Current Distractions, February 2016 Edition

By far the most exciting thing that I'm willing to post about at the moment is that I went to Halifax, Nova Scotia this month with my sister. We had a fun time even though there were some cold days and that kind of weather can make it hard to feel really energetic all day. It was my first time ever on the east coast, and now I've been to a grand total of six of the provinces (excluding airports). Hurray! We also visited Peggy's Cove, where neither of us was swept into the ocean, and Lunenberg, which was just super pretty.


I made it through most of four books during my travels: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, Indian Ernie by Ernie Louttit, Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger (and there's a chance I felt the same about this book as many other people felt about The Catcher in the Rye, because let me tell you, I wanted to strangle every single one of the characters), and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. I'm still working on this book but will finish it within the next week if all goes well, and then it's all Parade's End all the time.


After hearing tons about it for a long time, I started watching Friday Night Lights THE SHOW and was hooked immediately. While I must say that I hope Taylor Kitsch becomes a better actor at some point, I also am obsessed with Kyle Chandler's eyes to an absurd degree, so I suppose that all evens out?

Season of Favourites: After

I wish I actually had read all four of these books in a row, but the scheduling just didn't work out. Still, I've never read all four within a few months during one year, so that's close enough for me.

The good news is that I still love The Catcher in the Rye and The Scarlet Letter. It's such a cliche to love Catcher, but now that I've read it more recently I'm confident about it again. It's just plain good, I don't care what anyone else says. As for The Scarlet Letter, over one hundred and fifty years in the cultural consciousness can't be wrong, and what a treat it is.

I still have complicated feelings about how to pick favourites, though. I think that I have to take A Clockwork Orange and Good Omens off the list. I think the list has to evolve. I hate change, so that's scary, but I think it's a good thing, too. I think I'm just more reluctant to pick a favourite now than I was as a teenager. How can I say whether a book is a favourite that I'll want to revisit again, or that really meant something to me, when maybe it's something that I just finished and I'm on a reading high, or something? I realize the absurdity of that, of course, but it's still much easier for me to say something is the "best book I read this year," in comparison to "one of my favourites."

Maybe I should expand my four favourites to ten? I've been gushing about The Long Walk and The Haunting of Hill House to anyone who would listen for the past three or four years; maybe I should put those on the list. I've read Jane Eyre more times than any other book; maybe it's finally time that I admit that that one is a favourite, instead of being coy about how much it means to me for no reason. I recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to anyone at all who reads 19th century literature, so it might deserve a place too.

I guess for me, the hardest thing about favourites is that naming a favourite seems to necessitate dethroning another one. That hurts. Loving a new book doesn't mean that I stop loving the old ones, but that's what favourites seem to imply.

So I suppose for the moment I have two favourites, and I'm considering some new candidates for the position.

R37. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Year Published: 1850
Pages: 159

First Sentence: A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter was the book that I was most nervous about revisiting for my season of favourites, and I ended up reading it after a significant break, mostly because of travelling and the fact that my copy is in a larger Nathaniel Hawthorne collection that isn't easy to transport all over the place. But a not-insignificant reason was that I just couldn't remember very well why I've counted this book in my favourites for so long.

To begin with, I first came to this book via an usual route. I don't remember what I was watching on tv one day, but basically it was a dramatic presentation of The Customhouse (a ridiculous introduction to the novel proper that is inexplicably detailed with regard to the operations of the customhouse in Salem, and not essential at all), and there was a shot of the scarlet letter being removed from a trunk, and somehow that hooked me. I don't remember exactly when I finally picked up the book, but like the others, it was sometime before I finished high school. The reason I think that this history is bizarre is just because I'm a little baffled as to how I managed to come to one of the more famous works of American literature via some throwaway thing on tv.

The Customhouse did nothing to reassure me on this reading about my taste as a teenager. Fortunately, once I got through that, I understood immediately why this book became one of my favourites years ago. I didn't remember many plot details, but there are a lot of striking images in it that I kept waiting for, and that didn't disappoint at all when they arrived.

In case you're unfamiliar, a brief plot summary: in mid 17th century Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne is a young woman with a bit of a problem. She travelled to America from the Old World in advance of her husband, and although her husband didn't turn up for years afterward, she somehow managed to end up having a baby. Although they could have easily just sentenced her to death, the Puritans decide that instead she will be made to wear a scarlet letter A on her chest for the rest of her life. As if this weren't bad enough, just as Hester's shame and sin is being exhibited to the public for the first time, her husband appears from out of the wilderness. He swears her to secrecy about his identity, and then makes it his mission to find the father of Hester's baby (another secret she's kept) and torment him.

This is barely a spoiler for a 150+ year old book, but the father is totally the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a young priest in the community. In my opinion that becomes pretty clear early on.

The reason that I love this book is because it's so odd. It is 100% about sex. It has a lot of other themes and subjects, of course, like shame and sin and penance and revenge and punishment and blah blah blah. But there's this crazy tension between the language of the book, which could never be set down by a modern writer with a straight face, and that initial sin committed by Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale*. I'm sure I'm not the only reader who just couldn't help thinking, while reading all their scenes together, "These two totally boned!!!!" The book opens with Hester's humiliation, when she's already had her baby, and the two of them are put up on the pillory in the town square for everyone to look at, and there are never any flashbacks to the passion between her and Arthur that led to that point. Many years pass before they speak privately again, and it's a beautiful scene in the woods.

I find Hester Prynne heroic as well. Hawthorne spends a lot of time talking about the pain that she's been through and how it has affected her as a woman. I don't know enough about Hawthorne's politics to be able to definitively say whether or not he's on her side, but I certainly am, so it seems to me that he is as well. Obviously she has no choice about whether to reveal her sin, whereas Dimmesdale does, and although she could run away somewhere and take off the scarlet letter, she instead stays in Boston and does embroidery for everyone except young brides. What I'm trying and failing to get at is that she lives through a ton of bullshit and somehow comes through that with good posture, if not serious harm.

The strangest thing by far, though, is Pearl, Hester's baby girl. I think she's my least favourite part of the book, actually, although she has her moments. In some of them, she actually behaves like a real human child, whereas most of the time she's portrayed as some sort of fairy demon, and although I get it, I just didn't enjoy it that much.

So yeah, I had no reason to be afraid, this is still a favourite. I'll be skipping The Customhouse on future rereads, though.

* In case it wasn't clear from other reviews I've done and posts I've written, I have no issues with sex outside of marriage, and although I'm not pro-cheating on one's partner, in this case I'd buy that Hester considered her husband to be dead so would absolve her on that one too.

- - - - -
He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons; and had no more right than one of those portraits would have, to step forth, as he now did, and meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.
- - - - -
It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forborn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.
- - - - -

Five Years Ago This Month: February 2011

Five years ago this month...

Morning above northern Saskatchewan

...I was distracted, three days late. I actually found that post pretty entertaining to revisit, and I wonder if maybe I should try to include a story in my Distractions posts again.

...I reviewed I Thee Bed.... It was my first romnov review after the drama, and the book was definitely not my favourite.

...I reviewed Angle of Repose. It was so so good, such an excellent book to bring with me to camp up north for the first time, and I'm still very excited to read more of Stegner's work.

...I was distracted. I don't read Neil Gaiman's blog anymore.