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Archive for November, 2012

Sunday Caught My Interest

We have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Youngest was a member of a committee that cooked dinner for seventy people in Salzburg and Eldest spend the day working and then went to good friends who fed him and made him laugh. As for himself and I, it was a quiet day with the family at my mom’s where I ate an appropriate amount of gravy (my favorite part). It was also a fairly bookish week with all of those in the house reading at one time or another. My mother read So Long, See You Tomorrow and my niece was reading The Incredible Sadness of Lemon Cake. As for me I finished Cloud Atlas which I liked a lot better than Mitchell’s later novel The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I also read The Bird Artist by Howard Norman which I did not much care for  and A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor which was interesting.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

I know about author Helen Dunmore through her works like The Siege and its sequel The Betrayal and latest novel, The Greatcoat. She turns up on a lot of book group lists but I have yet to actually pick up and read one of her novels. I may have to change my mind after reading Heavenali’s review of her 1996 novel Talking to the Dead. Set in the Sussex countryside during a hot summer, this is the story of two sisters – one recovering from a complicated childbirth and the other tending her while remembering the past and a tragic incident from their past.

With all the has been happening in the Middle East, it seemed timely to read Winston’s Dad’s review of I was Born There, I was Born Here by Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti, which is a follow-up to his first memoir I Saw Ramallah. Barghouti was attending his last year of college in Egypt when the Six-Day War broke out and he was exiled from his home for the next thirty years. His return is the focal point of his first book. His second volume features essays about his life and his family’s history, and like the first, places emphasis on the place. I think both these books will go on the list.

One of my favorite French novels is Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac. Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations reviews another novella by de Balzac that looks very interesting (and it is available for free for those of you with electronic readers). Le Colonel Chabert is a favorite for movie adaptations and tells the story of Colonel Chabert. The Colonel marries a woman who is living as a prostitute and then goes off to war. He is reported dead but instead he is severely wounded and it takes him years to recover. Eventually he returns home and finds his “wife” remarried and his name and money gone. One reason I like Balzac is how he really gets into the heads of his characters as well as the way he talks about honor and its importance to people and this book sounds like it will provide that is spades.

My niece is spending Thanksgiving with us and one of the topics of conversation has been imaginary friends. My mother had dragons that lived in the back yard and Eldest also had a very nice dragon named Bob. I had an imaginary friend as well, and more importantly, my friend had an aunt who lived in Salt Lake City and I would see the aunt when we visited. My brother, a very real child, had great difficulty with this. Now I see an author has taken the concept of an imaginary friend one step further. Jackie, from Farmlane Books, reviews Matthew Dick’s novel Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. Eight year old Max as a wonderful friend that protects him from all sorts of things but is unable to stop someone from kidnapping Max. Budo, the friend, must find a way to help his person. As Bob the Dragon help eldest with many difficulties in life, the very concept of this book warms my heart.

Finally, in honor of the food we consume at Thanksgiving, Devourer of Books has compiled a list of five books focused on food on the blog She Knows Book Lounge. I have read four out of the five and some of them are very good reads.

Happy reading!

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Programing Note

Himself and I drove home today and I am currently sitting on the couch with my cat and my dog helping himself with a project he needs done tonight. Accordingly Caught My Interest will appear tomorrow.

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October was another big month for publishing. Several non-fiction books came out in October – two dealing with words or books and the fourth is about mythical creatures. Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bites: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan roams across history giving readers the origins of many monsters from the Minotaur, dragons, vampires, and werewolves among others and how these monsters have evolved over time and continue to do so. The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and  the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published is the story of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary published in 1961 which tried to bridge the traditional and modern usages of words. The third book, The End of Your Life Book Club,  is definitely on my list to read if only because I love discussing books with my mother, when Will Schwalbe’s mother is diagnosed with cancer, they start a book club of two, reading a wide range of books in the next two years and having deep conversations about books and life. His resulting memoir is said to be both touching and insightful.

Some big names also published books in October. The New York Review of Books published a new edition of Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils. Louise Erdrich published her new novel The Round House which has already won The National Book Award for Fiction. Harold Jacobson, winner of the Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, has a new novel called Zoo Time. Emma Donogue, author of Room has a new book of short stories, Astray, in which she takes real people throughout history and composes stories about their transition between states and nations. And Nobel Prize winning Orhan Pamuk has his second novel, The Silent House, newly published in English. Finally notable author Pat Barker (The Regeneration Trilogy, among other works) has a new novel called Toby’s Room, a sequal to her previous work Life Class. I haven’t read much of Barker’s work but I definitely want to dig deeper into her catalog.

Books in More Detail

American Ghost by Janis Owens: For me there is nothing like a good southern novel and this book by Janis Owens seems to fill those shoes. Set in Florida, Jolie Hoyt is a very poor girl set up on a date with a Jewish anthropology student researching the Native Americans in the area. When it is discovered that his research is really about a hanging in the late thirties, the student flees the area. Twelve years later a black businessman comes into town looking for his own ghosts and brings the two lovers back together. I love novels where the past haunts the present and echos of memory permeate the writing.

Katherine Gerrard writes about the novel for Shelf Awareness stating, “Janis Owen takes inspiration from real-life events to tell the story of a fictional Florida town haunted by its past in the perceptive, well-paced American Ghost…Owens weaves complex narrative strands together in a captivating story abundant with historical context and characterizations that reflect the foibles of human nature.

The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro: In the 1990’s the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed and thirteen works of art were stolen. It is the largest unsolved art theft in history and serves as the basis for Shapiro’s latest novel. Claire, a promising artist, is blackballed from the art world due to a relationship with her mentor. Unable to break through the insularity of the art world she works for a company that reproduces high end art for rich clients. She is asked to reproduce one of the paintings that was stolen and gets drawn into the mystery of the theft.

Devourer of Books writes, “The Art Forger is just fabulous. FABULOUS I TELL YOU…In addition to the great writing and plotting, many readers are going to absolutely adore Shapiro’s depth of detail on painting in general and aging paintings as is done by forgers in particular. Even if you are not an art fan, this level of detail gives The Art Forger a level of reality that helps the reader live securely in Claire’s head, making the story all the more engaging.”

The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon: This is the first work by the Guatemalan author to be translated into English. The novel has five translators which would seem potentially disjointed, however, the novel itself seems unusual as a cross between short story, novel, and memoir. In ten loose units, the narrator (who shares the same name and some of the same biography as the author) shares the story of his grandfather,  as well as many other characters. The grandfather survived a concentration camp in WWII thanks to his friendship with a Polish boxer.

The Telegraph writes in their review:

It is a story of friendship, fear of violence and self-enlightenment, narrated in a matter-of-fact and yet powerfully moving style.

There is a sophisticated hide-and-seek game played by the author with the reader,which sees the plot submerge and re-emerge in an alternating rhythm…

…The Guatemalan author – the real one – believes, like Plato, that “literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive; and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not”. We become part of the engaging game of deception in turn. We cannot resist following the author/narrator by thinking of possible ways of deceiving him in return in a fascinating thriller. This is a stimulating and inspiring read.

Also of Note:

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by Cesar Aira

What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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When I got home from school I did what I had always done, which was to read, curled up in the window seat in the library or lying flat on my back on the floor with my feet in a chair, in the darkest corner I could find. The house was full of places to read that fitted me like a glove, and I read the same books over and over. Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar – an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly covered cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects – with the help also of two big elms trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the backdoor, and the white lilac bush by the dinning-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contribute its creakcreak…to the sounds of the summer night – I got from one day to the next. (pgs. 9-10)

I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw the snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering rather than an actual experience. What we, or any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any cases, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (pg. 27)

William Maxwell’s last novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, is replete with references to houses and in the changing landscape of memory, they serve as anchors – reference points for the uncertainty of life. This is something I can totally relate to – the houses I have lived in serve as touchstones for me, even appearing in my dreams and meaning certain things. I too have memories of sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s house and I too have to wonder if my memory is correct or if it is a photograph that is implanted in my mind.

Memory is so important in this novel, as the narrator, in his middle age, recalls a tragedy that took place in his small town. A farmer was murdered by  the estranged husband of his lover and the husband then committed suicide. In such a small town, events like the one described, have such ripple effects – two families torn apart – children the collateral damage – the whole town abuzz with speculation and gossip.

At the same time, the narrator talks of the uncertainty of memory saying “In the course of time the details of the murder passed from my mind and what I thought happened was so different from what actually did happen that it might almost have been something I made up out of whole cloth.” (pgs. 32-33). When that happens, you need to turn to “other sources” and the touchstones of physical objects like houses. Memory can serve as a comfort but one must always bear in mind that memory is a mixture of what is real and what is imagined.

The narrator has a sort-of friendship with Cletus, whose father eventually murders his best friend and then commits suicide. A few years after these events, the narrator has moved to Chicago and has a brief encounter with Cletus and this encounter, and his own lack of action, haunts the narrator – the book serves as “a roundabout, futile way of making amends.” And in the telling of this tale, the narrator relates his own tragedy, the death of his mother leaving behind three boys, one a mere infant. The narrator is a very sensitive boy and the loss of his mother shakes him to the depths of his being. The first half of the novel is a peon of the narrator, mourning the loss of his mother and how that loss shook the core of his identity.

The second half of the novel is the narrator imagining how and why the murder took place detailing the dreams and conversations of the two families involved, the two lovers and their spouses, his friend’s thoughts, even the dreams of the dog. All the time the reader is forced to contemplate once again, the loss of identity due to tragic circumstances beyond one’s control. This is particularly true of children who have little power to effect their own will on what is happening to them. Maxwell, through the narrator asks the reader to contemplate losing your home and everything that means from the physical objects, the smell of dinner in the oven, the daily routine of your life and what are you left with? “In the face of deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.” (pg. 113)

Maxwell, a former editor of The New Yorker, is brilliant at sentence construction, painting a picture for the reader in short strokes, a few words that shows the sum is indeed more than the parts:

Other people with, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her, as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable. (pg, 71)

When she gets into bed and the springs creak under her weight, she groans with pleasure of lying stretched out on an object that understands her so well. (pg. 64)

There was enough self-control in that household for six families. (pg. 46)

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a very short novel, originally published in two parts in The New Yorker. The theme of the loss of one’s mother appears in much of Maxwell’s work as he had lost his own mother in similar circumstances to the narrator’s.  I learned abut the novel through Rachel’s (The Book Snob) beautiful review and I am grateful to her for bringing such an evocative gem to my attention.  It is definitely a novel that is well worth reading and I am looking forward to reading his other works.

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I am sitting in my mother’s living room with her sweet mastiff keeping my company. I flew down on Friday. My brother Michael is already here and my niece flies in on Tuesday. Himself drives down on Wednesday and that is it for the Thanksgiving crowd here – our smallest holiday yet and the first for me without both boys. My dad will only be cooking one turkey and my mom and I are planning on cutting back on the pie production. Last week was an unusual week for me in that both my book groups met. I finished the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway for the one and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell for the other. I found it very interesting that both books dwelt with the loss of identity – one through the sustained horrors of war and the other through tragic events like a death in the family. I am also about halfway through Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and I am very interested in seeing out the structure plays out in the film.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Perhaps because of the news, the infidelity has been a topic of much conversation this week ranging from the number of people who have affairs to the emotional damage that such behavior brings to the people directly and indirectly involved with the affair. So I was interested in reading Book Snob’s review of Dorothy Whipple’s novel Someone at a Distance. Written in 1953, the novel is about an ordinary couple, Avery and Ellen North, living a contented life. When Avery’s widowed mother gets lonely she engages a french companion, a woman who has been bitterly rejected by the man she loves. Louise Lanier wants more from life and she feels that she deserves more so she sets her sights on seducing Avery which leads to the divorce of the Norths, their lives and contentment shattered.

Elizabeth Jolley was an English woman who emigrated to Australia and became a well-know and prolific writer. Her third novel, published in 1983 is reviewed by Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is one of those books that contains a novel within a novel. Miss Peabody is a middle-aged spinster living and working in London. She leads a lonely dreary life alternating between her job and her demanding bedridden mother. She strikes up a correspondence with Australian novelist Diana Hopewell, a correspondence which includes installments of her latest novel. Miss Peabody becomes enthralled with the tale of the adventures of three lesbian ladies traveling in Europe with a female student. This sounds like a good romp of a read. Guy writes, “Miss Peabody’s Inheritence, is of course about loneliness, but it’s also about how little we human beings need to jettison our imaginations beyond our lowly, and often restrictive conditions.

Happy reading!

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Today I had the pleasure of attending my mother’s AAUW meeting and listening to a talk given by Catherine Alexander, Galleries Director for the Bush Barn Art Center here in Salem. Catherine is also an artist specializing in natural illustration and her talk was about three women who combined art and the natural scientists. These three women, each a pioneer in their own individual ways, made significant strides in the natural sciences, were exquisite illustrators and water colorists, and championed the lands and people that inspired them. It was a fascinating talk and Catherine kindly provided information on how to learn more about each woman.

The first, Maria Sibylla Merian, was born in Germany in 1647. Her father was a renowned Swiss engraver and publisher. Maria was born into a class where everyone worked and contributed to the household. And although her father died when she was three, her step-father, a painter, also encouraged Maria in learning skills that would help make her both an artist and a businesswoman.

Maria, like most women in her time had no formal education. All her knowledge of the natural world came from deep personal observation and she was particularly interested in the life cycle of caterpillars and butterflies. At the time, it was thought insects were spontaneously generated from rotting mud. Maria felt there was something wrong with this theory based on her own observations. And she spent her lifetime investigating metamorphosis and documenting the natural world through her illustrations.

Photo courtesy of A Polar Bear’s Tale

She was remarkable in her personal life as well. After having two daughters with her husband, she moved back to Frankfurt to help her mother settle her stepfather’s estate. Eventually the three generations of women moved into a religious commune leaving her husband behind. After her mother died, she moved to Amsterdam and she and her husband were divorced and she became a single mother and a businesswoman. In 1699, Maria was sponsored by the City of Amsterdam to travel to Surinam in Northern South America where she studied metamorphosis in the Jungle.  When she was there she became very concerned about the treatment of the Amerinds and the black slaves of the colony and tried to bring notice to their conditions.

The New York Times Review of Books has an excellent review of an exhibit of the work of Maria and her two daughters as well as a biography of Maria by Kim Todd, Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis.  If you are interested in her artwork, Katharina Schmidt-Loske, a biologist, has compiled some of Maria’s illustrations in Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam. The J. Paul Getty Museum website has a slide show of the exhibit mentioned in the review.

Unlike Maria, the second woman is very well know for both her writing and her art Beatrix Potter is famous for her children’s stories starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Like women of her era and class, Beatrix was educated at home by governesses and she and her brother drew and studied the natural world around them. Potter loved the time she spent in the country and her work is based on many of her experiences.  What I didn’t realize is that Beatrix was a very able natural scientist specializing in mushrooms and the like. She, like Maria, spend much of her time in observing fungi in its environment and, like Maria, Beatrix also came to some conclusions regarding the germination of fungi which went against the scientific theories of the time. She eventually wrote a paper on her conclusions but was unable to present it to the Royal Society due to her gender. Her uncle offered to do it for her but she withdrew the paper when she discovered some of her samples had been contaminated. Her theories ware also rejected by the scientific community but were later proven correct.  Also like Maria, Beatrix found a cause to champion in protecting the countryside of the lake district where she had a farm and many of her observations and illustrations were made.

Photo Courtesy of In This Belly of a Whale

Many of Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of mushrooms and the natural world can be found in A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter’s Drawings From the Armitt Collection by Eileen Jay, Mary Nobel, and Anne Stevenson Hobbs. The book is out of print but you may be able to find it at a library and used copies are available on the Internet. If you are interested in reading about the life of Beatrix Potter and her interest in natural science, Linda Lear, a specialist in environmental history and author of Rachel Carson:  Witness for Nature, has written a biography of Potter, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.

Margaret Mee, like the other two artists, was ahead of her time in many ways. Born in 1909, she was first educated at home and then in a Grammar School. She then went to art school studying illustration and receiving a degree in painting and design. She taught for a while and was sidetracked by travel abroad and war work. After divorcing her first husband, she married an artist and they moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1952 to teach art. In the subsequent years, Margaret became enamored with the Amazon River basin and participated in many explorations in order to draw the flora in its natural habitat, one of the first artists to do so. Many of her subjects had not yet been identified and some of them are only known through her illustrations.

Through her work, Margaret became very concerned about the destruction of the rainforest through encroachment and, most especially, mining.  It seems strange to us today with our greater awareness of the importance of the rainforest, but in the 1960’s such a view was much more radical. She is credited with raising world awareness of the issue of deforestation. I can’t imaging setting out on an Amazonian expedition at age forty-seven, undergoing harsh and dangerous conditions in order to document the wide diversity of species that existed in the area. Margaret did more than imagine, actually accomplishing a great working with botanists to increase scientific knowledge and conservationists to preserve the world she found herself in.

Photo Courtesy of Audubon House

There is no existent biography of Margaret Mee however some of her work has been published in England. These works are currently out of print but copies may be available on the Internet or in libraries. Margaret published her diaries which also contained some of her drawings in an edition titled Margaret Mee’s Amazon: The Diaries of an Artist Explorer. An alternate title is Margaret Mee In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forest: Diaries of an English Artist Reveal the Beauty of the Vanishing Rainforest. Flowers of the Amazon Rainforest: The Botanical Art of  Margaret Mee by Margaret Ursula Brown  contains some of her drawings and the texts is from her diaries.  The description on Amazon states it is written by Margaret Mee but I am unable to tell if it is exactly the same as the British edition.

Each of these extraordinary women stepped outside of the norms of their eras and followed their passion – giving the world beautiful art work, enlarging the world’s knowledge of science, and championing causes near and dear to their hearts. If you are interested in art, the natural scientists, or women making a difference, exploring the works and life of these three women may well be worth your while.

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The following passage is the beginning of the second chapter of William Maxwell’s last novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. The passage tells the reader the book will be about a murder, an act the narrator is ashamed of, and, in some way, his mother. It is interesting that Maxwell enumerates the disasters his mother’s family has undergone but doesn’t include on the list, the death of his mother – an event that had life-long effects on the narrator.

I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t done later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir – it that’s the right name for it – is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.

Before I can go into all that, I have to take up another subject. When my father was getting along in years and the past began to figure more in his conversation, I asked him one day what was my mother like as a person. To my surprise, he said, “That’s water over the dam,” shutting me up but also leaving me in doubt, because of his abrupt tone of voice, whether he didn’t after all this time have any feelings about her much, or did have but didn’t think he ought to. In any case he didn’t feel like talking about her to me.

Very few families escape disasters of one kind or another, but in the years between 1909 and 1919 my mother’s family had more than its share of them. My grandfather, spending the night in a farmhouse, was bitten on the ear by a rat or a ferret and died three months later of blood poisoning. My mother’s only brother was in an automobile accident and lost his right arm. My mother’s younger sister poured kerosene on a grate fire that wouldn’t burn and set fire to her clothing and bore the scars of this all the rest of her life. My older brother, when he was five years old, got his foot caught in a turning carriage wheel. (pgs. 6-7)

In the Fall 1982 (no. 85) edition of the Paris Review, there is a very lengthy and thoughtful interview with William Maxwell. I found the following exchange very illuminating as I found Maxwell’s prose to be so spare and so evocative – I found myself lingering over sentences and savoring them in my mind.

INTERVIEWER

Do your best sentences come from on high, or are they the product of much working and reworking?

MAXWELL

There’s something in the Four Quartets about language that doesn’t disintegrate. That’s what I try to do—write sentences that won’t be like sand castles. I’ve gotten to the point where I seem to recognize a good sentence when I’ve written it on the typewriter. Often it’s surrounded by junk. So I’m extremely careful. If a good sentence occurs in an otherwise boring paragraph, I cut it out, rubber-cement it to a sheet of typewriter paper, and put it in a folder. It’s just like catching a fish in a creek. I pull out a sentence and slip a line through the gills and put it on a chain and am very careful not to mislay it. Sometimes I try that sentence in ten different places until finally it finds the place where it will stay—where the surrounding sentences attach themselves to it and it becomes part of them. In the end what I write is almost entirely made up of those sentences, which is why what I write now is so short. They come one by one, and sometimes in dubious company. Those sentences that are really valuable are mysterious—perhaps they come from another place, the way lyric poetry comes from another place. They come from some kind of unconscious foreknowledge of what you are going to do. Because when you find the place where a sentence finally belongs it is utterly final in a way you had no way of knowing: it depends on a thing you hadn’t written. When I wrote those fables and sat with my head over the typewriter waiting patiently, empty as a bucket that somebody’s turned upside down, I was waiting for a story to come from what you could call my unconscious. Or it could be from the general unconscious. Often before poets write a poem they begin to hear the cadences of it, and then they begin to hear humming in their ears, and there are other strange manifestations, and then finally words. The last is the words.

 

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