Completed: 2010. Happy to meet 2011.

Happy (belated) New Year! I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see an old year end. There were some highs last year, but most, if not all, were in the first half of the year–it seems as if it peaked in May and then took a steady downhill slide. I’m ready for a much-improved 2011.

On the other hand, 2010 was the best year I’ve had in reading for at least 3 years. After two years of not making it to even 20 books read (I can’t believe it myself), I managed 31 books this year, sneaking one last book across the finish line on December 31.

The highlights of my 2010 in reading:

  • Richard’s Dante readalong. I dragged a little at the finish, but The Divine Comedy was hands down my favorite read of 2010. The payoff was worth the work in the end.
  • Finishing my re-read of The Chronicles of Narnia. These were “in-between” books, and I think I loved them as much as I did when I first read them as a child. Reading them as an adult, I was able to recognize the surprising depth Lewis included in the books, but still be charmed by the magic. Inspired both by this re-read and Eva’s review, I would really like to read The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller.
  • Beowulf on the Beach and Reading Like a Writer, two books about books and about reading them, both made me re-think the way I approach my reading.
  • Santa Evita – the first book I’ve read by an Argentine writer. I loved it. I consider it the best book I’ve read, at least recently, that’s been written in the past 20 years.  (Note, I’ve not read all that many books from the last 20 years!)

As for 2011, I’m hoping to read between 20-30 books. Not all that many, but I’ve decided that 2011 is the year of the Architectural Registration Exam, a seven-part test. I can spread it out over up to five years, but I’m mentally ready to just.get.it.over.with. Needless to say, this could hamper my reading time, which is the number one reason I didn’t sign up for any challenges, although I did see several I was intrigued by. (On the other hand, I could see myself curled up for hours on end with such delightful texts as The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, or Steel Buildings: Analysis and Design.)

I did sign up for the TBR Dare, which doesn’t ask for a certain number of books read, just that they be off our own bookshelves. Not a problem! I’d been thinking about doing so anyway, especially when I realized that I have some books that I really want to read but have been gathering dust for as much as 10 years. Time to fix that!

I would also like to keep creating and posting my mini-lists. I had hoped to have these finished in December, but December proved elusive. Once these are “finished”–my intention is that these are lists that can continually be added to–I would like to focus my reading on what is on my lists. I also want to really focus (with my lists as well) on “Great Books.” I’m a bit tired of reading the mediocre, especially when my time is limited.

Now I just need to decide what to read first….What are you reading?

Completed: Santa Evita

Santa Evita
Tomás Eloy Martínez
Argentina, 1995
Helen Lane, Translator
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996

Every story is, by definition unfaithful. Reality, as I’ve said, can’t be told or repeated. The only thing that can be done with reality is to invent it again.” (Chapter 4, “I am Giving Up the Honor, Not the Fight”, p. 83)

I was hooked by the description of the novel: a tale of the travels of the preserved corpse (and copies) of the body of Evita Perón, dispatched around Argentina and the world in an attempt by her (and her husband’s) enemies to keep ahead of her supportors, ardent in their devotion even after her death. With this intriguing premise in hand, I put it on order through my local library, but didn’t get to it before several posts went up at the end of September about the book (listed here). They all seemed to focus on one point, the discussion of reality versus fiction that takes place in the novel. At this point, I became worried, because I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a book which focused on metafictional discussion rather than plot.

I needn’t have worried. I loved Santa Evita, I think as much for the very metaficiton I was afraid of, as for the bizarre story it told. I really can’t say how much of it is true. Eloy Martínez presents the story both as novel and as a representation of thorough research and interviews he claims to have conducted with those who knew Evita and those connected to the disappearance of her corpse. It reads not only as novel but as memoir of his interviews, as biography of a corpse and biography of a life. In the background, behind the metafiction and the traveling corpse, was a glimpse into the story of Evita-while-alive, from country girl to B-movie actress to adored First Lady. And reading this, the question that came to my mind was not, “How much of this (novel) is true?” but “Who was Evita?” Her enemies would paint her as whore, the adoring descamisados, as saint. Where between these extremes, did the real Evita lie? It is our inability to really know this, hidden as this “real Evita” is behind both legend and lies—of her own creation, of her enemies, of her admirers—that I see reflected in the tension between reality and fiction on the novel’s pages. Even setting myth-making aside, the difficulties of memory and reliable recollection pose difficulties for a biographer seeking to create an exact portrait. Thus it is not surprising that the pages of the tale should turn to a debate of the very meaning of “reality.”

The sources on which this novel is based are not altogether reliable, but only in the sense that this is true of reality and language as well: lapses of memory and imperfect truths have found their way into them.” (Chapter 6 “The Enemy is Lying in Wait”, p. 126)

It becomes a fascinating discussion.

The story of the novel, that of three journeys—Evita from young girl to First Lady, Evita the corpse from Buenos Aires to Milan, and Eloy Martínez in search of Evita—is also entertaining on its own merits. So many interesting characters and circumstances populate the book that in some ways I found it difficult to put down. I also found it a book to saver slowly, and was reluctant to ever pick it up if I only would have a few moments to read. Tomás Eloy Martínez’s writing captured me and before I had finished the novel I had already resolved to read more of his work, and Santa Evita again.

Completed: Paradiso

Paradiso
Dante Alighieri
Allen Mendelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1984

As does the bird, among beloved branches,
when, through the night that hides things from us, she
has rested near the nest of her sweet fledglings
and, on an open branch, anticipates
the time when she can see their longed-for faces
and find the food with which to feed them—chore
that pleases her, however hard her labors—
as she awaits the sun with arm affection,
steadfastly watching for the dawn to break:
so did my lady stand, erect, intent,
turned toward that part of heaven under which
the sun is given to less haste; so that,
as I saw her in longing and suspense,
I grew to be as one who, while he wants
what is not his, is satisfied with hope.
(Canto XXIII, 1-15)

I think my first thought on finishing Paradiso was one of excited relief. More so than either of the proceeding canticles, Paradiso is difficult, necessitating  frequent referencing of the endnotes, which in itself makes the reading slow-going. Richard of Caravana de recuerdos characterized it as “abstruse” which I find a particularly apt descriptor. It is not merely that there is less action and much more dialogue—primarily Dante’s theological viewpoints as expressed through his characters—but that the discussions often refer to texts or Medieval-era debates that, while perhaps commonly understood in the early 1300’s, are less familiar today. After flipping to the endnotes for the 100th or so time and seeing St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica referenced (typically for comparison or as Dante’s starting point), I began to feel that reading Paradiso could serve as a summary for the former. I certainly cannot imagine attempting Paradiso without any concept of the framework of the Christian belief system.

Looking back over the entirety of Divine Comedy, I am struck by what an incredible accomplishment it is. Dante’s biggest sin may have been his pride (as he acknowledged in Purgatorio)—and there is more than one instance where I marked my text noting evidence of his ego—but he was certainly not wrong in his belief that he was creating something worth reading. Over the course of three poems, he successfully created three distinct “worlds” or regions. There is no doubting that his Inferno is as different from his Paradiso as night is from day, and Purgatorio, a point between (although, saving Dante none might journey there from Inferno) is different yet again. He has created an epic journey—both for his pilgrim (Dante the character) and for his reader. There is an unbelievable integration of a diverse body of sources—classical, religious, philosophical. According to the end notes in my edition, the nine-line simile beginning Canto XXIII (above) makes over twelve references to other works!* And he manages to do all this while maintaining hendecasyllable meter and a terza rima rhyming pattern. Paradiso does see many declarations of his own inadequacy to tell of what he sees in Heaven (albeit, drawn in such a way to draw focus to the fact that he’s attempting this anyway—see the bit about ego), but at the same time his similes, his metaphors, his allusions all strive to give the reader a glimpse of what such a place much be like, and in such a measured manner to indicate a continuing journey upwards through the ever more wondrous levels of heaven. As mentioned previously, it is not always easy to read—allegory is clearly more important here than in Inferno or Purgatorio—but the measured accomplishment of it is incredible. I actually found myself in suspense wondering how he could possible portray the last sphere of Heaven, culminating in his vision of God.

Here force failed my high fantasy;  but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Canto XXX 142-145)

I am glad I chose to undertake this trio of books. I don’t know that I would have finished the last had it not been for Richard’s read-along, but I don’t regret the time spent. It feels an accomplishment to have simply completed the entirety, but it also feels rewarding for the treasures found within the books. In some ways I still feel like I have Dante’s words spinning inside my head. It is so satisfying to have that continued presence of a masterpiece. This, I think, is why we read the classics.

* “In addition to identifying the matrix of the simile in Lactantius’ De Ave Phoenice (On the Phoenix), 39-42, Daniele Mattalia cites not less than six references to Virgil’s Georgics, five to the Aeneid, and one to Statius’ Achilleid.” (p 387, Bantam Classics Edition)

Completed: Tempest

The Tempest
William Shakespeare

I can tell it’s been a while since I’ve read a play, as I’d forgotten how short they are. So much action must occur in such a short time frame, that reading it through, it almost seems as if too much has happened too quickly. In the space of a few lines, two characters have fallen in love, others have plotted and failed an assassination, and our hero has overcome all obstacles, but meanwhile I’m still on my lunch break, wondering how all this happened in a half-hour. If you wish to truly appreciate Shakespeare’s language—his jokes, his puns, his poetry, his meter and rhyme, his allusions—he is probably best read carefully, however I suspect that one of the many advantages of seeing his plays performed live is that the timeline feels more natural. Much as a scriptwriter today fits a year’s worth of action into a two-hour movie epic, without the audience feeling shortchanged, Shakespeare could cover a day or more in a short frame, and his audience would not feel shortchanged.

Of course, in The Tempest, I do feel a little cut short, even when I acknowledge the constraints of the format. I’ll accept that Miranda and Ferdinand could fall in love so swiftly (there was some encouragement, after all), or that Prospero could use his magical powers to persuade his enemies to realign their desires with his, but what about the others? Alonso has accepted Prospero’s return to his Dukedom of Milan, apparently so moved to repentance due to Prospero’s and Ariel’s reminder of his guilt, that he is content to aid Prospero without the monetary tribute previously given by Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother. But Antonio’s response to this is never given. He too was exposed to the condemnations voiced by Ariel, but where Alonso grieved, Antonio (and Sebastian) drew swords, ready to fight. Yet at the end, he gives no response, seemingly cowed by Prospero’s knowledge of the assassination plan against Alonso. I cannot help but feel however, that back in Milan, Antonio will not take Prospero’s return as Duke well. It would have been nice to hear him give voice to something in the final scene beyond his mocking of Caliban.

For Caliban, I have no further conclusion. His short-lived belief in Stefano as a god makes him seem childish, misguided by so little as a bottle of wine. Miranda does not view him as a man: in Act 3, she tells Ferdinand that the only men she has seen are Ferdinand and her father [III.i.50-52]. I think perhaps, that Caliban is not meant to be taken seriously, or as more than a child. Prospero does not view him with any sympathy, and this seems the direction in which the reader is guided. On the other hand, Caliban’s interactions with Stephano and Trinculo showcase such a childlike naïveté, that I feel sympathy for him, for his inability to be considered human, if nothing else. It seems no wonder he has acted badly.

I still have mixed emotions about Prospero as well. I think my problem here is that I am looking at this from the 21st century viewpoint. He makes it clear in Act 5 that his primary motivation is to regain his Dukedom:

My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will require you with as good a thing,
At least bring forth a wonder to content ye
As much as me my dukedom.
[V.i.168-171]

Which makes me think he prizes his power over his daughter. However, his attitude would have been expected in Shakespeare’s time. The best value in a daughter was to marry her well, and hope to advance her fortunes—and her family’s. It is also clear throughout the play that Prospero loves his daughter and is happy that she loves her future husband, and he her. To criticize his motivations, I think, is to put too much of a contemporary view on things.

I also have to commend Prospero for his attitude of forgiveness. Not only is he willing to forgive the past actions of his brother and the King of Naples, but he is willing to keep silent about his brother’s plot to overthrow Alonso on Sebastian’s behalf. The play is a romance, not a tragedy, and therefore Prospero does what he must to keep everyone as content as they may be.

I truly enjoyed reading The Tempest, which I read as part of Allie’s read-along. I didn’t really spend any time analyzing the language or digging into the plot, as I read it mostly for pure enjoyment. It is fun to realize that even such an old work can still be approached as something to be enjoyed rather than endured. I’ve been thinking about reading some more Shakespeare for some time, and I think I will have to pursue that thought. Perhaps a read of Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado about Nothing is in order.

Tempest at the Half

The Tempest
William Shakespeare

Given the way my week’s been going so far (yeah, it’s only Monday—it’s going to be one of those weeks, I’m afraid), I don’t really have any organization to my thoughts about The Tempest thus far—I almost even forgot it was time to post part I! What I’ve been thinking so far:

Getting back into Shakespeare (it’s been 10 years or so since I’ve read any!) has been easier than I expected. Maybe it’s the acrobatics of following Dante, maybe my memory for past Shakespearean experiences has stuck around better than I expected, but I’m really not having much difficulty getting into the language of The Tempest. Sure, there are a fair number of phrases I have to look at the footnotes for, but for the most part I can follow the dialogue without the footnotes.

I’m wondering how the audience is supposed to view Caliban—sympathetically or with revulsion. His early speeches suggest that he has indeed been ill-used by the “conquering” Prospero:

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island. [I.ii.334-347]

But on the other hand, Prospero claims that it is Caliban’s own misbehavior that has led to his punishment at Prospero’s hands:

Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till though didst seek to violate
The honor of my child. [I.ii.347-351]

Of course, then at the end of Act II, Caliban encounters the drunken Stephano, whom Caliban takes for a god, for the sake of his wine. This is suggestive of both ignorance and naiveté. Perhaps Caliban’s ill behavior is more a product of his circumstance than his character? I will be watching him with care in the remaining play in the hopes of forming a more definite conclusion.

Similarly, how are we supposed to view Prospero? He was overthrown as rightful Duke of Milan BUT he had neglected his duties beforehand, turning most of them over to his usurping brother earlier in favor of his studies. He seems to love his daughter, Miranda, BUT he seems willing to manipulate her and her life to his advantage. Are his machinations for his happiness (return to power) or for her own (a happy marriage)? Prospero seems a contradictory character, and I will be watching him also, as I try to learn his motivations.

Posted as part of Allie’s Tempest Readalong.