The Rum Diary, revisted (Hunter S. Thompson)

My experience with reading is surprisingly quite numerical. Numbers of pages, frequency of allusions, and how many Starbucks boxes my book collection filled in the process of my move last October.[1] In eager anticipation of my newest book purchase, Patricia Meyer Spacks’ On Rereading, I’m in the process of checking off a second reread of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.


Of course I’m thinking about Johnny Depp when I’m reading this book!

So much has happened since my first read of the book during the summer of my MA — Hunter S. is best read in the sunburnt days of early summer. At this early point in his career, his characters weren’t ingesting Fear and Loathing’s signature cocktails of pills and sniffables, but this novel is a fine introduction to the author’s world of excess via rum, beer… and more rum. A day after I got to experience the peaceful beauty of Ontario’s Sandbacks Provincial Park,[2] I remembered it with a smile as Thompson describes the deep sense of peace when he sees Vieques island:

My first feeling was a wild desire to drive a stake in the sand and claim the place for myself. The beach was white as salt, and cut off from the world by a ring of steep hills that faced the sea. We were on the edge of a large bay and the water was that clear, turquoise colour that you get with a white sand bottom. I had never seen such a place. I wanted to take off all my clothes and never wear them again.


Yeah, I can definitely see it.

I gave you a few extra lines to enjoy the effect of that passage. No more explanation necessary – so beautiful.

On a different note, I’m a sucker for allusions, the literary equivalent of the exponent. With Hunter S., you can tell that he’s read and enjoyed the influence of Hemingway. I hear his voice in this passage:

Then I heard another sound, the muted rhythm of a steel band. It was getting dark now, and I couldn’t tell what direction the music was coming from. It was a soft, compelling sound, and I sat there and drank and listened to it, feeling at peace with myself and the world, as the hills behind me turned a red-gold colour in the last slanting rays of the sun.

But Hemingway I’ll keep for those last, more desperate days of summer. Until then, I’m going to drink mojitos and work on evening out those tan lines.

[1] Listen here, bibliophiles: if you’re moving books, the boxes that ship Starbucks Coffee, the ones they recycle every few weeks at countless stores, are the only ones for you. Tip: a smaller box means you’re not over-filling it with your heavy books.

[2] Which I’m quick to hype Parks in case there’s a Leslie Knope-type at the helm of the operation.


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Mansfield Park (Jane Austen)

I’m not sure if I’ve ever met someone whose favorite Austen novel is Mansfield Park. Fanny Price lacks some degree of joy that is requisite for a proper Austen heroine. Even Emma, who is entirely self-centered, is fun, and you can feel yourself rooting for her and Mr. Knightly to get their acts together and marry. Anne Elliott wants to be happy, so you want it, too, for her.  Fanny is what happens when you make Mary Bennett the protagonist – even Edmund, who has taken orders, isn’t as saintly as Fanny. He  admires her more than he loves her, and accepts her as his loyal spaniel in a way that St. John Rivers never had dominion over Jane Eyre.

Nonetheless, this novel is entirely worth reading, and worth reading over. The chapters are long, and feel so episodic in the way that Dickens made his own work addictive. And what is most interesting is how this book provides a great puppeting of the opinions of an upper-middle class – about the perceived and actual function of the clergy; marriages of convenience; the ins- and outs- of debutantehood; and, of course, ridiculous gardening practices and ha-has.

(Miss Crawford's no treat, either)

Mansfield Park is best read when you’re in a dull, uncharitable mood, unwilling to have your heart broken with a true Austenian heroine, but wanting to feel superior to that cow Mrs. Norris. I’m definitely going to buy Deidre Lynch’s Harvard University Press super-annotated edition when it comes out, because the beauty of Austen is that there’s a perfect novel for every mood … and what’s an Austen collection without a full set?

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The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

May the odds be ever in your favour!

God I love a good dystopia!  I knew this when I started to wolf down every Orwell and Atwood that I could get my hands on, but I only recently put two and two together in finally recognizing that the non-fictional polygamy narratives that I prefer are just real-life versions of the genre I most crave.

“Just” real life? I can hear Katniss Everdeen, protagonist from The Hunger Games, seethe at this statement. She has to guard her true feelings from the powers-that-be at the Capitol, the crowds that watch her fight for her life, and even her family, because she knows the cameras are always watching. But Suzanne Collins does a great job with the third-person limited narrative form to ensure that we, as readers, know that her character plays the “Game” but refuses to have fun while doing so.

Collins knows her way around a dystopia. The silent dissent. The secret listening devices. The hunger of the masses and the decadent gorging of the privileged few. I’m hoping that Book Two, Catching Fire, will feature some sort of revolution, but you can’t be sure who will be part of it ‘til the end of Book One and the inevitable body count that comes after a weeks-long to the death showdown between a Noah’s Ark-selection of two delegates from each of the nation’s twelve Districts.

I won’t give out any spoilers because this book is entirely worth reading from cover to cover. What I will say is that I’m totally looking forward to the movie because I think they’ve done an outstanding job with casting. Although I don’t agree with the terrible wig, I couldn’t imagine anyone other than Woody Harrelson playing the no-B.S. drunk mentor, Haymitch, and although my inner “smizer” was crossing my fingers for America’s Next Top Model’s Jay Manuel to play master stylist Cinna, I trust Lenny Kravitz with his guyliner.

I won’t tell you anymore except that this series is the best holiday gift – to give, but even more to get. I know that I’ll be spending my first night of Chanukah cracking into Book Two!

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Lost Boy (Brent W. Jeffs)

I find it pretty uncanny that even as my Comprehensive Exam looms closer and my reading list seems to grow denser, part of my brain still yearns for a good read. Aside from my usual Shakespearean fare, my choice of leisure-time reading usually involves some element of biography, be it the historically-fictive biographies of English queens by Philippa Gregory, or the autobiographies of people who have escaped the physically and spiritually oppressive world of the FLDS under fallen ‘prophet’ Warren Jeffs (who doesn’t even deserve the respect of a hyperlink).

Lost Boy falls under the latter category, but it is the first such book I’ve read that’s been written from a man’s perspective. Brent W. Jeffs is Warren Jeffs’ nephew, and at five years old, his uncle molested him in the washroom of the Church school. Can you imagine? Neither could he: Brent’s mind pushed that trauma so deep down that, only after his brother had admitted to suffering similar abuse and subsequently committed suicide, the nightmares of his past started to reveal themselves in his dreams.

I say I don’t enjoy reading books about suffering, but somehow, I keep coming back to the FLDS compound in the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. These people fight tooth and nail to be able to pursue their religious values in peace, and when conducted properly, this religion promises its adherents a family so close-knit that even death cannot do them part. Along this vein, it reminds me of the family values taught by my own religion, and reminds me of Shylock’s words: “for sufferance is the badge of our tribe.” The difference: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Each of these books begins with a look back to the halcyon days of past prophets and prairie fairs, only building up pathos for a time when Warren Jeffs would come to power, banishing the colour red, euthanizing all dogs, and forcing girls as young as twelve to enter into spiritual (not to mention polygamous) marriages with men their fathers’ age.

Brent Jeffs today

What keeps me coming back is that I can be comforted by the fact that if the book exists, it means that its author has triumphed over the most brutal kind of adversity: alienation from their family, friends, the only value system they ever knew, and the fear of eternal damnation. But they do. They move on to escape the compound, marry and have their own children. Sometimes they are able to get back in touch with their parents, who they never seem to find it in themselves to blame for playing such a significant part in their torturous past. More optimistically, they’re always sure in their convictions that they are going to learn from the trauma of their past and make sure the next generation will be loved and cared for in the way that every child deserves.

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Reading lists

Call me narcissistic, but one thing that tends to release a ton of joyful endorphins into my brain is a reading list.

Having to study for my comprehensive exam (which takes place this November), I’ve made myself a 150-play list to get through, which I must have revised at least 10 times to organize it by author, genre, and what I finally decided upon: date (I’m currently sitting pretty in the very significant year of 1594. I’m working toward 1642!). My list is colour-coded to distinguish between mandatory and optional material (ie, you must read them but you get to choose which ones you will read out of the list given), and every time I finish a play, I enjoy the triumph of striking one off my list. That being said, what I can’t express enough how important it is to enjoy the journey of list making and list-striking because, more often than not, arriving at the destination isn’t always possible.

That’s why reading lists are often better kept for pleasure rather than business. For instance, by the time the snow starts melting in April, I excitedly start my summer reading list, filled with whimsical though drug-addled Beat novelists and Gonzo journalists; by August, I begin to look forward to spending the autumn with strong though deliciously discontented women writers like Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf.

Do you write reading lists? For what occasion? What’s your favourite aspect of the book list? Have you ever finished one? I’d love for you to share your stories with me.

Until then, here’s a list for your reading pleasure: a set of books all written by librarians. I’ve read two of them (extra points for guessing which!) and they were both an absolute pleasure. Let me know if this tickles your fancy!  Enjoy!

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The Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac)

Rest and be kind, you don’t have to prove anything.

Wise words from a man cataloguing his own enlightenment. Enjoying a glorious second read of the book I first enjoyed on a solitary day in Amsterdam, I feel as if you have to read Dharma Bums in order to understand what exactly makes it stand apart as it does. Kerouac’s 1958 novel is just so —- eye-opening. Heart-opening. Consciousness-broadening. This book provides me with temporary refuge from that state of suffering we call worldly concerns – the anxiety we feel from trying to prove ourselves to others, working too hard, laughing too little – to a mind-body-balancing tadasana (yogic mountain pose), represented in the novel by the tautological  “Hozomeen, Hozomeen, the most mountiful mountain I ever seen.”

To say more would only give away a book that I want you to go out and read or, if you can, buy – I take so much pleasure in thumbing through my newest edition. Ray’s bikkhu guru Japhy would say: “words words words you made up…, man I wanta be enlightened by actions.” Any sort of glowing review I give you is only trying to prove something that need not be proven but, rather, experienced.

Read it – it’s the perfect book to enjoy in summer solitude. Enjoy.

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To re-read, or not to re-read

Okay, I know that blogs are in some ways one sided in an “I talk, you listen” kind of way, but today I’d really like you to make use of the “comment” box at the bottom of the page so we can get a good ol’ conversation going!

Oh Colin, how I love thee!

The topic? Re-reading. As a bibliophile, it’s a process fraught with both guilt and pleasure: is there anything more satisfying than experiencing Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with Mr. Darcy, even if it is for the 7th or 8th time? But then, I look at my beautiful bookshelves and it fills me with guilt: should I really be re-reading this book when there are so many others, both classic literary and commercial schmaltz,  that I’ve yet to get to.

I decided to write about this issue after sitting in on our 11th research forum of the year. Presented by Romantic Scholar-extraordinaire Deidre Lynch, this was one of the few that I was on the edge of my seat about, even though the topic she intended to cover was a book I hadn’t read (yet another that tugs my nerves with shame): Tristram Shandy.  Considering the notion of re-reading, though, she sent the wheels of my mind spiraling faster than my pen could follow.

In what way is novel reading exclusively about novelty, and in what way is that a misnomer? Should we be following the “Modernist protocol” (Lynch’s words) of “making it new,” or do we engage in the Renaissance Humanist task of perpetual re-reading? And is this endless chewing of the literary cud a savouring of what’s old, or do we continuously engage in order to seek out the new, find finding new perspectives offered by the same text, simply peeling off more layers of the Shrekian onion?

I’m so happy that Professor Lynch wanted to discuss re-reading because I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. With the sun setting later than 6 pm (!!!), I realized that my yearly perusal of the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Keruoac would be soon upon me. I don’t know what it is about the summer, but it just makes me yearn for the freedom of the open road: fast cars and mescaline, hitching rides on trains and sleeping under the stars. When August comes around, I remind myself that it’s time to get serious and I perpetually return to the more esoteric environs of Virginia Woolf’s perspective… and Shakespeare. But Shakespearean re-reading gets a post specifically devoted to itself, which you can read @ Why I Love Shakespeare. Nonetheless, there seem to be these “recursive loops” in my reading habits, and of these loops I’m not ashamed. They provide me with good balance: after a year of extensive reading, it’s nice to get back to an old faithful of a dog-eared, much-loved text and read it intensively.

But seriously, let’s keep going with re-reads. It doesn’t even have to mean that you go back to a book, cover-to-cover. In fact, I refused to acquire a bookshelf with glass doors because, however transparent, doors are still doors, bringing me one step further away from the furious grasping for short passages that are just so relevant for this occasion. I lend out books to friends all the time because I want them to experience these texts that I find indispensable, but as the ironic result, I feel like I need them back within a reasonable time, as my arsenal of texts seems a bit lighter without the amazing books which deserved such glowing recommendation.

So let’s ask ourselves why we re-read, is it a matter of enjoying the old, discovering the new, or my hopeless pedantry of common-place booking, the accumulation of quotations for the right place and the right time? Do we re-read in order to take part in the “social matrix that factors in one-upmanship”? Professor Lynch had a good point in this and noted her own interest in this area, having read Wuthering Heights 16 times before she turned 16, an attempt to “boast her fidelity to Emily Bronte.” A Queen’s professor of mine watches the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice with his wife each year, not as an act of showing how spectacularly literate they are, but as an annual re-visitation of their own prejudices, arguing whether Darcy is a redeemable character. They have the same argument every year, he says, much to the chagrin of their children. Sounds like a fun Christmas to me!

So you tell me: what are your idiosyncratic reading habits? Do you re-read? What do you re-read, and why?


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