Love Means Never Having to Remember

Like many people, I love books. And like many people who love books, I am almost never able to remember much of anything about the books I read. This blog features my own impressionistic non-synopses of books I've read at various points in time. If you would like to fill in additional details, please do so in the comment section. And if you'd like to contribute your OWN "Everything I Remember About. . . ," shoot it to me in an e-mail. I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Everything I Remember about. . . . Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a great fortune, must be in want of a wife."

The first time I was assigned this novel for a literature class, I opened it reluctantly: Everything about it, from the female author to the pastel drawings on the cover screamed "chick book"!  Imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed it.

The story centers on the Bennett household, where five daughters pose something of a quandary for the put-upon father, as he faces the unenviable prospect of having to find husbands for them all.  The main Bennett daughters are the eldest, Jane, an all-around typical "nice girl," and the second oldest--the book's central character--Elizabeth, who is far too smart for her own good.  Jane is courted by an eminently suitable match (whose name eludes me at the moment), who is warned away from her by his good friend Mr. Darcy.  Darcy represents the "prejudice" of the title, just as Elizabeth represents the "pride"--or maybe it's the other way around, who knows.  Darcy is filthy rich, by the way, and I believe he was primarily concerned about his friend's potential victimization at the hands of gold-diggers.  His fear is primarily aroused by Jane and Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia the Idiot, who is a typical giggly schoolgirl sort.

OK, so when Elizabeth finds out about Darcy's disapproval of her family (despite the fact that she basically agrees with him about Lydia), she is understandably miffed.  When Darcy subsequently makes known to Elizabeth his own feelings for her--he is, in his buttoned-up way, smitten--she lets loose on him with what is probably one of the all-time great literary monologues.  She is withering.  He is crushed. Elizabeth is triumphant. . . .

. . . Until, of course, she finds out that Darcy has taken it upon himself to rescue Lydia from the clutches of a rakish non-gentleman officer who would otherwise have destroyed Lydia's (and by extension the entire Bennett family's) reputation.  How will Elizabeth ever express to Darcy how mistaken she was about his fundamentally good and generous nature?

Well, you know, it's a romantic comedy, so of course she does.  And Jane marries Darcy's friend, and Lydia marries the slimy soldier, and everyone lives happily ever after.  At least until the zombies attack, but I think that's in another book.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Everything I Remember about. . . . Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Sure, it's "the great American novel," but who actually reads the damn thing?  Well, I did.  They made me read it.  I didn't wanna do it.  But in my junior year of college, I took a class on pre-Civil War American literature, taught by Jane Benardete, who worked through the first 75 years of the Republic before midterms and devoted the whole second half of the class to Melville's epic.  So, here's what stuck:

The first 100 pages are actually pretty good--before the Pequod sets sail--as are the last 50, which comprise the final battle with the white whale.  Those 700 pages in between, though, will kill you.

Call me Ishmael.  (Note: Do NOT insert a comma, or the sentence becomes a desperate plea from a needy lover.)

Queequeg the harpooner, a heavily tattooed Polynesian sort.  (Also the namesake of Scully's Pomeranian in "The X-Files.")

The aforementioned Professor Benardete distributed to the class a list of about five chapters, of which students had to choose one to do a close reading.  I chose "The Cabin Table," so I remember about as much of that chapter as I do of the whole rest of the novel.  Basically, the chapter juxtaposes the mealtime activities among the common folk (the harpooners and common sailors) with those of the members of the ruling elite (Ahab, Starbuck, and the other officers).  In a nutshell, the common folk have a lot more fun.  The chapter may be read as Melville's commentary on the superiority of the democratic lifestyle to that of the aristocracy--all part of the author's attempt to celebrate the more egalitarian spirit of the new American Republic as compared to the hidebound rituals of the old ruling class.  Or something like that.

Rather a lot about ice and the color white.

Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay of the Gregory Peck film version--but I guess that's not really relevant to the topic under discussion here.

Oh, yeah, and the whale wins.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Everything I Remember about. . . Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

If anyone asks what my all-time favorite book is, I don't take the easy way out, the standard dodge offered by songwriters and parents everywhere--"I love them all!  How could I possibly choose?"  No, I answer quickly and confidently: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  An undeniable classic; a top-ten member of the Modern Library's 100 greatest American novels of the 20th century; a book that more-or-less invented "black comedy," Catch-22 is simply a perfect reading experience.

And yet.  Despite my unreserved enthusiasm for Heller's masterpiece, despite the fact that I have read it twice and will likely read it again, I still find myself hard-pressed to remember much more than, say, about ten percent of what happens in the novel.  So what better way to inaugurate this blog devoted to the phenomenon of bibliamnesia: the utter inability of readers to remember much of what they've read?  Without further ado: Everything I remember about Catch-22.

I first read Catch-22 when I was in my late 'teens--maybe 17 or 18.  And, frankly, I was underwhelmed.  What was the big deal?  I worked my way through it diligently--I had not yet mastered the art of laying aside a disappointing novel--but when I finished, my review (had I been asked for it) would have been an anachronistic, "Meh."  For some reason, though, I was compelled to pick up the book again about five years later--I guess I'd heard some people going on about its inherent wonderfulness, and I wondered if maybe I had missed something.  I had.  I remember sitting on the steps outside the Angelika, an arthouse movie theater in Greenwich Village, waiting for a date (we were going to see "Pulp Fiction"), and pulling out Catch-22: I also remember giggling hysterically at whatever chapter I happened to be reading.  Suddenly, I got it.

Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian (first name? I don't remember), a bombardier stationed on a Mediterranean (?) island.  (Since the book was published in 1960, many people mistakenly think Catch-22 is about Vietnam--which, in a sense, I guess it is--but the novel is set during WWII, in which Heller served as, I believe, a bombardier.)  Yossarian desperately wants to get out of the war, and he especially wants to stop flying bombing missions.  He wants to be certified as unfit to fly.  The problem--the catch ("Catch-22," to be exact)--is that in order to be declared unfit, he would have to display signs of mental instability; but the fact that he (quite rationally) does not want to go on any more bombing missions is a testament to his mental fitness.

So much for the basic premise.  What makes the book a masterpiece is its seamless blending of hysterical comedy with horrific images of war.  This "revelation" occurred to me as I read a passage that spanned maybe a page or two.  It begins with an image of a soldier on a beach (again, I may be wrong about some details).  He is engaging in a game with the pilots, wherein the pilots fly as low as they can while the man on the beach tries to reach up and touch the planes' underbellies as they zip by overhead.  It's a game they've all played many times before.  This time, though, something goes wrong, and, after the planes pass by, all that is left behind on the beach are a pair of legs no longer supporting an upper body.  OK, that's an image that stays with you.

"Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?"  Throughout the novel, Yossarian is tormented by "Snowden's secret."  We don't find out what that secret is until the very end, and, in case anyone out there hasn't read the book, I won't spill it here.  Again, though, the scene is one that combines wartime horror with a sequence of events that can best be described as slapstick.

Other things?  Milo Minderbinder, a scheming supply sergeant.  Major Major, the scion of the Major family, whose middle name is also "Major," and whom the military decides--out of sheer mean-spiritedness--to promote to the rank of Major: Thus, "Major Major Major Major."  The hospitalized soldier who "sees everything twice": "I see everything twice!" he screams.  "How many fingers am I holding up," a doctor asks, holding up one finger; "Two!" the soldier screams.  "Now how many fingers am I holding up?" (holding up two fingers); "Two!"  Yossarian, overhearing this, decides "seeing everything twice" might suffice to get him out of flying duty and begins to emulate his hospital roommate--until the latter dies suddenly.  Yossarian immediately starts yelling, "I see everything once!" 

Other things:

Opening line: "It was love at first sight" (Yossarian's first impression of a chaplain who has come to visit him in the hospital).

"What do the fish remind you of?"
"Other fish."
"And what do the other fish remind you of?"
"Other fish."

"It is better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees!"
"No, you have that backwards: 'It is better to live on one's feet than die on one's knees.'"

"It's a helluva catch, that Catch-22."

It is indeed.