Context is very powerful

I’ve been teaching myself Spanish for the past six weeks or so, and am at the point where I can read very simple fiction such as the stories in this book, which are designed specifically for beginners, and use only simple, common words and phrases.

Although I don’t know all the words, and am still very confused by the grammar rules, tenses, and all that kind of stuff, it is surprising how easy it is to understand what a sentence as a whole means based on context. I find myself reading sentences, guessing at the meanings of words that I don’t know based on the sentence as a whole, and coming up with what I think the sentence means… and being right. Of course, sometimes I’m wrong (I always check, anyways) but not very often.

I remember being young and doing this with English words I didn’t know (before google!). If you see a word in context enough times you just learn what it means without anyone telling you, or if not exactly, then you get an aura, or flavor of what it generally means.

I also think that, aside from learning the meanings of words, we can learn all kinds of things just from context. Why did some character say a certain word, or act a certain way? What are a characters motivations or fears? We learn these things by the things that happen around the character. Not by having them explicitly, painfully, detailed for us.

Anyway, I’m having a lot of fun learning. It gives me that little hit of dopamine every time I successfully decipher a sentence, like solving a puzzle. My hope is that, if I can get good enough at it to read actual novels, I will become fluent through osmosis, by just reading and reading, which is how I got good at English, after all.

Then I could read Marquez and Borges in their original text! 😮 Life goals!

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I, Claudius by Robert Graves

This was an interesting and entertaining, though not always very engaging read. Told from the point of view of  Claudius, a stuttering, limping, nephew of the emperor Tiberius.

I have no idea how much of this is historically accurate beyond the births and deaths of these people, but it painted a disgusting picture of the political world in Rome at this time. The book at many points read as a list of murdered people. Anyone who had even a slight bit of integrity or likability was murdered to help Tiberius (and eventually Caligula) stay in power. I feel like Game of Thrones may have been influenced by this kind of history.

In many ways, the greed and paranoia of those in power reminded me of our own political world today. Those in power seem evil in a pathetic, rather than impressive way.

On the down side this is a very historical novel, in that it is more a list of events than a story. The narrator, Claudius, hardly takes any actions himself and is more documenting all the things that happen around him. This makes the story hard to get into at some times.

 

Chekhov, no twist!

I’ve been reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, and am enjoying it immensely. His characters are so bright and clear and amped-up that you can’t help but love or hate them. But more than any of that, I absolutely love the lack of twist endings in his stories.

Anton Chekhov, if you’re not familiar, wrote in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and is considered by many to be the ‘father’ of the short story. And I have to say, I prefer him to most of his offspring. It is hard to describe how refreshing it is to read a story that doesn’t try to rip the rug out from under me in the last sentence every. single. time. A story that says what it’s trying to say, and then ends, without having to manufacture a shock that turns everything you just read on its head, or somehow reverses the meaning of something important. Instead, I get to the end, and it’s over. His stories are not all preamble to some endorphin-triggering key word. They are not just a fuse leading to an explosion. They are enjoyable for themselves.

After reading Chekhov’s stories, I became very aware that today’s short stories, at least in the non-literary genres, are basically distilled twist. If there is not some shock or surprising reveal or reversal at the end, then what is the point of writing it? I fear, is what people think. Well the point, like any writing, is to make someone feel or think or identify or understand something. And there are plenty of things other than surprise that a story can make you feel.

I am learning a lot from these stories, and this is definitely going to affect my own writing in the future. I heavily recommend reading Chekhov to anyone who wants to write short stories!

Vertigo, by W.G. Sebald: A dark view on memory

This book is about memory. But similar to the other Sebald novel I’ve read, Rings of Saturn, the true meaning of the book was not clear to me until the end.

The novel features an unnamed narrator who may or may not be Sebald himself, traveling about Europe and reminiscing (also similar to Rings of Saturn.) Early in the story, it becomes apparent that there is a theme to the characters memories, and I found myself searching for meaning and patterns.

The narrator describes repeated instances of how certain things–a painting, the shape of a building, the hunch of a stranger’s shoulders–make him recall other experiences from his past in great detail. This remembering is involuntary and sometimes stops him in his tracks. This aspect of how memory works is so obvious that it seems pointless to describe, but I never thought of my memory as being involuntary until I read this book. This adds another strange element to to the story: the idea of how certain things can trigger us to fall into a memory against our will.

But Sebald does more than just describe this effect, he actually tricks the reader (or me, anyway) into experiencing it. Throughout the text are many vividly described and iconic images, that are recalled again and again throughout the book. Every time such an image (for example, a hunchback) is mentioned, I couldn’t help but thinking of the previous scene that was embedded in my memory, which then triggered the scene before it, and so on, causing me to fall helplessly through my own memories. This effect did, once, in fact give me a startling sense of vertigo.

After experiencing this strange effect, I thought that must be the point of the book–to describe the strange, involuntary way we experience memory. But it turns out the real message is something darker and sadder.

Early on in the novel, in a section detailing the life of Henri Beyle (better known by his pen name, Stendhal), Beyle remarks on a certain painting of a favorite view of his. He dislikes the painting because it has supplanted his memory of the real view with itself. Now, whenever he recalls gazing over that same vista, all he can think of is the painting. His original memory, has been in effect, destroyed by the painting.

By the end of the book I realized that this is the true message of the novel: the fragility and constant degrading of our memory. Every thing we see, makes us think of other things, and attaches itself to them, adds, and removes from them, changing them in subtle ways that we are not aware of. Each time Sebald repeated references to certain iconic images, they were diluted with each other, until I was unsure what event happened at which time.

In the last pages of Vertigo, the narrator falls asleep on a train while reading some accounts of the Chicago Fire. He dreams of walking through a desolate landscape composed of gravel and rock, and looking into a great void while snippets of what he was reading come back to him as echoing words in the emptiness….

We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City. Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned. A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln’s Inn. The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once. The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground. And Bishop Braybrook’s grave is opened up, his body disinterred. Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Besides being a great story with amazingly developed characters that are intriguing to watch change over the course of the novel (well… most of them change…), this novel pointed out the giant blind spots I have about the world beyond my door step, and has encouraged me to seek out books that feature other cultures and times in history that I know nothing about, which is most of them….

I really loved how distinct the character’s voices were in this. Each chapter is written in first person from the perspective of one of five characters. Sometimes, when resuming in the middle of a chapter, I’d forget who’s chapter it was. I’d only have to listen for a few seconds before I knew, based on the way the characters observed the world around them.

Heartbreaking, entertaining, educational…

Sharp Objects blunted by twist ending

This post contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen HBO’s Sharp Objects, you’re in for a treat, go watch it. Then come back and read.

 

Sharp Objects is a show you have to pay attention to. It’s smart, and subtle, and you can miss entire plot points if you look away for even a few seconds. What I loved so much about Sharp Objects wasn’t the story as much as how it was told. That is, the story was shown, rather than told. You pick up clues, make inferences, put together implications and build for yourself the picture of what’s going on. It is supremely satisfying to be treated like an intelligent, observant, perceptive viewer.

And that’s why the ‘twist’ ending was such a shock to me. Not because the the actual revelation that Amma was a killer was a shock, there was enough hints and cues and clues throughout this very thoughtful and subtle show to put it together–if we’d been given the chance. The shock was that a show this subtle and evocative felt the need for something as trite as a twist ending at all. I expected a show like Sharp objects to leave me thinking, puzzling, wondering, with as many questions as answers.

Instead Sharp Objects ended like a teen slasher movie with the best buddy who you think has been helping the whole time suddenly baring fangs or pulling out a knife. Oh no, what a twist. Amma may as well have stepped into frame covered in blood and holding a handful of teeth.

At the very least if they’d cut it with Camille finding the tooth in the dollhouse (which had the nice out of focus shot of the doll sitting limp in the window to remind you of the original murder scene), you’d have a moment to think about it for yourself. You might think: ‘why would Amma have teeth… did she take them from her mother… or…’ then your mind rolls back over the show, you make connections, you get that ‘oh, god…’ moment. It’s satisfying to be shown instead of told the answer.

But we get it rubbed in our face by Amma showing up like a ghost who lost their jump scare violins ‘Don’t tell mama!’ And if that wasn’t enough, we have the post-credit scene to really hammer it home for any dummies in the audience who didn’t catch on. It left a disappointing taste in my mouth after such a monumentally impressive show.

All this leaves aside the question of why we need twist endings anyway. I know Sharp Objects was based on a novel, so to leave out the twist would have been a disservice to the author and fans. But why does a good show or movie need a twist at all? Why do so many authors and directors feel obligated to include one? Wasn’t it surprising enough that Camille’s own mother was the killer without having to flip everything on its head in the last seconds of the entire show?

Sharp Objects was about so much more than just who killed those girls. In fact, while watching it I was hardly ever concerned with that question. I wanted to know about Camille’s history, her family, her past and future. And I got to learn all that and more. That is what got me excited while watching Sharp Objects. Ending on a goofy twist that puts all the focus on the ‘who dunnit’ aspect seems like a major disservice.

Anyone who stuck with this show to the end is not going to be afraid of subtlety and ambiguity. Those aspects were the hallmarks of this exceedingly sharp show. It’s a shame it had to end in such a blunt way.

Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai

This one was alternatingly intense, uneasy, claustrophobic and funny.

The story takes place in a small Hungarian town where the collective farm has collapsed and the people have no way to make money. They are all looking for a way out, and have placed their faith in a mysterious and charismatic character who may or may not be scamming them. There is also constant rain that has washed out the roads leaving them all trapped.

I loved the way this was written. The long, cramped pages full of texts and long sentences added to the feeling of inevitability and claustrophobia the characters were feeling. There is another layer added at the end, which also makes sense with the style of writing.