Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why I don't really want to do my homework...

And no, it isn't senioritis.

I actually am dreading the moment where Lee dies. I especially don't want Lee to narrate it.

I'm not really sure why I am so dreading this moment. I mean, I know that it is coming. I know Jack Ruby is going to do it. I know that. I've seen the footage. I've seen the t-shirt parody of the scene. It's coming, but I don't want to read it.

No offense to Don DeLillo, but this actually kind of surprises me that I'm reacting this much to something in the last 30 pages. His book hasn't stirred up passionate thoughts in me all along, sending me frantically to this blog to explain my burning thoughts. It has been kind of a slow read with some long and confusing (and therefore occasionally sleep-inducing) sections.

Lee is interesting, but not all that lovable. Marina would be likable I think, if we ever really got to know her. The conspirators are all strange, but also kind of distant, kind of untouchable. I don't know, maybe the fact that it is May of my senior year has something to do with the detachedness I've felt with this book, but I really think it is something to do with the writing and the plot and the historicalness of everything.

It is sort of like watching a movie you've already seen. You want to fast forward through the boring scenes and in the good scenes you aren't quite as captivated as you were the first time. You're a little cooler, a little more distant, and little more critical.

That's how I've felt reading Libra. I've already seen this story unfold and so I've got this critical distance which prevents me from falling in love with any of the characters because I already know their destiny and so I don't have hope for them, I don't believe they will change or grow because I have already seen where they end up.

It's actually pretty weird. It isn't very often that you know the ending of a book before you get to it unless you're reading a very standard plot children's book. But this one, I've know the ending for all along.

So anyway, now that I've explained why I don't want to do my homework, I guess I had better go finish it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Can you trust the news?

Early this year, we spent a week or two in history talking about the JFK assassination and watching a documentary about it made with footage from the actual event and subsequent news coverage.

One of the things that really stood out to me was just the chaos at the police station, all the reporters everywhere and the police trying to get through this massive crowd of people with microphones. I started to wonder about what news is, as all the reports they released that had such gaping holes in information or made such jumps and twisted the story.

When reading Libra, it was really interesting to imagine what Lee thought during all of that. On page 417, it is described this way.

"Hell and bedlam. Crowds jammed clear back out to the hall. Reporters still trying to press in, just arrived from the East Coast and Europe, faces leaking sweat, ties undone. The prisoner stood on the stage in front of the one-way screen used for lineups. His hands were cuffed behind him. Reporters shouting out to him."

I also like how Lee keeps pointing out that they were all shouting questions but no one was listening to his responses, they couldn't hear.

But it gets really interesting when you are inside Lee's head and he is thinking about they ways he could play the story. Does he name all the names? Does he take any of the guilt?

This is just a "History as Fiction" moment. The character is consciously playing with history, considering whether to reveal more or less of the truth. It just reinforces that even what people say can be leaving out important information or slanting a story a certain way.

This has really struck me as I have been working on my own piece of post-modernist historical fiction and as I write even basic news for the Online Gargoyle. When I look at what is recorded in newspapers (historical for my semester project or contemporary stories I edit), it is so slanted by what people say and what the author chooses to included that it makes it hard to know what actually happened.

I mean, how many times as an Online Gargoyle author have I had to leave out information because it wasn't "relevant" or succinct or publishable, and yet that information could change the way you understand the story? Probably more than even I think.

And then the news stories that I've been reading for my project, it is amazing how many of them contradict each other about very basic stories about how the dishwasher was invented. You would think that the inventor must have told two stories, the way the articles divide so neatly between two narratives.

I bet somewhere out there there is a novel that totally plays with the idea of the newspaper as a frequently cited source of "history" and how really newspapers often print a lot of fiction as well.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Coincidental murder story?

This isn't going to be a deep reflection on Libra  because I've spent quite a bit of today thinking about a different story, my story.

I'm writing about Josephine Cochrane. If you don't know who she is, you should look her up. She invented the dishwasher. And she happened to do so in Shelbyville, Illinois which is about an hour and a half from here (I used to live there).

My story borrows from Libra and Mumbo Jumbo in that there is a conspiracy theory behind everything. There is a secret society of men who are working together to prevent the spread of this invention in anyway they can. They don't want women and servants liberated from the kitchen sink and able to challenge them in other areas.

Of course, this in itself would make a good story. But in a stack of books about Illinois in the 1880s and women inventors, I also brought home a book called Weird Illinois: Your Travel Guide to Illinois' Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. I got it on a whim, thinking something in it might help me out.

It did.

I found a story about H.H.Holmes, who was apparently a "diabolical druggist" and operated a "murder castle" at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 (the same fair at which Cochrane displayed her dishwasher). Apparently he is America's first known serial killer.

I won't recount the gruesome details of the gas chambers and direction tables in his "castle" or the stories of some of the more than 50 murders that appear to have occurred there. If you want some ugly Illinois history, check out the book when I return it or read this wikipedia page.

For Mr. Mitchell's sake, I won't tell you how I plan to use this information in my story (I want it to be surprising) but it probably isn't hard to guess.

Lesson learned: Looking for an interesting coinciding story to mesh with yours? Find a "weird" history book!

Monday, April 23, 2012


Whenever Lee encounters anything to do with the KGB or the prisons or Gary Powers is mentioned I shudder inside because I have the faintest idea what that was like.

A few years ago, while I was living in Lithuania, I visited The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius. It was the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius and it was terrifying. There are things about it that I absolutely can not forget. When I was there, it had been less than 20 years since the prison had been in active use, but it had rooms that seemed like Medieval torture chambers. Between 1940 and 1960, over 1000 executions took place in the basement of the building.

There are pictures which can not convey the awfulness that you feel when you are inside that building but  they might give you some idea: A torture cell.
A normal prison cell.
The execution room. The glass cases hold objects found in the room.
A series of pictures from the prison and descriptions of the various rooms.
The basement hallway.

I know that what we sometimes read about the KGB and see in movies about the cold war is scary, but I haven't come across anything that conveys the true horror of what I saw in the Lithuania headquarters and I know that was just the tip of what they did. The true impact of the horrors was evident in the way people walked and interacted.

I heard that before the Soviet Union collapsed they used to display the bodies of people they had recently executed on the streets. They would post guards by the bodies and if anyone reacted as they walked by, those people were arrested because they must sympathize with the executed. So even twenty years later, people generally keep their eyes on the ground and they don't greet one another in the street. Every one has been trained to ignore others in case they are being watched by how the react to someone.

Anyway, that is a not very cheerful blog post but something to keep in mind as you read about the KGB. And it also makes you wonder what CIA headquarters are like.

Monday, April 16, 2012


On about page 90 of Libra, I started to realize that there were occasional references to this "Hidell," whatever that is, that kept showing up in various places.

For example, the first time you see it is right after Oswald's nickname Ozzie the Rabbit is explained. All you get is this one little line:

"Heindel was known as Hidell, for no special reason." (82)
Seven pages later, it shows up again twice with very little explanation.

"Hidell in a dark jacket with a pouncing tiger on the back."
"Hidell means don't tell." (89)
I thought this next paragraph would help me understand when I first caught sight of it as I read.

"Take the double-e from Lee.
Hide the double-l in Hidell.
Hidell means hide the L.
Don't tell." (90)

But it didn't really help me all that much. I mean, seriously, if you take an ee+hide, you don't get anything that makes sense. And what does "Don't tell" have to do with it? Mystifying.

The next time this mysterious Hidell showed up I started wishing I had taken psychology and understood all of Freud's thinking. I feel like Lee, not really sure what ego and id really are but feeling like they must have significance.

"We live forever in history, outside ego and id. He wasn't sure he knew exactly what the id was but he knew it lay hidden in Hidell." (101).

And then yet another paragraph that seems to suggest an answer, but instead is more confusing. Clearly we have a reference to Jekle and Hyde, but exactly how that is being used I'm not sure. Perhaps Lee is considering himself both a jerk and a person who hides, and in that way he has a double personality. Or perhaps Jerke refers to his cellmate.

"Hidell means don't tell.
The id is hell.
Jerke and Hide in their little cell." (101)
"Hidell climbs the ancient creaking stairs" (109)
And the last one I found in the reading seems to refer to Oswald getting closer to the East.

"Hidell creeps closer to the East" (134)
Perhaps you can tell that as I finished my reading tonight I was getting pretty curious about what this Hidell was and what is signified. So I googled it. And guess what, Alek Hidell was an alias used by Lee Harvey Oswald! So it is important somehow! Now I get to keep watching references to this and wondering what DeLillo is trying to say with these short, semi-random interjections about Hidell. Stay tuned for a possible follow up if I figure this out!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Double YUCK!!!!

In response to Mr. Mitchell's comment on my previous post, I would just like to add to my last thoughts: DOUBLE YUCK!!!!

I've read some gross short stories, The Lottery being chief among them. But nothing compares to the grossness of "Lyndon." It is just DISGUSTING.

I do not really care to read page after page of detailed recounting of Lyndon B. Johnson's bodily functions (like the nasal inhaler--I can't take the constant information about LBJ sticking this thing up his nose and inhaling-ugghhh!). And I don't want to hear about his use of a wastebasket as a toilet or his meetings held in the bathroom. And what is with the narrator's husband's mysteriously gross wasting disease?

I would give you some examples of passages that make my stomach turn, but it just seems insensitive for me to subject you all to that.

So I'll conclude with this parting thought: all this detail makes me like Lyndon B. Johnson even less. It doesn't humanize him for me, it turns me off. I'm so glad that story is over and I hope Libra is totally different.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sometimes I Just Don't Want to Know

In general, there is a point in relationships where you decide that either you want to get to know this person better (knowing that their could be stuff you don't want to know about or deal with) or you want to keep this relationship on the same level and go no deeper.

I'm feeling like I would rather take the second course of action with Lyndon B. Johnson. This short story,"Lyndon," has pushed me to a point where I'm thinking that the Johnson I read about in the history books was more pleasant than the mental picture I'm building as I read on page by page.

I think this is especially true of major historical figures. For example, I wouldn't mind learning more about some of the people in my classes or that I've met through various extracurriculars. They are interesting people and while their lives can be messed up, somehow that doesn't usually destroy my view of them.

But historical figures, they don't have a chance to redeem themselves. When you find out that the queen you looked up to was actually rather cruel, or that Helen Keller grew up to be very different than the girl who stuck her hand under a pump, or that Christopher Columbus wasn't the nice explorer you thought he was, you don't get to see them redeem themselves. Forever after, your image is tainted. 

That's not to say that knowing the truth isn't better than the idealistic picture. It's just more disappointing.

I guess all that is to say that I don't really want to read any more about Lyndon B. Johnson on a personal level. True or not, he's been ruined for me by a farting scene. I don't know if I'll ever be able to think about the huge impact he had on American history without seeing that scene.

I hope Libra isn't like this short story. Because there is truly some stuff I just don't want to know.