Allegorical Readings of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

7ac78a6837587-560b93258816dWhat if the world of The Road isn’t a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but is just the same world around us? What if, morally and spiritually, we’re already living in the nightmarish hellscape of that novel?

The Man’s and the Boy’s journey isn’t archetypal, then, so much as it’s symbolic for each of us, trying to make our way through life in a society that in many ways is falling apart. McCarthy’s rapacious marauders are actually just the neighbors in our own communities. The devastated environment is the poisonously corrosive culture in which we all now live.

The Road could simply be about life in America in the early 21st century. Our protagonists are in the same position as many who try to preserve the heritage of civilization today.

Or, if we want a more specific application, maybe the wife-and-mother’s suicide was the major catastrophe that soured the world, and wasn’t due to it. The world only changed for these two men. Because of her loss, the world becomes this twisted, broken shell of its former self. The Man’s and the Boy’s journey is just them trying to soldier on in the wake of a lingering grief that they can’t escape. The novel proceeds from their vantage point, and everything else in the world is seen through the soiled lenses they now wear.

And you thought this book couldn’t get any sadder!

Symbolic Book Titles

I just had the idea to list books where the title is also the book’s chief symbol. So far I have:

  1. The Catcher in the Rye
  2. Lord of the Flies
  3. Ulysses
  4. The Bluest Eye
  5. The Bell Jar
  6. The Color Purple
  7. The Maltese Falcon

Please add more in the comments.

I’d also like to make lists of books where the title is an allusion (The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury) and where the title is a complete sentence (Death Comes For the Archbishop, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).

Anna Karenina

0451524497I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between how much I loved the writing in a book with how little I cared about the story.

Anna Karenina is a thousand-page soap opera. That’s about it. There’s a good couple and a bad couple. Things happen.

But hardly a chapter went by where I wasn’t floored by Tolstoy’s incredible insights into human nature. His talent for seeing into souls and painting them perfectly on the page is practically supernatural.

Anna Karenina had some of the same major story beats from War and Peace: the long aristocratic hunting vacation, the good man who publicly calls out the scoundrel who’s acting inappropriately towards his wife, the overt Christian sermonizing in the final act, the angelic woman who tends to a dying man.

That last part was by far my favorite part of the book. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Tolstoy is never better than when he’s writing about death.

Are we supposed to sympathize with Anna? I didn’t like her husband at first, either, but he really does turn out to be a decent man, I thought. Clearly, this is a cautionary tale, but still, I would have called the book Kitty Levina.

My Year in Books: 2016

I finished 37 books in 2016. For variety and quality, it was one of my best years for reading: nine “A plusses” this year, more than ever before!

1. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (1/12, music, religion)–A+

2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (2/6, literature, Garnett trans.)–A+

3. Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia (2/9, poetry)–B

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (2/28, self-improvement)–F

5. Buried Alive, Gloria Skurzynski (3/1, young adult)–C

6. Thomas Cole, Earl A. Powell (3/1, art, biography)–B

7. The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (3/9, classics, Watts trans.)–C

8. Albert Bierstadt, Tom Robotham (3/12, art, biography)–C

9. Redshirts, John Scalzi, (3/19, science fiction, comedy)–B

10. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (3/26, science fiction)–A

11. The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell (4/30, mystery)–A

12. Browsings, Michael Dirda (5/10, memoir, reading)–A+

13. The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright (5/12, religion)–A

14. The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (5/14, mystery)–B

15. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader (5/19, historical fiction)–C

16. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope (5/26, adventure)–B

17. The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne (5/28, memoir, humor, reading)–A+

18. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (6/13, science fiction)–B

19. We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride (6/17, literature)–A+

20. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli (6/28, education)–D

21. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (6/30, science fiction)–A+

22. The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus (7/1, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)–C

23. Never Go Back, Lee Child (7/12, mystery)–B

24. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (7/15, literature, Lowe-Porter trans.)–C

25. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris (7/20, sociology)–F

26. The Taking, Dean Koontz (7/28, horror)–A

27. Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis (8/3, language/self-improvement)–A

28. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (8/4, fantasy)–A

29. How to Be Perfect, Daniel Harrell (8/9, scripture study, religion)—B

30. The Eumenides, Aeschylus (8/9, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)—C

31. Zion: The Long Road to Sanctification, Larry Barkdull (8/17, religion)—B

32. Inferno, Dante (8/26, poetry, classics, Anthony Esolen trans.)—A+

33. Submission, Michel Houellebecq (9/3, fiction, translated from French)—C

34. The Aeneid, Virgil (10/28, classics, Robert Fagles trans.)—A+

35.  A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmons (11/1, suspense)—B

36. To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, Heidi Swinton (11/13, religion, biography)—A+

37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (12/29, literature, Maude trans.)—A

Sundays With Shakespeare

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I put together a small book of 52 Shakespeare and scripture quotes, as a weekly spiritual devotional. From the Amazon description: “Each entry has a title based on the theme and a quote from scripture on the same theme, all focused on inspiration, reflection, and self-improvement. 50 footnotes explain difficult wording, and an index for play titles, subjects, and scriptures make this a useful resource for talks and lessons, as well as for personal study.” A perfect Christmas gift! Set some self-improvement goals for 2017 and this can help you.

Shakespeare’s Best Female Character

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-2-54-27-pmShe’s in a poem that’s rarely read. Not only is she Shakespeare’s best female character, she’s his second best character overall (darn you, Hamlet!). She’s Lucrece, of the long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Two things especially impress me about her. The first is right before the criminal act of the title, when she attempts to persuade her attacker not to do it. She does not, however, say what might come to mind first in that situation, like saying that it’s cruel and selfish and hurts an innocent person. She actually improvises a compelling bit of oratory that appeals to his point of view, essentially warning him about the unintended consequences this act will have on his political career. Quite clever.

But after it happens, most of the rest of the story takes place inside her head, as she mentally soliloquizes about her situation for dozens of pages. She throws out one apostrophic lament after another, addressing her impassioned complaints to fate, lust, the gods, etc. Her thoughts here go far deeper than just depression (though, obviously, that’s a big feature) as she waxes profound about the nature of life and the world in a frenzy of philosophy that would make the Prince of Denmark jealous. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s truly and undeniably great writing.

More than once while reading it, I marveled at the depth of detailed world building that Shakespeare achieved in the mind of this one woman, and often wished that the reader could have met her under better circumstances.

 

“Silent Night” In “A Christmas Carol”

The rest of the world seems to have ignored the existence of this great 1999 film version of the classic story. I really like the use of “Silent Night” to illustrate people’s troubles to Scrooge. (Coincidence: this is the 2nd video with Patrick Stewart I’ve posted this week.)

Patrick Stewart Performs Shakespeare’s “This Sceptered Isle” Speech

I like each of the four versions in this video, but the final one–starting at 5:35 and delivered by Patrick Stewart, from the Richard II segment of The Hollow Crown–really gives me chills.

The Best Used Book Store In Las Vegas

Dead Poet Books closed last year, but as great as it was, it wasn’t the best spot in town to find cheap used books. It’s not the also-awesome Amber Unicorn, either, or any of the few other decent such stores.

It’s Savers, the thrift store. Yes, most thrift stores are full of junk and the used book section is a waste of time (I’m looking at you, Goodwill), but Savers gets the job done.

There’s a location near the school where I work, and I drop in sometimes to check in on the inventory. It rotates pretty quickly–a good sign. I could tell about plenty of great finds there, but here’s the most recent one:

Last week I went in with three things in mind: I’ve wanted to read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for years, but it’s long enough that I would want to own a copy so I could take my time. Ditto for James Michener’s Alaska, which I started three years ago and really liked, but couldn’t finish before I had to take it back to the library. Also, I’ve wanted to read Edward Rutherford’s London ever since it came out when I was in college. I’ve been keeping an eye out for good used copies of each for a long time, and they were all on my mind when I stopped in there last week. I decided ahead of time to buy a copy if I should see one of them.

They had all three. Six bucks well spent!

Here’s another example: a couple of years ago, when the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was super popular, I went looking for them in paperback for a friend. Found all three of those there, too.

Yes, it’s also full of Dean Koontz and John Grisham stuff, but the variety and quality of books there has never disappointed me.

 

 

The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Some Dark Humor in The Aeneid

I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:

aeneid

Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”

What President Monson Is Reading

512ktnfwjelIn President Monson’s brief remarks at this month’s General Conference, perhaps the thing that struck me most was in the priesthood session when he said, “Recently I read the true account of a dramatic manifestation concerning these promises.” Most of the talk, in fact, is a summary of a story from the book. That right there is already pretty high praise for a book, to have a prophet mention it and cite from it as the core of an address to the world.

It’s great to know what the prophet has been reading. He’s still working full time as CEO of a global organization, he’s several years a widower now, and his strength is starting to decline, but he still reads, and this is what he reads: a book about the inspiring experiences of Latter-day Saints during World War II. As far as I know, there isn’t a team of research interns doing any behind-the-scenes lifting in preparing anybody’s conference talks; when the prophet says he’s been reading this book lately, it’s really something he chose to pick up and spend time with.

Maybe we would do well to follow the prophet in his priorities, his habits, and even in his specific choices in reading. The book he mentions, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-Day Saints in World War II, isn’t on Google Books, but it’s on sale at Amazon for as low as 14 cents a copy.

14 cents, to do what the prophet does.

You know what would be great? A “Prophets Book Club,” where people read books mentioned by prophets and apostles in General Conference.

At the end of the citation for this book in the published version of President Monson’s talk, a note says, “used by permission.” That’s wonderful: the prophet (or maybe his secretary) reached out to the author to ask if it was OK to refer to the book in General Conference. What a sweet conversation I bet that was.

 

Top 5 Most Frightening Scenes In Stephen King Books

 

Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.

5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”

This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.

Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.

The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…

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Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

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Nevada in 2042

Nevada had always been a magnet for kooks. Misfits, outcasts, miscreants, mavericks–the malcontents, the fantasists, the seekers of shortcuts. Born of mining boom and bust, the economy was founded on vice: prizefighting, loose women, drunkenness, gambling, and marital fecklessness. Even before going it alone, the state was an outlier, making it all too easy to get married, easier still to divorce. Alcohol was plied twenty-four hours a day. A lenient relationship to prostitution well predated the era in which Savannah was able to earn an accredited community college degree in stimulation therapy. Real cigarettes–or giant, smelly cigars. for that matter–were legal in casinos. A prohibition against state income tax was enshrined in its constitution. In 2042, Nevadans had merely formalized that they were a people apart. 

–Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, page 382