Don Quixote and the Master Protagonist

It’s the story of hidalgo Don Quixote née Alonso Quijano or Quesada or Quijada as he embarks on a life of knight-errantry–galavanting across the Spanish countryside in search of adventures with his beloved squire Sancho Panza.

That in and of itself is the story that comprises the roughly 980 page tome of a novel originally published in 1547. Though within its girthy spine is also housed tales of fellow travelers, wanderers, and nomads ranging the borders from Northern Africa, Turkey, and the surrounding African-European landscape.

In essence, this is the story of a man’s life. As Dostoevsky put it: “The last great utterance of the human mind.” It’s a metaphorical tale of the pursuit of passion and indulgence into the depths of dream and ambition. Don Quixote as a man is at once the most ambitious, the most passionate, the most zealous of spirits and throughout his journey evolves from mad knight-errant to one of the ultimate symbols for the importance of obsession, ardor, and mania.

If original fiction is archetype than Don Quixote is the master of them all. He’s the ethereal stelae guarding the grounds of eternal vigor set against the realism of Panza–his squat squire always there to bring his lofty ambition back to the Earth.

What astounds me most about the novel is its episodic structure. No chapter is longer ten pages in length. The second a story lags, Cervantes is quick with a comical interjection from either his own preludes and prologues (hysterical commentary prior to every chapter) that breaks up what could easily be one of the most monotonous reads of all time.

For something written in the 16th century, there’s an indescribable readability unlike anything else out there. It’s dense, but only for those unable to grasp the light-heartedness of the action. There’s weight to every page, and yet it reads like a thriller, always moving and progressing, and never allowing itself to lie stagnant under the burden of it’s own physical encumbrance.

Needless to say, this is that rare life-changer. A classic that we all dread out of some fear of failing to read. Needless to say, don’t leave yourself tilting at windmills and slay this beast. It will not leave you disappointed.

The Shadow of the Wind and Forgotten Books

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s 2001 caper The Shadow of the Wind is a story of forbidden love and exile stretching between the Spanish Civil War to 1960’s Barcelona. Utilizing a pastiche of styles and techniques, Zafón demonstrates an immense respect for the stately opulence of Gothic Victorianism mixed with the elaborately plotted whodunnits and mysteries of the hard-case crime files from the 1950’s.

The story is of young Daniel Sempere the son of a local bookseller who happens to come into possession of a novel by increasingly obscure Spanish author Julián Carax.

Falling in love with the book immediately, young Daniel quickly searches out more from the enigmatically absent author only to discover that his books are being systematically removed and destroyed from bookstores and libraries.

What follows is a torrent of murder, mystery, love, lust, and the excavation of a past that has struggled to be buried for decades–all of which set beneath the glow of a Barcelonian winter.

I’m in awe of Zafón’s prose. The intricacy and originality of the story is astounding, and his style is a beautiful combination of the mathematical-calculatory mystery of Borges mixed with the playful magic of García Márquez.

Linguistically speaking, Zafón is the perfect amalgam of complex prosaic Victorianism with a dash of the contemporary thriller.

The Shadow of the Wind is a masterpiece. Go out and get it now. It won’t disappoint.

Stars = 5/5

5 Tips to Alleviate the Dense

There are those tomes that try as we might to read with some semblance of speed and agility, our progress remains nearly stationary when set against the larger page count. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of finishing a thousand plus page book in a society that’s becoming known for an attention span of less-than-30-second vine clips makes me cringe.

That said, is it futile to push on? Never. Set your goals for reading the bigger books high, and live up to those expectations, for the worth in finishing the dense books that many have tried and few have conquered can become some of the most meaningful experiences of your life. Here are a few tips to get you going:

1. Set a Schedule: This is by far the most important element in succeeding whenever reading a book that could easily suffice as a car seat for a toddler. Set a specific page goal for the day and stick to it. Through thick and thin it’s most often when we’re in the throes of the monstrous–wallowing away four hundred pages into a book and not even being halfway–that we tend to toss in the towel fifteen-twenty pages too soon. On days when I don’t work, I mandate one-hundred pages from myself. On work days–50. Whatever yours may be, set it and stick to it.

2. Read Summaries: This is an aspect of reading a large, difficult book that many people deem cheating. But, if you’re like me and pride yourself in tackling those books others shy away from because of difficulty and length, reading summaries alongside some of the more difficult chapters of a dense Dostoevsky or Dumas novel will alleviate some of the stresses of gleaning plot from antiquated and nuanced language. Certainly every word has its place, but grasping a loose understanding of the plot either before or after reading a section of a larger novel can be an essential tool necessary to pull you through to the end.

3. Find Your Quiet Space: I’m a bit of a hermit when it comes to reading, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I value my peace and quiet–to the point that the faint hum of the refrigerator can sometimes be distracting. Thus, I read on my couch, away from distraction, screens and computers, the accoutrements of a culture hell-bent on switching attention every thirty seconds. I need silence to read, and thus I seek it out wherever I can get it–I suggest you do the same.

4. Persevere: Common sense has never been so simple. In order to wrestle your way through the Don Quixote‘s in the world one must be willing to stomach the boring, the passive, the antiquated, and the frustrating in order to extract those bits of truth we hungrily vie for whenever we set our sights on one of the denser classics.

5. Self-talk: This might just be me, but often when reading something particularly difficult and dense, there’s always that moment when the world sort of screams for you to quit. That little voice can be the bane of trudging through the marshy waters of dense literature, and thus, I need to personally remind myself that I can read thisIt’s worth it. Just like long-distance running, the prize is often awaiting you at the very end. The exhaustion and clear-headedness of finishing something others deem too difficult is reward in and of itself.

So the next time you set your sights high and feel your diligence and perseverance wavering under the pressure of the dense, remember the above strategies for making it through those books that are worth it–and, believe me, they are.

To Be Well Read

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I came across the Guardian’s list of the Top 100 greatest novels of all time, and I have to say that I’m impressed. Such a list is something that is immensely difficult to come up with, but The Guardian has chosen a selection of novels (some I’ve heard of, some I haven’t) that stretch in fields and genre’s from Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler, and it’s made me recognize that despite my own sense of confidence–my own sense of satisfaction at the fact that regardless of occupation and personal/social obligation, I’ve still been able to tackle roughly a book a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but there’s always something on the nightstand/coffee table/toilet (yup).

And yet, the contents of this list are awesomely unfamiliar.

Which brings up an interesting question: What does it mean to be well-read? As an individual that reads constantly, I’d like to consider myself as one who is relatively well-read, but this list proves otherwise. Does it mean one has to read the classics? The biographies? The sciences, essays, and fictions of each continent?

IMG_0204I’ve been criticized time and again from some colleagues that I’m relatively grounded in anglo-continentalism (old, dead, white, men) and to some extent, I agree. But, regardless of my own literary limitations, it’s nice to be reminded of the fact that there is always more. The world of great literature is never-ending and stretches into the furthest reaches of imagination. Those worlds that the most gifted of us imagine, but only select few are somehow able to transcribe.

Thus, I’m going to embark on a little challenge. I’m going to make a run at this list, and hopefully I’ll be successful. Interspersed with library books and the occasional amazon purchase, this list is going to largely comprise my reading for the next year or two (hopefully, no more). What sights await?

And yet, the question still stands: What makes an individual well-read? Clearly, it’s relative, but there has to be something out there that gives an individual that pluck of conversational awe us bibliophiles vie for so vehemently.

What are your thoughts?

Running and the Liminal Space

I run for several reasons. There are the obvious points behind the importance of physical fitness and cardiovascular health; it clarifies the mind and allows for detoxification of the body; it induces endorphins which cause a feeling of euphoria; I also run because I find it downright fun.

It’s a personal battle against the self. It’s the sensation of the fight at its purest. There’s the burn of the limbs, the harshness of intake of breath, and then the elements.

I confess, horrendous allergies limit me to running on a treadmill during the summer months, which any purist will dismiss outright as simply “not as good.” And I agree with them. It’s not. It’s the equivalent of eating at a McDonald’s in Shang-hi. Needless to say, I run because it’s fun.

But there’s more to running than simply cardiovascular health. There’s a willingness that must be pursued. There’s an inherent drive in the act of forcibly pushing one’s body to the brink of collapse that carries over into a number of other personal endeavors.

For one (and by far the most obvious)–running helps with perseverance. Whether it’s the perseverance to finish that tome of a novel, or the willingness to stick out a movie that might just suck enough to merit turning off before it’s through, running allows a person to enter that sort of fugue state in which finishing isn’t a maybe it’s a must.

Less obvious though are the mental benefits behind running, and these are by far the most important. After a hard day’s work, thirty-minutes on a treadmill is the best tonic available. When all is said and done, after I’ve pumped my limbs to the brink of collapse and driven my lungs through through the diverse gauntlet of huffs and puffs, the head is clear and the thoughts are easy. Those tasks that have been on my mind for the better part of the day (sometimes longer) dissipate with the knowledge that they will be done one way or another. Why worry? You just ran five miles straight–you’re practically Superman. What’s a bullet to the man of steel?

I suppose the underlying factor behind a good run is that it allows us to internally occupy that liminal space between anguish and contentment. The space where the limbs seem to go numb and the mind shuts down and there’s nothing but the pounding sensation of pavement, harsh breath, and the shudder of excitement at possibly breaking a personal time or distance. It allows for reflection of a different sort. A more absent-minded reflection where it’s both forced and not.

It’s no coincidence that runners are often avid readers. They both require the same skill-set. Diligence, perseverance, the will to finish, because acknowledging the fact that to read a 1000+ page book will take ten days of reading 100 pages or more is the very same as staring at a hill straight on and knowing that quitting is not an option.

Somehow the metaphorical (and not) hill must be conquered.

Linguistic Hedges and Bridges: Why Do We Read?

In short: we live through the words of others.

In length: we’re a bumbling race of accidents.

I won’t go into the whole evolutionary discussion as it pertains to creation because to do so would cause a torrential digression that I’m sure would aggravate some and incense others, which is not my purpose.

We all know that language is meant to connect. It’s meant to allow a glimpse into the other through our ability to give words and labels to that which we see and experience. E.g. Saussure’s “Theory of the Sign” and our ability to match labels to the world around us–signifier and signified and all that crap for the lit. theory majors out there.

Reading as a whole allows for windows and doors to be made from one consciousness to another. The connection is evident in our society’s broad range of reading appetites. Whether we’re reading for pleasure and joy or for inspiration and education, the point is the same. We’re looking for connection.

However, the search for connection also brings on an untended sort of isolation. How am I supposed to relate to the thoughts and sentiments of an author singularly different in every way from myself? Answer? I wish I had one.

Regardless, the importance of reading vs. something more immediate and imaginatively accommodating like television or movies is our ability to interpret and to construct. Reading requires a visionary self-construction to glimpse into the world of others. What the author intended may not be what we (the reader) constructs. And thus, we read to create. We read to bridge the gaps between the worlds of others and ourselves.

Myself, I’ve kept a list of my favorite quotes for the last decade. It began when I was seventeen and progressed and evolved from my scribblings in notebooks and little pocketbooks, and ultimately made its way (predictably so) into a word document that now stretches to nearly fifteen pages.

On it’s glossy-white digitized finish, I can trace the reading path of a decade’s worth of linguistic peaks and troughs–the thoughts that have hedged me into private reflection, and the thoughts that have connected. Those that have made me feel insignificant and entirely imperceptive, to those that have made me identify with the lives of some of the best minds of our species–both the worlds of now and then.

Whether it’s the isolationist crystalline beauty of Plath or Woolf to the bravado and machismo of Hemingway and Bukowski, I’ve been able to pick apart the lives of others as they’ve been put down by their creators. Through language, I’ve been able to create the connective bridges between my isolation and that of another to form a sort of collective conscious that ideally inspires, and regrettably segregates.

Hence the profuse reading agenda. We read to connect. We read to discover what others have thought the sense and purpose of our time here truly is. Is it to inspire, to isolate, or simply to exist?

The beauty of it is that at the end of the day, it’s your choice.

What do you wish to experience?

Stay Away from Franzen’s “Farther Away.” A Review:

There are certainly books out there that I don’t finish. With so many available, why waste time reading those which are not up to personal standard?

Try as I might, I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it through Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but at the end of the day, I’m better off for having started them.

Regardless, when I started this blog, I kind of promised myself I wouldn’t review books I didn’t finish, but this one somehow screams indifference.

Franzen’s 2011 collection of essays Farther Away boasts of everything that Franzen is known for. He’s an intellect that is at once painfully difficult to associate with based on his own predilections toward solitude. His essays profess a sort of social-intellectual superiority that I’ve come to find semi-repulsive if not at times nauseating.

In 22 pieces ranging in subject matter from his absolutely stunning 2011 Kenyon college commencement address to book reviews of lesser known “greats”, his relationship with David Foster Wallace, and even Chinese Conservationism in the midst of economic-boom–Franzen demonstrates that he’s a mind at war with his own cultural relevance as much as he is with the diminishing global song-bird population (a subject he covers at great lengths).

Personally, I love Franzen. Twenty-Seventh City was outstanding, The Corrections was a joy, and Freedom might be the best American novel to have been written in the last decade–but this collection–how? Why?

There are pieces that recall Franzen’s brilliance and linguistic savvy, but taken together, the pieces date themselves to the point of forced obsolescence. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t understand who would want to read a forty-page essay covering the Chinese ecological downturn of the early 21st century, or a review of the archaic Swedish literature piece The Laughing Policeman.

To each his own. Obviously. Clearly, there is/was a need for these to be written when he wrote them, but at this point in time, I’m not sure about the relevance of any of it.

The best pieces (granted, I’ll chalk this one up to my love affair with DFW) cover the suicide of one of his best friends and contemporary American novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace–which he does write about with passion and zeal.

Otherwise, I recommend you stay far away from Farther Away (couldn’t help myself). It’s not for you. Really, I’m not sure who it would be for?

Leave this one at the bookstore and pick up one of his other collections instead. How to Be Alone is a beautiful compilation of personal memoir, and The Discomfort Zone deals with the heartache associated with losing a family member to Alzheimer’s.  Both are fantastic if you’re interested in his non-fiction.

Stars = 2/5

Travel and the Transformation of Place

I just got back from roughly three weeks abroad.

I encountered surroundings as foreign as they’re likely to get in my lifetime–I drank Raki on the Bosphorus, ate a sandwich made of raw meat-spread thinly over lettuce (not as good as it sounds) to the tune of the elegiacally beautiful Islamic call-to-prayer, and traveled over thirty hours (excluding overnight busses) to experience a world broader than the one I’m fortunate enough to gaze into everyday in my backyard.

I’m lucky. That much is certain. I’ve got summers off which allows me the luxury of travel, and the most wonderful fiancé in the world to share in the adventure.

Last summer we went to Peru and Argentina, which afforded us even more opportunity to explore local cuisine, and glimpse into a world of existence entirely apart from our own, and next year is still in the works–but the point is–travel for us has become a sort of essential porthole into the other side. It’s a requirement and necessity whose byproduct is a sense of observational self-reflection that comes from a world apart–rather than from our own home.

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Initially, for me, traveling induced a sense of claustrophobia. Like the world was much much smaller than the one I knew from home and that the walls were slowly closing in–pinning me with the strangers who language I didn’t speak, and whose vistas I didn’t revel in. But that was then.

Now, travel brings out a sense of liberation. No matter where I go, there’s the inherent comparison of where I am to where I’ve been. How did the view on the Bosphorus compare to Grand Lake? How did the views from the top of Machu Picchu compare to those of Mt. Elbert or Bierstadt? Reflections that would result in benign, yet important realizations about my own place in the world.

The point is that we ground ourselves in life based on the information we’ve gathered previously, and that those who disdain from travel out of a sense of fear need not fear the sights and sounds abroad out of some sense of inferiority to the larger world. No matter where you go there will always be the sights and sounds that are familiar enough to welcome you home.

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While in Peru, I was fortunate enough to stay in an Airbnb of a family renting out two rooms in their home. I witnessed a friendly chastisement of our host by his mother, and despite the fact that I speak very little Spanish, and caught maybe 10% of what was actually exchanged, I still knew that his experience was the very same I’d experienced when I’d failed to fulfill some prior expectation. The look on his face was my own when my mother implored why I hadn’t yet gone for a Master’s degree. No matter where you go, there you are.

In banal cliche form: home is where you make it. The transformation of place is nothing more than the appearance of transformation. No matter where you go, there will always be the sights and sounds that can bring you back home.

If you want them to.

If you let them.

Summer Reading: My Ultimate Top Five

It’s time to open up those windows and breathe in the glorious scent of freshly cut grass. It’s summer, and with the sweltering heat comes leisure time galore (if you’re me, and have summers off), and the prospect of books, books, and more books.

Thus my ultimate top five summer reads:

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

A tome of info on India, Shantaram is the story of Mr. Lindsay and his post-prison-break refuge in Bombay. He falls in with the Indian mafia, revels in slum-life, and explores the sights and sounds of a country known for it’s mellifluous and mirthful spirit.

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene

Greene’s 1958 Cuban spy-parody is a comic romp through the eyes of vacuum cleaner salesman James Wormold as he’s accidentally thrust into the world of top-secret MI-6 espionage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Certainly, one of Greene’s more uncharacteristically hilarious novels, it’s without question the light-heartedly perfect pool-side read.

The First Man– Albert Camus

Discovered in manuscript form amidst the wreckage of the car accident that prematurely took Camus’ life, The First man is a departure from his more intellectually weighty works. It’s the story of childhood, sun, sea, and the life of a small boy growing up amidst the turmoil of French colonized Algeria. The perfect read for the isolatory deep-thinker.

The Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac

The story of Ray Smith (Kerouac) and Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) as they explore the duality between aesthetics and buddhism, and how all ultimately converge with nature. Experience the free-wheeling world of youthful late night wine-drinking parties combined with the serenity that comes with supreme mountaintop isolation in this beautiful summer read.

The Complete Short Stories – Ernest Hemingway

Nothing spells summer like a good Hemingway story. Thus, why not read them all? From the bullfights in Pamplona to African safari mishaps, this essential collection is a perfect portrayal of a man who reached near-mythic status in his literary career. Far more accessible than one would think, The Complete Stories is the perfect beach companion for the serious literarist.

Note: these are my personal favorites, though I would be remiss not to include the glorious pleasure-filled reads of summer like Harry Potter, Stephen King’s It, and Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, all of which come together as some of the best summer reads out there.

A Fraction of the Whole

Steve Toltz’ 2008 Man Booker Prize finalist A Fraction of the Whole is quite possibly one of the most entertaining and over-looked novels of the past decade. Part familial chronicle, part historical saga–the book is nothing short of astounding, and you’ll laugh through it all.

In Fraction we follow the Dean family through their misadventures as cultural heroes, villians, and everything in between. The story centers around Jaspar Dean, the illegitimate son of philosophical agoraphobe Martin Dean and brother to Australia’s simultaneously most hated and beloved, and by far famous criminal Terry Dean.

In between we get everything from zany societal discourse, trans-continental love affairs, literary/publishing debacles that would make Melville (victimized by publishing houses until death) cringe, and the global conundrums of drug-kingpins. It’s an absolute pleasure to read.

For those interested in a laugh-riot a la Garcia-Marquez style saga, look no further. Fraction of the Whole is it.