Just Finished: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

One of the members of my book club added this to our bookshelf (making it eligible to be a future selection by other members), and I’ve heard a lot about it and have been wanting to read it, so I went ahead and did.

It’s a short book, and I finished it in just two days. Set in Germany & Poland during WW2, it’s the story of a nine-year old boy whose father is a Nazi soldier who is reassigned as commandant of the Auschwitz death camp.  Though forbidden to ‘explore’ around their new house near the camp, the boy (Bruno) begins to take walks along the long, high fence that borders the camp.  On one of his walks he encounters his counterpart on the other side of the fence.  Another 9-year old boy (Shmuel) who coincidentally shares his birthday.  They become friends and eventually, when Bruno’s father decides to move his Wife and children back to Berlin, tragedy strikes.  I won’t spoil it, but be wary of this book if you can’t handle heartbreak…

A movie based upon this book was prominent in the Heartland Film Festival (an annual event in Indianapolis) last year.

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A Personal “Ghost” Story

An unexpected consequence of reading and posting about The Red Badge of Courage was that I was reminded of the only time in my life when I definitely, maybe, possibly saw a ghost.

I am, by nature, a skeptic and have not often experienced anything remotely resembling the supernatural. The following story is the main exception:

My first “Place of my own” was an apartment in Irvington (an historic neighborhood on the eastside of Indianapolis). It was the coolest place, on the third floor of the center building of several which together approximated the shape of the letter “U.” Looking out my living room window, I could survey the entire ‘complex’ (maybe the place was too small to be called a complex, but hopefully you get the idea).

Beneath my big, wide living room window I had my favorite couch ever.  Not because it was especially comfortable, but because it was long.  Long enough that it could accommodate my tall frame lying (laying?) down on it.  I often would lay (lie? – help me, someone!) on the couch in the wee hours of the evening, watching television in a semi-conscious state, enjoying the western breeze wafting in that big window.  Many a night I ended up sleeping there the whole night without ever retiring to my bedroom.  The breeze would often gently lift the relatively heavy curtains a bit, extending them above where I was laying  (The window sill was about waist-height).  Anyway, on one such night I was awakened, “sensing a presence” (as I’ve heard it put before -I am getting goose-bumps even today as I type this!) in my half-sleeping/half-waking state, I looked up to see a spectre float in the room as if bourne by the gentle breeze that also moved my curtains.  Focusing my eyes – or trying to – I beheld an ‘apparition’ of a civil war soldier moving (not really walking, more like gliding) from west to east across my living room.  All I can remember noting about his appearance was that he was wearing a blue uniform, was very tall, and looked totally emaciated and exhausted.  In fact, I even remember thinking to myself “I didn’t think people in that era grew to be very tall…” (why I focused on this and not the fact that I was ‘seeing a ghost’ I have no idea).  He continued to move/float directly east through the living room, past a short hall, through my bathroom’s open door until he ‘disappeared’ when he reached the outside wall of the bathroom.

Later I decided that I had seen a ghost of a soldier returning home after the war (this apartment was located about 100 yards from US 40, or “the National Road” as it used to be called, so perhaps this was a ‘replay’ of a weary journey of long ago).  Now, why the ghost would’ve been ‘walking’ on the 3rd floor instead of the ground floor … that’s a tough one.

Anyway, that’s how I always tell the story when anyone ever asks me if I’ve ever seen a ghost.  In reality, however, I do not believe I saw a ghost.  I believe my semi-conscious mind blended together a few un-processed stimuli from the previous day or days and had a little fun with me.  (I don’t think it was a Scrooge-esque “undigested piece of meat” from my last meal – as the Dickens character famously dismissed his spectral visitor).  Perhaps my retelling of this story over the years has also made it seem more real to me now, as each retelling reinforces the ‘memory’ and makes it more enduring.

Just thought I’d share that on a day for which I have no new reading to report.  I’ve reopened Guy Mannering, however, and am determined to make a diligent effort to complete it this month.

Oh! I almost forgot why I was reminded of this!  When I was adding the picture of the book cover for The Red Badge of Courage to my post yesterday, I initially loaded it as “large” which looked too big, and in my efforts to edit the post and re-size the photograph, at one point, I ‘stretched it’ too long vertically and was left with a union solider: tall, lanky and of proportions which I have “seen” before…

Just Finished: The Red Badge of Courage

This is my 5th “Civil War book” completed this year. For those who don’t already know, it’s the story of a young soldier (Yankee) and how he deals with “the horrors of war.”  In the early part of the book, the ‘action’ is primarily comprised of the young soldier’s (Henry Fleming) anxiety regarding what kind of soldier he will be when the battle lines are drawn and he finally sees action.  There is a lot of dread, as he fears his true nature is not heroic, but leaning more toward cowardly.  In his first engagement, his regiment repels a half-hearted rebel charge, leading to a premature celebration of victory, during which the real charge occurs.   Seeing a few of his comrades take flight, Henry (or ‘the youth’ as he is most often referred to in the narration) assumes the battle is lost and joins them.  Later he finds out the battle was won and he is ashamed of his actions.  He hesitates rejoining his regiment due to this shame, and during his separation, gazes upon many other horrors of war.  The dead, the dying, the maimed.  He eventually finds his way back to the regiment, fearing he will be mocked for running, but nobody realizes he did anything other than ‘I got separated.’   By this time, he has also incurred a non-combat wound to his head, which resembles a grazing shot from a confederate bullet.  This seems to verify his non-coward ‘status’ with his unit.  His brave actions in later engagements cement his reputation.

 His rationalization of his initial flight is deftly described in chapter 7:

 “Thoughts of his comrades came to him.  The brittle blue line had withstood the blows and won.  He grew bitter over it.  It seemed that the blind ignorance and stupidity of those little pieces had betrayed him.  He had been overturned and crushed by their lack of sense in holding the position, when intelligent deliberation would have convinced them that it was impossible.  He, the enlightened man who looks afar in the dark, had fled because of his superior perceptions and knowledge.  He felt a great anger against his comrades.  He knew it could be proved that they had been fools.”

One gets the sense of the overall confusion during a battle of that era.  Every time they think they’ve “won” something else comes up, or if they repel an advance, another won shortly follows.  At one point we find his unit facing the enemy forming for another attack “in the pitiless monotony of conflicts.” In one episode he overhears officers discussing plans and that they think of his regiment as a bunch of “mule-drivers” which, from his perspective – having fought like a man possessed in the last engagement – is untrue and insulting.  This fuels his aggression in later fights.  It is notable that his impetus for fighting has nothing to do with the war’s causes or politics, he is just simply “there.” At one point, the flag of his unit becomes a rallying point (perhaps this is why armies of that era marched – and fought – with flags prominently displayed).

 From chapter 19:

“Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him.  It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability.  It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him.  It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes.  Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power.  He kept near, as if it could be a saver of lives, and an imploring cry went from his mind.”

Stephen Crane:

The novel is said to be more or less set during the Battle of Chancellorsville, although this is never stated in the text.  It’s also very short (130 pages in my version), but there is so much in the way of description of war and its horrors, that I found it exhausting nonetheless.

 The poem “Keenan’s Charge” by George Parsons Lathrop (read here) describes a charge from the Battle of Chancellorsville which is supposed to be the basis for Chapter 23 of The Red Badge of Courage.

All in all, an interesting read, and an iconic novel in American Literature. This book is available in the public domain and I read parts of it on my “Free Books” app on my iPhone.  I’ve also read (long ago) a short story by Stephen Crane (“The Monster”), and I think in college we read (at least) passages of another novel of his, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  Perhaps I will revisit those…

I was also reminded while reading of a favorite quotation – I think it was Winston Churchill who uttered the witticism “There is nothing in life as exhilarating as having been shot at without result.” I think the characters in this novel would truly appreciate that one.

Finished “A Princess of Mars”

I actually finished this book yesterday.  Easy, light, escapist adventure.  Burroughs certainly had a great imagination.  It is interesting to note that this novel was written when little was known about Mars, and much of what was “known” was wrong, based upon inaccurate observations.  Principal of those observers was the remarkable Percival Lowell (of the Massachusetts Lowells).  He was obsessed with Mars, and even built an observatory (the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona) just so he could satisfy his obsession.  I actually visited there many years ago during a family vacation/camping trip.  (below is a famous photo of Lowell at work)

Lowell’s obsession led him to see ‘canals’ on Mars that didn’t exist.  It’s a somewhat famous story that he was ‘led’ to see them by learning of the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who had noted his observation of ‘canali’ (Italian for ‘channel,’ as I understand) on Mars. Due to a quirk of translation – or lack of translation – many, including Lowell, assumed the meaning to be artificially constructed “canals” as opposed to naturally occurring channels.  Lowell believed the canals to be a planet-wide engineering project of a ‘dying race’ trying to keep their planet alive.  Quite a leap, but perhaps not uncommon in that day and age.

The Lowell Observatory:

And finally, Giovanni Schiaparelli:

I will probably read some more of Burroughs’s Barsoom (the name by which his Martians call their planet) series, whenever I need to take a break from ‘heavier’ stuff…

Thoughts on Gone With the Wind

(I wrote most of this a few days ago offline, but now have peppered it with a bunch of quotations from the text)

As I’ve already written in earlier posts, I considered not having read this iconic work a serious gap in my ‘cultural literacy’ – one that has now thankfully been rectified.  At 959 pages, it took me maybe 20 hours total to read (at my age, that’s a pretty big time investment that I don’t make lightly)

I enjoyed the leisurely introduction of the characters in this book, the sheer length of which I suppose allows Mitchell this luxury.  Rhett Butler, for example, doesn’t even make his first appearance until after page 100.

To me, Gone With the Wind is the story of four people and how they dealt with the ‘end’ of the southern culture and the trauma of the Civil War. Agreed, the book has one protagonist, the infamous Scarlett O’Hara (-Hamilton-Kennedy-Butler), but her interaction with one or more of the other three (Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes) is continual throughout the work.

Rhett Butler is the opportunist, who sees the fall of the South as a way to enrich himself.  He is a social ‘outcast’ who refuses to let an earlier ‘indiscretion’ (at least by society’s standards) ruin his life.  He is imminently practical and often mentions how one can make money during the emergence of a civilization, but also during its dissolution, and that money can be made more quickly during the fall.

(regarding Scarlett’s thoughts of him) “But somehow, unbidden, she had a feeling of respect for Rhett Butler for refusing to marry a girl who was a fool.” – chapter 6 Read the rest of this entry »

But What About Sir Walter Scott?

Yes, I know. I have neglected my reading of Guy Mannering, which I started in early February.  Part of the problem was that – at that time – I didn’t have a hard copy of the book and was relying on my FreeBooks app on my iPhone to read.  Then, when I bought my nook a few weeks ago, I downloaded a free copy of the book to that device as well.  The copy is not very good, however, as it is a ‘scanned’ one and has many words that are misspelled as a result of that process.  Very disappointing.  Maybe I can download a better copy, or maybe I will just get a hard copy of this one.

All that aside, however, I also struggle with the language, which is very different from modern English and makes the going quite slow, which is discouraging.  I am putting this book on the shelf for awhile.  But wait, I just remembered I have next Thursday and Friday off and was going to skip town to a quiet place ‘in the country’ (the name and location of which I care not to divulge).  Maybe the seclusion will allow me to get through it. Stay tuned…

New Purchase: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I’ve always wanted to read this series of books (maybe there are half a dozen – I’m not sure) ever since watching Carl Sagan describe them – and how they helped inspire him – during an episode of his landmark Cosmos series on PBS in the early 80s.  Plus the protagonist and I have the same initials. 🙂 I bought the first book from Barnes & Noble via my e-reader.  It’s only 142 pages (e-reader pages) long, so I may just knock that out today or today and tomorrow.  I read the first 20 pages already and it is quite good – and easy reading too! I deserve a break after my other two recent reads, which totaled more than 2,000 pages together.

(This was the least risque image I could find for this book cover…)

Just Finished: Under the Dome by Stephen King

This is the first book that I have read completely using my new nook e-reader from Barnes & Noble.  It was 1,100 pages long (real pages, not e-pages) and took me almost two weeks to finish.  Of course, I was also reading Gone With the Wind ‘at the same time,’ and I consider it no small accomplishment (for me, anyway) to have finished both of those long books in a combined total of about 20 days.  I do now look forward to reading something a bit shorter, however.

I’d have to say Under the Dome was among my least favorite of the Stephen King books that I have read.  This just triggered the internal question: How many (and which) Stephen King books have I read?  Okay, the ones I remember are: Read the rest of this entry »

March Reading

What am I going to read the rest of the month? Well, I’ll certainly finish up Under the Dome (another long novel at 823 pages), but what else?  The “Shared Pages” book club at Bookmama’s bookstore is reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I would need to purchase and read by next Tuesday (3/16).  I also would like to return to the “temporarily abandoned” Guy Mannering of Sir Walter Scott.  I need to just knuckle down and finish that one up, no matter how hard I find the going.  What else?  Maybe revisit The Red Badge of Courage as part of Project: Civil War.  That’s another short one, and frankly I deserved a short one after Gone With the WindMacBeth is on my list as well.  I downloaded a free copy from Google Books to my nook earlier last week.  I’ll happily entertain suggestions from anyone who happens to be reading this…

Other goals for March:

1) Post more often to this blog

2) Add a couple more ‘bells & whistles’ to this blog

3) Comment more on other blogs that I have been enjoying reading

Alice in Wonderland

I also read this story Thursday night.  It’s very short (maybe I will also read “Through the Looking Glass” before I count it as a “book read in 2010”) and took me less than an hour – even at my traditionally slow pace.  It was quite strange.  I’m a bit mystified as to how and why it became so iconic and popular.  Maybe it was its strangeness that appeals to people.  Personally, I wonder if Carroll was ‘on drugs’ when he wrote it.  I’ll have to do some research.

Oh, and I read this book via the “Free Books” app on my iPhone.  With the new film coming out this weekend I thought maybe I should finally read this famous work in case I made it out to the movie theater.

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