Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Old Man and the Sea

            Last week, I popped my Hemingway cherry with The Old Man and the Sea*. I’ve had an earnest desire to read Ernest for quite some time and this was a short, easy starting point, as my copy is only 127 pages. Additionally, this particular novel received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and led to the bestowment of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway. Thankfully, he was a very gentle author for a first timer.
The Old Man and the Sea is about an old man and the sea. Specifically, it revolves around a weathered fisherman named Santiago as well as a big ass fish. Santiago is a simple man, shockingly disciplined and well versed in his trade. Seriously, his determination to successfully catch and reel in this big ass fish is astonishing. He’s also refreshingly resourceful and methodical; I would not have lasted a tenth of the time that he did (nor would I have really cared). But Santiago holds an admiration and respect for these majestic creatures that balances alongside his visceral need to eat and his emotional demand for pride. Quite literally, he says, “‘Fish…I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends’” (Hemingway, 54). Clearly Hemingway hadn’t seen Finding Nemo; this poor guy is probably just headed to P Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney to find his son.

Interestingly, the book barely has to work to characterize Santiago. Instead, it modestly presents readers a main character whose endurance is tested and lets us sit back and see how he reacts. Some times, it is painful to see the man’s agony; at others, it is heartening to witness his resilience. The sea is his home and the fish are his brothers, which is a hippie-esque statement that speaks to me and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. He also sees the sea as a woman, capable of both beauty and capriciousness. Perhaps that is a reflection of Hemingway’s own relationship with females, seeing as he plowed through 4 wives and never really mastered the whole marriage thing.

Thematically, the book portrays a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and an inherently good, kind man thwarted by fate. Hemingway was a minimalist who often employed the “Iceberg Theory”--a writing style that exposes *just the tip* of an event without explicitly giving away too much. Consequently, you won’t find any overt discussion of what the man’s struggle against the sea and its inhabitants means. Open-ended novels are good for the soul in that they incite rumination. But be warned—you won’t find any categorical “how to’s” or a formulaic means of interpretation here.

As a diehard fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I wish this book had been The Old Man and the Turtles in the Sea. Instead, I got this. It didn’t disappoint me but it also didn’t wow me. In general, I’m more inclined towards engaging narration that reads like a conversation between the reader and the narrator. This was a pleasant and poignant story that unfortunately did not fully resonate with me despite its timeless voice. That being said, I appreciate his writing style and I plan on trying For Whom the Bell Tolls. Overall, I give it 3 out of 5 camel humps. So short and easy to read that there’s no excuse to pass it by, but don’t immediately hit up Amazon and capitalize on their one-click ordering system.

*Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952. Print.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

            I’ve never really considered myself a feminist per say—mostly because I haven’t felt personally slighted as a woman. I totally understand that it’s a real problem, but I’ve always felt perfectly capable of accomplishing whatever I set my mind to. I probably perpetuate stereotypes with my utter inability to operate a remote control or drive a car, but I don’t give two shits about those things, so I don’t get turnt up about it. Bottom line: women contribute so many wonderful things to the world because of their femininity and men contribute so many wonderful things to the world because of their masculinity. As a result of historical and culture prejudices, female contributions are often stifled, discouraged, or discounted. This novel, written by ~a man~ throws up a big middle finger to anyone who wants to engage in said gender deflation. In actuality, he does so by throwing up a big thumb. Let me elaborate…
            Sissy Hankshaw, our spunky main character, possesses extraordinarily large thumbs. While others mock her mutation, she proudly wields them—specifically as a means to hitchhike. Gasp! A non-female-friendly sport. Sissy is certainly no sissy; she leaves her family at an early age to hit the road and learn about herself and her unusual dexterities. Later on, she finds herself married to a confusingly cautious man and entangled in sociopolitical mayhem stemming from a cowgirl-run ranch called the Rubber Rose. As a young, impressionable woman, she is constantly curious and willing to embrace new philosophies and ways of being. Fundamentally, she understands that “freedom—for humans—is a largely internal condition” and that “life is hard [only] if you think it’s hard” (Robbins, 183, 72). As such, she makes the most of her dire situations and seeks to embody the spiritually rich beliefs she has been exposed to along the way. One of her incidental mentors, “the Chink”, speaks of abstract topics like time, stability, nature, and death in such beautiful terms (largely spotted with Taoist undertones) that my highlighter died from repeated markings. “The Chink” gave her more than an enlightened perspective; he also taught her a thing or two about sexuality…and it’s not just thumb stuff. Promiscuity in the context of freedom and self-exploration is a crucial (and intriguing) component to this novel. There is fluidity to gender and sexuality here that I have never before seen so seamlessly expressed in a book. Women are not confined to conscripted roles, desires, or lovers because of their gender; yet the novel isn’t so heady that it reads unrealistic or idealistic. The author Tom Robbins—as bohemian chic as he is—is intelligent enough to ground his ideas in relatable, convincing characters.

            While we’re on the subject, Robbins is a certified badass. His works are described as “comedy-drama”, or poetic fiction with philosophic tinges. Right. Up. My. Alley. He went to Washington and Lee University at first, but left when he wasn’t really feelin it. After a brief stint in the Air Force, he landed in Richmond, Virginia, and enrolled in what would eventually become VCU. He dabbled in writing and radio and participated in poetry readings at the Rhinoceros Coffee House. I don’t drink coffee, but I might be persuaded if could sip some at a place like that. In all seriousness, this guy writes like no one I’ve ever read before. He chooses storylines so wildly obscure and so seemingly distant from his own experiences…and renders them readable without losing their mystique. I mean, this novel involves:

·         An outlandish, homosexual feminine hygiene mogul

·         A woman with thumbs the size of a foot. Uma Thurman plays Sissy in the theatrical rendition and she looks absurd (and fabulous)

·         A flock of endangered, drugged whooping cranes

·         A group of eccentric cowgirls bent on advocating for *free love*

·         An enigmatic little Asian who resides in the mountains, chortling to himself and whispering ambiguous aphorisms

·         A Mohawk male in denial of his Indian roots

Yet, these men and women have recognizable fears, hopes, and insecurities that any reader can appreciate. Robbins taught me what womanhood means as a source of strength. He taught me how to write an alluring novel with fascinating interludes. He taught me how to infuse imagination into the most mundane of circumstances. He taught me how to be clever without being off-putting. Needless to say, I’m a fan after my first read and I’ll be buying the rest of his books. The powerful Oz in charge of the @DailyRobbins Twitter account noticed my infatuation with Robbins’ strong female protagonists and suggested Jitterbug Perfume and Still Life With Woodpecker next. 

            All right, now I’ll get off his nuts. In all honesty, this novel is difficult to review in a textbook way because for me, it was less about the plot and more about the characters. I enjoyed watching them interact, grow, and fail. While femininity was obviously a factor, not everyone agreed on what womanhood represented. Some thought that women were necessarily “condemned” to motherhood despite their inherent ability to extend themselves beyond the confines of pure service. They said things like, “women are tough and rather coarse. They were built for the raw crude work of bearing children. You’d be amazed at what they can do when they divert that baby-hatching energy into some other enterprise” (Robbins, 80). Others claimed, “the capacity for motherhood is the source of woman’s strength...that is woman’s trump card” (Robbins, 177). Amidst all of this engaging dialogue, is an encouraging undercurrent that emphasizes equal opportunity for all sexes. One of my favorite characters, Bonanza Jellybean (had me salivating for Starburst Jellybeans on the reg), gave a thoughtful speech as to why being a cowgirl on the Rubber Rose ranch is so important—not only for her, but for thousands of little girls. Her mission is “cowgirlism”, and it goes a little something like this: 

“A little boy, he can play like he’s a fireman or a cop…and although chances are by the time he’s in high  school he’ll get channeled into safer, duller ambitions, the great truth is, he can be any of those things, realize any of those fantasies, if he has the strength, nerve, and sincere desire… Little boys may be discouraged from adventurous yearnings by parents and teachers, but their dreams are indulged, nevertheless, and the possibilities of fulfilling their childhood expectations do exist. But little girls? …Give em doll babies, tea sets and toy stoves. And if they show a hankering for more bodacious playthings, call ’em tomboy, humor ’em for a few years and then slip ’em the bad news” (Robbins, 130).

            Bonanza Jellybean straight murdering the game. Overall, I was struck by how creatively Robbins discussed such a controversial, divisive topic. The book offers a multitude of insightful viewpoints with the overarching agenda of love and respect for all beings. And who doesn’t like that?! Hitler, that’s who. So, if you’re not Hitler, you’ll probably enjoy this book. As for me, I give it 5 out of 5 camel humps. I originally came across it on some reputable “100 books to read before you die” list; now that I’ve read it, I can rest in peace.

*Robbins, Tom. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. New York: Bantam Dell, 1976. Print.