval of others, and not actually self-interest. However, she fails to offer any useful alternative. If we're not supposed to have leaders who want power, and we're definitely not supposed to be communist (Communism clearly terrifies her, since the thought of being entirely governed by committee is pretty much anathema to her philosophy.), what exactly are we supposed to do? Find ourselves a benevolent dictator with perfect personal integrity? Good luck with that. In the case of the economic, I think she didn't really try to explain that in this book, but left it for later, which is fair. I've already discussed it at length in Atlas Shrugged posts, so I'll let it go, too.

In the case of the social, by which I suppose I mean the divisions of class and the ideas of social responsibility, Rand probably falls the shortest. It's tied to the political in that she offers no solutions to the problems of class. She clearly has a great deal of contempt for the poor who have not somehow gotten themselves out of their situation through perseverance and hard work, so perhaps that is her only answer: they deserve what they've got and the only responsibility lies with them. I feel like it's completely unrealistic, but I guess she's happy to write them off. I wonder what she'd say about universal health care? Does selfishness as a virtue extend to the modern health care system? I'd say the incredible uselessness of the health insurance system in America is a result of insurance companies' selfishness, and it's leaving most people, integrity and hard work or not, in an untenable position. And yet, to take care of people who cannot pay to be cared for would be altruistic, and therefore despicable? So that must be wrong. Let me just write off all my uninsured friends then, and condemn them to pain, illness, and, in at least one case, probable death. I'll get right on it.

The real problem, sarcasm aside, is that at least one of Rand's conditions is incorrect. It is not true that altruism is not an instinct. Altruism, and its simpler form, cooperation, are, in fact, genetically programmed because they are often evolutionarily advantageous. There is actually an equation to determine when populations of animals will act altruistically and when they will not. In animals, its determined by shared genetic markers. In humans, it's expanded beyond that, but the principle is sound. Cooperation has allowed humanity to create and build in a way that would be impossible without it. Roark's buildings would never have been made had he had to act alone. Yes, you could argue that the contractors and construction workers who worked for him were being paid for their skills, and were therefore selfish, but that kind of selfishness goes hand in hand with cooperation. If they were truly selfish, they'd rob banks and wouldn't bother to work at all. When the city government had the streets built that Roark's building was connected to, when the pioneers who settled the area worked together to create a town that became a city, indeed, when the first humans acted as lookouts for one another, they were being selfish and cooperating at the same time. Does that sometimes result in pure altruism, too? Yes, it does. When genetically-motivated altruism is extrapolated to modern human society, sometimes we're nice to each other for no reason. Is it despicable that we build free museums that are full of art that we would never see any other way? Is it despicable that we house the poor so that they won't die in the streets? Is it despicable that I stop and help someone change a flat tire? Is it even, you can ask, truly selfish? These kinds of altruism are selected for genetically because they help us to survive better as a group, a tribe, and, eventually, a society. To condemn them universally as a weakness is not only absurd, it's blind to one of the basic realities of evolution. We didn't get this way by accident.

I digress. Is the book literature? No. Once again, Rand falls prey to her message over her art. It's closer than Atlas Shrugged, but it still exists to state its political message rather than to speak to the universal truths of humanity. I'm not emotionally involved, only intellectually. I don't consider Plato's Republic literature, either. Philosophy, sure; literature, no.


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