The Classics Club

I’m somewhat of a school addict. If I could take on as my permanent job that of STUDENT, I would be quite pleased. Being a student is actually similar to being a triathlete in training.

When training, you are working toward something great. You are working toward betterment, toward achievement, toward glory, toward greatness. Your training has a purpose outside of just being a way to keep thin, to keep in shape, to stave off mortality. Being a student is similar. Your reading, writing and insight have purpose when you are taking a class. They are attached to a goal–that of getting a good grade and that of being more articulate, better read and more knowledgeable than Bob who is sitting next to you in class.

A grade–A race. Same idea.

I get to work toward something–and that thing, though contrived, is also real. You really do compete in a race; you really do receive a grade. Once that carrot (the race/the grade) is taken from me, however, my effort seems without purpose–just a silly self-indulgence. Of course, you and I both know that even attached to a race or a grade, training and reading/writing is just as much a form of self indulgence. I’m not out to better the world; I’m out to “better” (read indulge) me. I could get all nihilist on you and explain how since the world is inherently devoid of meaning except that which I ascribe to it, I need these contrivances to get me up in the morning. But that’s probably a bit much for 11:00 a.m. on a Friday morning.

Anyway. I’m hankering for a goal. Usually this results in me starting a bunch of big projects that I can’t execute properly because my life is just too full of kids, dogs, training, coaching etc and so on. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to help myself. A few months ago I spent time building a list of classic literature I want to read in the next (xxx, before I’m dead) years. I’ve set goals like this before (that is, to read a set amount of a type of literature in a prescribed period of time), but, as explained earlier, when the goal isn’t attached to something outside of me–like a race or a grade–I have trouble sticking with it. But this time… this time I found something–a lovely contrivance to keep me working! I am joining a blogger group called The Classics Club. On it you post a list of the 50+ plus classics you plan to read in the next five years. As you read through the list, you blog about each book.  Here is my list.

I did something similar to this in my late 20s. I didn’t join a group, but I did make a list of classics I wanted to read. These classics had to have  had movie versions made of them, however. I’d finish a classic and then reward myself by viewing the movie. I remember I made Andy watch all the movies with me. At the time I kept a journal of my thoughts–whether the movie did justice to the book, or not. I’ll be damned if I can find the journal now, of course. Another awesome project alive only in my brain… and not on paper.

Of course, even when you have written or photographic evidence of a successful project, it still really only exists in your brain as a fragmented and imperfect memory.

Reivew — The Piano by Janice K. Lee

Cover of "The Piano Teacher: A Novel"

Cover of The Piano Teacher: A Novel

The Piano Teacher is written as a dual narrative: one storyline takes place in Hong Kong during World War II, and the other takes place roughly ten years later in 1951. I’ve never read a novel that takes place in Hong Kong at those times. In fact, I’ve read few novels (actually none that I can think of) that take place in Hong Kong at all.

This is one of the reasons I was first drawn to the book. That–and also that it looked sort of juicy–a war-time mystery with deception and affairs involved. Yum.

Lee is a writer who evokes setting well.  I could feel the oppressive heat of Hong Kong during the summer months, I could picture and feel the bustle of the streets, the beauty of the beaches. Later, when the war starts, she really captures the gruesome chaos of the “outside” and the barren desolation of the English prison camp.

The story begins with Claire, a newly married Englishwoman come to Hong Kong with her husband. She takes a job as a piano teacher in the home of a wealthy Chinese family, the Chens. I assume the novel is called The Piano Teacher because it is in part about the transformation of Claire after she moves to Hong Kong, from a dependent, naive woman, to a freed woman–a woman who has escaped the bounds of her small life and becomes worldly and independent. The story, in my mind, however, was REALLY about Will, the man with whom Claire has an affair.

Will serves as the connection to Lee’s other narrative, which takes place ten years earlier. At that time, Will moves to Hong Kong as a young man, and falls for the experienced and wordly, vivacious and uncapturable Trudy, a beautiful half Portugese, half Chinese socialite who constantly parties and has a somewhat suspect past.. Trudy is just an amazing character. She is what really makes the novel worth reading, I think.Claire’s story is really secondary to the Will/Trudy story. Certainly the Will/Trudy story is more compelling.

I could go into an anaylsis here–propose the idea that Claire’s fall from innocence mirrors that of Will’s–and that Trudy embodies the fallen from the get-go.. But I won’t. I will say that I found the story of Trudy and Will moving and absorbing. I also learned a lot about Hong Kong during the time that it was colonized by the English, and about what happened to/in Hong Kong during WWII. I was less interested in Claire’s story, though it provided an interesting glimpse at Hong Kong 10 years after the horror of WWII.

A Prayer for Owen Meany: A Brief Review

A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book I was ashamed not to have read.  I picked it up several times, started it, and did not continue with it. I’ve read a great deal of Irving’s work, and so my seeming inability to read this particular story I found both embarrassing and puzzling.

So, finally, I just read the damn thing.
And of course I liked it a great deal.

Perhaps most problematic was that I knew too much about the plot and characters prior to reading the novel. Everyone (as in every reader) I know has read it–LOVED IT–has imitated Owen’s voice for me–and then has lamented the pain that he/she felt at Owen’s untimely death. Sometimes people have even felt the need to tell me where they were when they read the book–as if it was such a seminal, pivotal, profound book that it warranted such remembrance.

Perhaps it was my previous knowledge of the book, then, and my knowledge as to how much it has moved other readers, that caused me to remain so very unmoved as I read the book. I knew Owen would die–of course I did–and not simply because so many people had already told me he died. Irving puts his death out there practically on the first page, and you simply wait out the novel until he finally does die. I knew he would die in a way that the book didn’t quite foreshadow (as in in Arizona in an airport bathroom as opposed to in a village in Vietnam). It was the only amount of unpredictability that the book had left to offer.

It seems to me that the worth of Owen Meany lies in how it grapples with the issue of faith and purpose. My problem–I have little faith, and I struggle daily with having purpose. Maybe, then, this should be the book for me. Except I’m too jaded for it to be the book for me. Owen’s faith is … stupid.
Okay. I said it. Stupid! And sure, there are reasons for his unshakeable and fatalistic belief. But I thought his intelligence at odds with this faith. Owen was psychic. I’m not sure why that also makes him a believer.

I did enjoy the novel. But I did not love it like I thought I would; like countless others have said I would. I have never read reviews of the book, and when I did, after finishing it, what a surprise to realize the book was NOT in fact, reviewed well at all! A few A-s… but mostly pans. Interesting. And yet it is considered a modern classic, isn’t it? Why did I think this?