Anniversary post!

Today happens to be the one-year anniversary of my blog!  It’s been an incredibly fun activity and I’ve enjoyed the exchanging of ideas with other bloggers along the way and look forward to more in the coming year.  To celebrate, I thought I would post a few favorite quotations I’ve come across this year.

It rather goes without saying that Katherine drank her coffee black.  Katherines do, generally.  They like their coffee like they like their ex-boyfriends: bitter.

-From John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines

“As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

Spoken by Miss Sook in Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”

When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.  To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand.  This chafing is bound to act and react, producing divers evils and leading to various misfortunes.  It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.

-The first paragraph from Jack London’s short story “In A Far Country”

“A Present for Big Saint Nick” by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s the last short story of the year!  While I’ve enjoyed the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen this month, I decided to end 2012 with a Christmas story by Kurt Vonnegut – one that is a little more irreverent, but just as enjoyable.

“A Present for Big Saint Nick” tells the brief story of Big Nick, a mafia boss, who throws a Christmas party every year for all of his employees, their spouses and kids.  The party is especially for the kids.  While the parents spend their time looking for the perfect gift for Nick, they coach their kids in how to answer “Santa Claus’s” questions.  These questions revolve around what the parent’s think about Nick.  Giving the right answer gets the kids the present they’ve always wanted and gives their parents the continued chance to work for Nick – as opposed to ending up in Lake Michigan.

As might be expected (at least I was expecting it), one of the kids innocently enough answers the question incorrectly.  A domino effect makes all the other kids give “real” answers to Nick’s questions resulting in threats from Nick that the parent’s take seriously.  However, Nick’s big present arrives with the story’s surprise ending- one at which I laughed out loud!

Perhaps not my favorite Vonnegut story, but his humor made it a worthy final story for the year.

“The Last Dream of the Old Oak” by Hans Christian Andersen

I read Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Last Dream of the Old Oak” and I’m seeing a theme running through his stories – or at least the ones I’ve read recently.  The theme that nothing lasts forever seems strange for fairy tales, but somehow it works.

hans

(photo obtained from goodreads.com)

The oak tree in this story is 365 years old.  One year is like a human day to the tree.  It is awake for three seasons and sleeps during the winter.  During the course of the story, a fly enjoys buzzing around the oak’s branches.  The fly’s life is only a human day.  The oak has difficulty understanding how the fly could be so happy when his life is so short.  The fly’s answer, while in fairy tale language, is essentially: it’s all relative.  The fly is perfectly happy with it’s lifespan so why should the oak be sad for it.  Personally, the idea of time being relative is a pleasant idea, especially within a fairy tale of this sort.  It’s not something I would have any problem sitting around pondering for a long time – even if I wouldn’t come up with any type of concrete conclusion.  Unfortunately, there are pesky things like “a job” that keep me from pondering these things as much as I would like.  Maybe that’s a good thing?

Eventually the oak goes to sleep for the winter and has a dream that it’s summer.  In the dream, it grows taller and taller and brings the rest of the forest along with it, growing up and up into something that might be called heaven.  In the real world, the tree has been uprooted by a storm on Christmas Day and sailors, who had used the tree as a guide when they came to shore, sing a carol over the dead tree.  So the dream isn’t real – it’s just a dream.  Or is it?  Something else to ponder.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Brave Tin Soldier”

The collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories that I have uses the term “brave” in the title of the story”The Brave Tin Soldier”.  I’ve heard this story referred to as “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, also.  I would say that either word works.  I think this short work is my favorite Andersen story that I’ve read so far.

The title character is one of twenty-five toy soldiers; however, he was the last one made as the maker ran out of tin, so he only has one leg.  Across the play room, he sees a motionless paper princess in mid dance, standing on one leg.  In order to get to the princess, he makes a deal with the Black Goblin.

During playtime one day, he falls outside from the window.  He embarks on waves of adventure (at least for a toy soldier) in which he remains both brave and steadfast, keeping the paper princess firmly in his mind and heart.  This adventure brought forth the question: why is this happening?  Is the soldier lead by the Hand of Fate?  Or the Black Goblin?  For me, it seemed Fate finally brought the Tin Soldier together with the Paper Princess.  Perhaps it was the Goblin who stepped in later.

In true fairy-tale fashion, while the ending could be considered horrific, Andersen manages to make it simply bittersweet.

War and Peace: Book 3

I almost lost it in Book 3 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the momentum I had in reading it.  I still like it well enough – it’s just that I keep seeing so many other books I want to read.  And War and Peace is just so long.  I’m managing, though.  I am going to have to scramble if I want to get it read by the end of the year.

“War” takes presedence in Book 3.  We get a first-hand view of The Battle of Borodino while all the various love interests continue to take their twists and turns.  In portraying war, Tolstoy makes several analogies to the game of chess.  He’s probably not the first person, nor the last, to make this analogy; however, he does it so well:

A good chess player who has lost a game is genuinely convinced that his failure resulted from a false move on his part, and tries to see the mistake he made at the beginning of the game, forgetting that at each stage of play there were similar blunders, so that no single move was perfect.  The mistake on which he concentrates attention attracts his notice simply because his opponent took advantage of it.  How much more complex is the game of war, which must be played within certain limits of time and where it is a question not of one will manipulating inanimate objects but of something resulting from the innumerable collisions of diverse wills!

Later on, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky contrasts chess and war:

…in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, taking your time, and with this further difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company.  The relative strength of opposing armies can never be predicted.

Throughout the novel, many conversations take place about Napoleon Bonaparte as a man and as a leader.  On occasion, in some relatively short narratives, Napoleon actually becomes a character, himself, instead of someone who is simply discussed.  He seems to appear like a ghost out of the woods and start talking.   I find it interesting when authors make historical figures into fictional characters.  Tolstoy’s ability to make Napoleon apparate into a character in the story gives Bonaparte an awe-inspired creepiness.

Let’s see if I can tackle the rest of this novel before December 31?

“The Fir-Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen

‘Rejoice with us…Enjoy thine own bright life in the fresh air.’

I’ve heard a saying that goes something like this:  life is lived forward but understood backwards.  It’s been attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, but I don’t have documented evidence.

The title character in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir-Tree” experiences this phenomenon in fairy-tale fashion.  It whittles away it’s life wishing for more.  It spends it’s younger days wishing it was older while the birds, rabbits, wind and sun of the forest tell it to kick back and enjoy itself right where it is.  It only begins to understand the happiness of  it’s life in the forest when it’s chopped down.  It spends one glorious night getting decorated for Christmas, hearing the story of ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ told to excited children only to get thrown into a dingy, dark attic the next day.  It retells the Humpty-Dumpty story to many, many mice over the course of several days until he tells it to a couple of rats who don’t think it’s such a great story.  Through all of this, the Fir-Tree never understands the good times until they are gone.

The story of Humpty-Dumpty intrigued me because in this version, Humpty-Dumpty doesn’t just fall down but he gets put back together again – and marries a princess.  Using the story of Humpty-Dumpty,  Andersen seems to bury the theme of renewal somewhere deep down in his own story.  The Fir-Tree’s continued looking back on it’s life covers over a story of renewal – and hope- buried somewhere way deep down – beneath the burning embers of a flame.

 

A Christmas Carol: Book or Movie?

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many great literary film adaptations; but I’m biased toward books.  No matter how wonderful the film, I’m likely to say “The book was better”.  Saying this is usually less a result of my critical skills and more a result of the fact that I’m simply a book person.

The monthly meme question for The Classics Club for December touches on this topic:

What is your favorite memory of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Have you ever read it? If not, will you? Why should others read it rather than relying on the film adaptions?

A Christmas Carol falls into the category of stories I heard and saw first through film as a kid.  I didn’t read Charles Dickens’ actual words until I was an adult.  In the case of this story, I think the many film versions, from George C. Scott to The Muppets to Jim Carey, stand as a testament to the brilliance of Dickens’ words and ideas.  Dickens’ incorporation of ghosts as a catalyst for Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption has been a feast for the imaginations of filmmakers everywhere.  I love seeing the incarnation of filmmakers’ imaginations on the screen (big or small),  but in reading the story, I get to keep company with the imagination I enjoy the most: my own.