Monday, July 16, 2007

Armchair Traveling #1: The English Patient

I finished my first Armchair Traveling book, and it was spectacular!

Elise recommended The English Patient several times, and I've had it on my near-toppling stack of "to read" books for years (literally, years). I'm really glad I finally picked it up because it was much more than I ever expected. In fact, it was one of those very rare books that made me desperately want to immediately re-read in an effort to soak it up entirely and catch all the little nuances I might've missed the first time around. It's definitely a book that deserves re-reading.

To summarize, it's the story of Hana, a WWII nurse in Italy who stays behind in a bombed out villa to take care of a severely burned Englishman known only as the "English patient" until late in the story. Hana and the English patient are joined by Caravaggio, a long-time friend of Hana's and a thief mutilated during the course of his job as a spy. And, finally, an Indian sapper (expert at dismantling bombs) named Kip.

I think what I loved most about this story was the intricate interweaving of the four characters' stories, experiences and points of view. Ondaatje crafts a vivid identity for each character, but it's slow in coming. The reader is given small snatches of each's background throughout the novel, but the slowest to unfold is the English patient himself. Through a mixture of straightforward recollections, bits of writing and morphine-clouded ramblings, the reader understands the English patient's harrowing past, tragic love story and how he came to exist among the villa's odd family.

The draw for any book lover is certainly the abundance of literary references and the dependence and importance that books and words play in several of the characters' experiences.
A few quotes for you:

"She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water" (238).

"Now, months later in the Villa San Girolamo, in the hill town north of Florence, in the arbour room that is his bedroom, he reposes like the sculpture of the dead knight in Ravenna. He speaks in fragments about oasis towns, the later Medicis, the prose style of Kipling, the woman who bit into his flesh. And in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herotodus' Histories, are other fragments--maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. All that is missing is his own name. There is still no clue to who he actually is, nameless, without rank or battalion or squadron. The references in his book are all pre-war, the deserts of Egypt and Libya in the 1930s, interspersed with references to cave art or gallery art or journal notes in his own small handwriting" (96).

"Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot. I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise" (94).

This book was a fantastic way to start off the challenge, and it's made picking my next book extremely difficult. However, finally, I think I've settled on The Last Communist Virgin, by Wang Ping. It's a book of short stories and just different enough in tone and writing style to help me avoid the slump that could come from reading a great book like The English Patient.

*******Book Talk Over, Commence with the Rest of Life*******

Unfortunately, the other class that the community college offered, the one that was supposed to be a done deal, did not come through. Instead (stop laughing grad school colleagues), they've offered me several hours a day in their writing center to mark my place in the English department until the Spring semester when I'll be teaching more composition and maybe some literature. While I'm not a fan of writing center work, at least I'll be working alone and hopefully it won't be terribly busy (more time to read!). I'm crossing my fingers that the teaching schedule will be better in the Spring, but I'm just tickled at the thought of having a paycheck. Woot!

The weekend was relatively uneventful, which is good. We looked at some cars, grilled, visited family, and I read plenty. My car isn't terribly old (2003 Accord), but it's quickly approaching 100,000 miles. Hondas tend to hold their trade-in value, so I could still get more than enough out of mine to make my payments on something else *reallylow*. Right now I'm considering a 2008 Camry or the 2008 Dodge Avenger. I would really prefer the Avenger because it's a great mixture of sedan and sports car. On the other hand, the Camry hybrid gets AMAZING gas mileage for a mid-size sedan (40 in town, 38 on the highway). I think we're gonna go out test driving soon. I love car shopping! However, I don't love a car payment. Eek! We'll see.

I hope you all had fabulous weekends! I'm going to catch up on my blog reading as we speak.


  1. you are the only person in the history of the world that likes car shopping besides me! but I like it because I like being mean to the salespeople!

    I say go for the Camry, it will hold its value longer. :) there is my 2 cents...

  2. Go with the Camry. Toyota=Good, Dodge=Bad in my experiences.

    I had a 1987 Toyota Tercel back about 10 years ago. It had 250,000 miles on it, and was still going strong. Unfortunately, I sold it when I inherited a Chevy station wagon when my grandmother died. The station wagon died after two years. I'm certain that Toyota is still running somewhere.

    I've also owned a Dodge and it was a remarkably bad car.

  3. Lucky you, got to read a lot this weekend. Good luck wiith the car shopping. My question about the hybrids - why can't they make them look nice? I mean, all hybrids look rediculous. Is the deal smart car = ugly car? I would def get one if they could just make it look better. I think they do that to deter people from getting them. Who knows, damn government - I'm gonna get Michael Moore on this case I think.

    Oh and the only thing I like about car shopping is exactly what Cold Hands said...being mean to the creepy, slimy, shady salespeople :O)

  4. what is up Miss Andi? Congrats on the teaching gigs! I never heard what you thought of Blood Meridian although I had a distinct suspicion that you were not a fan. Also, I saw that you read Human Stain and Patrimony by Philip Roth. What did you think those? Wierd Aside, we were reading Patrimony in Derek's Roth Class when I found Crys had a brain tumor. NOT A GOOD TIME.

    Aside from that how is NC? Have you been in contact with C Dog? I told him he should call you so that you guys can visit. He swears he is surrounded by D Bags in Ashvhille, but he said that about Toronto, Commerce, and just about everywhere he goes. Anyway, just wanted to give you a shout and see how you were doing. I also recommended your blog to a friend i met on YouTube who likes to read. Hope you don't get too bitter about it.

  5. Cold, LOVE IT. Can't even say it enough. It's so fun!

    Johnny, I would be a tad nervous about buying a Dodge because we had a really shitty one once. Glad to hear I'm not crazy in being a bit cautious.

    Funky, I'm actually quite pleased to announce that a number of attractive "normal" cars are made in hybrid form now. Civics, Accords, Camrys, even some truck B. looked at this weekend come in a hybrid! When you say ugly you're probably thinking Prius. LOL

  6. T.!!! Good to "hear" from you. I never did an exclusive post on Blood Meridian but I really liked it! "Like" might be an odd word choice given all the dead babies, mules, scalpings, shootings, grey matter, etc., but I really did like it. I think McCarthy definitely wrote a masterpiece there...much better than The Road. Now if all those raving about The Road would go read Blood Meridian!

    Incidentally, I was watching BookTV the other day and caught an old Harold Bloom interview that came out right after he wrote How to Read and Why. Since then I've secured a copy of How to Read and Why, and I'm looking forward to reading what ole Bloomy has to say about Blood Meridian aside from the brief comments he made on BookTV.

    Freakin' loved The Human Stain and Patrimony. The Human Stain definitely deserves a re-read since I read it in two parts a year apart, but overall I still thought it brilliant. And Patrimony was nicely written and sad as hell. Would definitely be a compounded downer to have found out about Crys while reading Patrimony. The book made me bawl enough without the addition of real life trauma.

    NC is fantabulous! I'm having a good time if only it wasn't so damn hot and sticky. If you could send that TX rain this way I'd be much obliged.

    I heard from C. a few days ago. A brief note on Shelfari about his MFA. I told him to e-mail me the details but I don't know how often he's actually online. Would love to hear what he (and everyone else) is up to.

    Did you join the Shelfari group of TAMUC peeps that Jeremy started on Shelfari? If not, go to my profile and check out my groups. You'll see it and can join.

    No problem re: the recommendation to your YouTubin' friend. The more the merrier!

    Now, go up date your blog!

  7. My first for the challenge is also Ondaatje book - Anil's Ghost. But I've pretty much forgotten English Patient (time to re-read?)

  8. I think I read The English Patient before I was ready to REALLY read Ondaatje. I think I should give it another try.... :)


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