Reading:”American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

 

2017-04-22-23-25-06.jpgYes, I know, there is no need for another sort-of-review of any of Neil Gaiman’s books because there are already thousands of highly qualified writings about his work out there. He is a prolific writer, has a wide, diverse and also devout audience (of which Wonderguy is a proud member) and countless different platform—a lot of them highly professional and influential—have already discussed his numerous works. Still, thoughts are free and unicorns are still a thing, so let me reflect on my personal adventure with Shadow, Wednesday and all the other blokes who are setting the stage for a reading experience that was by far not as smooth as The Graveyard Book (my favourite Neil Gaiman book so far, though I have some more reading to do), but still gave me one of my favorite characters.

First off, I have to confess that I do not “like” and therefore hardly read any fantasy novels. I never read the Harry Potter-series (though I always wanted to read something by J.K. Rowling and A Casual Vacancy made that happen, but that’s another story) or Lord of the Rings  and I was surprised to find out that Philip Pullman was NOT in Independence Day (though: kudos to a fellow atheist, may the bridges we burn light our way…). Apart from an occasional Terry Pratchett I am hardly Neil Gaiman’s target audience, which might be a reason why reading The Graveyard Book, with its comparably small cast and fictional world, was ‘easier’ and much more enjoyable to read than American Gods. Another reason might be that Wonderguy told me to read Norse Mythology  before American Gods to be well-prepared and—truth to be told—this sort of preparation pretty much killed my vibe. I am all for some deeper insight into the backgrounds of stories and novels, but my enthusiasm has its limits and Norse Mythology exhausted these: starting with all the ridiculous names I never had a chance of remembering (for e.g. Gullinbursti the boar, Svadilfari the horse, or inanimate objects like a chain called Dromi)  followed by the mind-boggling number of protagonists, I lost track of the stories most of the time and confused everyone with everything except for the main ‘characters’  Loki, Thor, and Odin. [At the risk of sounding indifferent to fascinating historical knowledge: I’m an atheist which in this context means that religious and mythological symbols and/or characters are interchangeable and mostly irrelevant to me; the Norse mythology may be far more colorful than many of today’s religious symbols, stories and myths, but to me, in the end it is just another ‘metaphysical instrument’ for explaining seemingly inexplicable events and experiences while at the same time using this power of illusory knowledge to control the people seeking help and guidance.]
By the time I actually started reading American Gods I was already exhausted regarding the stories and adventures of Odin a.k.a. Wednesday and his various henchmen thanks to the enlightening ‘research reading.’

But Shadow kept me going. Through all the exhaustive dream sequences and fantastic elements which would otherwise rather discourage me to continue reading a book, I wanted to know what would happen to Shadow. Of course I acknowledge and appreciate the immense research work Neil Gaiman must have accomplished for this novel—no one needs me of all people to state that Gaiman is a master of his craft. Moreover, I loved the stories he tells in small subchapters throughout the novel about how the various gods and mythical creatures came to the US; they feature different voices and perspectives which introduce interesting and captivating insights in how myths and ‘gods’ can be created, transformed, and sometimes even killed off. 
Though the book dragged on at times—at least for someone who is not that much into fantasy—there were of course quite a few surprising twist and turns that made it an entertaining read, not only for the sake of finding out where Shadow’s path would lead him. Gaiman is a great author and knows his way around language, which always makes him a great read, even when delving into a genre one usually avoids (yeah, the “one” is me…).
With Shadow, American Gods features a protagonist that seems familiar, even though I cannot thoroughly explain how and why; he reminds me of Bukowski’s Hank Chinaski, various protagonists in war literature (Joker in Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, Walter James in Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, some of the guys in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried  and Paul Berlin in Going after Cacciato as well as Colby Buzzell’s depiction of himself in the midst of the Iraq War) and probably some others I can’t remember right now. Shadow is the one you want to have with you on a road trip (yeah I know, what a surprising remark considering parts of the book); he is the one you want to ask how to handle the ugly shit—even better, you want him to handle the ugly shit; in short he is the big brother I always wanted. He is THE one invariable in the midst of an ugly and violently changing world—and I’m not referring to the sort of Ragnarok Gaiman describes in  American Gods. Maybe Shadow is in some ways an all-American hero which makes him seem so familiar; maybe it’s something personal in regard to ex-cons in literature, I don’t know. I do know that his character, his story was the reason I finished the book. 

Again, this is in no way a book review; though I work in the field of literary studies, I don’t do reviews here (or elsewhere, for that matter). Literature is art and art has no limits (sort of); different people like different things, that’s all. It’s just another account of my reading experience and reading adventure, this time with Neil Gaiman. It was not the first, it won’t be the last, though it was a difficult one. But it was more than worth my time.

Reading: Jennifer Egan “The Keep”, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”

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 Something less trivial for a change: Jennifer Egan, whom I just recently discovered thanks to wonderguy, who gave me A Visit from the Goon Squad to read. He thought I might like it because I love short stories and he was right. Though of course, it’s not a collection of short stories in the traditional understanding. I read in one review that Egan herself does not like to categorize this book, even though a lot of readers feel the need to know for sure – have the author tell them, so to say – whether they are reading a ‘novel’ or a ‘short story collection’. Tim O’Brien’s The Things they carried is another one of these works that often resist a clear categorization, yet it tells a completely different story.

I love books like A Visit from the Goon Squad, even though they are challenging for me because I am awful at remembering names and those collections of different life stories that work together to tell a wide-ranging story mainly work with a likewise extensive cast. So while I’m all for diving into the lives and stories of different people I’m also all about forgetting their ties to the story and why I’m reading about them because I can’t remember who is who. Egan lets those various chapters and stories dance with each other, like a well choreographed and fluent harmony of moves and interactions, so as to paint a giant picture of different lives that crossed and at times clashed with each other. With some protagonists one may think “well, he/she definitely got what he/she deserved”, not necessarily in a positive way (I will not give away names, because I don’t want to spoil all the fun; also, I can’t remember the names that well…). Then again, the fate of others may take you by complete surprise, as literature should do [maybe not all and not all the time, but you may get the picture). Long story short: A Visit from the Goon Squad is a harmonious composition of life stories that are anything but harmonious, glorious or even positive (in some cases), arranged in a versatile, diverse, and, in some instances, rather unusual tone and style. With  helluvalot of names…

After finishing A Visit from the Goon Squad I knew I had to read more Egan and I decided to go for The Keep next. What starts out as a seemingly ordinary tale of a guy who had to get away from his life for undisclosed reasons turns out to be a much more complex and polyphonic tale about life and what we make of it. Here too, people meet and get know each other, some for better, some for worse, and a surprising twist brings together two (and even more) storylines that initially don’t seem to have any connection at all. There are some  main features of the protagonists who seem familiar in one way or the other, not only in Egan’s writing; failed lives, losers, who don’t want to acknowledge or have not yet realized that their sole accomplishment in life is that they are still alive and breathing. Even though they hardly recognize it themselves, Egan’s failed lives indeed sound like failures; contrary to Willy Vlautin’s ‘losers’ (of whom I will write in another post), they are not lost, trying to fight their way back, but they DO lose, actively participating in their own downfall, and in some cases, fighting their way back, too. Of course, Egan does not limit her scope of characters to people fighting their own happiness; there’s the guy who overcame a deeply traumatic experience only to relive it once again; the mysterious countess who makes being a member of old German nobility seem like being a member of the A-Team (sans B.A.’s jewellery, of course, yet with much more insanity than Howling Mad Murdock); a protagonist who seems to be the epitome of the euphemism “professional teenager”; and a teacher who is overly committed for some unusual and unforeseen reasons. (Oh my, see, I spoiler! Though only because the cast of The Keep is more manageable than in A Visit from the Goon Squad).

As with a lot of other authors, I appreciate Egan’s voice, I can ‘hear her talk to me’ – or worse, I can ‘feel’ her voice -, to sound a bit corny. Not every voice is equally intense and captivating, since we all have different interests and characters. Sure enough, this is no special feature of the author, but rather just an ordinary question of personal likes and interests. So go, read Egan. Delve into stories that are intertwined and autonomous at the same time, life paths that run alongside each other, meet, divert, cross, and sometimes even clash, only to part and sometimes even reunite again.

“Never in a million years” or: ‘shame fics’ seem worse than shame fucks (but they are not!)

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From what I’ve written in some of the blog post before, one may assume I am a sophisticated reader thanks to my academic ventures (*cough*) in the field of comparative literature. Well, sometimes I am. Depending on my mood, my ADHD, the lunar phase, and the position of Jupiter to the last third of my cat’s lowest karma zone, some lucky days I am capable of hiding my nice little face behind the covers of something of worth to the academic and/or intellectual community (mind you, I spared us all the name-dropping of distinguished authors, mainly because I couldn’t think of anyone else besides Susan Sontag right now). But those days are numbered, especially when there’s a lot of stuff going on in my life. So when ADHD is ruling my daily life, I resort to reading rather ‘light’ fiction, as one might describe it. Nice little whodunits, for example, preferably from the franchise of Murder, She Wrote or set in the 1920ies and 1930ies in the UK (probably because this reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse’s works). They call these books  ‘cozy mysteries’, as I found out just recently, and that makes me cringe even more…

You see, the most shocking thing about this is, that I never ever in a million years would have thought that I ever start reading whodunits. We had to read The talented Mr. Ripley and another mystery novel by a local author in high school and I hated it. I read The Judge and his Hangman by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and it bored the hell out of me, even though I like Dürrenmatt. I absolutely and truly hated the stuff, I found it boring, uninspired and a waste of time (especially Tom Ripley). I thought I never again would read any sort of crime or mystery novel. Boy was I wrong.

So, with Jessica (whom a lot of us will remember from TV), Daisy, and however the main protagonist (usually female, of course) is named, it’s always nice, warm and chatty. They make you feel all cozy and comfortable and at the same time solve a murder that is in no way gory or grisly. After all, this is not CSI or Criminal Minds, this is Murder, She Wrote and Miss Marple on the loose. Of course, witnessing a murder or finding a body has its effects on our beloved protagonists, but it’s not like you can’t go on with your life just because you regularly happen to stumble upon corpses. Off they go, head first into the adventure of finding whoever disturbed their tranquil and cozy lives, to bring them down and restore peace and order. And right they are, at least in their setting.  Eventually, everything falls into place and in the end, all is fine and someone nobody cared about is dead. But that’s okay because our heroine found the killer and everyone can feel safe again. Usually written in an entertaining and sometimes slightly humorous voice, I do understand why these books are called ‘cozies’.

I don’t know how I came to like them as much. I watched Murder, She Wrote with my gran when I was a child and I really loved that show, so when I found the books I was understandably thrilled to find some additional material on my favorite amateur sleuth – which may explain this newfound literary love of mine a bit. But how it would go from J.B. Fletcher to Daisy Dalrymple, I can’t really explain (P.G. Wodehouse may have something to do with it, as stated before).

But you need not fear the worst, because I already went through my Sophie-Kinsella-romance-novels-phase nearly a decade ago, after a rather painful break-up. So at least this won’t happen (again and yes, I’m sure about that). Though I like it cozy, neat and nice when reading ‘light fiction,’ that does not include unnecessary and annoying romantic entanglements with no real surprise ( yeah, I know, the concept of ‘surprise’ may be a debatable issue in the cozies as well, but hey, nothing’s perfect). Also, I do not intend to bore you any further with this little ’shame fic’ of mine…but it’s as much part of my life as my struggle to keep my work going and organize myself, so it’s also part of this blog, at least for this one time. And now I’ll go sit in a corner and be ashamed of myself…just a little bit, while reading You bet your Life.

 

Reading: Miriam Toews “All my puny sorrows”

 

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I finished Toews’ book yesterday and I still have Elf and Yoli with me, somehow. I laughed a lot; I cried several times. This is a story about mental illness, surviving, and letting someone go. This is a story about suicide and survival, about intentionally leaving this world, even though there would be no need to do it just now (i.e. no fatal disease or other physical failings that would make life unbearable). This is a story about death and family and losing the people we love. In short: Elfrieda, Yoli’s older sister, wants to die. Her mother, sister, husband and a lot of other people want her to live. But for some people, being free means being able to leave whenever and however they want to…

Writing about death is always difficult, because it is a tense and emotional topic; even more so when writing about suicide. Most people do not understand why someone wants to die. Many of us experience difficult times, lose people we love and can have a hard time coping with all the shit life throws at us. Still, we move on –or, as Churchill once said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” But it is not like that for everyone. Some just want to stop going, because they cannot do it any longer…and they have every right to do so, no matter how hard it is to understand for everyone else.

There are certain books that just seem to choose me – “All my puny sorrows” is one of those. Every time I read stories of mental illnesses, I get a bit frightened; I can all to well remember how I felt years ago when I myself had to figure out how to “keep going.” Sometimes I’m afraid all this could come back if I read too much about it, think too much about it – I can be overly empathic and emotional, not being able to distance myself from the things around me, and I’m still very much afraid of depression, that kind of depression I experienced back then. I never actively thought about taking my own life, because I believed that it would get better. To me suicide was a sort of last resort in case I would truly lose it – and I can understand when someone passes this stage and ends his or her life.

I love Toews’ language and humor, I think it is so important to not only keep going but also keep laughing, especially with topics like this, death and suicide and losing people you love. When the inevitable happens, you are still shocked and surprised – even though it’s ‘just a book,’ I still hoped. For all those around her and for herself. Because if you are not feeling and living in this very special void, you see hope, even in the darkest days. If you know this void – the multitude of voids –, have been there, seen it, felt it, you may understand that someone does not see any more sense in ‘keep going.’ I love Elfrieda, who is a survivor as long as she can take it. I love Yoli and Lottie, her sister and her mother, who ‘keep going’ after losing a lot, keep laughing because in the midst of a storm, you have to save yourself and those close to you, the ones that can and want to be saved. 

I want to thank Miriam Toews for lightning up my soul and mind. I prefer to block out anything that may remind me of darker days, but Elf and Yoli brought some things up that were not even half as frightening as I thought it would (or could) be. Thanks for making me laugh out loud. Thanks for writing a book about some of the roughest storms of life that feels like a warm and bright summer breeze…

Reading: Jack Kerouac “The Sea is my Brother”

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As working on my talk (yes, still working on it…) and some other serious stuff kept me from writing earlier, I will post a sort of follow-up to the previous post, as it again will be all about Jack Kerouac and his writing. Last time I read some of Jack’s stuff was years ago and it was one of his more spiritual (or rather, religious) writing, Wake-Up, A Life of the Buddha. Since I’ve never been much of a religious person, I never actually finished this book; even though I know some argue that Buddhism and the legend of Buddha may not resemble the traditional sort of religion, I indeed have my problems with believing in a single (or – for the sake of religious open-mindedness – multiple) spiritual entity which ‘magically’ influences my life in any way. To be more precise and honest, I’ve always had my problems with the concept of ‘belief’ and ‘believing’, not matter if religious, spiritual, or general. So the fact that I never finished Jack’s spiritual literary musings is not much surprising, nor is it the result of bad writing or anything alike.

When I started reading Kerouac again – again a “long-lost” novel (or similar claims) by this icon of the Beat literature – I wanted to get some information about the The Sea is my Brother as well as The Haunted Life beforehand. After all, poor ol’ Jack seems to belong to the Tupac Shakur/Kurt Cobain-phenomenon, which proves that no matter when and how you died, you are never too dead to release new music or publish a new book. Love the cash-cow, because cash is king (…or so. Says Jack Welch.) So I found a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books (read here) which was very informative and entertaining. It also reinforced my first impression of the book – as the reviewer stated Jack never wanted this book to be published, I definitely understood why. It is not that The Sea is my Brother is bad – I would never say that about any book, even not about those I truly, TRULY dislike (hate?) because more than anything, literature – like all forms of the arts – is a matter of taste, though of course there are technical and stylistic features that may indicate if an author is rather accomplished or dilettante. So, it is not a bad read.

Kerouac is drawing inspirations from his life and has therefore always been known as a highly autobiographical writer; as he liked to play with his real-life influences by connecting characters and events in different ways, this may lead his audience to recognize a sort of recycling which can be irritating and funny at the same time. Those who read The Town and the City will rediscover not only some names, but also characters in The Haunted Life and The Sea is my Brother, though the last one may also be the one furthest from the two aforementioned. In The Sea is my Brother, Wesley Martin, the oldest of the Martin family works as a sailor without much ties to family and friends apart from fellow seamen. He is portrayed as an easygoing, lighthearted guy, preferring emotional detachment regarding his relationships with women, while forming strong bonds to male companions, especially fellow seamen. He is, of course, just one of many protagonists pictured after Jack himself. The strong emphasis on male bonding is very dominant in this novel (fragmentary novel?), as it is in most of Jack’s writing, though not always as blatant. Apart from foreshadowing Kerouac’s main literary tropes, Wesley also seems to have a talent for running into highly intelligent, politically committed, academic babblers, in this case Bill Everhart, who later joins him on a vessel. Aside from Bill babbling a lot and Wesley constantly being on the run from himself (therefore seeming to be detached from everyone in the story apart from the sea) the recurring incoherencies in the writing itself make it at times a hard read. I do indeed understand Jack’s wish to not have this novel published; as he was very meticulous about his writing, his characters, and storytelling throughout his life, this novel does not live up to everyone’s expectations.

But, as the Merve Emre in her review LARB so poignantly states, Jack Kerouac is a brand, a household name, which promises high profits, no matter how low the actual effort is. She is, of course, right. After all, I too bought the book (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only ‘Beat literature enthusiast’ out there…).

The Resurrection of Jack Duluoz…or so…?

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I’ve always had a particular liking for British and American authors, even back when my English was really bad and I had to rely on translations. This love for stories and books from the island and other continents deepened once my English language skills advanced to the point where I could start reading my favorite books in their original version. This broadened my knowledge on authors from the English-speaking world as well as further improved my English.

One of my first memorable encounters with American literature was Jack Kerouac and On the Road. I was about 14, or maybe 15, and because I had already been to the US twice, I could remember the wide and open landscapes he wrote about and I longed for these exact landscapes. I too wanted to ride into an adventurous unknown future amidst friends. I too wanted to be free. And I too wanted to be Dean Moriarty –like so many others – the alter ego that wasn’t Jack’s, but haunted him to the grave. [Also, I did not care the slightest that Dean was a male character – I’ve never cared much about gender roles and images and I still don’t. I was 15, I  just wanted to enjoy a road trip with someone who seemed like a true companion]

I read The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, The Town and the City, and Maggie Cassidy, though I never finished the last one as my demons came for some lengthy stay just when I started the book and Maggie Cassidy is not the kind of book I can focus on while at the same time trying to stay mentally sane. Moreover I can remember that The Dharma Bums left a deep impression; once again I felt a longing for solitude, nature and being free, even though I was a few years older than when reading On the Road.

Just recently I started to re-read Jack Kerouac’s works, and in some cases reading it for the first time in the original English version. Two early works of Kerouac – The Sea is my Brother and The Haunted Life – were published ‘just recently’ (a.k.a within the last few years – sometimes I miss important literary milestones thanks to too much literary work) and this prompted me to get back to Jack after so much time passed between our last encounter years earlier.

When I started reading Jack Kerouac in my teens and continued to do so throughout my early twenties, I was myself an avid writer. In some ways I was heavily influenced by Jack, not so much his style – I’m not musical enough, though I love jazz – but rather by his passion, his philosophies and his life in general, always on the move, always travelling and moving throughout the country, always writing (at least I thought so; much later I found out that most of his books published after On the Road were written well before, and that Jack had serious problems to produce any sort of writing since his drinking got out of hand). I wanted to live like Jack and to write like Jack. Which was of course not possible. Thankfully. Also, I never had the stamina to aim for a novel, I’m rather the short-story-type of writer – this may be my way of truly appreciating Jack’s life and personal (hi)story, his unsteadiness and constant rambling cross-country: not being able to stick to one long story but rather jumping from one to another as I liked.

I have not written anything ‘creative’ (‘arty’) in ages, for various reasons: working to get a degree, working as a freelance writer (believe me, one absolutely great way to ruin any sort of creative writing is working as a freelance writer for web contents, online advertisement and alike), demons. But, as I recently rediscovered good old Jack and plan to find out if my love for his writing is still there somewhere, how it has changed after all those years and finally (finally!) reading just English versions, I’m also curious if the pure act of reading Kerouac once again may serve as a catalyst for my own writing. It’s not so much that I think I’m THAT great, but I always loved writing and it’s pretty much the only talent I have (I can also just stand upright and breathe regularly on my own, but that’s rather training than talent).

As a way to spur my academic works (and writing) as well, I just recently started to write daily, in various forms, may it be a blog post, a lengthy diary entry or part of my dissertation (or my talk!!!). It works just fine, at least for now, and maybe, maybe, one day I may finally find how Jack is resurrecting my inner writer in one way or the other. Maybe. Would be fun. And I would again return to being a bit of a cliché…

Reading: John Williams “Stoner”

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There are certain books that simply touch my heart. Also, they make me physically sick, not because they are that awful, but  because I feel much too close to the main protagonist(s). So, if something bad happens, I can hardly stand the tension surrounding the character I’m most obsessed about (so to say). And because of empathizing that strongly with certain characters, it gets to the point where I won’t sleep, eat, answer a call or text someone back before finding out what will happen, just because I’m THAT upset about the plot right now….

John Williams’ Stoner is such a book. I got it because I love books like that, with a certain clear and unobtrusive language and a simple and clear narrative tone.  Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City, Jack London’s Martin Eden, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights are just a few of the books I’m talking about when calling it “books like that.” Of course calling it a sort of coming-of-age- or college novel would be more appropriate, but I’ve always had my very own way with categorizing stuff. Besides, I’m more familiar with literary theories than categories. So pardon my ignorance and tolerate the “books like that”-business.

Stoner tells the story of William Stoner, the son of poor farmers who initially attends the University of Missouri to study agriculture. Yet soon he follows his heart and switches to literature.  His professor and mentor, Archer Sloane, encourages him to take up teaching himself. With the support of his lifelong friend Gordon Finch and against all odds, he teaches classic literature until his death. Throughout, he lives a quiet life with only a few decisive points. Of those, the death of his friend David Masters and his affair with Ph.D candidate Katherine Driscoll seem to be the only ones that truly touch his heart.  His failed marriage, his daughter’s difficult fate, and his stalled career do not.

The novel has a very unique tone, which may not be the most appropriate way to describe it, but it’s the only way I can think of. Even though it’s a third-person-narration, sometimes it seems like Stoner himself, with a calm voice, opens up to the reader. This left me with the impression of being part of this man’s life, with all its downs and just a few ups. Marrying a woman who despises him the moment they started their new life together; clashing with his superior over a mediocre student, having his daughter pretty much taken away from him so his wife can play her sick mind games using their child: all this narrated in a melancholic tone, a tone which reminds me of Bartleby. But a Bartleby who forgot how to say “I prefer not to” and rather goes through life thinking “Well, well, this too shall pass.” I can’t remember the last time I stumbled upon such an actively passive character, but with such a beautiful voice, even though it is not his own. His wife is one of the ugliest characters imaginable and thus, of course, perfect the way she is. So too is Lomax, Stoner’s antagonist at the university, blind of hatred for Stoner over his rejection of one of his protegés, a mediocre student whose most remarkable feature seemed to be his slight disability, which he shares with his Mentor Lomax. But even though he gets irritated at times, Stoner seems much too passive to lash out at them. Only once does he challenge and conquer Lomax (this was when I could not sleep until I found out how this passage would end). The only way he reacts on Edith’s delusions is by having an affair with Katherine, with whom he experiences love, passion and – most importantly – physical and intellectual companionship. The affair ends when Lomax threatens to destroy Katherine’s career. The only memory of their twosomeness will be Katherine dedicating her book to William years later. 

I know it sounds pathetic, but I cried after finishing this book. What Stoner experiences throughout his life may not be as tragic as what many others go through. It may indeed be – in a way – rather common for those times and people. Still, I was deeply touched by his dignity (and though this term is often overused in certain contexts, again I can’t think of a better way to describe my thoughts). Never once losing his temper, overreacting in any way even though it would have been perfectly understandable. Never. A quiet man, a quiet life. Destruction, loss, sadness, and desperation all around him, twice, for some time, even love – first from his daughter, pure and carefree, later from Katherine, pure and romantic. Still, all quiet, calm, unobtrusive.