Frankenstein: You’ll Want to Punch Victor in the Face, but Read it Anway

frankenstein

Frankenstein is a book about an idiot. I did a lot of eye-rolling in this book. There were a great many exasperated sighs. I started haranguing people in the break room about it during lunch. I argued with the book while reading it. When I read Thoreau in college, I argued with him. Of course it’s easy to spend your life admiring nature when you’re camping on your friend’s land and your sister brings you lunch. I felt similarly annoyed with Victor Frankenstein. Which, though it’s not my favorite way to read, is a sign of an engaging text. It’s not like the writing was bad. A poorly written character wouldn’t have gotten such a reaction out of me. The plot was good enough to keep me going, even if I did want to bang the book on the table in the hopes that it knocked some sense into Frankenstein. But I don’t think it would have worked, just given dear Victor one more thing to whine about.

Frankenstein is smack dab in the Romanticism canon and boy does it show. Not a single person thinks a rational thought in its pages. The novel starter with Victor Frankenstein going away to school to study natural philosophy. During his studies, he spends time in charnel-houses observing natural decay. All the time spent around bones and bodies leads Victor to discover how to give life to an inanimate body. Once he learns this, he decides, with absolutely no forethought whatsoever, to animate a giant eight foot tall creature. As soon as the creature opens his eyes, Victor realizes his mistake and spends the rest of the novel moaning about it. The book isn’t about making the monster, it’s about the consequences of such an act. Consequences Victor both runs from and complains about depending on the section of the book. Victor is full of bitter weeping, tortured trembles, and fainting fits.

The monster runs out on Victor, to his relief. This I found baffling. If I made a monster and it was loose in the world, I would feel quite anxious. Victor comes down with an illness (one of many). By the time he’s well and ready to go back home, he receives news from his father that his little brother was murdered. The family maid, Justine, is convicted of the crime though Victor knows his creature murdered the boy. Justine hangs for her innocence. After the execution, Victor feels sorry for himself (though he’s still very much alive and not being munched on by worms after being executed for a crime he didn’t commit) and decides to go hiking on a glacier. While there, he meets the creature who forces Victor to listen to his story.

This part of the book is my favorite. It’s so imaginative. The creature explains what’s it’s like to have full consciousness and memories of experiencing the world for the first time. He talks of learning about light, discovering bird song, his first encounter with fire. He ends up in a hovel behind a small cottage and learns to speak by watching this family. He grows to love the family, and helps them with chores. One day, he musters up the courage to approach them. They scream, faint, run out, and beat him (depending on the family member). As all mankind will spurn him, the monster then asks Frankenstein to make him a spouse so he isn’t lonely. The monster threatens that if he doesn’t have a spouse, he will make Frankenstein’s life as miserable as possible. Frankenstein agrees to the plan, then goes on holiday to England for a few months and tours around the countryside. Not kidding. Doom hangs over his head and he and a buddy tour Oxford. When Victor finally gets around to making the creature and wife, he decides he will not be the cause of the destruction of the human race, destroys the progress he made, and sinks the remains in the ocean. The monster delivers on his promise of misery and, in one way or another, kills off everyone Victor knows.

In the novel, the monster doesn’t have a name. Now, we call tall, stitched-together, green, flat-headed monsters Frankenstein and this is a fitting fate for Victor. He is the real monster in the book. He discovers how to bring things to life and sets about doing so just because he can. The eruption of hubris, the all consuming selfish desire that leads Frankenstein to create his monster is more frightening than the monster himself. The monster is very empathetic. He wants to belong. He desires love. Victor should be the obvious bestower of that love, but Victor shuns his creation leaving the monster to fend for himself. If Victor had taken responsibility for his creation, the rest of the book wouldn’t have happened. Victor bemoans his fate, but look at the fate of the creature. Imagine life as a conscious being, who wants love and belonging, connection and exchange, but is denied these basic desires. Imagine watching life from the outside, facing violence and disgust any time you try to participate. Imagine not having anyone to talk to for your entire existence. Victor Frankenstein may be the one telling his story, but the creature gives the tale heart.

I read Frankenstein for the first time in high school. I remember that I enjoyed the section where the monster tells his story. On re-reading it, I mostly felt angry. Mary Shelley wrote a good book, but the writing itself didn’t stand out to me. What will stay with me after this reading are the questions the novel asks. Shelley wrote her famous book all the way back in 1818, but the questions it raises are still very much relevant. Should we pursue all knowledge? What are the potential consequences of that? What is it like to be forced outside of society? What happens to a being who is denied love and belonging? The consequences of that cannot solely be blamed on that being, as Frankenstein would have us believe, the blame should mostly lie on those who did the denying.

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Magic Hair

I am in search of Magic Hair. It took a while to realize this on account of the denial. You see, I don’t want to be a woman who cares much about her hair. I want to be a woman who cares about refugees and elephants and what to do about food waste, and I am a woman who cares about those things. But I also care about my hair. I can’t help but see this as a flaw. Which is stupid. I know this is stupid, and yet, here I am, writing about it.

I like to think that I am not the only person with this hair conundrum. In fact, I think all women (most women) would like to wake up with hair that looks great, makes them feel great, all without having to do anything to get it to look like that aka Magic Hair. I told this to my hairdresser last time I was there and she told me “we all want magic hair.” I looked at her elegant twist with this perfect amount of dishelved-ness about it and couldn’t help but think that that was easy for her to say, what with her having found Magic Hair and all. I like the woman that cuts my hair, but everything about that interaction is awkward for me. It’s as though all my feelings about my hair get distilled into this forty-five minute window. I try to act cooler than I am while pretending that I am above such matters as superficial as hair all while paying some one $60 plus tip to cut and style it. It doesn’t help that the last time I went, the hairdresser asked the guy at the reception counter to take pictures of her previous client (who had fabulous hair) and she has never asked me to get my picture taken. (Of course, I hate getting my picture taken and didn’t even know that getting your picture taken at the hair place was a thing… so I’m not sure what I’m complaining about here).

Also, I never know what to say to the hair lady. Sometimes we talk about TV, but as my favorite TV show is Friends and Daniel and I recently started watching The West Wing on Netflix, I really don’t have much to say about TV and you can only talk about the weather for so long. Also, as I have been trying to write more and don’t really like going out, I never have any good verbs for her when she asks what I’ve been doing. I feel like I let her down somehow by not telling her about my upcoming Halloween party. I should start lying. But I don’t. Instead I have the below conversation with myself in my head.

You don’t have to say anything. You’re just one of those really calm Zen people who exudes peace and calmness where they go. You’re probably making the whole salon more peaceful now. You’re probably her favorite client.

Yeah right. She probably thinks this is the longest haircut of her life. I bet she wishes she were cutting the hair of that ex-New Yorker in the next chair over. She doesn’t seem to have a problem talking with her hair lady.

Don’t think about that. Just think calm things. Take a deep breath. Try to find the god that lives inside your heart or whatever.

Here’s a question. If the calm at the center of your heart is the real you that’s connected to all things, including God, then what is all the other crap in your brain? Is that your human-ness? Is the good part of you really God and all the rest of you is human? Does that make humans inherently bad? Is that where original sin comes into play?

You are so impressive, thinking about original sin while at the hair salon. How many other people are thinking deep thoughts like this right now? Ok ok, go back to thinking about original sin, but make sure your face is really pensive, like you can’t talk because you’re so philosophical.

I think these thoughts are making you decidedly less deep and philosophical.

Shhhh… I’m looking stoic right now.

 Meanwhile, who knows what the hair lady is thinking. It doesn’t help that usually I go in after work and sink into the chair like I’ve spent the last 14 hours waiting tables at a diner while worrying about my sick kid. It’s all very dramatic.

I don’t know how it got to this. Though, as hairstyles have changed over time, I suppose I’m just thinking the same things women have thought for literally thousands of years. I wish I had the guts to shave it off and be done with it. Instead I have a long pixie that I like for three weeks, like ok for two weeks, and then spend two weeks thinking I should grow it out into a bob so I look like Adele. Even though, I won’t look like Adele on account that I’m not Adele. And for this, let’s just go ahead and blame the media. Because anytime you see an interview with Adele talking about being a mother (which I agree would be really hard), or Angelina Jolie talking about the refugee crisis (which I believe she deeply cares about) or Kerry Washington talking about how she doesn’t do anything with her hair when she’s not working (which I also believe because why would she lie about this) you know what? They have great hair while they’re talking, that’s what. Legendary hair.

Here’s the thing about Magic Hair: I think that if I magically had this great hair then everything would fall into place. I think that I would have more confidence and gumption. I think everything from cleaning to writing would go easier. If I had the Magic Hair, my wardrobe would finally look put together, my thighs would look toned, my every interaction would be smooth and funny and charming. If I just had the hair, then my apartment would come together and be significantly less cluttered and I could finally commit to reading War and Peace and finish that damn Hitler biography I’ve been reading for two and half years. Magic Hair is just a way of procrastinating, a way of searching for the easy way out. Because you know what? Writing would go better if I did it more. My apartment would be less cluttered if I hung up my coat every night. I could tackle War and Peace by reading War and Peace. It’s not magic. It’s just a matter of doing it. So why am I not doing it? Now that’s the real question that needs answering and it has nothing to do with hair and I can’t figure out how to blame the media for it.

Writer’s Block is a punch to the soul

How I know when this I-am-never-going-to-amount-to-anything-and-should-just-give-up-so-I-can-spend-the-rest-of-what-I’m-sure-will-be-shortened-life-after-all-the-TV-watching-and-gin-drinking-watching-TV-and-drinking-gin feeling is a result of not writing:martini

  1. I’m not writing. You think this would be obvious, but it’s not. It usually takes a couple of weeks for me to realize that this feeling of despair has anything to do with not writing. But then, when I recognize this, I continue to not write only now I add am-too-undisciplined-to-actually-be-a-writer thoughts to the growing pile of bad thoughts.
  1. I start thinking I should go back to school. I never think I should go to school for writing. I think I should go for something more practical like Ancient History or English Literature. I spend time imagining what it would be like to get a PhD, imagine telling people I have a PhD, and imagine myself walking around Paris, speaking French without an accent. I can see a montage of myself reading in different locations, wearing various sweaters, and drinking various hot drinks. At no point to I imagine myself teaching, publishing academic articles, or attending department meetings. When Daniel mentions those things to me, I stop thinking about going back to school. Besides what would I write for my Statement of Intent? “I want to learn about this so that I can feel superior to others?”
  1. Dirty socks start stressing me out. During good writing times things like dirty socks don’t bother me because I know that if I chose to put time into it, I could like in a house Martha Stewart would want for her magazine. (Though, does she ever have articles about 643 square foot condos?) When I’m not writing, I start to care about dirty socks and streaky bathroom mirrors. I can no longer tell the laundry basket that I don’t have time for it because I’m writing. Now, does this mean that during these times I live in an exceptionally clean house and a pristine wardrobe? Hahahahahahahahaha. No. It does not mean that.
  1. I watch a lot more TV. And then I think, why write anyway? I mean, why not just spend all my time watching TV? Is that such a bad way to live a life? Why write when I can watch an episode of Gilmore Girls and then an episode of Scandal back to back to back to back?
  1. I start to feel jealous of women who lived back in the 1800s and were diagnosed with hysteria all the time and given bed rest. I think that I’d welcome being diagnosed with hysteria. I’d love for a doctor to tell me to stay in bed for four months. Then I’d have a good reason to ignore laundry and watch TV all the time.
  1. When I decide that if I’m not going to write, the least I can do is spend more time reading, I think “Why bother reading anything that isn’t Harry Potter?” And I usually can’t answer this.
  1. This if followed by a thought like, “Why even write? Harry Potter has already been written? What could possibly be better than Harry Potter?”
  1. I start feeling bad about my stomach versus Gwyneth Paltrow’s stomach. Again, during writing times, I don’t think about Gwyneth Paltrow’s stomach because I’m a writer, damn it, and I could have nice abs if I committed my time to it, but I’m committing my time to writing. So when I’m not-writing, there’s time to think about things like Gwyneth Paltrow’s stomach. Again, this doesn’t mean that I exercise more during this time. In fact, I exercise much less. Which I just realized, probably isn’t helping things any.
  1. I believe, with all my heart, that if only we lived someplace else, then everything would be ok. Like if we moved to Paris or upstate New York or even Ohio, things would be the way I wanted them to be. Like it’s nothing to do with me, it’s Portland. It’s 100% the city’s fault, and if I lived in the English countryside then I would never ever feel this way again as long as I live.

Death in Venice: Better with Age

 

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The first I heard of Death in Venice was in the movie A Good Year starring Russel Crowe and Marion Cotillard. The movie is pretty good. Russell Crowe is, no surprise, not particularly likeable. But, all the other characters make up for his surly rudeness. Also, the majority of the movie takes place in Provence so… there’s a lot a surly rudeness I can put up with when the scenery looks like that. The movie flashes between Max (Russell Crowe) dealing with his uncle’s estate, and a ten year old Max, spending the summers with his uncle at the same better kept estate in Provence. During one of these flashbacks, the young Max sits by the pool reading Death in Venice which, not knowing a thing about it, sounded to me like a really great murder mystery. Also, there was always the teeny tiny possibility that if I read it, I would magically appear beside a pool in Provence, reading and sipping lavender lemonade.

So, I read it. My first thought? What the heck was a ten year old doing reading Death in Venice? The novella is about an aged writer who decides to take an adventure. At his age, adventure means holing up in a Venetian resort somewhere, which is what he does. He stays on an island in the Venetian lagoon where he begins to take great interest in a beautiful pre-pubescent boy. For most of the novella, he stalks the boy, while thinking about beauty and youth, through a crumbling, menacing, Venice and her surrounding islands.

The whole stalking-pretty-boy bit of the work threw me off. I didn’t get it. But the book stayed with me after I finished it. Sometimes I would think of its murky Venice and the sad, desperate man trapped in its pages. I re-read it hoping that I could appreciate the writing now that the stalking wasn’t going to take me by surprise.

The novella is really a contemplation on beauty, youth, and our folly in chasing after it. Thomas Mann introduces us to his main character, Gustav Aschenbach, who lives a stately, moral life. Aschenbach is logical, well-educated, reasonable, not the kind of man to be taken up with flights of fancy. On a ferry to Venice, he observes an older man trying to blend it with a ground of young people. Aschenbach is repulsed when he realizes the man has on makeup, false teeth, dyed hair. Yet, as the story goes on, Aschenbach too is caught up in chasing after youth, throwing off his reason and his intellect in an attempt to reach his darkest desire.

Death in Venice isn’t very long. Mann does a lot in so few pages. He moves easily from descriptions to thoughts and back out. Sometimes these internal thoughts morph into philosophical discourses that feel more like Mann lecturing the reader than Aschenbach’s inner dialogue. These can get tedious as can the description about Tadzio, the boy that captivates Aschenbach. Despite the continual descriptions of the boy, Mann is best at description I think. The details he chooses to disclose about people, the city, the gondolas, come together to make up the shadowed, misty, mood of the novella. My most favorite part of the book comes early, when Aschenbach is imagining adventures.

“He saw it, saw a landscape; a tropical swampland under a cloud-swollen sky, moist and lush and monstrous, a kind of primeval wilderness of islands, morasses and muddy alluvial channels; far and wide around him he saw hairy palm-trunks thrusting upward from rank jungles of fern, from among thick fleshy plants in exuberant flower: say strangely misshapen trees with roots that arched through the air before sinking into the ground or into stagnant shadowy-green glassy water where milk-white blossoms floated as big as plates, and among them exotic birds with grotesque beaks stood hunched in the shallows, their heads tilted motionlessly sideways; saw between the knotted stems of the bamboo thicket the glinting eyes of a crouching tiger; and his heart throbbed with terror and mysterious longing. Then the vision faded and with a shake of his head Aschenbach resumed his perambulation along the fencing of the gravestone yards.”

I like reading this paragraph out loud to hear the rhythms and alliteration. Mann wrote the piece in German and it was later translated to English, so the alliteration we have here must not have been planned. (I don’t know German, so it’s possible that all these ‘s’ sounds occur when reading this in Mann’s native language, but, what are the odds?)

Rereading Death in Venice, I understand why it lingered in my head for so long. And now I know it will absolutely linger in my head again. With time, I will forget the tedious repetition in descriptions of Tadzio, and remember only the murky mood of the novella, its haunting descriptions of people and the sinking city of Venice, they way death lurks around each paragraph, and the ideas Mann presents about beauty. It’s better the second time around.

Stuart Little is a Turd and Other Reasons to Re-read this Classic

stuart-little

The other day, I stared at my oatmeal, unexcited about work, unexcited about the gym after work, unexcited about making chicken after the gym after work. It was in this mood that I decided to read Stuart Little. It felt like a prescription to cure the dreariness. Staring into your oatmeal? Better read Stuart Little then. It’ll cure you right up.

I haven’t read Stuart Little since I was nine years old and liked to stay up late reading books all in one night. I read one of the Ramona books this way. It felt very grown up. Stuart Little surprised me this second time around. It was funnier than I expected, whimsical, but also kind of brazen.

Stuart Little is a short book by E.B. White about a boy who was born about two inches tall and looking an awful lot like a mouse. How it came to be that two normal sized human people had a son who looked like a mouse, I don’t know and White never explains. In fact, White doesn’t explain anything which is part of why the book is so great. The book putters along for a few chapters, we learn about Stuart and his family and the time he raced a boat across the pond in Central Park. The plot really gets going (and I use that in the loosest possible way) when a tired bird lands on the windowsill and Mrs. Little takes her in. Stuart befriends the bird, Margalo, and saves her from Snowbell, the family cat and later, Margalo rescues Stuart when he gets dumped in a garbage truck. When Margalo leaves without telling anyone, Stuart decides to go find her. He talks to his friend the surgeon-dentist who gives Stuart a miniature car and Stuart drives north, looking for his Margalo. The arc of the plot is more of a minor swell in Stuart Little. The chapters read like individual stories, sometimes connecting to overall story and sometimes not. Does he find Margalo? We don’t know. Do his parents know where he went? We don’t know. Are the people of New Englad surprised to find a mouse driving a car? Not really.

There are lots of things to like in this book. I like that White takes the time to show that Stuart’s parents are concerned about his feelings getting hurt over stories with mice in them. Mrs. Little rips out the page of Three Blind Mice in the nursery rhyme book and they decide, after some debate, to change the line in The Night Before Christmas to “not a creature was stirring not even a louse.” I like that Stuart has a brother, George, a normal sized boy who is easily distracted. I like that Snowbell takes nightly strolls to visit the neighborhood cats and that Margalo is saved from one of these neighbor cats by a literate pigeon. But mostly, I like that Stuart isn’t an entirely loveable mouse. He’s actually kind of a turd. He can be a little full of himself and easy to anger. Early in the book, he is annoyed when the bus driver questions his tiny tin-foil coins.

“What’s that you’re offering me?” asked the conductor.

“It’s one of my dimes,” said Stuart”

“Is it, now?” said the conductor. “Well, I’d have a fine time explaining that to the bus company. Why, you’re no bigger than a dime yourself.”

“Yes I am,” replied Stuart angrily, “… I didn’t come on this bus to be insulted.”

“I beg pardon,” said the conductor. “You’ll have to forgive me, for I had no idea that in all the world there was such a small sailor.”

“Live and learn,” muttered Stuart, tartly.

Later, while driving north, Stuart meets a two inch girl and invites her canoeing. He spends the day getting the canoe ready and imagining all the ways he’ll show off for her. But when it’s time to go canoeing, they find the canoe has been wrecked. Stuart pitches a fit. The girl suggests they fix the canoe, but Stuart protests it wouldn’t be the same.

“The same as what?” asked Harriet.

“The same as the way it was going to be, when I was thinking about it yesterday. I’m afraid a woman can’t understand these things.”

After shooting down Harriet’s idea to have dinner and go dancing, she leaves. Stuart doesn’t apologize, doesn’t recognize that he acted like a baby, doesn’t learn a lesson. He leaves the next day, gets snippy with the gas station attendant, and drives off.

I like all this because I don’t know if it would get published today. White had a story about a mouse, and he wrote it down exactly as it pleased him. I’m sure it wasn’t that easy, but it reads like it was. There are so many quirky things, so many illogical things, so many off-shoots from the storyline of Stuart going to find Margalo that it no longer resembles a storyline. I have been really drawn to art like this lately. This brazen, no explanation, take-it or leave it kind of art. And yes, this is a book meant for children about a mouse living in a make-believe New York, but Stuart Little feels like that kind of art.

Tortoise

better-booksI want to be a tortoise. This is not because I hope to be really old and wrinkly one day, which I do, but because I want to slowly work at becoming the writer I want to be. Ok. That’s not true. I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t start this off by lying to you. The truth is, I’d rather quickly become the writer I want to be and just stay there, being awesome, accomplishing all my goals and having my only breakdowns be really glamorous ones. Like, for example, I cry while wearing a cashmere sweater, doubting in my abilities, Nico playing on the record player, and the entire New York skyline lit up behind me. Then the next day, I get a life changing phone call and Daniel, my love, and I go to Four Seasons to celebrate and drink martinis. That kind of breakdown.

But based on experience and less glamorous bouts of doubting, I don’t think that’s going to happen. So I’m trying to be practical, determined, steadfast. Slow and steady is what’s going to win this race. I’ll just write until I’m really old and wrinkly and see what happens along the way. In the meantime, I’d like to write about books here, both to practice writing and to share. The world should re-read Stuart Little and Dracula and I would like to be the person who says so.

Which brings me to an important point, something maybe you’d like to know before you get started: I rarely read new books. I hope that doesn’t deter you. It’s not that I have anything against new books. It’s just that there are so many good old books and buying new books makes me nervous. I sometimes have trouble committing to a library book so you can imagine how I feel about buying a brand new hardback. That is why you will not hear me talk about that new Jonathan Safran Foer book but you will hear me talk about All the Light We Cannot See. It’s pretty new. But not the latest and greatest.

So that’s what’s going to go on here: old books, writing, and other things too. Maybe this will occasionally turn into a pop up food blog or a scotch review site. Because whether it’s Fight Club or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants it deserves to be discussed and discussions, we can all agree, go better with food. And scotch.