Monday, May 25, 2015

The Art of Recommending Books


One of my favorite things about working in bookstores was being able to recommend books to people who didn't quite know what they were looking for. They had an idea of a book, they knew what they had liked, but they didn't have anything particular in mind. It was an opportunity to hand-sell books that I loved -- under the radar, backlist, or a forgotten classic -- in any case, a departure off the NYT Bestseller list for those who didn't want the same trendy book that everyone else was reading.

Of course, you have to be careful. Not everyone is going to appreciate the necrophiliac protagonist of an early Cormac McCarthy novel. If you were to even start telling someone about the plot of Child of God, they might start edging away down the self-help aisle and wondering if they should alert the authorities. I've had someone tell me that they tried to read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and wanted to throw it across the room, which makes me wish I had a copy to hurl back at their head, but... then I have to admit that it's really NOT for everyone's taste and it doesn't make them a bad person (necessarily).

So I try to think of things that readers would like based on what snippets of interest they've told me about, when and where they're planning to read it, and my gauge of their attention span. I know from my own idiosyncratic moods that some books have to wait for the right moment. I read Moby Dick the first time one summer while in grad school out of some kind of self-imposed, English major compulsion, liking some parts and finding much of it completely tiresome. The second time around, when I had a little more context and read it because I was interested in Melville and that whole era of writers, I LOVED it. I'm enamored with it. I'd happily read it a third time, and all the difference is when I was finally ready for it.

And some things are never going to click. One of the first serious recommendations I ever received from an adult who saw me as a budding writer was The Great Gatsby, which is totally understandable. It is a virtually undisputed American classic. You want to get some starry-eyed kid off on the right track in American literature, you go for Gatsby. So I dutifully read it as an eighth-grader, and of course, I didn't like it. What could a little Appalachian bumpkin possibly understand about all these whiny, affected rich people, drinking gin and dressing up in tuxedos for no apparent reason? Which is why I re-read it not too long ago -- because for crying out loud, it's F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yeah, I still hate it. I hate all those characters, especially the narrator, and even if you put Leo DiCaprio in the movie version, I still hate it. Is hate too strong a word? It's not to my taste.

And so fellow-readers, with that in mind, here are some entirely random recommendations for your summer reading. You might like them. You might want to employ them as a projectile. Who knows?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. My favorite of her three novels so far (and I've liked them all), it is an epic, touching, adventurous, heartbreaking, thoroughly engrossing novel about love, friendship, and art. Tartt is intellectually imposing while still being approachable and funny. If you want to throw this book, there's no hope for you, despite everything I just said.

The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. For those of a naturalist's bent, a gorgeous book about plants and critters the author observes over a year in a wooded spot about the size of a mandala.  Also Scott Weidensaul's Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians. I love his writing and, growing up in these mountains myself, I learned a lot about the special geography of the place.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Here's something that almost never happens -- I'm recommending a novel that absolutely everyone else seems to be reading -- a bestseller, a mystery, someone probably already has the movie rights. Clever and well-written page-turner, this is Ur-summer reading material. I read it because my mother made me read it, and I ALWAYS listen to her. Yes.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills. A really smart, engaging, concise, power-house of a book that elucidates what makes this short speech so revolutionary in American history. My husband made me read it, and I ALWAYS listen to him, too.

Incarnadine: Poems by Mary Szybist. I don't read nearly enough poetry these days, but this is one contemporary collection I did catch. Beautiful and mysterious encounters between the everyday and the otherworldly -- reimaginings and recastings of the Annunciation. Also Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. She's one of my favorite poets, and there's a new book by Colm Toibin on Elizabeth Bishop that I have on my own list.

A few others that I've written about in more detail already: Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek; A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book; Hild by Nicola Griffith, anything by Michael Chabon.










Monday, April 06, 2015

Spring reading

I finished up my project to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday this month. I ended with Pericles, even though I realized right after I started it that I had read it in graduate school. Obviously, I didn't remember it very well. It's one of the "disputed" authorship plays -- probably taken over by Shakespeare at some point (it was not included in the First Folio). I think we read it in school primarily to illustrate the difference between the rather mediocre writer of the first part and the more assured second half, presumably when Will took over. There are clear echoes of The Tempest, and of Winter's Tale for the sheer implausibility of the plot. Another of the last ones on my list was The Merry Wives of Windsor, featuring the reappearance of the ever-popular Falstaff from the Henry IV plays. As a main character and butt of all the jokes, Falstaff is just kind of sad and pathetic, and none of the other characters really stand out in this farce. But there you go, they can't all be gems. Sometimes, a hard-working showbiz guy just has to churn out Fast and Furious XXIV.

What I learned from reading through Shakespeare was how entertaining the history plays are. I had never read King John, Henry VIII, or any of the Henry VI trilogy. The history plays feature great characters, beautiful speeches, and ruthless action. They are fascinating for their spin on history, particularly how H6 portrays the Wars of the Roses. It inspired me to read an excellent history of the time period by Dan Jones. The tangled politics, betrayals, and side-switching still make your head spin, but it will shed a little light on this brutal slice of England's history. It was also timely, as they just reburied Richard III after recently digging up his bones in a church parking lot. 

"Illiers-Combray" by Oxxo - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
While I was feeling all sassy from that literary milestone, I went ahead and jumped into another one, finally tackling the first leg of Marcel Proust's multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu. Volume 1 includes the parts, Combray and Swann in Love.  (I read the updated translation of C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin by D. J. Enright.)

Combray is Proust's fictionalized memoir of his childhood, and if you've ever spent any time thinking about your own fragmented memories, particularly wondering why some small incidents or details stand out over all the rest, you'll be interested to see how Proust explores this phenomenon.

I've often puzzled over the weird little moments that have imprinted themselves on my mind -- and how the vast majority of moments over all those years have just disappeared into the fog of memory. Smells, tastes, feelings, visual impressions scatter like the downy seed of a dandelion head. Proust re-creates a world, literally in search of a lost time, built on nuances, putting into words things that we don't usually even try to capture because they are so elusive or so befuddling. For him, they include the delicate taste of madeleines dipped in tea, flowering hawthorns in spring, his mother's goodnight kiss, the limbo-land between sleeping and waking when you don't remember where you are or even who you are. Sentences unwind across pages and don't so much describe, as paint an impressionistic landscape of accruing details. If I were to try to do the same thing, I would be reconstructing a life from the smell of the riverbank, climbing a fence in my nightgown on a moonlit summer night, my grandpa's old black rotary phone, the terrible excitement of being small in a ferocious wind that felt like it could pick me up and carry me over the fields. These are the strange things that Proust will lay before you, whether or not your life resembles that of a turn-of-the-century Frenchman.

But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke at midnight, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute of human qualities than the cave-dweller; but then the memory, not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived, and might now very possibly be, would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse and surmount centuries of civilisation, and out of a half-visualised succession of oil-lamps, followed by shirts with turned-down collars, would put together by degrees the component parts of my ego. [Combray, Project Gutenberg] 






Sunday, February 08, 2015

CSI: Shakespeare

I've been embarked on a reading project of Shakespeare since about September, when I decided to read back through all the plays, and catch what I had never read. The history plays have been fascinating. Right now, I'm through Part 1 and still reading Part 2 of  King Henry VI. In Part 1, Joan of Arc gets totally trashed. In Part 2, all the gears are in motion for the War of the Roses.

Henry VI's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester has just been dispatched by the Duke of Suffolk. Rumors are he has been murdered in his bed, but squeamish Henry can't bear to view the body of his uncle and Protector, who has been accused of treason by his enemies. So Henry asks the Earl of Warwick to have a look and report back. Oh, how I wish it was this awesome on CSI:
Warwick:
See how the blood is settled in his face.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost,
Of ashy semblance, meagre, pale and bloodless,
Being all descended to the labouring heart;
Who, in the conflict that it holds with death,
Attracts the same for aidance 'gainst the enemy;
Which with the heart there cools and ne'er returneth
To blush and beautify the cheek again.
But see, his face is black and full of blood,
His eye-balls further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair uprear'd, his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad display'd, as one that grasp'd
And tugg'd for life and was by strength subdued:
Look, on the sheets his hair you see, is sticking;
His well-proportion'd beard made rough and rugged,
Like to the summer's corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murder'd here;
The least of all these signs were probable.
Warwick don't need no stinking coroners! It's a slam-dunk:
Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect 'twas he that made the slaughter?
When Suffolk dares refute this evidence, Warwick shoots back with the timeless "yo mama" insult:
But that the guilt of murder bucklers thee
And I should rob the deathsman of his fee,
Quitting thee thereby of ten thousand shames,
And that my sovereign's presence makes me mild,
I would, false murderous coward, on thy knee
Make thee beg pardon for thy passed speech,
And say it was thy mother that thou meant'st
That thou thyself was born in bastardy;
And after all this fearful homage done,
Give thee thy hire and send thy soul to hell,
Pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!
- King Henry VI, Part Two, Act 3, Scene 2 
It really is rather delicious.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Fourth of July Creek

I started off the new year right with my first book pick. I had read some pretty glowing reviews of Smith Henderson's debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, when it came out, but had kind of forgotten about it until it finally became available as an eBook from my library. It may be a first novel, but it reads like an instant classic -- a gripping story, great characters, and beautifully descriptive language that is lyrical and immediate.
Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them. A few Indian paintbrushes still glowed red like small tissue-paper fires at a grade-school play. Pete felt a homesick sorrow at the little differences, at time itself....The place looked shorn, fussed over like a toy dog.
The protagonist is Pete Snow, a social worker in northwest Montana, whose family life is almost as screwed up as any of the people he serves. The year is 1980 and the Reagan era is dawning. Pete becomes involved with an anti-government fugitive whose young son he is trying to help while also searching for his own runaway teenage daughter. He is an alcoholic and pretty terrible at dealing with his personal relationships, but at bottom, he is a good guy. Henderson brings Pete to life in all his failures, his noble attempts, his personal disasters, and his doggedness in pursuing a job that is mostly grim and thankless.

Henderson has an uncanny knack for capturing a character's inner voice, both adults and children, and his dialogue rips right along, natural and succinct. There are moments of humor and quiet beauty among the many dark corners of this novel as it subtly reveals a great truth -- even the most broken people can sometimes do good.

Finely observed and anchored in a very particular time and place, the novel also has some lovely descriptions of the rugged landscape near the Flathead River and Kalispell. I would place Henderson in the same literary space as Larry Brown and Philip Meyer. It is definitely one of the best first novels I've ever read.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The year of the book backlog

I realized as I looked back over this year's reading that I hadn't read a single book that actually came out in 2014. I'm so far behind that I haven't yet got to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which I had intended to read as soon as it came out. Ditto for the incomparable Marilynne Robinson's Lila.

Here is just how dawdling I am: I finally read A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which I've had on my shelf since it was published in 2009. What a beautiful, haunting story it was, set during the gloaming of Victorian England through the end of WWI. Epic in scope, it traces a history of the arts in those years -- painters and potters, writers and dramatists -- through a sprawling Bohemian family and their circle of friends. Some of the characters reminded me of the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, which brought another long-neglected book out of the dust -- Jean Moorcroft Wilson's momentous biography of Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet (volume one is a hefty 600+ pages). I believe Wilson could tell you what Sassoon had for lunch on any given day -- it's that thorough. I bought it hot off the press in ...1999! Ye Gods, I actually gave Wilson enough time to complete and publish the second volume, which came out last May. I hope it won't take me another decade and a half to get to it.

In retrospect, I pretty much disappeared down the rabbit hole of the WWI era this year. I returned to Graves' stunning The Great War and Modern Memory, which is the book that inspired my master's thesis and introduced me to Sassoon, Graves, and Wilfrid Owen in the first place. I began the year with Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and finally read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, and Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover -- a much better book than I was expecting it to be. I think it's reputation has been distorted by all the sensation it stirred up with it's frank sexuality, but there's so much more to it. The Great War looms large, of course -- with its shattered men, the fractured relationships between the sexes, and the increasing assault on nature of a rampant mechanization and industrialization that was ushered in by the cataclysm on the Western Front.

 In no particular order, here are some of the other books I read this year and enjoyed:

Lewis Lockwood's life of Beethoven, which taught me a thing or two amongst all the stuff about his music that went right over my head...

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, a lovely novel which chronicles the growth of an artist through the life of its heroine, Thea Kronborg.

Indiana by George Sand -- someone I'd like to read more from... (recommendations?)

Incarnadine, beautiful poems by Mary Szybist.

My Own Country by Abraham Verghese about treating AIDS patients in the 80s in the small cities and towns of Appalachia.





Sunday, December 28, 2014

What makes a classical music fan?

Austin's Mother Falcon at Zanzabar
Now that I'm writing about music on a fairly regular basis as a freelancer, I spend a lot of time thinking about music. One question I've been noodling is what makes me a fan of the opera and orchestra at a time when dwindling audiences and revenues for both seem to be the norm in many places?

One reason this question has bubbled to the surface for me is the recent arrival of our new music director for the Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams. He's obviously on a mission  to revitalize the orchestra - putting the musicians out into the community, trying to win new fans, and coming up with creative programs that will draw a more diverse audience. Kentucky Opera, under the direction of David Roth is also experimenting with programs that feature new works and more rarely performed operas. Will it work? How do people become classical music fans? Why am I one?

I'm not exactly the poster child for classical music fandom. First of all, unlike my husband, who was in band and his college orchestra, I totally lack any hands-on musical education. I regret now that I never tried to make music myself. I formed my passion for reading and writing so early that it pushed other pursuits to the margins. When you've already decided by age 8 or 9 what you want to be when you grow up, you tend to be laser-focused on that one thing. I never thought about being in the band or taking up an instrument, even though I had close friends and family who did. I'm sure I was so much in my own little world of books and scribbling that it didn't occur to anyone to distract me from it with encouraging words about music lessons. Well, at least I had a thing!

Part of Mom's collection
 Second, I grew up in a tiny town in Southwest Virginia in the very heart of country and bluegrass music where the nearest orchestra halls are hundreds of miles away. Family get-togethers often included (and still do) some kind of "picking." I love that kind of music, but I also learned to love a lot of other styles, and when I started to think about it, I realized that I had been listening to classical music since I was a child.

I played the vinyl we had at home from the time I could operate the turntable, so I credit my mother's record collection for my complete disregard of genre.  It was everything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis to Sarah Vaughn and the Four Seasons. Chubby Checker and Connie Francis were early favorites, along with classical music compilations and Herb Alpert. My ten-year-old self was just as likely to be listening to "Twist" as Bizet's "Habanera." Willie and Waylon lay cheek by jowl with Pavarotti and the "Evita" soundtrack I had checked out from the local library.

The other big influence on my musical tastes was Great Performances. We usually could tune in about two-and-a-half TV stations where I grew up and one of those was PBS, thank God. I watched ballet, orchestra, and Met operas. I vividly remember "Rigoletto" with Pavarotti playing the Duke. I don't know why it made such an impression on me except it was very dark, and I was a little girl with a decided affinity for the macabre. There was also a production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" that I loved. Who can resist a madwoman in a bloody, white gown screeching down the staircase after dispatching her husband with a dagger on her wedding night? Now that's entertainment! At least to those of us raised on Appalachian murder ballads. (Belated kudos to Marilyn Mims who played Lucia when I finally saw it live at Kentucky Opera in the 90s.)

In college, I was very involved in drama, and of course, there was a lot of cross-over between the fine arts departments. I went to all my friends' concerts and recitals, so I never really lost interest in classical music, particularly opera, which combined music with theater. In graduate school, working two or three jobs and going to class, I was all about the free music opportunities. One of  the more memorable was Sam Ramey performing a solo show one night on campus. Whoa! Mephistopheles ... totally dreamy. You can keep your Barihunks.

One thing I'll extrapolate from all of this, is that it's important to capture the imagination of kids if you want to grow the next generation of classical music fans. You don't have to explain the plot of an opera to them, and for God's sake, don't imply that classical music is good for them. Is anything more deadly than an adult telling a child what they should like? No one ever did that to me. Just let 'er rip and see what they latch on to. It doesn't have to make any sense. Arts programs in schools have fallen on hard times, but all it takes is that one magical musical experience for a child to be hooked. I don't think anything is more important than having the orchestra, ballet, opera, etc., get into schools and libraries as often as possible with their outreach programs.  Clearly, this is a long-range plan.

And is it possible to turn the 20- and 30-somethings into classical music fans if they've never been exposed before? Well, it's at least as possible as convincing them that a handlebar mustache is a good look or that Pappy Van Winkle should be served as a jello shot. Social media is the key. If you can project yourself positively into the craft beer and cronut crowd, then you might lure them to a concert. If you make it cool, they will come.

Open it up, invite more people, make new friends. I think all these things help shake off the stuffiness that still clings to orchestras and opera companies. I know that I've heard more people talking about the orchestra in the last year than I ever have before. And as someone totally invested in having a healthy arts community in my city for years to come (because it's all about me!), I'm for anything that puts butts in the seats.






Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Shakespeare Project

Shakespeare's bust in the ceiling
 of the Louisville Palace Theater.
One of the shows I attended this fall was a very inventive production of Love's Labor's Lost at Actor's Theatre in Louisville. Many years ago, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw performed at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, VA, near my hometown. Full of nostalgia, I reacquainted myself with it before going to Actor's, which reminded me why this new version chose to jettison entire scenes, conflate characters, and insert a mashup of famous Shakespeare lines from other plays. Much of the original is completely impenetrable to a modern audience! There are whole scenes of wordplay and jokes based on what was probably very topical at the time, but the references are so obscure now that the scholars can only guess at what precipitated the jokes in the first place.

The experience got me to thinking about plays I wanted to read again, and the handful of plays that I've still never read. So, I thought, why not work my way through all the plays, reading one a week from now through next spring? I might even finish by Shakespeare's birthday!

Branagh as Macbeth 
I actually started in September with LLL. Macbeth was next because I've been mourning the fact that I didn't see Kenneth Branagh's production at the Armory this summer. Then, Richard III, who has been on my mind, since his poor bones are still being jostled about and fought over by Leicester (where they were dug up) and York (where many think he should be buried). There has been an ongoing effort to revive his reputation, but Shakespeare is a pretty formidable spin doctor.

R3 is a treasure trove of over-the top insults, most of them flung about by the female characters in the play. "Never hung poison on a fouler toad. Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes." So says Lady Anne on being wooed by toady Richard who has just killed her husband. "He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband, Did it to help thee to a better husband." He's so wicked and witty. I love this scene, and I can't wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch's take on it in the excellent Hollow Crown series.

I finished up September with one I had never read, The Two Noble Kinsmen. It's actually co-written by Shakespeare and his contemporary John Fletcher. It's a weird little play, adapted from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales. It's weird mainly because the action seems so improbable and then most of the really interesting stuff happens off-stage. The two kinsmen are friends and cousins, Arcite and Palamon, captured prisoners from Thebes being held in the court of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Though one is banished and one manages to escape, they are both in love with the Athenian Princess Emilia, which sets them at odds. There is no actual interplay between Emilia and either of her lovers, and then the contest that decides the winner is not dramatized. There aren't any particularly beautiful quotable quotes, which makes this play rather dull.

In October I read, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and King John (I'm running behind -- I should already have read The Comedy of Errors, which is next on my list). Maybe the most surprising of the three was the one with which I'm most familiar. I've read it, wrote about it, and seen it performed a couple of times. Reading Lear again, I found it more moving than ever. I think there are aspects of this play that you only appreciate as you get older -- when the potential reality of helplessness, dependency, and weakness is enough to scare the bejesus out of you. It's a play that is truly timeless in the way it depicts the humiliations of old age, the revelation of family loyalties, and the wolfishness of those eager to fill the gaps left by the superannuated.

I encountered Troilus and Cressida in graduate school, but it hadn't really stuck with me. It is most interesting for it's absolute bleakness and it's lack of any hero. It is set during the Trojan War, and provides a scathing perspective on wars based on empty and pointless causes. Hector is the most level-headed and he is often the most blunt  in his criticism of the stupidity of the war, but even he is blinded by the idea of "glory and honor" won in battle. His brutal end is one of the most searing commentaries on those twin ideals in literature -- at least until the Great War poets, Sassoon and Owen come along. I would like to see a production of this one day. It is considered to be distinctly modern in the way that it deconstructs any kind of sentimental or romantic ideas about war, love, attachment, or heroism. It was written around the same time as Hamlet (1602). Shakespeare must have been in a pretty grim frame of mind for awhile.

The last that I've finished is King John, which I'd never read and had no familiarity with even the basic plot. I was kind of expecting it to be a dud (as Shakespeare goes). Oh, but no! I loved it. It has some of the most entertaining dialogue in Shakespeare, and a great character in Falconbridge (aka Philip the Bastard, aka Richard Plantagenet), the illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion. In Shakespeare's world, bastard sons aren't usually the good guys (i.e., the horrible Edmund of Lear), but in King John, he's one of the few truly noble characters in his actions, an irreverent silver-tongued devil in his speech. When his brother has him declared illegitimate and leaves him without land or fortune, Falconbridge declares his loyalty to King John (also his uncle). He gracefully excuses his mother's faithlessness, thus:
Some sins do bear their privilege on earth,
And so doth yours; your fault was not your folly:
Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose,
Subjected tribute to commanding love,
Against whose fury and unmatched force
The aweless lion could not wage the fight,
Nor keep his princely heart from Richard's hand.
He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman's.
Another thing I like about King John are the female characters. There is the intimidating Queen Elinor, John's mother, and the rather crazy Constance, mother of Arthur, a claimant to John's throne. Here is her speech, when she finds out Arthur is dead:
No, I defy all counsel, all redress,
But that which ends all counsel, true redress,
Death, death; O amiable lovely death!
Thou odouriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smilest
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery's love,
O, come to me!
I would thank that any actress would relish the chance to speak these wildly over-the-top speeches!

I'll try to catch up in November, but the fall arts season has been a busy one. Now that the time has changed and I'm facing what I expect to be a long and dreary winter, I expect I'll have more time to cuddle up next to Will. Here's hoping he makes the journey to springtime a little more bearable.