Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote de la Mancha in 1605, and it was pretty much an overnight success. By 1612, it had already been translated into French, German, English, and Italian and spawned many bootleg counterfeits. Ten years after the first publication, in 1615, Cervantes published the sequel (because why not?), although today, these two parts are usually published as a single unit.
That strategy makes this book intimidatingly long. I’ve been listening to it in the car, and it’s 37 hours (by comparison, the copy of Moby Dick I listened to was 21 hours). I’m currently taking a short break between the first and the second parts, but I don’t think it makes sense to wait until I finish the entire thing before sharing some thoughts. For one thing, Wikipedia tells me that there’s a definite tone shift in the second part. They really do sound like two distinct novels.
The first book lasted until the end of CD 14. Unfortunately, all the stuff you’ve heard about–tilting at windmills, fighting the monks and merchants, the great sheep slaughter, the barber’s basin on the head–all pretty much happen within the first two discs. That leaves 12 more CDs filled with the parts you haven’t heard about. And do you want to know why? It’s because the narrative really slows down after that.
As a reader, you start to understand what you’re in for when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza take a rest with a bunch of goatherds and shepherds. These pastoral staples sing songs about their unrequited loves and tell a long story about a beautiful shepherdess who had the nerve to not be interested in some guy who then killed himself. They all feel so terrible about that fact that they attend this guy’s funeral and read aloud some of his chivalric poetry. Then the shepherdess shows up and gives a speech about how she has no obligation to love someone just because he loves her, and she’s doing perfectly well on her own, thank you very much, and then she hides and the reader doesn’t hear anything more about her. But that alone makes her the coolest female character in the entire book by a long margin.
I can’t really even talk about Dorothea and Lucinda. I just… whatever.
There’s a lot more wandering around and encountering people like this, but the whole thing really goes off the track around the time Cardino is introduced. The plot from there on is too complicated and silly to explain here, but take my word that it’s very slow and rather non-nonsensical, and it delves into the sort of ridiculous “fancy meeting you here” coincidences that Doctor Zhivago so relied upon.
The one part I just couldn’t believe was happening (and sat through in the same sort of awe you might watch a terrible movie with) began when Don Quixote goes into another room for a nap, and the remaining characters all agree to read an entire other novel out loud. Cervantes was all like, “Hey, I heard you like novels, so I put a novel in your novel.” Pimped my novel. This sort of thing happens a lot throughout the last three quarters or so of the first part–other characters just hijack the narrative, and we have to listen to their long and unbelievable tales of woe.
Of course, this entire novel–from its structure to its topic to its characterization to its plotting–relies upon the chivalric novel tradition that was already going strong in Europe at the time. That’s not a field I have a lot of experience with, so I’m sure there are subtleties that I’m missing. Many of the (to me) less interesting parts reminded me of lesser Shakespeare comedies. That is, the plots are silly, the characters unrealistic, and everyone falls in love at the end. Also something like Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta opera, which I saw recently (thanks, Met HD!). I also have a passing knowledge of Renaissance poetry and prose thanks to my English degree, and that background also helped me place this in context. Even so, I don’t think I recognized a single title that the curate and barber pull off of Don Quixote’s shelves and burn (another long and detailed scene that doesn’t really translate too well to today). Without that familiarity, this would have been an even harder read than it was.
But, enough whining about what was boring and inaccessible. There were many good parts, especially near the beginning. In the prologue, for example, the author is bemoaning the fact that his novel doesn’t have enough important Latin phrases uttered by important people, and there’s no weighty bibliography to accompany it, as was the custom. Then his buddy comes by and tells him to fake it. Just copy a bibliography out of another book, he says, and make up all the Latin phrases and poetry that you’ll need! Only a bachelor of arts will argue with you, and who ever listens to them? I kind of loved that.
And Don Quixote is a pretty amazing character himself. His way of seeing the world, warping every detail to fit his fantasy, is simultaneously awe-inspiring and horrific. Sancho’s way of dealing with Don Quixote’s eccentricities emphasizes the idea that you don’t have to be considered crazy to mold what you experience to fit with your preconceived notions. We all do that everyday. Don Quixote’s “adventures” are really entertaining, and you’re rooting for him despite all the terrible things he brings upon himself, Sancho, and others because he’s just so confident about it.
The fact that it’s such a mockery of the existing literature of the day adds a wicked little gleam to Don Quixote. Cervantes revels in pointing out some of chivalric literature’s great pitfalls, even if he does fall into them himself. For example, Don Quixote insists that knights never pay for lodging or food or armor repair or anything of the sort because he’s never read of such a thing, to the great consternation of the innkeepers he encounters (which results in Sancho’s comedic epic “blanketing”). He also insists that knights don’t have to regularly eat or see to the calls of nature, but Cervantes focuses quite a bit on the unavoidability of these things. Don Quixote and Sancho piss and shit and bleed all over each other for various reasons, and at one point, Don Quixote vomits all over Sancho’s face. Yes, at points, Don Quixote reads like late-16th century “Jackass.”
But while the early part of the novel mocks the adventure-story part of the chivalric literature, the latter part focuses on mocking (sometimes too subtly for my attention span) the romantic parts. And that is so much more boring.
I’ve debated whether I should begin the second part or just be satisfied with the first; after all, there’s no one asking me to finish this. After reading the Wikipedia entry, I’ve decided to at least give it a try. The concept sounds pretty awful–noble people in Spain have read Part One and now trick Don Quixote into chivalric acts for their amusement–but the reader is promised fewer diversions and more focus on character and societal themes.
So, would I recommend Don Quixote, Part One? Only in one of two circumstances: 1. you just really want to give it a try, knowing it’s a challenge (I read Moby Dick and failed to read Les Miserables for this reason), or 2. you’re studying it in a class where you have the benefit of a teacher to curate related readings and to facilitate discussions. Since I don’t have the benefit a teacher, I plan to watch some movie versions and read some more of the Internet before delving into Part Two. (Also, major props to my public library for carrying these movies that I can’t find on Netflix!)
Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation skims across the surface of history by taking the reader on third-party tours of historic sites. The book focuses on the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but almost all of it is about Lincoln. (In my paperback, Lincoln gets 98 pages, Garfield gets 62, and McKinley gets 46.) Which may be fair--there are probably a lot more sites to visit related to Lincoln’s life and death than anyone else’s. But if you’re looking for a history lesson on any of these men, this is not the book for you.
Lincoln gets not only the most real estate in the book, but he also get the most sentiment. The author begins by catching a play at Ford’s Threatre and walking down to the Lincoln Memorial afterward. She admires the monument and reflects on the meaning of Lincoln’s words engraved on the walls. She draws comparisons to modern history and thinks about how Lincoln’s actions and death have influenced our world. From here, she gives a brief account of Lincoln’s assassination and the actions leading up to it, interspersed with conversations with tour guides. The tour guides seem to be authorities on the little patches of land that they represent, but Vowell doesn’t cite any other sources and doesn’t mention fact checking anything these first-name-only guides say.
Vowell does find some pretty obscure Lincoln sites to visit. She goes to his home, the place of his assassination, the house where John Wilkes Booth stopped after fleeing, even the prison where that house’s owner was condemned, and many other places. But the information she gleans is all pretty shallow. Even in the “I didn’t know that!” moments, I felt hesitation, like I needed to Google it before telling anyone else about it.
When she moves onto Garfield, the biggest point she makes is, “Who cares about Garfield?!” I actually just read a wonderful and in-depth biography of Garfield, so my response was a full-throated, “I do!” This was the most frustrating section for me because I have a higher-than-average knowledge and appreciation of Garfield after reading Destiny of the Republic, and Assassination Vacation brings no new information to the table. In fact, it’s so scant on details, that if you can already name Garfield’s assassin off the top of your head, then you probably don’t have much to learn here.
The Garfield section blends directly into the McKinley section so quickly I didn’t realize we were done with Garfield yet. I don’t know nearly as much about McKinley as I do about Garfield (or Lincoln), but I still thought this section was too light. Maybe the nation was so exhausted by the time McKinley was assassinated that they didn’t feel it necessary to dedicate a bunch of tourist sites to him? Maybe. That would explain why this section is so short and light.
Sarah Vowell can be very funny (and, yes, a bit humble-braggy), and some of the characters she encounters on the way are quite interesting. But this is neither a history book nor a biography, despite being shelved that way. This is a travelogue or a humorous travel memoir. It reveals a lot more about the author than about any of the presidents, and I think her larger point has more to do with the quirks of American culture anyway. I think if you know that going in, you’ll probably like this book--especially if you have a plane trip or beach vacation coming up. It’s light, at times silly, and very softly macabre, but it’s not historic.
A few years ago, I watched the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey from the comfort of my living room. And I’ll admit that I did not understand much of it. Frustratingly little. And then I didn’t think about it much more. When I heard that a local art museum would be showing it in the original 70mm film, I realized that the only bits I remembered were the guy jogging around the space ship, the red eye of Hal, and something about a space baby. So I committed to reading the novel version before I re-watched the movie, hoping that would give me some better background.
And it did! As Arthur C. Clarke explains in the 1999 Introduction, he wrote this novel based on one or two short stories that Kubrick liked, and he gave the manuscript in sections to Kubrick for notes. Even though each piece can stand alone, in a unique relationship like this, I think each is stronger when paired with the other. Kubrick’s film provides some incredible visuals that are more breathtaking than the words in Clarke’s novel; Clarke’s novel provides essential narration and internal monologue that is necessary to understand Kubrick’s movie.
I’m no great student of film, but I know how foolish it would be to critique Kubrick’s choices of what to include in this movie. The things I would have done differently probably would have hurt the movie in other ways. But I did miss the hypnotic visuals that the monolith displays to distract its experimental subjects while probing their minds. With those, I think, I would have understood a little better that the monolith was interacting with its environment and influencing the creatures around it. I also loved Clarke’s description of traveling through the Star Gate; Kubrick made different choices that probably helped that scene feel more terrifyingly oppressive. Clarke was able to get that impression across with words, but Kubrick had to rely on the visuals alone (also, how did he even create those effects in 1968?). And I would have loved to see Saturn’s rings the way Clarke describes them.
The novel itself is a good read. The bite-sized chapters help it feel like a short book even though some chapters don’t contain any dialogue at all. The tension builds gradually throughout, and the plot ticks along. Like all sci fi, it’s fascinating to see how close the author got to some technological innovations and how far off on others (I liked the tablet computer that plugs into the commuter spaceship and downloads every newspaper in the world once an hour--and nothing else).
The characters are a little two-dimensional, but that actually didn’t bother me as much in this story as it has in others. At least here, the reader gets their motivations explained, even if they don’t emerge much beyond their functions. And Clarke includes enough small, humanizing details for the reader to remember that they are more than their positions--Dr. Floyd hoping that his face can be seen in the photograph in front of the monolith, and Bowman feeling dread when he sees the hotel room and determines that he must be mad, for example.
The novel is not a masterpiece of its medium the way the film is (at least visually). But it has an important role to play. The film is simply not able to provide us with all the information necessary to understand and appreciate everything that’s happening in the story. The novel fills in those gaps and then some. The film leaves us with something to puzzle out, but the novel leaves us with something to contemplate.
This book provides a first-hand account of living in a house haunted by the spirits of three children. After reading the whole thing, I still don’t have an opinion about whether Don’t Call Them Ghosts should be considered fiction or non-fiction, and it probably shouldn’t matter. The author/narrator seems convinced, and presents her story the way she remembers it.
The author has a very different lifestyle than I do--she was raised in a different time, in a different part of the country, with very different values. I found myself rolling my eyes when the narrative paused so she could gush about how perfect her husband is or how beautiful her baby is, but maybe that says more about me than her.
However, the narrator does take some actions that I didn’t think were explained very well and that hurt the story. For example, it takes her weeks to come up with the idea to go to the library, which is directly next door, to figure out who the spirit children in her house are. Once she finally does–and the narrative goes into great detail about the trip–she spends her time reading about an old amusement park instead of the family that built her house. She never mentions going back to that library again, but she does go to the main branch to get some more information several months later. What she finds isn’t really satisfactory–nothing about children dying or even anything from the era the children would have lived–but she doesn’t make any other effort to find out who they are, despite telling them that she will. She doesn’t call the previous owners to ask about the box of stuff she found in the attic. And in the epilogue, she mentions that she made another half-hearted research attempt at her publisher’s urging, but didn’t come up with anything.
This comes across as a lack of curiosity at best and willful ignorance at worst. When she decides after only 5 years to sell “the house of her dreams,” the reader really starts to wonder. And since she is able to help the spirits move on, no one who lives in the house after her will have an opportunity to confirm or deny the story.
But really, this is all probably beside the point. If you can take the author at her word, you’ll enjoy a touching story about family life in a house where living people care for their spirit housemates and vice versa. They protect each other, tease each other, argue sometimes, pout, and generally live together the way a family does. They accept each other as they are, and what more can you ask family to do?
Don’t Call Them Ghosts isn’t going to convince a skeptic that ghosts really exist. But if you’re not looking to be convinced--if you’re looking for a story about what it’s like to live and interact with friendly spirits in your house–then you’ll likely enjoy this family story.
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