Wordsmith Wednesday: Jose Saramago’s “Death With Interruptions”

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Our words this week are an excerpt from Jose Saramago’s 2005 novel, Death With Interruptions.

They are:

“It seemed that families, suffering an attack of conscience, had passed the word from one to the other that they were no longer going to send their loved ones far away to die, that if, in the figurative sense, we had eaten of their flesh, then now would have to gnaw on their bones as well, that we are not here just for the good times, when our loved ones had strength and health intact, we are here, too, for the bad times and the worst, when they have become little more than a stinking rag that there is no point in washing.”

In a book split between an exploration of the ramifications of a country blessed/cursed with a mysterious cessation of death and the personification of death herself, Saramago spins and blends seemingly unfathomable ideas into surreal yet plausible human situations. This excerpt, taken from a passage in which the living begin to feel the guilt creep in after normalizing a practice in which a state sponsored mafia discreetly disposes of near-dead bodies just over the border, highlights an element of human  sociology worth focusing on. Too often relationships, even intimate ones, find themselves on foundations of mutual benefit rather than commitments of support. Life is hard and for many it’s easier to shed the stress of caring for those in their life at their lowest rather than sacrifice without certain benefit. Sometimes your friend relapses regardless of how much time you spend. Sometimes your brother makes the same self-destructive mistakes regardless of your guidance or warning. Sometimes your parent’s disease drags them on the edge of death indefinitely regardless of whether you can shoulder the emotional weight. I think love has a lot more to do with sacrifice and selflessness in times of pain and need than we’d like to believe. That actually might be what it’s mostly about. – NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Neil Gaiman and Gary Pratchett’s “Good Omens”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes to you from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens. It reads:

“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

Throughout the novel we meet characters that are presented to us as angels or demons or spawns of Satan or everything in-between, yet in this range of dispositions no one is fundamentally anything, good or bad. Everyone is a bit of both thrown together; demons that show mercy and compassion and angels who do some damage here and there. In this whirlwind of times, it is often difficult to distinguish people from being anything other than good or evil, but the reality of the matter is that we are all human. We will always have a bit of both in us, even if we don’t mean to. What one person positively accomplishes does not mean they are fundamentally good, it just means they were a person who strived and reached and did what they set out to do. We are, and will always be, fundamentally people.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

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Today’s words come from the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The excerpt is:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

When we read The Things They Carried in senior year high school English class, I remembered being struck by the directness and vivid imagery of the book, especially this chapter. O’Brien writes with a blend of austerity and attention to detail that made my teenage self feel as though I could contemplate the human cost of war without ever having experienced the pain for myself. I had lived most of my adolescent life with a vague fear of Vietnam-esque draft being instated for the seemingly unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this book taught me how to navigate some of those feelings from a distance in case I ever had to confront them for real. I think that is part of the beauty of literature: it can give you insight into an experience vicariously so that you can learn from, or at least look at, situations from a variety of angles without every having to go through them yourself. Sometimes there is not a clear lesson, but simply a human emotion or event to be considered, just a testament to the reality that is humanity.

Love and respect to all the men and women who have survived or become victims to the horrors of war as well as to their family and friends.

-NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”

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Our words this week are the first sentence to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

The sentence reads:

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

These words set the tone for the book series that spanned Stephen King’s entire career and skill set. These lines, as the series itself, draw the reader into an epic yet simple story of a man’s pursuit of his enemy as well as his obsession. In twelve words, King submerses you in the world he is about to create in your head, into a scene expansive yet full of suspense. This series was the first Stephen King I ever read and has connected me to my father, friends, girlfriend, and other fans of the gunslinger’s journey since early adolescence. I’m looking forward to returning to Mid-World some time soon, whether on screen or on page.

Thankee sai.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Jonathon Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a short, little quote from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. It reads,

“The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer.”

The memories that we can’t shake, the ones that never seem to leave us, the ones that replay like a broken record over and over again in our heads with nothing we can do to stop them, those are the ones that sting and burn and fester. Like a wound on your knuckle that opens every time you write, or grab, or hold something, these motions are impossible to quit and yet they are a constant reminder of the pain that caused them. Forcing yourself to forget a memory feels awful, even shameful, but never being able to forget, never being able to act on those moments that you do remember, in that lays a heartbreaking regret.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

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Our Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Kurt Vonnegut‘s “Cat’s Cradle” and consists of two related passages from different parts of the book. The excerpts read:

“‘He must have surprised himself when he made a cat’s cradle out of the string, and maybe it reminded him of his own childhood. He all of a sudden came out of his study and did something he’d never done before. He tried to play with me. Not only had he never
played with me before; he had hardly ever even spoken to me.

‘But he went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he showed me his teeth, and he waved that tangle of string in my face. ‘See? See? See?’ he asked. ‘Cat’s cradle. See the cat’s cradle? See where the nice pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow.”

‘His pores looked as big as craters on the moon. His ears and nostrils were stuffed with hair. Cigar smoke made him smell like the mouth of Hell. So close up, my father was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. I dream about it all the time.

‘And then he sang. ‘Rockabye catsy, in the tree top’; he
sang, ‘when the wind blows, the cray-dull will rock. If the bough breaks, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come craydull, catsy and all.’

‘I burst into tears. I jumped up and I ran out of the house as fast as I could go.’

‘No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…’

‘And?’

‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle.'”

With these words, Vonnegut planted the seed to a simple truth in my seventeen year old mind, one that solidifies the longer I spin on this multi-colored space rock: nobody really knows what they’re doing. Not your parents. Not your boss. Not your teacher. Certainly not you. Some people have convinced themselves of certainty better than others, but it’s everybody’s first shot at this thing. Everyone’s perspective can offer insight and learning from the experiences of others is essential to success, but it’s vital not to lose focus searching an answer that doesn’t exist. There’s no skeleton key to a successful life. It’s all just a bunch of X’s.

– NR

Kurt Vonnegut

Wordsmith Wednesday: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is the opening passage of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Lathe of Heaven.

It reads,

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.”

In Le Guin’s encapsulation of the life of a jellyfish, we see ourselves. Thrown against all the powers that be, and yet all these powers are the same ones that are meant to be at our disposal. We are born into them, yet they control us nonetheless. In the end, we are vulnerable but we trust that our surroundings, all that we have come to know, will help direct and guide us towards what we are meant to become.

– KK

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