Monday, May 25, 2009

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

This is an older novel, written in the 1930's or thereabouts. It was originally in Norwegian, and the author later won a Nobel Prize for Growth of the Soil, which I haven't started yet.

All the reviews said this was a disturbing novel of isolation. It was, and is, fascinating.

The protagonist, writing in the first person, describes his life as a writer who has suffered hunger and starvation long enough that his mental faculties are injured beyond repair (it would seem). He writes occasionally for a newspaper, makes enough to get by a few days if his story is purchased, or goes without food for days if it doesn't get picked up. The malnourishment causes a variety of problems, from extreme mood swings to paranoia to hallucinations. He takes to chewing on wood shavings, then stones, then a piece of his jacket pocket to try and defy the hunger. When he does eat, he is usually ill from the food. He gets to a point where he visualizes taking a bite out of his hand to eat, and does so. He comes out of his trance when he does, but it shows how far out of reality he became. A few times he either finds money or is given some by a benevolent person; he simply can't accept this, and gives it away.

The insanity is beyond anything I imagined. Perhaps because it's told in first person style, where every thought and inkling is described and explored. The people he harasses, the fights he starts, his visions of his own talent (highly inflated) and his paranoia are frightening. He has tremendous pride, not wanting to take help from others, even when he hasn't eaten for days. One shopkeeper, realizing his situation, actually pretends to make a mistake and gives him too much change...rather than take this for food, he gives it to a more 'impoverished' soul than him. It's not that he's selfless, far from it. His pride consumes him. He can't bear to imagine anyone thinking badly of him, even when he is selling off his clothing and the buttons on his coat. He even has the opportunity to make use of a homeless shelter to get food and a bed, and he refuses rather than to look bad.

Physically, the starvation manifests itself in losing his hair in clumps, a peeling skin rash and raw skin from his dirty clothes rubbing his skin, blackened nails, lost teeth, and a chronic dizziness and fever.

I was amazed in that while he did write to earn money, he never seemed to try and seriously find a job. And he never seemed to consider stealing, which would have occurred to me before I would be chewing on stones. Again, it wasn't out of honor, it was about his perception of what others would think of him, and he wanted to be thought of as honorable, even though he wasn't.

He was truly isolated. No family is mentioned, his only friends are actually acquaintances that avoid him because of his strange behavior and pathetic appearance, exactly what he was hoping to avoid. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of child he was (okay, I know it's fictional but I still think this way) and what made him so prideful and vain.

It's said that everyone has a story they tell themselves about themselves. How they account for their choices and actions in their own head, and how they justify or condemn themself. In this I wondered, since I could clearly see the story he was telling himself, and how inaccurate it was from his reality, how far off is my perception of myself? Is the way I think as completely out of touch? Is my inner voice as flawed and stubborn as his?

Riffing on stuff

Little itty bitty things cluttering my mind:

Middle child turns 16 tomorrow. Yikes. How did this happen? He was my tiny baby, my cuddly third grader, my nervous junior high kid. Now he's driving and that means I'm old!

Youtube: I know there is a ton of crap on it, but I am in LOVE with this website. With a toddler who is fascinated by everything, it's so cool to find a video about something he likes. He was really into a photo of a wolf, with youtube we found a few clips of wolves howling. He was awestruck. We found clips of time-lapse photography of hatching eggs, kittens being born, etc etc. Besides the goofy stuff he loves: cats jumping long distances, ducklings following their mom. Very cool.

Jon & Kate Plus 8: I've held off my worthless opinion but I have to throw this out there: how can you justify pimping out your kids when they are too young to have a say? Sure, they had a bunch and need money to pay the bills, I totally get that. But camera crews everywhere, all the time? On a normal scene with all of them, there's at least 16 other people in the house at the time involved in the filming. How can that be normal? Will these kids grow up in any sense of reality? I mean, isn't there dignity in providing for your own without overexposing them? How about a Tide commerical? The idea that they must have the money sort of goes out the window when Kate has Louboutin heels on, surely not a necessity. Turns out her hopes are to be a talk show host. Oh. Swell. I've seen her slap her husband on the face, and scream at him for not using a coupon at the grocery store. Will the kids grow up and watch Daddy be emasculated by his snarling wife? The Goo Goo Dolls said it best "Reruns have become our history". Will that be all this kids have? Do they really want a family of little Bonaduce's when they are no longer cute and adorable? I really dislike the mom, the last episode I watched the kids all got to go to a bakery to decorate their own cupcakes. Then the mom didn't let them eat them, too much sugar! Poor little babies...I hope the designer clothes make up for all they've lost (and will continue losing). My sons suggested "FreeJon" tshirts, long before his alleged "affair" came out.

Fox news: a new low, a few weeks ago. One anchor commented on how 'interesting' it was that the swine flu epidemic occurred during a democratic president's term. What the heck? She was trying to imply it was somehow Obama's doing? That the Republicans could have prevented it? What?

Sicko, a Michael Moore film

First off, I've always been a bit skeptical of MM. I've seen his movies and have been pretty shaken up by them, but always felt like he was not telling the whole truth. That maybe he was manipulating facts to be more dramatic.

Watched Sicko last night. It was unbelievably painful. Even if he is exaggerating, our health care crisis IS totally insane. The people and their stories: how crazy is our society when a 3 year old can't be treated for a serious condition and dies while the hospitals fight over who has to treat them? When a major medical teaching hospital (USC) dumps indigent patients on the streets in Skid Row, in the middle of the night, still in their hospital gowns and disoriented?

At the root of it all is that the US medical system is a for-profit business. Any health care plan where someone stands to make money by not treating sick people is inherently flawed. A doctor that stands to make more money when patients don't get the tests they need is denying his own hippocratic oath. When a man looses two fingers in an accident and is made to choose at the hospital which one he can afford to have re-attached, something is SO messed up.

Moore explores Canada, England, and France to see their 'socialized' national healthcare system, and debunks many of the myths about their systems. I had always heard that despite Canada's national healthcare, that you have to wait months and months for treatment. Not so. In France, new mothers get in home assistance to help with their newborns, even getting help with the laundry, at no charge. No one is turned away from help. Even preventative care is free. Low price pharmaceuticals mean parents don't have to choose between antibiotics for their kids or groceries.

Moore even shows how Gitmo inmates receive excellent care, and surprisingly, Cuba itself has an excellent medical system. Prison inmates in the US receive top notch medical care.

I can remember my husband telling me when he worked in a store that often elderly patients bought cat food cans in quantity, and he asked what kind of cat they had. Usually, they said they didn't have one. He explained that some admitted they couldn't afford food AND their numerous medications. So guess what they ate? When McDonald's had their 29 cent hamburger promotion years ago, it became a problem because elderly ones were stocking up huge amounts, just to have something to freeze and then eat when they needed it. How messed up is this?

See this movie if you can handle it. Seeing 9/11 volunteers and EMT responders being denied treatment is pretty hard to take.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

That Eye, That Sky by Tim Winton

Yep, more Winton. I should know Australia pretty well by now, after all these books. Spoiler alert!

That Eye, That Sky is his most bewildering novel so far (at least to me). I finished it with a huge sense of what? I made the mistake of going online to see if there was a reading guide or cheat sheet that explains "this is what he meant". I ended up just finding a bunch of reader's suggestions that it all had to do with conversion to Christianity by way of one of the character's (Henry) sudden appearance.

It starts with the ominous warning of a mother telling her son to always wave goodbye when someone leaves, as you may never see them again. You know that can't bode well.

The novel itself is told in the voice of a ten year old boy, whose father is rendered incapacitated by a car wreck (and no, the kid didn't wave goodbye). His teen sister, his long suffering mom and his Alzheimer inflicted grandmother fill out the family tree. They are barely managing, out in the woods, practically camping, when the accident occurs and changes their lives. Henry shows up to 'help' and has long philosophical discussions with the mom and sister, while helping them care for the father. This leads the mother and son into seeking purpose and God's aid.

Do I think Henry helped them? Actually, I have to disagree with all the other online opinions. I think Henry hampered them in everything. I think he represented evil. They weren't considered bad caregivers until Henry was 'helping' them. He ends up seducing their teenage daughter and contributed to her wild behavior. I think the fact that the mother tolerated him for his help is what alienated the daughter in the first place and made her more susceptible to his advances. And the suggestion is made that he prevents the father from actually recovering. I think the mother and son would have had their quest for spiritual guidance regardless of Henry's visit; people in tough times often reevaluate their needs.

I loved his voice as Morton: he sounds just like a kid with kid thoughts and explanations. He must have been a young boy once! I was also interested in how he felt watched by the sky all the time, I think essentially he was describing his conscience. He knew right and wrong, and he had a good heart.

It left me with many questions: why is no other family mentioned? Why is the daughter so angry all the time? Who is the person the grandmother keeps calling out for? How are they getting by financially? Is it possible that the daughter and Henry had a prior acquaintance with each other, and his visit was subterfuge for being there with her?

I don't mind the questions, I like pondering this kind of stuff. I do think Winton took the easy way out by portraying any "church people" as cliche'd personalities: hateful and judgmental (the Lutherans) or theatrical and creepy (the Catholics). That surprised me a bit, usually he delves a little deeper than what you would expect from a skit on Saturday Night Live.

Snapshot of the Economy via Craigslist

Okay, I confess: I love craigslist. I have bought and sold stuff on it. My son finds great deals on auto parts and tools. I think it's a great resource, and with Ebay charging such high fees, it's a steal.

A new trend I've noticed lately, though, has to be a reflection of the fact that many people are experiencing financial problems. You can tell by what they are selling. Used clothes, okay. But worn out used clothing that is better served as a cushion for the dog's crate? A couch that the owner admits is smelly? Beat up kids shoes? The kind that a thrift store wouldn't carry, they are THAT beat up? I'm seeing more sentimental items listed, as well as just small attempts to make a few bucks.

Nothing wrong with that; I've made some small coin selling baby stuff that we'd outgrown. But half a can of paint? Thing is, selling is a hassle: you have to arrange the pick up, you have to be there and hope the person finds your house*. Or you have to go to them. Is it worth $3 to do all that? Maybe if you are selling in quantity. I can't see how anyone is making any money at this unless they are really, really broke. I totally get it, I would do it too if I had to. It just seems like it's more noticeable in the last few months rather than since craigslist was created.

It's really sad to think of the bailouts that went to the automakers that have gone broke anyway. If that kind of money could have been invested in people, wouldn't it have been amazing? Kids being able to go to the doctor? Schools NOT firing their staff? Why not bailout the educational system? Seems like the financial 'experts' could have considered more of a grass roots bailout, rather than that pathetic 'trickle down' ideology.

*Just my two cents: never let a craigslist buyer come to your home. Meet them at the grocery store or somewhere close. You can't be too careful.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Out Stealing Horses, mini review

Out Stealing Horses by Per spoilers, I promise!

I just finished this hours ago, and it is something to be in awe of. I highly recommend this book, if, like me, you like your space and solitude and can relate to someone seeking actively seeking it.

The main character, Trond, is in his 60's, reliving his teenage experiences with his Dad. So it hops back and forth in time, seamlessly, and shows this incredible bond between father and son. The bond is so strong that events that come along are not easily understood at first. They don't always fit in with the first perception of the close familial bond.

The location, Norway, is fascinating: Petterson spends much time discussing the geography, botany, and farm activities of Norway. The weather, with the short days and long nights then is shifted to long days with short nights, and this seasonal shift seems to be reflected in the character's choices.

I don't want to say much else, as to ruin it for someone else, but do curl up with this on a quiet afternoon, with a pot of hot coffee. Have your dog at your feet and a blanket to curl up with, as inevitably you'll soon feel chilly.

One thing that astounded me again, in reading this, has been my noticing of late that many books involving older people seem to have all of them reliving their childhood moments, specifically their teen years. I don't know why I hadn't noticed that before. Maybe it wasn't my time to notice those things. It made me wonder, does my dad, at roughly the same age, think about his father in most waking moments? I think I should ask. Because in my life it seems I'm so occupied with just the here and now, I don't have time to look back, and can't really think of a single teenage experience significant enough to ponder in the future.

Oddball Goals

Okay, this list is going to get updated as I consider new options, but I wanted to keep track of my goals (the open-to-the-public kind of wishes!).

In my lifetime, I'd love to see the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) for real.

I want to see fireflies in person, and catch one in a jar.

I want to learn the proper use of "its", "it's", and "its'". I still haven't got this one down.

Be a corpse in an episode of Law & Order. Weird, yes. Just a funky thought as I do have an L&O addiction.

Spend a month in each of the following locations, in a home rather than a hotel, and live like a local: Barcelona, Bar Harbor-Maine, anywhere in Argentina (my Dad says I must see Iguasu Falls (shown above) and have milanesa on the street of Buenas Aires)***, east of Wexford-Ireland, somewhere near Cornwall-England to satisfy my du Maurier cravings, and now Norway (from a book I just read, haven't settled on the location yet).

***I must add, my parents are way cool. They've been all over, at least as far as the Americas: They've lived in Belize (seven years), Guatamala, and Hondorus; they've had extended visits in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. They've had brief escapes in Uruguay, Paraguay, Equador, and Nicaragua. They haven't been to Columbia or Venezuala yet, but they have had short visits in just about every South/Central American country. They've hit Europe once (the whole Ireland-England-France generic trip) and didn't fall in love. But they adore South America, having friends in most places so they get to visit it for real and not like a tourist. I love that they want adventure when they travel, and not just a condo on the beach with pina coladas. As they've gotten older they've decided their travel is over, which is sad, but they are planning an extended trip to Portland OR next month with some friends. They have interesting passports! Mine, sadly, shows only Belize and Guatamala.

Nice Work if you Can Get It!

Here's a job that would be pretty cool to have: April's Smithsonian magazine had an article on a few forensic astronomers who specialize in art and art history. Essentially, they are scientists first, who are experts in the solar system, star patterns, etc (the real deal, not astrology). Because of the precise orbits and nature of the universe, they are able to go back in time and figure out why certain famous art pieces are what they are.

Example: Van Gogh's White House at Night. It's a house with a starry sky around it, and one particular star is very noticeable. Up till this recent discovery, it was thought the stars were the effect Van Gogh intended as in Starry Night. But actually, by going to the actual location where Van Gogh painted it, exactly to the spot by using details in the painting, at exactly the same corrseponding day it was painted (requiring hours of research and study) they found that it was actually Venus that was the bright star in the painting, not just an ordinary star.

Another study they did was of Munch's The Scream painting (I call it Diary of a Migraine). In the background the sky is bright red. It was thought this was just artistic license. But by going back to the exact year it was painted, to the exact location, and going through historical records, they found that it was the ash in the sky from the eruption at Mt. Krakatoa that made the background actually appear red. They assert that Munsh painted it as he saw it, and perhaps the expression on the figure's face was in reaction to that scary sky.

One point the article brought out was that many artists are inspired by the variations of the sun and moon, and events such as eclipses are often tied in with their work. So the study for the forensic astronomist is actually really like a treasure hunt, trying to see what is in the worksand if it's at all related to astronomy. Cool!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Random thoughts

Thoughts, no discernable order or sequence:

Eventful baby days: my little man managed to speak about 30 new words in just a few days, as well as bring me a Time magazine that had Obama on the cover to show me and point at while Obama was making his speech (he's only two!). He's learned the most essential baby word, "mine". He had his first moment of fear at something scary on TV (a trailer for The Land of the Lost, featuring a dinosaur ready to snap off Will Ferrell's head...I tried to calm him by explaining that the extinction of Will Ferrell might not be an entirely bad thing, thank you very much, but he was inconsolable for a long time...must be vigilant to avoid a repeat). He's discovered giant Lego blocks, how to climb a tree, how to use the toilet, and that cats don't want their teeth brushed. So much joy.

CNN ran a streaming headline "Flu scare prompts trend of 'social distancing'". Woo hoo! Let's hear it for social distancing. I've been doing this for years. This is no trend, it's a lifestyle! Let's hear it for hanging out at home, stockpiling books, and not answering the phone! Seriously, the flu does scare me in that my baby has respiratory issues, and we are being proactive in not going out unless absolutely necessary, and we are pushing the whole hand sanitizer thing. I think it's incredibly pathetic how the media is blowing this up, as not all cases are life threatening. Again, I tend to think in my conspiracy theory mode that when something like this is blown up by the media, what is really going on that they are trying to hide? What newsworthy items are not being covered so they can go back to Sanjay Gupta in his medical scrubs in Mexico (yes, his hair does look blowdried!)?

Teenagers: !!!!! #$)(*)@#$@#)($* !!!!!!!! Can't live with them, can't live them. My teens are annoyed with me, for varying reasons, and usually I care but right now I'm just right-back-atcha annoyed too.

TV: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. What did I do before they came along? I'm so much better with current events now!

A new mix CD: nostalgically reliving the 80's, featuring Kajagoogoo "Too Shy", "Come on Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners, "In a Big Country'' by Big Country, "Stop the World" by Modern English, "People Are People" by Depeche Mode, "Strip" and "Wonderful" by Adam Ant, "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" by Wham. I know, ridiculously peppy pop tween music. I had big hair. In fact, in the 80's I had big hair and a small butt. Now I have the opposite. Damn.

Why is there no perfect set point to take a sleeping pill? I keep playing the bedtime sleeping pill seesaw game. I think I can sleep, I can't, I look at the clock, wanting to avoid the pill so as not to feel crummy in the morning. Still can't sleep. Toss and turn. Over and over. Almost get to sleep. Worry about bills. Get up and read. Try and sleep more. Watch a little TV. Have chamomile tea. Back to bed. Toss. Punch pillows. Look at clock. Finally dazed enough to get up and take sleeping pill, only to discover it's 5:30 a.m. and technically too late. Now I will feel crappy no matter what.


I had a free afternoon and this movie was saved to Tivo. It's an Australian movie from the early 1980's starring Hugo Weaving (Mr. Smith from The Matrix) and an adorably young Russell Crowe (damn, do we ALL have to age?). It's not a good movie at all. It goes too fast and then plods along for another section. Endless and supposedly meaningful close-ups; overpowering soundtrack, and some scenes that had no logical purpose. So I'm not promoting it as a great movie. But it did seem to connect a great deal with the book I've been reading (Astrid & Veronika, below) and they seemed to carry a shared thread of trust and regrets.

The story is of a blind Australian man in his early 30's who is living a quiet life, dealing with nothing more than the hostility of his catty housekeeper. She had fallen in love with him, but he had no interest in her, so her love turned to vicious attacks and aggression made to humiliate him (picture her as a younger, hipper Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca). He meets up with Andy (Crowe's character) and begins a friendship and actually begins to have a life outside of the boundaries of his blindness. Of course, things go wrong, and the catty housekeeper can't stand to see her lost love spending time with a friend.

No huge surprises, but I really liked how it explored the concept of Trust. His blindness made him rely on people all the time. But instead of learning to trust in them, he actually trusted them less. He had a bitter streak that some disabled people get, rallying against the bonds constricting them. He had his own aggression and feelings that people were manipulating him, and it isn't until he learns that trust is not an absolute. He has to learn to accept that even the most good hearted of people may omit or evade the truth upon occasion, and that the painful truth is what has kept him isolated for so long. In order to branch out into a real life, he has to accept the shades of grey that color Trust from black to white.

Astrid & Veronika, thoughts on a book

“It is as if time is irrelevant. My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all time, while years of my life have left no trace.”

“I think that perhaps there are no such defining moments at all. Beginnings and ends are fluid, long chains of events where some links seem so insignificant and others so very momentous, while in fact all have the same weight. What may appear as a single dramatic moment is just a link between what was before and what comes after.”

Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson

I'm finishing this book today, and I have not fully processed all my reactions to it yet. It is a stunning novel, sparse, concisely detailed with no extra fluff. Two intertwining life stories of completely different people, and the serendipitous connections that unite them. Astrid is an elderly woman, isolated socially and geographically, and is haunted by horrific memories. Veronika is a modern young woman who befriends her, as she is recovering from her own tragedy. They discuss their pasts and help each other move on. Reading details about Sweden, an area completely unknown to me was especially pleasant (if I go I had better learn to like rye bread and herring). It made me also want to go hug my mom.

I appreciated that nothing in this was Hallmark movie-of-the-week material, and as each chapter unfolded I was genuinely surprised at some twists the story contained. Usually I can predict pretty well what comes next, and this had me floored. One character realizes that her decades old anger was directed at the wrong person, and that she had to recover from the damage that anger caused. It's not an easy story: technically it's simple to read but it brings up some very painful emotions, those that caused me to put it down for a day or two. Again, it's not a happy story, but it was strangely uplifting, in that these ones were able to see forward and not dwell on the past. Most of all, it seems to send the message that we can't possibly know what events have shaped the people we love, and all the pains they may have endured, but we can try to find a way to love them as is. Without feeling like we have to judge or condone what we don't understand.