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Archive for August, 2012

Sunday Caught My Interest

Hello from sunny Oregon. Himself and I had three beautiful warm days on the coast near Coos Bay camping and hiking and treating ourselves to dinner in town. The worst thing that happened was I finished the one book I brought, turned to the other and found that a book I have already read managed to find itself in my to-be-read pile. And it was not a book I was interested in rereading. So I spent the remainder of my reading time people and dog watching on the beach. We came back to finish our week away to my mom’s house where himself has already made a trip to the used book store. I decided I didn’t want to be tempted by new books as I have too many books already on the to-read pile (although it is glaringly obvious I need to reorganize things). Youngest came with us but opted to stay with his grandmother and get more reading done and spend time with her. They made a raid on both used book stores for biographies and political books none of which will fit into his limited luggage for Europe so I guess I will be mailing lots of books to him. Eldest is working and holding down the fort at home complete with a dog that wakes him up at 5:00 in the morning as that is the time to wake up Mr. Dad.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

As a child I was fascinated by England’s King Henry the VIII and his six wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived) which led me to an interest in his children. Edward seemed to always get the short end of the stick compared to Mary and Elizabeth but there was another queen in those years, Lady Jane Grey – Queen for nine days. I remember trying to find books on Jane Grey with only moderate success – I think I found some in my Grandmother’s library but not much. I haven’t read much historical fiction in the past years but I may change my mind after reading a review by Devourer of Books on a new novel called Her Highness, The Traitor. The author, Susan Higginbotham, is known for her novels set in the Middle Ages and during the War of the Roses. Her newest tells the story of Lady Jane Grey through the eyes of her husband, her mother, and her mother-in-law.

One of my book groups  recently read So Big by Edna Ferber and during the discussion I mentioned she was a participant of the Algonquin Round Table which met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City during the 1920’s. When they asked for more information, I didn’t have much to add other than Dorothy Parker. Perhaps I need to read Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties written by Marion Meade and reviewed by Danielle of A Work in Progress.  The non-fiction book is more of a social history rather than a work of literary criticism even though Meade focuses on four women writers of the period: Parker, Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Danielle says the work is “full of fascinating anecdotes and the writing on the breezy, chatty side…” which sounds like just the right thing to add to the list.

I love it when a brief mention of a book or author sends me down a path I might never have known about. An example, is The Boston Bibliophile’s mention that she was reading Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante in preparation for the release of Ferrante’s latest novel. It turns out that Elena Ferrante is a reclusive author and not much is known about her or where she lives. It is, according to Wikipedia, speculated that the name is  a pen name of another author. I love the idea of an unknown author and all the reader has to go by is what the fiction the author writes. In this case, troubling love is the story of a 45-year-old daughter seeking to know what happened in the death of her mother who had suffered years of domestic abuse. Shortly before she died she called her daughter laughing and telling her she was with another man – unheard of behavior. Delia, the daughter searches the streets of Naples and her own past for clues to what happened. This novel sounds like it brings together two of my favorite subjects: the search for self and the nature of our memories.

I never thought I would be drawn to a book about Los Angeles but Ti of Book Chatter has changed my mind with her review of So L.A. by Bridget Hoida. I think I am drawn to the novel because the protagonist is in the process of trying to reinvent herself after the accidental death of her younger brother and the demise of her marriage. While in LA she physically tries to change her appearance to “fit in” while also trying to change herself inwardly as well. From reviews it sounds like the author is adept at both describing the city itself as well as other parts of California – the central valley, I5. While I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles, I did grow up on the coast and in the valley (the real valley – not the San Fernando Valley). Ti enjoyed this one and we have similar tastes so it will go on the list.

Finally if you are interested in debut novels, Kimbofo of Reading Matters featured a link toy The Center for Fiction and their 2012 short list for the Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize. I have seen these eight books on many a book blog so there is a lot worth exploring here.

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Words For Wednesday

The other day I requested a copy of The Snow Goose: A Story by Paul Gallico after a nudge by another blogger. The first Gallico I ever read was Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. For some reason I picked up a very old copy at the used bookstore I haunted in high school and I was in love. Since then I read all the Mrs. “Arris books and The Poseidon Adventure but I had never read The Snow Goose until now.

It is a short story set on the coast of Essex during the early days of World War II and like many of Gallico’s work, celebrates how an ordinary person can do something extraordinary simply by being themselves. It seems to me it would make a grand read aloud story. Philip Rhayader is a solitary artist withdrawn from all company besides the birds he tends and paints. One day a little girl brings him an injured snow goose and she continues to visit him when the snow goose returns. And then Dunkirk happens.

An excerpt from The Snow Goose:

Hard by on of the winding arms of the little River Aelder runs the embankment of an old sea wall, smooth and solid, without a break, a bulwark to the land against the encroaching sea. Deep into a salting some three miles from the North Sea it runs, and there turns north. At that corner its face is gouged, broken, and Shattered. It has been breached and at the breech the hungry sea has already entered and taken for its own the land, the wall, and all that stood there.

At low water the blackened and ruptured stones of the ruins of an abandoned lighthouse show above the surface, with here and there, like buoy markers, the top of a sagging fence-post. Once this lighthouse abutted on the sea and was a beacon on the Essex coast. Time shifted land and water, and its usefulness came to an end.

lately it served again as a human habitation. In it there lived a lonely man. His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things. he was ugly to look upon, but he created great beauty. It is about him, and a child who came to know him and see beyond the grotesque form that housed him to what lay withing, that this story is told. (pgs. 5-7)

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The Leftovers

Laurie Garvey hadn’t been raised to believe in the Rapture. She hadn’t been raised to believe in much of anything, except the foolishness of belief itself.

We’re agnostics, she used to tell her kids, back when they were little and needed a way to define themselves to their Catholic and Jewish, and Unitarian friends. We don’t know if there’s a God, and nobody else does, either. They might say they do,  but they really don’t.

The first time she’d heard about the Rapture, she was a freshman in college, taking a class called Intro to World Religions. The phenomenon the professor described seemed like a joke to her, hordes of Christians floating out of their clothes, rising up through the roofs of their house and cars to meet Jesus in the sky, everyone else standing around with their mouths hanging open, wondering where all the good people had gone. The theology remained murky to her…Every once in a while, in the years that followed she’d spot someone reading the Left Behind books in an airport or on a train, and feel a twinge of pity, and even a little bit of tenderness, for the poor sucker who had nothing better to read, and nothing else to do, except sit around dreaming about the end of the world.

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world…This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was i the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea. (pgs. 1-2)

In Tom Perotta’s novel, The Leftovers, a “Rapture-like” event has taken place three years earlier. “Rapture-like” because a wide variety of people were take – of all faiths (including non-believers), homosexuals, adulterers, etc and because the tribulations as prophesied in the Bible do not take place. What you have left is…the Leftovers – the un-chosen,  the remnants. And these survivors are struggling, even after three years to deal with loss on a monumental scale and to deal with the unknown because the departure remains unexplained.

Perotta takes this epic scale loss and brings it down to the personal level focusing on a family of survivors (they lost no one in their family) in a small New England town. Steve Garvey, a well-to-do retired businessman becomes mayor in an effort to help bring the town and its citizens back to some sort of normalcy. His son Tom drops out of college and joins one of the many up and coming cults that have formed since the event. Laurie, Steve’s wife, joins a separate cult, and Jill, the teenage daughter is left with her father to struggle through life with little guidance. And then there is Nora, known as the “saddest woman in the world” as she lost her husband and two young children.

This was a difficult book for me to read. I had trouble getting into it, trouble caring for the characters (except for Jill). I also want to put everyone in the book into intensive therapy. In fact, one member of my book group really liked the book for that reason – she has just completed her degree in Counseling and she said the book was “a psychologist’s dream”. It was hard for me to remember that the loss was everyone’s and so deep that three years later it was still all they could focus on.

What did work for me was the cults. It makes sense that in a senseless situation, people crave structure. When faced with the unexplainable, people will turn to a collective. We see this with Steve trying to create community and ritual through governance rather than religion. Nora watches Sponge Bob cartoons in the evening journaling her thoughts to her now non-existent son as well as obsessively riding her bike on the same route day after day regardless of the weather. I liked the different cults and their differing approaches. The way each came about and the reasons for their continued existence, their rituals and their methods of both survival and growth was fascinating.

The cult that looms the largest in the book is the Guilty Remnant. The G.R. is a cult that focuses on reminding people of what happened. They do this by following people around and staring at them while smoking (a symbol of not needing to worry about the long-term). They take a vow of silence and their motto is “Don’t waste your breath.” This is the cult Laurie joins because she needed to escape:

“…the unreality of pretending things were more or less okay, that they’d hit a bump on the road and should just keep on going, attending to their duties, uttering their empty phrases, enjoying the simple pleasures that the world still insisted on offering. And she’d found what she was looking for in the G.R., a regime of hardship and humiliation that at least offered you the dignity of feeling like your existence bore some sort of relationship to reality, that you were no longer engaged in a game for make-believe that would consume the rest of your life.” (pg. 121)

While I have not read anything else by Perotta, my impression is that he likes to write about global issues and bring them down to the personal level. In this novel, the global worked for me and the personal did not. While I enjoyed the cults on a theoretical level, the fascination broke down for me when it came down to the individual characters. While it was not a book I enjoyed, it is an excellent choice for book groups because of the many possible discussions you could have ranging from loss and recovery to religion and culture.

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Hello to Sunday – I was able to play hooky from the front yard a few days this week. I went to see Hope Springs with a friend on Friday and was a little disappointed as it was so painful to watch so much angst in a marriage. It was a difficult movie and the humor really has a cutting edge to it. it is definitely not a comedy. Today I read Vengeance by Benjamin Black (a.k.a. John Banville) and it was a good read for a Sunday. I have also started to reread (for the unknowth time) Stranger in a Strange Land. It is one of my favorite science fiction books and I am looking forward to the escape. Our project is proceeding with Himself and youngest working on the fussy cuts. Eldest helped me around the house and is now off playing Dungeons and Dragons – yes the game is still alive and well although Eldest seems to confine his playing to his friend’s houses rather than sneaking through sewers.

Here is what caught my attention this week:

For some reason this week I have had Paris on my mind and it shows in some of the books I have selected.

First is a the fourth novel by Delphine de Vigan and the first to be translated into English reviewed by litlove from Tales from the Reading Room. Underground Time is set in one day, May 20th and follows two different characters. Mathilde is a 40 year old widow with three sons and a bully for a boss who is set to totally  destabilize any equilibrium she may have. And Thibault is a paramedic who has come to the realization that is lover doesn’t want a deeper connection. As the day goes on, the two wonder the streets of Paris and the author lets us in on their thoughts on what is a difficult day for each.

The second book is also from Litlove and is the memoir by travel journalist Gully Wells, The House in France. The memoir covers her relationship with her dysfunctional mother, and the circles the family traveled in including 1960’s intellectual and literary London and the social scene in New York City. Centered in this whirlwind is the house in France where the family spent their summers in a house,according to the publisher’s blurb, “…where evenings were spent cooking bouillabaisse with fish bought that morning in the market in Bandol, and afternoons included visits to M. F. K. Fisher’s favorite café on the Cours Mirabeau in Aix, with a late-night stop at the bullfighters’ bar in Arles. The house perched on a hill between Toulon and Marseille…’

The third book is also reviewed by Litlove who spent the week focused on French Literature. I have occasionally highlighted two books reviewed by a single blogger but I think this is the first time I have found three books that caught my interest reviewed in one week by a single blogger. If you haven’t checked out Litlove’s blog you should do so. Not only is she a varied reader, she is also an excellent reviewer.

The third book is a very long read – 612 pages and is by one of France’s most famous female intellectuals – Simone de Beauvoir author, philosopher, and political commentator. The Mandarins is set in post-war Paris and while de Beauvoir definitely uses her own life as a springboard, she does so to explore what is happening philosophically, culturally, and politically at a time of great change and ferment. De Beauvoir was very interested in the place women hold in society as well as the struggle between individual wants and desires and the need for collective action. Perhaps my mom has this book on her shelf – I shall have to look for it.

And for those of you not particularly interested in France, Danielle from A Work in Progress gives us a short novella by Greek author Menis Koumandareas. Koula is as short (88 pages) as The Mandarins is long. Rather than a long exploration of an entire cultural era, Koula is a “snapshot in time” highlighting “the interior lives of the characters”, Koula is a middle aged office worker with a dull, fairly predictable life including her daily commute to work via the subway. Dmitri is a young man with a thing  for older women who has, occasionally, accepted money from those women.  The two find themselves on the same train night after night and form a connection which leads to an affair. Menis Koumandareas. is a highly regarded Greek author and translator. Since I love interior novels, this on is going on the list.

Happy Reading. Himself and I are off to Oregon on Tuesday  to do some beach camping and visit my mom. I have some reviews, etc. scheduled to post and hope to have time to do a Sunday Caught My Interest from Salem.

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Self-Help: Stories

The rooms in our house were like songs Each had its own rhythmic spacing and clutter, which if you crossed your eyes became a sort of musical notation, a score – clusters of eighth notes, piles of triplets, and the wooden roundness of doorways like clefs, all blending in a kind of concerto. Or sometimes, as with the bathroom, with its motif of daisies and red plastic, they created a sort of jingle, something small, likeable, functional. It was the bookcase in the living room that seemed particularly symphonic, the books all friendly with one another, a huge chorus of them in a hum; they stood packed behind glass doors with loose metal knobs. My mother also kept photo albums, scrapbooks, yearbooks, on the bottom shelf of the case, along with big, heavy books like Smith’s World History and the Golden Treasury of Children’s Stories. In one book she had black and white pictures of herself, starting from when she was little. Gray, empty days I would take that book out and look at it. By the time I was nine, I knew all the pictures by heart. To stare at them, to know those glimpses, I felt, was to know her, to become her, to make my mother, a woman with adventures, a woman in a story, a book, a movie. The photos somehow seem powerful. Sometimes I still look at them, with a cup of coffee, with the television on. (pgs. 26-27; What is Seized)

Lorrie Moore is known for her short stories with stories appearing in The Paris Review and The New Yorker. In fact, her collection Self-Help is almost entirely composed of stories from her Master’s thesis. I first heard of Lorrie Moore when her novel A Gate at the Stairs was published in 2009. It was a book that I would put on my list, then take it off, then put it back on. I kept hearing mixed things about the novel so when I saw Self Help on the new book shelf at the library I picked it up to see what I thought of the author through her short stories. And after reading them I am still not sure.

These nine stories are well done, well crafted. But they paint a stark, almost bleak picture. The series is about loss and love with cold men and, occasionally, cold women, women seeking validation through love, children seeking hope after bad childhoods. People trying to rewrite their lives, even rewrite their endings. There are stories of dying mothers, dying relationships, relationships going nowhere, writing going nowhere. It is hard to find glimmers of hope in the midst of the insightful, beautifully written sentences.

Lorrie Moore is definitely a good writer, but she is one I have to take in small doses. So I will stick to the odd story I run across. It may be a while before I pick up another one of her collections or novels.

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Words For Wednesday

I opened up The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst and fell in love with the first two paragraphs. I wanted to keep on reading – alas, I have a busy day tomorrow so the rest will have to wait…

She’d been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour. It wasn’t easy: she was thinking gall the while about George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heal, with the book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the pate. She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she was reading. But he must of have missed his train, or at least his connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he’d come. Five minutes later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began to seem possible that something worse had happened. With sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram, and the news being passed around; imagined weeping pretty wildly; then say herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.

In the sitting-room the lamps were being lit, and through the open window she could hear her mother talking to Mrs. Kalbeck, who had come to tea, and who tended to stay, having no one to get back for. The glow across the path made the garden suddenly lonelier. Daphne slipped out of the hammock, put on her shoes, and forgot about her books. She started towards the house, but something in the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked: it drew her down the lawn, past the rookery, where the pond that reflected the trees in silhouette had grown as deep as the white sky, It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely, a rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour. (pg. 3)

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Sunday Caught My Interest

This week has been dominated by work in the front yard – digging, digging, and more digging. It has been so much work that all I have managed to do this week is work on the yard and die on the couch – no writing, no reading other than book blogs. Thank goodness for book blogs as I have lived vicariously this week. And alas, I have had to turn in Half Blood Blues half read as it was due. I have put myself back on the list so that I can finish it.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Leeswammes reviews Genus by Jonathan Trigell, a literary fiction dystopian novel set in England. The premise of the novel is the end of self-improvement due to genetic selection and imporvement. Now I have long said that when they completely map out the genetic code they will have found the “backing up” gene – a gene I lack (my friends have often laughed at my attempts to back up and they frequently offer to take over the wheel so we can get into the parking spot.)  So a novel based on the idea of being able to choose  the exact child you want from looks, to mental ability, to other traits is very intriguing. In Genus, Trigell creates two societies living side-by-side the Improved and the Unimproved – an underclass relegated to a ghetto.  Needless to say there is tension, dissatisfaction, and a murder.

I may have mentioned before that my mother is a big fan of the Sitwells. She has a Sitwell section on her bookshelves. I grew up hearing the names Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell. I was nicely surprised when researching author I had never heard of that she was a contemporary and friend of the Sitwells as well as Oscar Wilde. Fleur Fisher beautifully reviews Ada Leverson’s novel, The Limit, first published in 1911, a comedy of manners complete with a love triangle.  When I see this about a book, it is hard to resist:

Every character is beautifully drawn and acutely absorbed, by an author who knows exactly when to display with, when to draw out pathos, when to shine a clear light, and does all of those things so very, very well.

This one may be hard to find (I would try through inter-library loan) but it is available for free on electronic readers.

Sylvia Townsend Warner was an English novelist and poet whose first novel, L0lly Willowes was published in 1926 and reviewed by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Lolly is a 28 year old spinster when her father dies leaving her dependent on her brothers. Although she was left a small legacy, it is unseemly for her to live on her own. After 20 years of being the maiden aunt in her brother’s house she says enough is enough and goes to live in a small village on her own and eventually undergoes what may seem like a startling transformation but one that seems very fitting considering Lolly’s personality and passions.

Finally, I am writing this watching the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. A special shout out to England for being such gracious hosts and hosting a wonderful Olympics. It has been added fun to read the British book bloggers during this time and getting their impressions of the games. Dove Grey Reader has put together a wonderful list of books set in London – perfect for those of you who want more of this great city.

Happy Reading!

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