Wednesday, January 29, 2020

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (novel #142)

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

“The novels I prefer,” she says, “are those that make you feel uneasy from the very first page…” ~ Ludmilla

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a very unusual novel. It is a frame story, employing metafiction. It is the story of a reader, two readers actually, trying to read. Philosophically, I’d say it is a story about the love of reading.

It is marvelously clever, though a bit confusing on first read. Each chapter begins with second person narrative explaining something to you, the reader, about the nature of your reading. It is filled with wonderful advice about how to enjoy the reading experience, such as…
…having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Or asking before you begin…
Do you have to pee? 

After the second person narrative, begins a metafictional first chapter – about a reluctant traveler, on a clandestine mission, who misses his contact in a foreign train station. It’s quite compelling, leaving you wanting more, but next comes another second person narrative explaining why you cannot continue reading that story. The pattern continues throughout the book: second person narrative, a completely new metafictional first chapter, again interrupted, continued reading impossible, followed by another second person narrative and another new metafictional first chapter.

The second person narrative is the real story.

Though I have to admit, each of the metafictional first chapters are quite captivating.

The frustrated reader meets a fellow frustrated reader, and the two share a wild and ridiculous adventure continuously trying to find the next chapter.

The you reader, is male, and believe it or not the fellow frustrated reader is female, young and beautiful. Go figure. She, Ludmilla, has some insightful ideas on reading:
“The novels I prefer,” she says, “are those that make you feel uneasy from the very first page…”

“The novel I would most like to read at this moment,” Ludmilla explains, “should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves…”

There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line.

The pattern continues, and comes to a very pleasing if not quite complete closure. It’s brilliant. If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably love reading, so if you have not – you ought to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. This was a reread for me. I’ll definitely read more of Calvino.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book satisfies square G-2 in the 2020 Classic BINGO challenge


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (novel #141)

To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycle maintenance is to miss the Buddha entirely. ~ narrator


This book is a bit difficult to categorize. It is a fictionalized autobiography told in story form by the first-person narrator, Pirsig of course, though he never identifies himself, not by that name at least. Pirsig has this to say about the book in the introduction:

…it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.


It is also difficult to synopsize. At first, it is very much what the title describes – the narrator’s application of Zen principles to motorcycle maintenance, set during a cross-country motorcycle trip with the narrator’s adolescent son Chris, and friends John and Sylvia Sutherland.


The narrative recounts the places, people, and events of the trip, interrupted frequently by the narrator’s Chautauquas – philosophical discussions on numerous subjects, but mostly on the concept of “Quality”.


Slowly, the reader realizes the trip is revisiting old places, people, and events from the narrator’s past – from before he went insane.


The narrator recalls these vestiges through the memories of who he was before – before insanity – the person Phaedrus.

He [Phaedrus] was single-mindedly pursuing a truth he felt was of staggering importance to the world.

All he had left was his one crazy lone dream of Quality, a map of a route across the mountain, for which he had sacrificed everything. Then after the electrodes were attached, he lost that.

I think his pursuit of the ghost of rationality occurred because he wanted to wreak revenge on it, because he felt he himself was so shaped by it. He wanted to free himself from his own image.


The narrator, perfectly sane now opines…

I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that as soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can’t do it.


And professes that his purpose for the trip and the Chautauquas is to...

bury him [Phaedrus] – forever.


The trip is also an attempt by the narrator to re-connect with his son Chris, who clearly has memories of his father before, and his father now. At times the trip seems to be having a gentle and reassuring effect on their relationship, at other times it seems only to drive a wedge. 


And then – a stunning end. Who was mad? Phaedrus or the narrator? Who would survive? What would it mean for Chris. Recommendation: Read the final two chapters in hard-copy. my eReader did not include an all-important font change, that differentiates between the narrator’s words and those of Phaedrus. Fortunately, I have a tree-book as well, and had some forewarning of this nuance. 


Mixed emotions. I think Pirsig did a marvelous job of telling his story, and the ending is very clever. He offers intimate and honest insight on his philosophy. I enjoyed the travelogue and the narrator’s interaction with his son. But the philosophical discussions? Some were fascinating, but my biggest – not so much complaint, but – my biggest meh? It was a good deal too much navel-gazing for me.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 Stars

This book satisfies square I-2 in 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge.

It also satisfies The Classics Club Spin #22


Excerpts (all words of the narrator):


Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.


I suppose if I were a novelist rather than a Chautauqua orator I’d try to develop the characters of John and Sylvia and Chris with action-packed scenes that would also reveal inner meanings of Zen and maybe Art and maybe even Motorcycle Maintenance.


To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.


What Phaedrus has been talking about as Quality, Socrates appears to have described as the soul, self-moving, the source of all things.




Sunday, January 5, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020

Books and Chocolate is hosting Back to the Classics Challenge 2020

My selections (subject to change) Oops! my original post had three works that do not meet the rules of being published 1970 or earlier. I've replaced the translation, woman author, and adapted classic categories with older works and am now in compliance with the rules :)


19th Century Classic: Nicholas Nickleby * (1838)

20th Century Classic: Where the Red Fern Grows * (1961)

Classic by a Woman Author: Under the Net (Iris Murdoch)

Classic in Translation: The Stranger * (French)

Classic by a Person of Color: The Tale of Genji * (Murasaki Shikibu, Japanese)

A Genre Classic: Phantastes * (fantasy) 

Classic with a Person's Name in the Title: Jude the Obscure *

Classic with a Place in the Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall *

Classic with Nature in the Title: Wide Sargasso Sea *

Classic About a Family: The Castle of Otranto *

Abandoned Classic: Riders of the Purple Sage *


Classic Adaptation: The Sign of the Four  (numerous film renditions)

* also used in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge)


2020 Classic Bingo Challenge

Goodreads group, Catching up on Classics (and lots more!) hosts a Classic Bingo Challenge each year. The categories change each year. There is no deadline for joining in, so feel free. The categories this year are:

I’m shooting for Level Four Bingo: Filling out the entire board. The following are the titles I’ve chosen (subject to change):

B1: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu *

B2: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy *

B3: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole *

B5: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens *

I1: The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle *

I3: All’s Well that Ends Well by Shakespeare

I4: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

I5: TheHouse on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

N1: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë *

N2: The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

N3: At Swim Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

N4: Twenty-six Men and a Girl by Maxim Gorky

N5: WideSargasso Sea by Jean Rhys *

G1: Phantastes by George MacDonald *

G4: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

G5: The Stranger by Albert Camus *

O1: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

O2: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey *

O3: Wherethe Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls *

O4: Greenmantle by John Buchan

O5: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

* (will also be used to complete the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge)