Tag Archives: stories

The Symbolism of the Doors in “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

This was probably my most anticipated book of 2019. A while back, I read The Night Circus by Morgenstern, which instantly became one of my favorite books and the one I most frequently recommend to people asking me for suggestions regarding books to read. I actually preordered this book so I could get it the day it was released. Now, with books that you have high expectations for, sometimes it is hard for them to meet those expectations. But while The Starless Sea is not as good as The Night Circus (a difficult book to surpass, in my opinion), it was still excellent and well worth the read.

The book is a tale rich with symbolism that traces a young man’s discovery and journey into a subterranean realm populated with stories.

Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tales laid in tiles upon the floors, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers. Stories catalogued and cared for and revered. Old stories preserved while new stories spring up around them.

(p. 6)

This image symbolically describes the human collective unconscious, that vast repository populated with all the stories and myths that have existed or will come into being. Every writer, poet, artist, and musician seeks to tap into this reservoir of inspiration, and some, like Morgenstern here, attempt to describe it. But it can only be described symbolically, since the wellspring of artistic creativity is something that exists beyond our comprehension. But we all sense its presence, just below the surface of our psyches.

While art can be a reflection of the mystical source of consciousness, it also has the ability to draw the audience into the realm of the mystical through the use of symbols. The door is one of those symbols, representing the transitional space between ordinary reality and the deeper realms of the subconscious.

The son of the fortune-teller knows only that the door feels important in a way he cannot quite explain, even to himself.

A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.

He traces the painted lines of the key with his fingertips, marveling at how much the key, like the sword and the bee and the doorknob, looks as though it should be three-dimensional.

The boy wonders who painted it and what it means, if it means anything. If not the door, at least the symbols. If it is a sign and not a door, or if it is both at once.

In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.

(p. 13)

Doors to the subconscious exist not only in art, but they can manifest spontaneously anywhere in the world, instantly transporting an unsuspecting individual into the proverbial Wonderland of an altered state of consciousness.

There are numerous doors in varying locations. In bustling cities and remote forests. On islands and on mountaintops and in meadows. Some are built into buildings: libraries or museums or private residences, hidden in basements or attics or displayed like artwork in parlors. Others stand freely without the assistance of supplemental architecture. Some are used with hinge-loosening frequency and others remain undiscovered and unopened and more have simply been forgotten, but all of them lead to the same location.

(p. 61)

There is a very subtle yet extremely important warning hidden in this passage. Morgenstern writes that some doors “are used with hinge-loosening frequency.” I interpret this as a caution to those who use consciousness-expanding drugs as a portal to glimpse the hidden realms of the subconscious. Just as doors can become unhinged, the human psyche can also become unhinged when thrown open too frequently through the use of certain chemicals. While it can be difficult to seek out the undiscovered doors in remote locations, it seems a much more prudent path for those seekers of deeper knowledge.

As William Blake famously asserted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The Starless Sea is yet another door for us to enter into the infinite and ineffable expanse of the human creative spirit. And now the wait begins for Ms. Morgenstern’s next novel.

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Hellboy Omnibus Volume 2: Strange Places

The more Hellboy I read, the more I appreciate the quality and depth of these graphic novels. This volume is brimming with literary and occult references: H.P. Blavatsky, the kabbalah, the tetragrammaton, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” just to name a few. So while the books can be enjoyed solely for the entertainment value and the artwork, there are also layers of references and symbolism that deeper readers will find engaging.

In the book, the conqueror worm becomes a symbol for the cyclical decline of the human race, out of which a new race of humans will ultimately evolve.

… and we are all to be nothing but food for a conquering worm. It’s true. The worm is ringing down the curtain on the human race. For a while now all will be gravel and smoke. But look back to the beginning. Mankind was born out of that kind of smoke. The first race of man, the pre-human Hyperboreans… and that was mankind’s golden age… And when the polar ice crushed that world, a new race of man raised itself up from the beasts. The second race. Human… Atlantis. Lemuria. Sumeria. Babylon. Human civilizations come and go, but the human race has endured. Down long, hard centuries…

(pp. 196 – 197)

A symbol that I find very fascinating is the crossroads, and Mignola uses it nicely in this text.

You are now standing at the very crossroads of your life. And all your roads lead to strange places.

(p. 237)

This speaks to me on a personal and global level. From a personal perspective, I feel like I am at one of those points in my life where things are changing, and my life, stable for many years, is now filled with uncertainty and disruption. Not that this is bad, in fact it is good, but it is strange. And on the global level, I sense that the world is at a crossroads, that our entire reality is about to change, and we will all be thrust into a “strange place,” regardless of which road we collectively traverse. These are strange days, indeed.

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Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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Hellboy Omnibus Volume 1: Seed of Destruction

So over the years, I have read numerous off-shoot and stand-alone issues of Hellboy, but had not read the primary arcs, which was why I was excited when I heard they were publishing an omnibus series containing the complete saga. This first volume contains five stories, as well as some artist sketches and a little bit of history about the development of the characters and story. The stories are brimming with material that interests me: paranormal investigation, the occult, conspiracy theories, mythology, social criticism, and so forth. And the great storytelling is augmented with artwork that fits well with the overall theme. Also, what is so cool about this book is that Mike Mignola is both writer and artist, an impressive accomplishment.

While all the stories in this volume are great, I want to focus on the last one, “Almost Colossus,” which explores concepts of God, science, the relationship between creator and creation. It’s kind of like a reworking of the Frankenstein story.

Anyway, couple quotes that are worth sharing.

“Brother, you think these humans are our betters. Not so, believe me. We two are the triumph of science over nature. Mankind to us should be like cattle, ours to use for whatever purpose we decide. We are not monsters, but the future and the light of the world!”

(p. 304)

Here we have a classic expression of hubris. The created, or creature, begins to feel superior to the creator, and employs scientific logic to back up the claim. I see this as symbolic of the human impetus to feel godlike through the acquisition of knowledge and power. And not just equal to God, but greater than God.

“Today the light of the world will be born again, and from this day forward mankind will bow and scrape before the God of Science.”

(p. 318)

This is a definite reference to the Prometheus myth, as well as the myth of Lucifer as the light bearer. Science has replaced God for many people in this age. And although I consider myself a spiritual person, and have faith in a divine consciousness, I confess that I find myself irritated at people who disregard scientific evidence because it conflicts with their established religious beliefs. As much as I hate to admit it, I too often bow before the God of Science.

While this book has challenging ideas woven in, it is still a fun and entertaining read. If you are a fan of the graphic novel genre and have not read Hellboy, I highly recommend checking it out.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an incredible day.

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Thoughts on “The Queen of the South” by Arturo Perez-Reverte

I found this book a while ago while visiting a university campus for an event. There was a display of books for the taking, asking a mere 25 cents each donation, so I picked this and a few others and left my dollar. I had decided to grab this one because I had read The Club Dumas by Perez-Reverte years ago and loved it, so I figured I would check this one out. It sat on my shelf for a while, but I finally started reading it. It took me a while to finish because of all the other stuff that’s been happening, but I finally completed it and am ready to share some thoughts.

The book is classified as an “intellectual thriller” and it’s about a woman who becomes involved in the drug trade and works her way up to a position of power. There’s a lot of intrigue, as well as some twists, which makes it an interesting read.

There are some psychological themes that are explored in the book, and I thought about focusing my blog post on those, but then I opted to write about another theme that is near and dear to my heart: books and reading.

While doing a stint in prison, Teresa, the protagonist, starts reading, which has a profound impact on her life.

“Books are doors that lead out into the street,” Patricia would tell her. “You learn from them, educate yourself, travel, dream, live other lives, multiply your own life a thousand times. Where can you get more for your money, Mexicanita? And they also keep all sorts of bad things at bay: ghosts, loneliness, shit like that. Sometimes I wonder how you people that don’t read figure out how to live your lives.”

(pp. 163 – 4)

While I believe that there are life lessons that you cannot learn from a book, I also believe that the knowledge and experience shared through books are indispensable when navigating life’s winding roads.

Reading, she’d learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way—as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else. Besides teaching her things, reading helped her to think differently, or think better, because on the page, others did it for her. Although it was also true that with novels you could apply your point of view to every situation or character. Even to the voice that told the story: sometimes it would be that of the narrator, either with a name or anonymous, and sometimes it would be your own. She had discovered with surprise and pleasure that as she turned each page, the book was written, as though for the first time, all over again.

(p. 189)

While I don’t know if I believe that reading blurs the “boundaries between reality and fiction,” I think that reading acts as a mirror, that books reflect our human experiences and allow us to examine them from a new perspective. Additionally, we all bring our own experiences to what we read, and therefore, books and poems take on different meanings for different readers based upon their individual histories. But, like Teresa, I often project myself into stories that I read, and that feeling is what resonated strongly for me when I read this paragraph.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a book within them, waiting to be told. Essentially, we all have a hidden story, a personal tale, so to speak. This is a realization that Teresa has later in the book.

Then he poured more vodka, until the bottle was empty, and it occurred to Teresa that every human being has a hidden story, and that if you are quiet enough and patient enough you could finally hear it. And that that was good, a lesson that was important to learn. A lesson that was useful, above all.

(p. 244)

This is definitely true. If you listen and allow people the space to become comfortable, they will eventually share their story with you.

While I personally feel that The Club Dumas is a better book, this one is definitely worth reading. I also hear that there is a TV series based on this book. I may have to check that out.

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“Death” by Neil Gaiman

I actually finished reading this book a few weeks ago, but I’ve been in the process of moving so the book got packed and I have also been way too busy to sit down and write up a post. But, alas, I’m settled in, so here we go.

This book is an offshoot of Gaiman’s classic Sandman saga. Death is Dream’s sister, depicted as a somewhat hipster woman with a touch of goth. I’d seen this on the shelves, but hadn’t bothered to buy it since I (wrongly) assumed it was nothing more that vignettes from Sandman that featured Death. While there were a few of those, most of what is in the compilation is stuff I had not read before. Anyway, I had donated a nice filing cabinet to the local comic store prior to my move, and as a show of gratitude, the owner offered me a book, so I chose this one.

As always, Gaiman’s writing is brilliant and evocative. And the rich storytelling is augmented by the rich artwork, which makes this book something worthy of a re-read.

One of the areas where Gaiman’s knowledge excels is in mythology, so it’s not surprising that he does a little bit of myth exploration in this book.

Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you.

(p. 55)

This is true. The thing about myths is that they enter into the subconscious, as well as the collective. Once embedded there, they may “die” in the sense that they fade from our ordinary state of consciousness, but it still lies hidden beneath the surface, affecting our thoughts, beliefs, and actions in ways we are not usually aware of.

Possibly my favorite passage in the book is when Death explains life to a person. I found the whole thing symbolic, that it is only through an understanding of a thing’s opposite that you can fully understand the thing itself.

Well. I think some of it is probably contrasts. Light and shadow. If you never had the bad times, how would you know you had the good times? But some of it is just: if you’re going to be human, then there are a whole load of things that come with it. Eyes, a heart, days and life. It’s the moments that illuminate it, though. The times you don’t see when you’re having them… They make the rest of it matter.

(p. 217)

While it would certainly help to have read at least some of the Sandman saga before reading this, it is by no means necessary. I think anyone can pick up this book and get something out of it. Highly recommended, as is everything Gaiman wrote, in my humble opinion.

Cheers!

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“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

Life is very crazy for me right now. Lots of changes happening. For that reason, I am just going to write a very short post about this book.

This was the selection for our book club. The person who selected it works in healthcare, and it is definitely an important work for people who are responsible for delivering care to individuals and families.

The book chronicles the events concerning a Hmong family and their daughter who suffered from seizures, and the challenges they faced trying to navigate the healthcare system in the United States.

Everyone in the US is painfully aware of how difficult it is dealing with hospitals, insurance companies, prescriptions, and government bureaucracy. Try to imagine how much more difficult it would be if there was a language barrier that prevented you from communicating with healthcare providers, or from understanding the instructions for care that the providers gave you. And as this book shows, those challenges are compounded by cultural differences.

“The language barrier was the most obvious problem, but not the most important. The biggest problem was the cultural barrier. There is a tremendous difference between dealing with the Hmong and dealing with anyone else. An infinite difference.” Dan Murphy said. “The Hmong simply didn’t have the same concepts that I did. For instance, you can’t tell them that somebody is diabetic because their pancreas doesn’t work. They don’t have a word for pancreas. They don’t have an idea for pancreas. Most of them had no concept that the organs they saw in animals were the same as in humans, because they didn’t open people up when they died, they buried them intact. They knew there was a heart, because they could feel the heartbeat, but beyond that—well, even lungs were kind of a difficult thing to get into. How would you intuit the existence of lungs if you had never seen them?”

(p. 69)

Overall, I found the book interesting, but it did drag at points for me, mainly because the author digs deep into the cultural history of the Hmong. And while I understand the importance of the cultural and historical context, it just became a little tedious for me at points.

Anyway, it’s a good book and if you are interested in medical history or social sciences, definitely worth reading. Cheers!

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