Lesson #386: The Lottery

I was hanging out, recently, with a friend and another guy we know from the neighbourhood. He was talking about how the Final Jeopardy question the night before (category: literature) had been something along the lines of, “her 1948 story led people to write to ask where this town was and how they could take part”, at which both of us immediately guessed, “Shirley Jackson?!?”

Because literally (and I do mean that in the proper dictionary sense) everyone who went to high school in America has read The Lottery, which is one of the most disturbing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read in my life,* and I love dystopian literature.** But seriously, can we talk about how people wanted to actively participate in this sort of violence? Because…dude. DUDE! This is a story about the danger of conformity! The entire plot is a bunch of people stoning one of their friends to death for no other reason than because tradition mandates it, and that person was unlucky enough to draw the dot! This is the one short story that I can mention to anyone and, without fail, watch them cringe.

But here’s a fun piece of knowledge: although it’s never explicitly stated, Jackson based the town in her short story on Bennington, Vermont. I found this fascinating because, in my head, this story has always taken place somewhere out west. I don’t know why, to be honest; it just always has. I’ve always imagined a dusty kind of a place.

*I’d also list Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ and Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ for very different reasons.

**I like dystopias because I find them an interesting study in revolutionary theory and how and why certain cultures revolt…one of the chapters of my MA thesis is actually titled ‘Ideas are Bulletproof.’ But I also really enjoy post-apocalyptic literature as well because I find the concept of how people act and react in the absence of “normalcy” fascinating. This probably shouldn’t be news.


Lesson #383: Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Split Boulder

The Irish oral tradition is so fantastic. If you’ve never read The Táinin my opinion the most fun and exciting part of the Ulster Cycle –I’d encourage you to do so. It’s good stuff ! Then again, I absolutely love the old sagas/epics. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

I was watching the latest McDonagh (John Michael of The Guard, not Martin of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths)/Gleeson project, Calvary today. Because I like black comedies best of all. Though Calvary isn’t really haha funny like The Guard is, it’s still got its moments.* And on the whole, it’s very, very good. Anyway, there’s a part where Brendan Gleeson’s character is telling his daughter about the legend of the split rock — because they’re at the split rock — and it’s really very interesting.

I’m not as familiar with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool as you’ve all probably heard him called, because English) as I am with Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, but I know the basics. He was a mythological warrior who shows up in the Fenian Cycle, but also in legends originating in Scotland and the Isle of Man.** Fionn had a band of followers called the Fianna.*** He’s also, in some legends, referred to as the giant responsible for building a series of stepping stones from the North of Ireland over to Scotland; it is for him that Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave — in tribute of which one of my favourite pieces of music was composed — are named.

Anyway…the boulder. In Co. Sligo, near the town of Easkey, there’s a giant rock that’s been split in two. Science blames the last ice age, but science is unimaginative. Legend has it that Fionn and another giant by the name of Cicsatóin (or just members of the Fianna, depending on what you read), were hanging out one day. The pair decided to make a game of throwing a pair of massive boulders from their place in the Ox Mountains into the sea, 20 miles away. Cicsatóin succeeded****; Fionn did not. Enraged, he strode down to the rock and whacked it with his sword, splitting it in two. According to legend, you can safely pass through the boulder twice, but a third attempt will end in you being smushed by the rock.

You can read more here and here. And probably in the Fenian Cycle, which I can’t find you full text of, but there’s a pretty good synopsis here. As this is all legend, these aren’t exactly what one would call credible sources, but it’s legend, and part of the fun of legends is that they aren’t verifiable.

*And also, Aiden Gillen with his proper accent, which took some getting used to after years of hearing him as Littlefinger.

**My favourite of the stories I know tells how Fionn created both the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh when ripped up a part of the land to throw it at a Scottish rival. He missed, and the land wound up in the Irish Sea.

***Yes, that is where Fianna Fáil comes from.

****Legend also has it this is why the waters around Easkey have such good surfing.

Lesson #357: When A Quote is Not A Quote

This is a lesson that isn’t really a lesson in anything other than assuaging my own curiosity.

Over the whole of a body of work, Milan Kundera is, hands down, my favourite author. I think he’s brilliant. He’s existentialism the way I wish I’d learned existentialism in college. Instead, I got Sartre bashing me over the head with his point.* I’m not a fan. My first introduction to Kundera was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is his strongest work (I’ve since read all of his books except The Joke and Life is Elsewhere, both of which are sitting in my library waiting for me to pick them up) and remains one of my three favourite books ever written.

It’s been a while since I read it, so memory fails me some in direct quotes, but something I’ve read over and over again since my last reading of the novel is, “there is no perfection only life.” And it’s always attributed to Kundera. And always to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Except that it’s not from the novel at all. And I know this because I’ve been re-reading it in its original French.** Only to find it didn’t exist. So I found PDFs both in English and French and did a search. It’s not there. The quote is made up.

Which is too bad; it’s a wonderful sentiment.

*In fairness, I did also get Duras, whose style is much closer to Kundera than to Sartre. The Lover is still one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read.

**Technically, it was originally written in Czech, but its first publication was in French.

A temporary break

I’ll be off the next couple of weeks unless I learn something mind-blowingly cool — and let’s be honest, I’m a nerd; it’s not out of the question.

I’ve decided it’s time to re-read some of my very favourite books — time to revisit Elphaba, Glinda, et. al. for a revolution (Wicked is a pretty solid examination of the smaller actors in a revolution who have no real understanding of the bigger picture AND an absolutely brilliant look at where the line is drawn between right and wrong and who gets to be the one to draw it) and play some war games with Ender (while I contemplate whether I’ll see the film) And it might be time to reconnect with my old friends Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (a film that I have not and will never see because seriously, who thought that was a good idea?). And catch up with my first great literary love, Andrei Androfsky (the last time we met, I lived in Prague) and say hello again to Tereza and Tomaš (a film, incidentally, that I couldn’t get through despite my undying love of both this novel, specifically, and Kundera’s library on the whole). 

Lest you think that’s a lot of reading to get done, I’m off to a friend’s beach house for the weekend with a bunch of mutual friends, and then to the lake* to spend some time with my mother’s side of the family followed by a trip to my homeland to spend some time with my dad’s side of the family (and my brother). Ten days is plenty of time to read five books. And if I have time for it, I’ll throw in the Chance family because “three Swedes and three beatniks in bathrobes committing suicide together in a sauna” is never not hilarious.**

*where there is ZERO cell coverage, and there are not words to express how excited I am by that idea.

**Seriously, the entire first church sequence of that book had me howling with laughter. At the time, I was sitting in the living room of the guy I was dating at the time. He had a massive porn collection and not a single thing to read in the entire apartment. That really should have been a red flag. He did not find that sequence funny. Because he was an idiot. He later burned down his ex-wife’s house. True story. (Sorry, mom.)

You’ll have to excuse the interruption…

…I have recently come to understand how people become drug addicts. Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly developed a taste for heroin or anything; I’m simply undertaking the literary equivalent of smoking crack.

Some of my best friends, including my old college roommate and my closest friend from the year I spent in Eastern Europe, have been telling me for years and years that I need to read Harry Potter and for years and years I haven’t done it. This is less because I have something against the series* and more because I’ve never really been drawn to fantasy (or sci-fi, for that matter). Literally the only fantasy books I’ve ever read are Tolkien and T.H. White and I can count them on one hand.** But a friend with a copy finally wore me down and convinced me to give the first book a go.

As it happens, I’m suffering through my quarterly bout of insomnia, so the timing has been pretty good for the Harry Potter series to be given a spin. After trying, and failing, to fall asleep on Friday, I plowed through the entirety of the first book. Good stuff! And then spent the entire weekend trying to figure out where I was going to get my hands on a copy of the second. I considered just buying a copy before a friend (who lives more than halfway across the country and has never lived in the city I live in) reminded me on Sunday that “don’t you have a library four blocks from your house?” I do. I’m an idiot. In any event, I’ve proceeded to go through the second, third and fourth books in the last three days. A trip to the library to secure the fifth and sixth books is in order tomorrow. I suspect they’ll take longer to read. The books have been getting increasingly long.***

In any event, I’m really looking forward to more of the Weasley twins, whom my friends have assured me play a more prominent role in the next two books. They’re my favourites!

Between the reading and the busy weekend I’ve got coming at me — which will involve being interviewed for a friend’s psych paper, free sushi, an afternoon/evening/night out on the water with my best friend, and potentially an evening of pub quiz on Sunday — there’s not going to be a lot of time for posts. I’ll get you back to your regular programming when I get through book seven.

*Unlike Twilight which I adamantly refuse to read on the grounds that it’s atrocious writing and somehow romanticizes abusive and stalker-ish relationships. There’s a really brilliant blog about those very complaints called Reasoning With Vampires that I cannot get enough of. The author calls it a “brain orgy of snark”, which is spot on.

**The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (which you can count as one or three…doesn’t make a difference) and The Once and Future King.

***The first book was 230 pages, the second was 340, the third was 435 and the fourth was 735. I suspect the fifth will also be bordering on “Russian”. Because that’s a measurable length for a book in my world. Speaking of which, I’m still only 300 pages into War and Peace. If only it weren’t 1300 pages of tiny print…and the war parts weren’t so freaking tedious. I’m a girl who tends to like a good literary war, but this just reads like a military history text, no doubt because it kind of is. All the politics and social climbing and stuff happening in Moscow and environs is great, but as soon as I get to the parts about troop movements, I lose interest.

An Addendum to Lesson #266: Our Copies of Gatsby

Just no! Earlier today my WordPress cheerleader used the word “Dope!” No one has said “dope” since 1996. This needs to stop. I suddenly feel like my dashboard is the Brian Krakow of blog segments…not that Brian Krakow ever used the word “dope.” Moving on…

A couple days after our discussion about the merits of graded readers and Fitzgerald’s intended wording, my friend in the Texas capital texted me to tell me that he had found his copy of The Great Gatsby and to his surprise, it contained the very essay we had been discussing. I found that very interesting and then didn’t think anything of it until this afternoon when I pulled my own copy off the shelf to lend to a friend who decided, in the aftermath of my discussion with her about the wording, that she needed to reread it. It turns out my copy also has that essay in it.

For the last dozen years, he and I have both had this essay sitting right under our noses, but never read it. Clearly neither of us read Gatsby for class.

Lesson #266: Gatsby’s Misspelling

I was having a fight today, with my friend in the Texas capital. For the most part, we see things very similarly, despite his being a Texan, but today we were not seeing eye-to-eye on the value of graded readers. As a former EFL teacher, I think they’re excellent resources; he feels there are books that should be off-limits because the beauty of the language is obviously lost.

The book in question? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Now, Gatsby is one of my favourite books. The language is just gorgeous, but while I agree with him that all of the beauty of Fitzgerald’s language is lost in something like a graded reader, I disagree that it should be off-limits.

That’s not the point though. The point is, in our discussion about how mangled the last paragraphs of Gatsby are in the intermediate level graded reader, we were talking about the trouble of teaching receding orgiastic futures to 14-year-old native speakers, nevermind to readers whose grasp of English is more tenuous. And then this piece of information came out…

In the original version, the last paragraphs of the book read as follows,

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

But in the copy that I first read, and almost certainly my personal copy, it reads, “…the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year…”

According to this (VERY interesting) article by Matthew Bruccoli, the line was amended by editor Edmund Wilson, who assumed that the “unreliable about words” Fitzgerald had actually meant orgiastic.

So if you pick up a new copy of The Great Gatsby, this error has likely been fixed. And in my opinion, the use of the word orgastic makes the line that much better. But if you hear people misquoting it as orgiastic, you’ll know why.