Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Now that we are on the other side of my son’s graduation, I can work through my thoughts on Yann Martel’s latest book.  To be honest, however, I really don’t know what to think of Beatrice and Virgil.  I absolutely loved Life of Pi – the story has stuck with me for years.  Maybe that will be true of Beatrice and Virgil, too, but I don’t know that I want it to stick with me.

Maybe that’s what Martel was going for.  Obviously, he wants to evoke some extremely uncomfortable emotion within us and then just leave us there.  As far as I can tell, we are taken into Hell and that’s where we remain.

At the beginning of the book, the main character, Henry, is wanting to publish a flip book.  One side is an essay, the other side fiction.  It is an attempt to present the holocaust in a new way.   The two will merge into one another showing that there really is no ending or beginning.  The ending of the essay morphs into the beginning of the fictional story.  And the ending of the fictional story morphs into the beginning of the essay.  Unsurprisingly, his publishers don’t like it because they don’t think they can sell that sort of ambiguity.  They want something much more definite.  Something with a point so that they can market the book as being about something in specific.  It’s too difficult to market something that merges into itself and never has an actual beginning or end.

I watched a documentary about a woman who had been one of Dr. Mengele’s twins.  She had discovered the power of forgiveness and was able to forgive the Nazis.  But when it came to the Palestinians, forgiveness was a little more difficult to come by – especially when she was sitting face to face with several who were blaming her race for afflicting great harm on them.

That’s kind of the way it goes, isn’t it?  We’re horrified with what we see “out there” and are unwilling to point the finger back at ourselves.  We can feel good about forgiving those we believe have hurt us.  It gives us power.  But of what use is this power if we can’t likewise forgive those who hold us accountable for their pain?  When we say we forgive, what exactly does that mean?  That we get to feel superior?  Personally, I think forgiveness is meant to humble us.  Not make us feel superior to other human beings.

What I kept thinking the entire time I was reading Beatrice and Virgil, since it was about two stuffed animals who symbolize the Holocaust, is that the vast majority of us, despite our feelings of outrage against what happened to the Jews, are inadvertently creating unfathomable horrors against animals by our demand for cheap animal products.  In the name of efficiency, the Food Industry not only drives our demand, it does the unthinkable in order to meet it.  If most of us were to face the reality of how poultry, pork, fish and beef have become so incredibly inexpensive, I can’t help but think the demand would drop immediately.  Nobody would be OK with how horribly these animals are treated just so we can have cheap food at dinner.  The only reason we allow it is because we intentionally look the other way. And even if horrible things are happening to these animals, they don’t really matter, anyway.

Beatrice and Virgil are  are characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Virgil is an actual Roman Poet that Dante greatly admired and possibly thought of as a mentor.  Dante used Virgil as the guide through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.   Beatrice was Dante’s great unrequited love.  He revered her in the deepest sense but marriages were arranged in his society so he could not be with her.  She also died very young.  In Divine Comedy, Dante is reunited with her and it is Beatrice that shows him around Paradise.

Martel turns them into a donkey and a howler monkey.  He says he came up with the names because in Divine Comedy, Dante has lost his way morally.  He is confused, he is lost, he is falling into sin and he wants to come back to the straight way.  The only way to come back to the straight way is by traveling through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.   Just as Dante’s guides are Virgil and Beatrice, they are Henry’s (and our)  guides through the Holocaust .

One reviewer said she had to go take a shower after completing it because it made her feel dirty.  I totally understand what she is talking about.  I felt dirty after reading the book because it made humanity seem like some sort of horrible, tainted horror that can offer no way out.

Beatrice and Virgil were characters who had been created by a taxidermist.  They weren’t “real”.  And they were the only characters that were remotely likable.  I didn’t like Henry or his wife at all.  The taxidermist was at least fascinating, but I didn’t like him, either.   It’s been 25 years since I read Divine Comedy, but I vaguely recall Dante being somewhat likable.

I also didn’t particularly appreciate the ending, probably because I didn’t get it.  I guess it represented the Inferno.  But hadn’t “heaven” essentially been created by the creator of that Inferno?  Perhaps that was the significance of trying to create the flip book with one part merging into the other so that there is no obvious beginning or end?  No definitive line between fact and fiction?

Maybe if I read it a second time, it would make better sense?  But  I have no desire to put myself through that again!

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walters

The Financial Lives of the Poets is the first book by Jess Walter I’ve read.  I hadn’t even heard of him which I suppose is somewhat pathetic given that he’s apparently quite famous and has won several notable awards for previous books.  When I saw The Financial Lives of the Poets in the library, I couldn’t pass up the title.  I’ve never considered that poets have financial lives.  They are poets!!

The book was a lot of fun although I’m not so sure it was particularly good for my current midlife malaise.  It’s the adventures of Matt Prior, a 46 year old man (exactly my age) who has lost his job and is about to lose his home and possibly his wife who recently had a crazy Ebay failure of her own.  She’s since hooked up with Chuck from Lumberland, an old boyfriend from high school who stands to inherit the family lumber yard.

Matt is driven to do crazy things and it just keeps getting crazier.  He will periodically burst in with some hefty philosophical thought while considering the potential rebound of the real estate market or the going rate of weed.

Here’s one of Matt’s philosophical thoughts for you:  “I’m also sure of this: I’ll never fall in love again.  I’ve lost my innocence.  And my disappointment is not that my own home has lost half its value.  What disappoints me is me – that I fell for their propaganda when I knew better, that I actually allowed myself to believe that a person could own a piece of the world when the truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you.”  Amen to that, Matt!!

In trying to decide what to tell his sons, he comes up with this:  “Boys, pay attention to your mother; mothers have a million things to teach you.  But fathers?  We only have two lessons, but these two things are everything you need to know: (1) What to do and (2) What not to do. “  That thought actually made me feel a little bit better about my husband’s lack of involvement with the kids. Perhaps it is, simply, a male thing.

And maybe it’s OK to feel like you are falling apart.  Maybe it’s even OK to fall apart. Jess Walter’s book is surprisingly hopeful despite being about losing it all (including your mind).

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

I found Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a bookshelf I don’t look at too frequently.  I had no idea I had the book and imagine it probably came from my father.  I had read it when I was about 10 years old and absolutely loved it then. It’s a very short little book so I decided to read it again.

I didn’t like it so much 36 years later.  Not sure if that means I’m getting cynical in my old age, or what.  It irritated me.  Of course, I haven’t been feeling well and life hasn’t been looking particularly rosy or hopeful, so maybe it is cynicism that caused the irritation.

Once upon a time, life seemed like it was about achieving your full-potential, becoming all that you can be and not letting the nuisances of every day life or the banality of normal societal existence keep you down.  But I’m 46 years old and have watched untold numbers of friends take huge nose dives while trying to achieve untold heights. Several walked out on their spouses and children seeking a more “meaningful” lifestyle and didn’t find it.  Another friend ended up completely bankrupt and reliant upon whomever would take him in because he was certain that by creating the company of his dreams, he’d become a millionaire.  Maybe it finally happened, but I doubt it.  And even if it did happen, did it contain the meaning he expected?

I do think you should go after what it is you want to do.  But at what cost?  If Cognitive Psychologists are correct, then what makes us genuinely happy is ordinary stuff like family and friends, not extraordinary achievement.  Richard Bach left his wife and six children because he decided he didn’t believe in marriage.  I don’t believe in marriage, either, but I think there is a lot to be said for commitment.

A lot of people claim Jonathan Livingston Seagull is about transcending the ego.  I don’t read it that way at all.   Chasing after your desires is all about ego.  Of course, there is also a lot to be said for flying for the sake of flying, eating for the sake of eating, raising children for the sake of raising children, and loving for the sake of loving.  I’m just not convinced you need to leave the ordinary things of this world, like spouses and children, in order to be extraordinary.

Speaking of leaving children, we have yet another vagabond teen staying in our home tonight.  This is the third kid we have taken in who has been kicked out of his house this year!  I seriously don’t get it. If your child violently assaults you or someone in your home, throw him out.  But if he comes home stoned or talks back or something like that, please figure out a more adult way to deal with it!!  Throwing him out on the streets is guaranteed to make him worse, not better.  If you aren’t expecting him to be homeless because you know he’ll likely find a decent place to stay, just know that most of us have our own struggles and don’t really want to have to take on yours, too.

Sorry! I’m just grumpy because I’m not doing much soaring, lately.  I haven’t been feeling well. Not sure what is wrong with me.

Sula by Toni Morrison

The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Sula was sometime back in the 1990s.  I enjoyed the story and was completely affected by it, but I’m not sure I understood it.  Like Beloved, I think it hit me at some primal level. Just a few months after I read Sula, we went to London and made a side trip to Bath which houses the Roman temple to Sulis Minerva.  I always kind of wondered if Morrison had connected Sula with Sulis.  I highly doubt it, but after reading the book a second time, there is definitely a connection.

Sulis, also known as Sul and sometimes Sula, was a Celtic goddess.  The thing about Celts is that they were extremely independent people.  They had built a shrine to Sulis over a spring which they considered to be life giving.  It didn’t happen often, but occasionally, the Romans adopted the Celtic deities, which they did in the case of Sulis.  You have to wonder about the politics behind that.  Sulis was a local goddess as were all Celtic gods. ( No “corporate” gods for the Celts!)  She was considered to be a life giving mother goddess. 

The Romans invade and bring their patriarchal society along with them. They connect Sulis  with Minerva, the virgin goddess closely associated with the Greek Goddess Athena.  According to J.J. Bachofen, Athena was perverted by a patriarchal society and essentially became the patriarch of Athens, despite once having mother goddess standing.  No doubt, the Romans were able to gain some control over the Celts by tempering the Celtic local goddess with their virgin, patriarchal, “corporate” goddess.  The Romans were an extremely patriarchal culture.  (Christianity inherited its patriarchy from the Romans.)

I think Morrison’s Sula represents a sort of feminine divinity/feminine energy.  She turns everything about the patriarchal society in which she lives upside down.  Nothing is as it seems.  People personify her as evil and with that personification, are able to become more loving toward one another.   That’s why a patriarchal Christianity needs an evil “other”/devil.  It’s a container that allows individuals to feel good about themselves and ignore the not so nice things they do.


I’m not sure I can make total sense of this, but let me try and give two “for instances” from the book to explain what I mean.  First of all, there is Eva who is Sula’s grandmother.  She has a son she adores called Plum.  He comes home from the war addicted to heroin and Eva takes it upon herself to kill him.  She does this entirely out of love.  She can’t stand the thought of him being overtaken by the addiction.  So what does this say about love?  On the one hand, it is life giving.  On the other, it can be smothering to the point of death.  Love isn’t all good.  It has its dark side.  It can become quite costly when possessive.  But as long as an action is done with love, then it is not an evil action, right?  Or at least, so it seems to the individual who commits the act.  Evil is “out there”.  Not “in me”.   Second, there is Teapot (I think that’s the little boys name).  He’s the malnourished, ill cared for son of a negligent mother.  But, when he falls down Sula’s steps and breaks a bone (which doctors say is thanks to malnourishment more than the fall), the mother blames Sula for his fall.  And this is enough for her to start taking care of her child. By demonizing Sula, she is able to change the story about herself and view herself as “good”.

Even though Sula is childless, in a sense, she is life giving simply by being willing to take on the personification of evil for the community.  She’s sort of ego-less in that  she doesn’t assume the images the community demands of its citizens, nor does she try and altar the image they create for her.  Sula is concerned only with being her own person – being who she is rather than being what others expect of her. That way, if she’s lonely, then her loneliness is hers.  It’s not a second-hand loneliness like Nel’s.  Nel is lonely because she allowed her friendship with Sula to be usurped by her relationship with her husband, Jude, who really only married her because he couldn’t get the “white” job he wanted.  Marrying Nel was a way for Jude to feel “manly”.  Sula has an affair with him because she comes from a line of women who think nothing of sleeping with men.  It’s nothing to her.  But it’s everything to Nel who accuses Sula of having taken her husband away.   Yet, Sula didn’t kill him.  She didn’t literally take him away.  Nel’s husband left on his own accord.  Why blame the female and not the man?

I know – I’m all over the place.  I apologize.  But I have to go back to Nel.  Sula and Nel are considered to be one person when they are children.  They make up a whole.  Nel comes from a family who has taken on the patriarchal norms.  Everything is orderly and needs to have meaning.  Sula comes from a much more chaotic family with a matriarch, Eva, at it’s head.  Things are ever-changing in Sula’s world so fixed meaning is much more difficult to come by. These two girls compliment one another.  Nel makes sense of things when Sula can’t.  And Sula gives life for Nel that she wouldn’t otherwise have.  Yet, despite Nel’s recognition that Sula is life giving, she still blames Sula for various events in their childhood, which allows her to see herself as “good”.

Take Sula chopping off her finger, for instance.  Sula did this specifically to protect Nel.  Nel had been avoiding a bunch of rowdy Irish boys for weeks.  Sula finally suggests they take their normal route and not avoid the boys.  They meet up with the boys and Sula, very calmly, pulls out her knife and cuts off the end of her finger.  She tells them that if she can do this to herself, just think what she’ll do to them.  It works.  They back off. 

You can’t predict what Sula is going to do.  Nel sees this as crazy.  But is it crazy?  Sula knows that the boys will harm Nel if the girls act as expected (fearfully).  But Sula doesn’t bow down to their expectation.  She confronts the masculine energy with her own chaotic feminine energy and the masculine energy has to make way for it because it can’t make sense of it.

At the end of the book, when Nel confronts Sula about having slept with Jude, Sula asks why she would have ended a friendship just because she slept with Jude.  She suggests that maybe Nel has it wrong and that it was Sula who was the good one.

In the end, Nel realizes that it wasn’t Jude she was missing.  It was Sula, who was there, all along.  That gives me goosepimples.  Not because I think this was some sort of lesbian relationship.  I didn’t read it that way at all.   What I think Nel recognizes is that the feminine energy she possesses, that Sula represents, was available to her all along, as it is to all women.  We voluntarily give it up for the sake of compliance, like Nel’s mother flashing her smile at the white conductor which Nel instinctively reacted against, as did all of the black soldiers on the train.  If you comply, you are as good as dead.

I asked the other day, “What’s so wrong with just being human?  If something makes us sad or makes living difficult for a period of time, is it because we lack the appropriate belief in God?  Or is it simply because we are human?”  I said I didn’t know where I was going with that.  But I think Sula directly answers it.  Creating ideas about God is a way to make sense of God – to create meaning.  That’s OK.  But we have to be willing to balance our need for meaning with an acceptance of the inherent chaotic nature of life.  We have to be willing to balance the masculine with the feminine.

There is so much to this book.  I think I’d have to read it 50 times, at least, to get everything out of it!  I understand it way better this time around than I did the first time.   I’m sure I’ll understand it even better the next time.  Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic book!

Tales from Outer Suburbia

My daughter and I worked our way through Tales from Outer Suburbia thanks to a recommendation from Kristen.  I’m very sad to have to take all of these stories back to the library!

 At first, we didn’t get “The Water Buffalo” at all.  We read it several times and then one, night, I had a dream and woke up realizing that the water buffalo is the wilderness that still exists in suburbia.

The water buffalo lives in the vacant lot at the end of a suburban street – the lot with all of the grass growing on it.  If a kid would ask the water buffalo for advice, the buffalo would answer, but only by pointing in a particular direction.  He offered no particulars.  The older the suburban kids became, the more they wanted the particulars, and so they quit visiting the buffalo.  The water buffalo eventually left.  Which was ashame, really, because every time the kids did follow the buffalo’s advice, they were surprised and delighted with what they found.

Here you are in suburbia, where everything is always explained in detail.  No mystery is left unsolved.  And if you do happen upon a mystery, there are plenty of anti-anxiety meds available to help you steer clear from the anxiety of the unknown.  The water buffalo, for me, represents the wilderness of subconscious knowing.  It’s that part of us that can be trusted, but that we tend to disregard because it doesn’t provide the security modern life demands.

Or imagine the government has asked you to keep a missile in your back yard and tells you to be alert, but not alarmed.  These rockets take up huge amounts of your back yard. Is it any wonder that kids turn them into play houses, birds into bird houses and that adults decorate them?  Of course, these alterations to the rockets may render them useless.  But how useful are they in the first place?

Or what if you took the idea of the standard holiday where people are given the gifts they want and turned it into a holiday, a nameless one, where people sacrifice the things they love?

Amazon says this book is for preschool and elementary school aged children.  While young children might enjoy these stories, I have a difficult time thinking they would understand them. The Tales from Outer Suburbia are clearly for teens and adults who at least have some literary and political savvy.

Shaun Tan grew up in Perth, Australia.  He claims Ray Bradbury was his favorite author in his pre-teen years.  That was true for me, too.  I was constantly getting caught reading Bradbury stories under my desk.  My mother caught me with I Sing the Body Electric under my covers, and thought it was a dirty book.  I got in tons of trouble for reading Bradbury!

These sorts of tales (fantasy) are among my all-time favorite. Now 9th graders are forced to read Bradbury so sneaking him under you desk is no longer as necessary. I wonder how many kids read Tan on the sly?

The Time Traveler’s Wife

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife when it first came out and though it was OK.  It held my attention, at least, and I remember being amazed that Audrey Niffenegger had presented the mess of chronology so perfectly. I couldn’t find one area where she messed up on the organization of events, even though many of them are occurring simultaneously.  It also presents a very interesting conception of time because it’s about a man who has a genetic defect which doesn’t allow him to experience time linearly.

My daughter and I just saw the movie. It was produced and directed by Brad Pitt so seemed worth seeing and had the potential to be even better than the book. It was definitely a good adaptation which made the movie like the book – just  OK.

I’m not sorry I went but I don’t think I would have missed anything by not having seen it. My daughter loved it which made it worth the outing.

The Implacable Order of Things by Jose Luis Peixoto

The Implacable Order of Things was calling to me from the library’s “New Books” shelf.  (Truly! It was!)

Stuff like that happens with The Implacable Order of Things.  There is a voice shut up inside a trunk that contemplates humanity’s understanding of itself and wonders if people exist. There is also a devil who presides over human unions, performing weddings and funerals in a church without an alter or sacristy. The devil (priest?) keeps the hand of a giant murderer in a jar as a saintly relic.  He speaks of people’s greatest fears out loud and in public. An old man lives to 150.  Storks are willing to guide the way for a young man on an adventure never taken. A 70 year old women has a baby with a man who is a siamese twin, joined to his brother at the pinkie.

What I love about Latin American literature, I also love about this novel from Portugal. Bizarre things happen to people and they don’t bat an eye at it.  What we think of as magic is just every day stuff. Miraculous things are happening all around and the characters notice but think nothing of it.  I wonder if Latin American literature inherited some of its magic realism from the Portuguese who settled in various areas of Latin America? Or maybe it has something to do with a certain form of Catholicism? The only other Portuguese novelist I have read is Jose Saramago who likewise makes use of the fantastic. But his use of magic is far more “down to earth” than, say, Garcia Marquez. Peixoto’s use is somewhere in between the two.

The Implacable Order of Things covers the lives of two generations in a rural town in Portugal.  It can be difficult to follow because there is very little dialogue and the point of view is constantly shifting between the first person point of view of several characters and a third person narration that is probably a character in the novel –  the unseen writer who is heard constantly writing in a windowless room and was once heard crying.  I’m not sure, but it would fit! I’d have to read the book again to sort out all of the various narrators, but unfortunately the book is due back at the library. (It’s poetically dense so definitely demands a second reading.)

The book is divided into two parts, with the first part being almost identical to the second except it’s a new generation.  But everything is repeated, and repeated, and repeated.  The characters are unable to create – they just repeat. The blind prostitute is born from a blind prostitute, who was born of a blind prostitute…

From the praise printed on the back of the book, Vogue Italia has this to say:  “Peixoto’s pages, purified in the lyrical prose that makes them unique, introduce us to a rural space burned by the sun, inhabited by the singing of cicadas, and suspended in mythical time where each action has a biblical inevitability.”  I find that interesting because the story does have the feel of an Old Testament tale which reinforces the insignificance of humanity and its utter inability to understand that which is greater than itself.

This fits perfectly with my recent obsession with existentialism and Camus’ absurdism.  As Jose (II), realizes, “I, within myself, am all that I am. I’m small and insignificant, I’m a past history of misunderstandings and mistakes, I’m the act of gazing at this sky, I’m the certainty of no future.”

We don’t want to be human, we want to be God. We want to live forever – and not just through the constant repetition of humanity’s misunderstandings and mistakes.  So these sorts of tales are difficult to get through.

Some of the musings from the voice shut up inside a trunk, which are likewise mirrored by the various narrators:

  • “Perhaps suffering is tossed by handfuls over the multitudes, with most of it falling on some people and little or none of it on others.”
  • “Perhaps there’s a light inside people, perhaps a clarity; perhaps people aren’t made of darkness, perhaps certainties are a breeze inside people, and perhaps people are the certainties they possess.”
  • “Perhaps the sky is a huge sea of fresh water and we, instead of walking under it, walk on top of it; perhaps we see everything upside down and the earth is a kind of sky, so that when we die, when we die, we fall and sink into the sky.”

I wonder about the translation – why trunk instead of chest?  Chest would have dual meaning – but then perhaps that would be too obvious.

Also, just a point of interest, the first English version was published with the title, Blank Gaze.