Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memories Worth Fighting For

A Much Needed Reminder from The Giver.

Currently Reading: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Think of your most cherished memories. The happiest, most contented, safe feelings you’ve ever had.

There are several I can think of for myself…Laughing and singing badly on the St. Lawrence River with some of my oldest friends… My family decorating our forest-worthy-sized Christmas tree with familiar, funky, and beautiful ornaments while carols from childhood play on our stereo in the background…Staring out at the New Mexico landscape from the top of Chimney Rock, not a single car, house, or person to be seen for miles and miles… Waking up next to a gorgeous man, with him caressing my arm, smiling and staring into my eyes…. My last night in college, spent in the local bar with some amazing people until close when everyone sang the traditional close song before randomly bursting into our Alma Mater… So much laughter, silliness and comfort that all make my heart swell in my chest like the Grinch's at the end of the story it’s so full of love and joy…

Now think of your worst memories. The ones you would wipe from your mind if you could. The ones that make your heart ache and your eyes sting with tears.

My first truly intense heartbreak… Watching my mother eulogize her brother as he lies still in the coffin behind her, eerily looking like he’s just napping… The misery of months filled with panic attacks so horrible I felt glued to my bed, wide-eyed with fear night after night… The shockwave of pain sent through my arm as cloth lightly brushed against my staph-infected skin at age eleven… Repeat images playing on television of the destruction and nightmare come to life that were the collapsing World Trade Centers… The vacant, ghost-like look on my best friend’s face as she emptily hugged me at the funeral for her first love… The agony my father and family face every day now as we adjust to his new state of paralysis… So many moments and looks of deep exhaustion and depression that make my heart literally feel as if someone is twisting it in my chest, attempting to pull it free so it won’t ever have to feel again…

Now, I want you to imagine a world in which you never had to experience any of those worst memories. No horrors, no pain, no hurt, no depression, no anxiety. The catch? You would have to sacrifice all those cherished experiences as well.

Would you do it? Would you trade in those wonderful moments of exquisite happiness to never experience any of that anguish?

In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, twelve-year-old Jonas exists in just such a world; a world devoid of the extremes of emotions and so obsessed with "sameness" that its citizens can’t even experience color. However, the perfection of Jonas's community comes crashing down around him when he is selected to become the new, highly respected Receiver of Memory. In this job, Jonas receives all the memories of worlds past from a man called The Giver, carrying this burden so the rest of the community don't have to. He discovers the wonders of sledding, sunbathing, family, and love, but in turn learns of the monstrosities of war, the intense pain of injuries as small as sunburn and as large as shattering your leg bone, and the horrible truths about the cost of living in such a safe, but controlled environment.

Bizarrely, this novel spoke to me a lot more during this second reading, despite the fact that I’m now almost eleven years older than the main character. In a strange way, I relate more to Jonas's experiences now than I did when I was actually his age. This is largely because we find ourselves at the end of childhood without entirely becoming adults yet. 

However, I found myself jealous of Jonas and his peers because their end brings a certain beginning.

At the Ceremony of Twelve, his future will be decided as he is given a career field to pursue for the rest of his life. When I graduated from college a year ago, I somewhat thought my ceremony would have the same results. I’d come out with a direction and a path to my future. Instead, I was shoved out of my safe community and placed at a fork in the road with hundreds of options… and I feel frozen to the spot with fear.

Almost hilariously, the fears that have me glued to the spot are summed up nicely in a conversation Jonas has with The Giver in the middle of the novel. He indignantly cries that it’s not fair that he lives in a world without the opportunity to choose anything, agreeing with The Giver that it doesn’t matter how small the decision is, it’s “the choosing that’s important” (Lowry 98). However, The Giver points out that people might make mistakes and suddenly it dawns on Jonas how dangerous it is to allow people to choose their own destinies.

“What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?” Jonas asks. Continuing this thought process, “almost laughing at the absurdity”, he ponders, “Or what if… they chose their own jobs?” (Lowry 98).

Over and over, this has been the fear running through my head, the thought that keeps me from taking a step in any direction. What if I choose wrong? What if I’m not qualified to do this? Will I be able to fix the mistakes I make if I choose to make them?

I’m embarrassed that living in this utopian society where the choice would be made for me sounds pretty damn good right now. If I lived in Jonas’s community, I would be eleven years into a career path now, not trying to figure out my first step into a career. There’d be fewer options in the first place and money would be so much less of a factor! I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by life and I’d be moving forward instead of standing still. God, that sounds so nice right now!

And how wonderful would it be if my father never had to experience any of the unbelievable pain he’s in? Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world without wars, without starvation, without heartache? It all really does sound ideal when you’re actually faced with life-changing decisions and pain, something most twelve-year-olds have never truly experienced, making this book infinitely more poignant now.

But what I love about this book is that it helps me remember why our world is still superior. Yes, it’s full of terrifying decisions and awful realities, but it’s also full of indescribable beauty and ecstasy that the members of Jonas’s community would never know. Those cherished memories? The love I’ve been enveloped in my whole life? They are what make this imperfect world so worth the bad stuff and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Sirens of Titan-ic Concepts for a Blog Post

Currently (Re-) Reading: The Giver by Lois Lowry

Warning: This post is really long... I tried to shorten it I swear.

Could it be? Is it true? Yes. It is the long-promised The Sirens of Titan post!

Please, try to contain your excitement.

First, allow me to give a brief synopsis of the novel for all interested parties.

Essentially, the plot revolves around two characters: Winston Niles Rumfoord and Malachi Constant.

The former is a space/time traveler stuck in a phenomenon called the chronosynclastic infundibula, which causes him to periodically materialize on Earth, Mars, Mercury, and Titan. Despite having read and re-read the explanation of this phenomenon numerous times, the best I can understand it is that it allows those caught in it to be in multiple places both periodically and at one time. This means that the traveler simultaneously knows what has happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Again, this is the best explanation I can offer. In my defense, I’m not a science major and it’s a fictional space phenomenon!

The latter character, Malachi Constant, is the heir to a multi-million dollar fortune – created through sheer dumb luck – who gets swept up into an elaborate scheme Rumfoord has concocted involving a Martian army and a new world “religion.”

Intrigued and confused yet?

Although this may seem like an impossibly hard plot, don’t let this deter you from picking up this book! The chronosynclastic infundibula is pretty much the hardest plot point to understand, I promise. And as it turns out, Vonnegut is not a hard read when you take the novel at face value.

Honestly, this was one of the most shocking parts of this reading experience for me. I was expecting Joseph Heller levels of pretentious, challenging writing in which you literally have to look up at least one word every three pages. What I found was something completely different. Compared to Heller, Vonnegut’s writing is like a giant, welcoming hug, even cleverly spelling out the most complicated concepts through quoting chunks of fictitious children’s novels in order to use the simplest language in his explanation. How inviting and easy it all seems…

However, it turns out that Vonnegut is simply showing his readers there’s nothing up his sleeves before performing Houdini or David Blaine levels of mind-blowing magic.

Because, holy crap is there a lot more to this book than the simple writing and characters let on. Guess that makes sense since the book is not really about the characters or plot. Rather it’s a novel dedicated to exploring an idea and oh hey! That idea? Oh, it’s just, “What is the meaning of human life?” So this should be a breeze to discuss and analyze, right?


Well done, Meredith! Way to take on the colossus of idea books as your first analytical blog piece. Kudos on your pick, you moron!

Before I continue this post any further, I want to say this up front and in the most obvious, clear way I can:


So if you have any intention of reading this novel – which I thoroughly recommend! – you may want to turn around now and come back when it’s safe to read.

Everyone leave who needs to leave? Yes? OK, then let’s move on.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel for me was the stark contrast between Rumfoord and Constant’s levels of control in their lives.

As mentioned earlier, Rumfoord has the advantage of knowledge throughout the novel. He is constantly living his life both in the moment and in the past, which means he already knows what will happen while it’s happening. In other words, Rumfoord can essentially predict the future. This power helps him to achieve a god-like status among his peers, allowing him to control hundreds of humans' lives, including Constant's. In fact, his level of control over everyone’s lives is so intense that he can orchestrate large, public ceremonies and a war between Earth and Mars.

And then there’s Constant, whose life functions in pretty much the polar opposite way. Even before he becomes a pawn in Rumfoord’s chess game, Constant’s success in life is created entirely out of luck and his level of control only decreases. He’s dragged all over the universe through Rumfoord’s manipulations with so little control he barely even controls his identity, as his name changes from Constant to Unk to Space Wanderer throughout the novel. In fact, his journey reads a lot like someone who is caught in a crowd and keeps moving with the force to avoid being trampled, but with no idea where everyone’s going.

The reader thinks he has it all figured out. Rumfoord is using his knowledge from his space/time travel to twist everyone’s Fates, including Constant’s, to fit his plans to create a worldwide religion with Rumfoord at the center. Hooray! The book is wrapped into a nice package of a power-hungry, all-knowing dictator!

… And then Vonnegut throws the twist at you.

As the quote from Esquire magazine says on the cover of my copy of the book: Vonnegut “dares not only to ask the ultimate question about the meaning of life, but to answer it.”

Yup. You can stop looking for answers now, because Vonnegut has them! Aren’t you glad you’re reading my blog?

According to Vonnegut, everything humans have done since 203,117 B.C. has been to deliver a spaceship part to an alien named Salo from the planet Tralfamadore whose ship broke down on Titan so that he can continue his mission to carry a message from “One Rim of the Universe to the Other” (Vonnegut 274).

And when I say everything humans have done, I mean everything. Every giant structure, including Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China, was a message to Salo that the part was on its way. Every great civilization was created to make those structures/messages. And everything Rumfoord manipulated everyone on Earth, including Malachi Constant, to do was to get Constant’s son, Chrono, to Titan with his “good luck” piece…which is the part of the ship Salo needs.

So in reality, no one has been in control of his life, including Rumfoord. Everyone has been used as a means to an end for the Tralfamadorians’ plan for thousands of years.

The kicker? The oh-so-important message that Salo has been carrying? It turns out it simply says, “Greetings.”

It may be kind of bleak, but I actually kind of like the message Vonnegut is trying to convey. Essentially the novel is pointing out that humans are just tiny specks in the universe so to think we are here to serve some special purpose is pretty conceited. Even if we are here to serve a purpose, the universe is so expansive and our perspectives are so limited, there’s no way we could possibly understand what that purpose is.

So maybe there is a plan, maybe there is Fate, but really? We should stop worrying about it and just live our lives.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Read Light, Green Light: Stop and Go Reading Frustrations

Currently Reading: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

If you just looked at the “Currently Reading” and thought to yourself, “Still?” – trust me, you’re not alone.

For the record, I had intended to be done reading The Sirens of Titan in time to make it my third blog post. However, I have finished neither reading the book nor coming up with a specific and interesting enough topic related to it to warrant a post. Nevertheless, I’m afraid of losing oh-so-precious momentum, so I decided it was better to post something, even if I’m still not discussing a particular book like I’ve been promising to do, than to just not post at all.

So instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to vent a little about the main frustration I’ve encountered while reading The Sirens of Titan: the importance of pace.

So much of how you feel about a book depends on the pace at which you read it. It’s truly a shame that life very rarely allows for you to completely indulge in reading a book and escape into its clutches to the point where you can read a 300 page book in a day. I don’t think it’s an unfair claim to say that no one can have a career as a professional bookworm – but if you can, please hit me up and I’ll send you my resume STAT! – so for the most part, we all have other commitments that get in the way of this uninterrupted pace that allows for the most enjoyment. And it’s frustrating to me that it can absolutely affect your feelings about the book.

For example, I love the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In fact, I just finished re-reading it. It’s one of my most recommended books and has one of the most beautiful, symbiotic viewpoints on world religion I’ve ever come across with a fantastic twist that messes with your head and gets you thinking. So when I began dating someone not long after finishing the book the first time, I insisted that he read it! I just knew he would love it as intensely as I did and was excited to start discussing it once he was done. (Because who wouldn’t want to go on a date where all you do is discuss a book? Hot stuff, right?) To my disappointment, it took my boyfriend months to barely get halfway through the book. I’m fairly certain he finished it, but we definitely never had any discussions about it beyond him saying, “I thought it was good, but I didn’t think it was that good. Not a lot happens.”

I was indignant. WHAT?! Not a lot happens?! The kid is only stranded at sea with a TIGER! And who cares either way when the book is so beautifully written?!

In my mind, this was almost a dump-able offense.

However, I realized upon my second reading of the book that the fact that he and I initially read Life of Pi at vastly different paces validated his opinion. I forced the book on him during his second semester of junior year in college, a notoriously stressful time at my college. He had papers, tests, service trip fundraising, club positions, and a job to fill up the time he wasn’t actually in class. Not to the mention the not insignificant time-suck that was dating me… Finding time to read for pleasure in that kind of environment is almost on par with finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So major kudos to him for even making the effort let alone actually finishing the thing!

On the other hand, my first reading of Life of Pi was pretty much in the polar opposite environment. It was my travel book for what was essentially a day-long trip from South Carolina to Pennsylvania with a layover in Chicago. I was cut off from other distractions – friends, school, phone calls, emails, Facebook, DVDs, etc. – and had no commitments, just time to kill. It was glorious uninterrupted, guilt-free reading for hours! I devoured that book, resenting the airplane for landing in my final destination when I was so tantalizingly close to the end! So upon returning to my dorm room, I promptly ignored my suitemates and homework (that had piled up from a weekend away) until the shocking twist had been revealed and I could close the book with intense satisfaction.

It’s a small wonder that for me the book was fast-paced and addicting while he found it somewhat slow and good, but not great. After all, reading it a second time – when I also had a full time job and other commitments to contend with – I realized that the protagonist is stranded at sea for over half the book. It’s not like there’s a whole lot changing beyond his developing survival skills until he discovers the incredibly bizarre and confusing Meerkat Island (seriously, does anyone know what that was about?!?!?!).

Despite the fact that it seems like a well-written book should be considered a great book no matter what, pace will absolutely factor into that evaluation. I’m not saying it’s impossible to recognize the merits of a novel on its own, but I contend that your enjoyment level of the novel is almost directly related to the pace at which you read it. If you constantly have to stop and start a book, it’s almost impossible to get a good flow going and you’ll never allow the book to transport you into its world, one of the most amazing experiences reading has to offer.

To me, it doesn’t seem like stop-and-go reading should be this way. I often get as attached to characters in a novel as I get to my flesh and blood friends so I consistently think that picking up a book after a long break should be like picking up with friends after a long separation. You may have to refresh each other on what’s just happened in your lives, but it should feel comfortable and easy. Unfortunately, the experience is usually much more akin to driving in D.C. traffic during rush hour. Either you’ll inch along painfully slowly or you’ll get chunks where you can go the speed limit but still end up slamming on the brakes every 3 miles. It’s jolting and frustrating and usually leads to fits of road rage from even the most mild-tempered person.

So if you’re thinking of starting a book in this kind of environment, it might be worth it to just wait until rush hour’s over. Because it won’t matter if you have great music on the radio, nice enough weather to keep the windows down, or a scenic drive. The stop-and-go flow will still make the experience suck at least a little bit.