Tuesday, December 16, 2008


It's as good a theme as any at this holiday season. Everything seems to have come up short -- shopping, decorating, cooking...and books. I was reading Cloud Atlas, which I never did grow to love. I read half way and decided life was too short, and in my humble opinion (no, I'm not using the texty shorthand), it did not deserve the Booker Prize. Overly clever, if not pretentious, no heart, which isn't the same as having no talent. I skipped-read through the latter half and decided I did myself a favor. The profound thesis at the end -- something about the human race being rotten at bottom, or maybe it was inherently good, whichever way he ended up, was -- you guessed it -- lame. It seemed so unimportant, I've forgotten. I'm being harsh. Much better-read people than me thought it was marvelous, I guess. As noted, Chabon said he loved it (or cleverly disguised that he did not) on the book jacket blurb.

So, I haven't started anything else. I have Reservation Road, which someone described as "the bleakest" American novel ever written. Probably not, but I'll save it for the beach anyway. Meanwhile, I read some of Davis McComb's second book of poems, Dismal Rock, and still love him. Ultima Thule was beautiful and I still go back and read those poems. For such a wonderful poet, he seemed strangely well-adjusted and nice when I met him at a book signing. He signed my favorite poem in Ultima, "The River Under the River."

...Tonight the river is at work dissolving, solving
over and over the riddle of its loosening.
I want to know how to hear it, and what it might teach me:
how to inhabit this thing of bone, gut, and blood,
this part of me that would not vanish if I vanished.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Winter days

I went for a walk today during lunchtime -- my usual laps around the old manse property, marooned in the midst of an office "park." On the way back I cross the divided four-lane to the pond and see what's going on over there. It wasn't that cold, 40s, a little gusty. The longer I stay out, the better it feels, and I don't really want to go back to the office. The leaves have flown and all of the color has faded, but winter has its own melancholy charms.

Today, I noticed the muted shades of December without snow. The clouds were thick and layered like blankets, the color of slate, iron, and new bruises, pushed down over watery blue patches of sky. The ground is marbled green and brown and covered with the little wooly heads left over from fall aster blossoms. Doves settle down in the willow branches and a little flock of dark juncos flit in the undergrowth by the pond -- winter birds themselves with little frock coats of dark black and soft gray. Geese sit on the pond and a ring of ducks circle in the middle, dabbling, and seemingly chasing each other's tailfeathers. The water is lapped in the wind, blue-black to the white rocks on shore. Windblown branches are everywhere and among them, the bare, scarlet stems of a brambly shrub. I think I looked it up once and have forgotten again what it is. They are beautiful in winter -- as bright as male cardinals.

I spent November in Donne territory, appropriately enough. I finished the Stubbs biography, which took me most of the month. It was very good and I think it definitely gives me a better context for the poetry. I'm reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I'm only into the fourth section (story?), and it strikes me as a bit of showing off. "Now I shall write in the style of a nineteenth-century English adventurer and now in the style of a rather louche 1930's man-on-the-make," etc., etc. It would be more fun if it were Michael Chabon (who plugs it on the back cover); still, it's well done, and I may grow to love it.

I made peanut-butter fudge -- one of my white whales of cookery. Okay texture, but not peanut-buttery enough. I have another recipe to try still. I'm going to bake cookies, as usual. And I unearthed my mother-in-law's old cookie cutters -- some of which I'm sure my mom also has somewhere. Not an old one, but I found a camel-shaped cutter in the stash. I love camels! I'm going to do a little Christmas decorating by the end of the week. I'm auditioning tree alternatives.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I should blog more often

I seem to be on the once-a-month schedule, which for "bloggers" should be more like once a day. Glad I'm not one of those!

After reading Stevenson, I couldn't really settle on anything. I tried a novel that I had heard about recently, concerning Darwin, called Mr. Darwin's Shooter. It actually seemed promising, but there was something about it that I just wasn't in the mood for in between the time that I requested it and when I actually picked it up at the library, so back it went.

I decided to go with one of Crowley's early novellas called The Deep, which was published back in 1975. It was really interesting to see the development of his style and themes from early work to the most recent. It was a very dense, challenging story to follow -- I think it's the disorientation of not quite knowing what world you're in. There are very familiar elements of historical fiction, except the medieval, magic-steeped world it depicts is so decidedly not this one. And there is the refusal not to give in to readers' expectations. Nothing exists outside of the imagined landscape of the story, which, as you give in to it, is very powerful.

Then, I seized on John Donne the other night, the way some people reach for the Bible when things are just feeling too overwhelming. I read at random, "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day, being the shortest day." Some people claim their iPods sense their moods and play just the right music at times -- I've even had that silly feeling myself (I'm the one that chose all that music in the first place, duh) -- but here was the perfect poem for my state. So beautiful, mournful, but oddly peaceful:

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;

I've always loved Donne on a purely visceral level, but I've never really learned that much about him, or spent enough time understanding the poetry, which is cunningly crafted, witty and incredibly learned, much the way I feel about Wallace Stevens. So, now I'm reading the recent biography of Donne by John Stubbs -- one of those young, smarty-pants scholars that so astound me. (What was I doing at age 29? Geez...) I was going to start with T.S. Eliot's essays on Donne, but I'll have to dig them up elsewhere, since they seem to have gone missing at the library. Some poor student, no doubt, who never even finished the paper, lost the book, got kicked out of school, and went on to some misbegotten life in politics.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Full of blogging, signifying nothing

My favorite writer, John Crowley, whose blog is a lovely and rare thing, has been bouncing between the worldly and sublime lately, and his last post considers Moments in Eternity, having previously pondered the seeming "evanescence of the universe." These are good things to contemplate. They are a welcome distraction from...well, pretty much everything. So, here I sit, wondering what it is I'm really writing about.

Crowley's creepy/creeping feeling of the universe somehow unveiling a weird truth to him in these surreal times is intriguing. He mentions Wall Street shenanigans, a certain new political meteorite, and the initial operation of the Large Hadron Collider as points on his radar that either he is experiencing something mystical or that he is "filling up with immaterial bullshit." For both of us, unfortunately, it is probably the latter. But here's one thing that I've found just a little curious. Through no planning of my own, it seems like everything I read and everything that's happening around me keeps circling around the same concerns.

I've been reading Robert Louis Stevenson, just on a whim, because I feel like I missed out on him a bit. So I read Kidnapped, and then stumbling across it, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The latter is a charming travel narrative that RLS wrote about his journey on foot (and with donkey) through the rough territory of the wild southwest of France. Two completely different things, but both touch on the stark differences of politics and religion that influence history and, of course, our individual lives. In the novel, it is the dividing line between the Jacobites (who wanted to restore the line of King James) and the house of Hanover; in the travel story, he finds himself captivated by the centuries-old conflict between Catholics and the Protestant holdouts in France -- the guerilla Camisards of the Cevennes.

At the same time, I had also checked out Marilynne Robinson's essays called The Death of Adam. She is the author of the contemporary classic novel, Housekeeping, and the beautiful -- and as far as I'm concerned -- also classic, Gilead. Her latest novel, and successor to Gilead is Home, which I haven't read yet.

So, the first essay in Death of Adam is on Darwinism. In particular she takes on Daniel Dennett's book on evolution, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which I happen also to have read not too long ago. With the bursting on the political scene of someone who brings to the fore again the whole tiresome argument of creationism vs. evolution, in addition to a host of other retrograde ideas, it just seemed apropos to be reading a response to the controversy via Robinson. Oh, and Robinson, just appeared at a reading recently with...you guessed it...John Crowley.

To try to digest Robinson's response is probably to do her a disservice (read it!), but in short, she offers a corrective to the inferior, and intellectually, worst arguments from both sides. She reminds us that there is a rewarding, non-fundamental, and spiritually rich way to understand the Bible (and the creation story as rendered in Genesis) as opposed to the science-denying Creationist view; and at the same time, that Darwinists hardly have all the answers to our Existence -- and overdo their contemptuous refutations of Christian thought on the matter.

I suppose it sounds kind of boring, but there is an exhilaration, which Crowley notes, in feeling that everything is, perhaps, an illusion, a fragment of truth, a vanishing universe that owes no obligation to our bootless attempts at meaning.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Eminent Victorians

Considering the years I've spent studying British lit, particularly nineteenth-century fiction and poetry, and my interest in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, I'm not sure how I neglected reading Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians for so long. The book was such a sensation when it first appeared because it transformed the writing of biographies -- dispensing with the reverent practice of beatifying the subject and leaving out anything that might be considered improper, critical, or scandalous.

As his subjects, Strachey takes on Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold (father of poet Matthew and director of the Rugby School), and General George Gordon. The four profiles are loosely connected through some other "minor characters" -- the poet Arthur Clough, Arthur Gladstone, Cardinal Newman, and of course, Queen Victoria.

The crystalline quality of the prose makes you want to read it aloud -- and even more -- it makes you wish you could hear Lytton Strachey himself reading it aloud, as he probably did to Leonard and Virginia. He brings these dusty old Victorian icons (dusty even by the time that he was writing it) to vivid life. In fleshing out their failings and triumphs, conceits and absurdities, he created a style of biography that makes these historical figures completely relevant to their modern successors -- the celebrated clergyman, the do-gooder, the academic, the military hero. He brilliantly cuts out characters with the swift, sure strokes of a master swordsman -- and he's just as deadly. Here he dispatches the unfortunate Arthur Clough:

Perhaps it was not surprising that a young man brought up in such an atmosphere should have fallen a prey, at Oxford, to the frenzies of religious controversy; that he should have been driven almost out of his wits by the ratiocinations of W.G. Ward; that he should have lost his faith; that he should have spent the rest of his existence lamenting that loss, both in prose and verse; and that he should have eventually succumbed, conscientiously doing up brown paper parcels for Florence Nightingale.

Strachey reminds me of how little removed we are from what we may deem the hoary past. The English were bogged down in Egypt, stuck in an occupation that was going nowhere between corrupt ruling pashas with their hands in the till and Islamic fundamentalist rebels who wanted to get rid of them all:

Their government had intervened unwillingly; the occupation of the country was a merely temporary measure; their army was to be withdrawn so soon as a tolerable administration had been set up. But a tolerable administration seemed a long time in coming, and the...army remained.

That's a quote from EV, not the latest book by Ron Suskind, in case you were wondering. And so the English had to call on General George "Chinese" Gordon, who has a lot in common with another George (no, not that one or even that one), another general, in fact -- George S. Patton. Both won fame in early exploits, cut dashing figures, suffered ignominy, and then were brought back by pure desperation to save the day -- Patton in France and Germany, Gordon in Egypt and the Sudan. Both were arguably a little off their rockers and they both met bad ends; although dying in an automobile crash is a good deal less bad than having one's head cut off and placed in the fork of a tree to be abused by stone-throwers and circling hawks.

Well, they were too late, but at least the English did finally send a relief mission to Khartoum, in a vain attempt to extract the encircled and defiant General Gordon. Prime Minister Gladstone reluctantly gave way before the powerful politician, Lord Hartington, whose popularity Strachey attempts to explain. See if this reminds you of anyone (although I'm thinking of an entire body of someones):

...They loved him for being dull. It was the greatest comfort -- with Lord Hartington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never in any circmstances, be either brilliant or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound. As they sat, listening to his speeches in which considerations of stolid plainness succeeded one another with complete flatness, they felt, involved and supported by the colossal tedium, that their confidence was finally assured.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

City of Thieves

Several weeks ago, I read the NY Times review of David Benioff's book and put it on reserve at the public library. It just so happened to come in right after I read Chabon's book, leading to a rare confluence in my reading life. First, the two authors have a lot in common -- both are precocious literary talents, have Jewish backgrounds, and have had their works translated to film. They both seem annoyingly blessed with genius, good looks, lovely partners, and California tans, but I'll forgive them both, just as Michael Dirda can bring himself to forgive Tom Brady for his Superbowls, chiseled features, and Gisele Bundchen.

Benioff's novel features a teasing opener, leading one to believe it is based on the adventures of his real Russian immigrant grandfather, but then he wisely dashes off into the story proper and never returns to the "frame," which, more often than not drags down an otherwise perfectly good novel. Lev Beniov is a teenage boy, alone in Leningrad during the famous siege in WW2, dreaming of being a heroic Russian fighter defending his city against the Germans. Things go awry when he is taken prisoner by the NKVD (Russian secret police) for looting a dead German paratrooper. He becomes paired up with an alleged army deserter in an unlikely mission to save both their lives -- procuring a dozen eggs for a Russian colonel, whose daughter is marrying and wants a proper wedding cake as the rest of Leningrad teeters on the edge of starvation. Madcap adventures of cannibalism, whoring, and picaresque wandering behind German lines ensue. And like Chabon's TYPU, the story ends up hinging on a game of chess.

I loved the novel -- I zipped right through it, and then read a recommendation from my mother that I'd also carried to the beach with me, an Anita Shreve novel called Resistance, about, what else, the Belgian Resistance in WW2! I think I shall try to take a break from the plight of Jews, WW2, chess, and Nazis.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Frozen Chosen

Among the many things I've too long neglected is reading anything by Michael Chabon. While I was at the beach, I read The Yiddish Policeman's Union -- Chabon's latest -- and I thought it was fantastic. Briefly, the novel's premise is an alternate history, based on an idea actually floated at some point in the 40s to make Alaska a Jewish homeland. It's a contemporary, noir-ish detective story based on an imagined history of the Jews in Alaska.

While I was checking out Chabon's Wikipedia entry this afternoon, I saw that the Coen brothers are adapting it for the screen. Being that I also love the Coens, this seems like a perfect coupling (or would that be tripling?). It's still pre-production, so there's no cast as of now. I can't help but wonder who they might get for the principles. I can see Frances McDormand as Bina, but I wonder if they'll make the characters a bit younger than in the book, which might work against that choice (plus, she's already played the police woman of the frozen tundra). I thought of Adrien Brody as the strung-out Messiah, but Landsman and his partner are tougher. Rob Morrow seems like a natural choice (he's already played a Jew in Alaska...and a cop!), but he lacks the sense of dissipation and desperation. Still...who knows...maybe he's already lobbying for the part.

While on the topic of things too long neglected, I finally watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" over the weekend. Nicholson was certainly compelling, and I had no idea that the very young Danny DeVito was in it. And Louise Fletcher was scary. I think she deserved that one-hit-wonder Oscar. Whatever happened to her? But on to other classics -- shockingly, my hubby has never seen "Flashdance." Strange, the gaps we have in our cultural upbringing. The legwarmers! The Shower Dance! Oh, the Humanity!

As I'm just prattling on from one thing to another, I'll take the opportunity to champion Washington Post book critic and raconteur Michael Dirda and his weekly book chat (Wednesdays at 2:00, usually, on the WP site). They are delightful -- neither too highbrow or lowbrow -- with lots of great suggestions and insight into all sorts of literature (including "genre"). Some of the regular chatters are almost as fun to read and wide-ranging in their book knowledge (but not quite).

I read another thing that was actually fairly uplifting, as not much is in the world of conservation. Scott Weidensaul reports in his wonderful blog, Of a Feather, that the province of Ontario is making a truly meaningful and inspiring (I hope) contribution to the welfare of our migratory birds. Read all about it here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Out Stealing Horses

I loved this novel by Norwegian writer Per Petterson (Petterson is a former librarian and bookseller). It won the 2007 Dublin Impac award, which has honored several of my favorite recent books, including My Name is Red (Pamuk), The Master (Toibin), and No Great Mischief (MacLeod). This award is administered by Dublin City Public Libraries (how cool is that!) and is open to books in any language.

The novel is written as a memoir by Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old man who has isolated himself in the country after his wife's death to settle in to his last days, with only his dog Lyra for company. His story is primarily focused on the summer of 1948 when he and his father spent their last summer together. Remarkably, one of his few neighbors turns out to be a link to that time and place. Trond recounts the events of that year, the people that he remembers, and the secrets that he finally learned about his father.

I was surprised at how much it reminded me of some aspects of Cormac McCarthy -- the spare language, the meticulous descriptions of physical activities -- felling timber, riding horses, rowing boats in the river -- and the beautifully rendered prose about the natural world and animals. This is an especially good book for dog lovers; it makes you want a dog like Lyra. It has flashes of violence, but certainly not McCarthian in scale. It's much gentler and more reflective. The timeline of the things Trond tells you is just out of sync enough that revelations come at intervals, and the novel keeps opening up further and further from what seems to be, at first, a simple tale of a boy's coming of age into something much denser and more satisfying. Lovely.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books that changed your life?

I've seen widgets on social networking sites that let you list the "books that changed your life," and as much as I love books, it always irritates me a bit -- usually, because what it really means is "what are your favorite books?" Perhaps, if you were so distracted by a book that you walked out in front of a Bunny Bread truck -- that would constitute a book that changed your life. Maybe some people read John Grisham and decide to become lawyers? Could be. So...I put aside my skepticism and started to decide which books I would put in the BTCYL category.

First, a little tangent: We were a reading family growing up. My mom would read aloud to us, and not just when we were tots, but when we were older kids. We had some kind of Golden Treasury of stories that I remember her reading from; but also To Kill a Mockingbird and The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. Even if she didn't finish them aloud, it would be enough to get me started on them, and I would finish on my own. I distinctly remember an elderly lady who sometimes substituted in elementary school, and that was her thing -- she was a great storyteller -- she may have told stories extemporaneously; it's hard to remember. Her name was Mrs. Paris? Parrish? She was marvelous! I don't think I was the only one listening rapt; it was a great treat when she came to watch your class. She was a retired schoolteacher; she must have been in her eighties -- a little, neat, grandmotherly southern lady in a dark dress and a bun, straight out of Eudora Welty.

We were also not terribly picky readers; we read the Encyclopedias, we read pure crap, we read Shakespeare and the Hardy Boys, Harlequin romances and Outdoor Life magazine, and just whatever happened to be lying around. We had the whole set of Junior Classics and fairy tales -- really creepy ones with bizarre illustrations that still seem perverse. (Ah -- perhaps the first book that changed my life, or at least gave me some terrific nightmares.) The Iliad in who-knows-what translation first acquainted me with the stomach-churning nature of violence in sixth grade. I remember literally feeling queasy over some of it. The cruelty of the Gods freaked me out! And this, from someone who has now read nearly the entire Cormac McCarthy oeuvre (so far, thank God).

Gone with the Wind and Little Women might be the first two books on my list, because I reread them, and they were probably the ones that made me want to write stories myself. Every female character I've ever concocted is a version of Jo March or Scarlett O'Hara. It's sort of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, although neither fits quite perfectly into those categories. Now, skipping many, many books later, there are a few more that stand out above the rest.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, the second time I read it, was a strangely consoling companion when I felt truly in need of a Deronda to guide me through. The poor judgment and regrets of Gwendolyn Harleth! Aye, me!

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, which I found purely by happenstance when browsing the shelves of the public library, led me to my Master's thesis topic and opened up a whole new world of literature, which led me, in turn, to at least one job, and indirectly to all the ones I've had since. I hadn't really thought of it that way before, but I think it's true. I never would have read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien without Fussell, which is reason enough.

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek made me stop taking the natural world for granted, and I started paying attention -- learning the names of things and how they came to be.

And books that shaped my thinking about the Big Issues? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation and Jim Crace's Quarantine on religion; A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon on women, writing, race, and politics. McCarthy's Blood Meridian on American myth-making.

I've left out Shakespeare; I know it seems trite, but it's very hard to imagine coming to love poetry, drama, and books without him there in the background, the measure of it all.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Suite Francaise

I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian-born Jewish woman whose family fled the Bolshevik Revolution to settle in France. She already had established a reputation as an important French writer by the time World War II broke out. Both she and her husband were arrested in 1942 and were killed at Auschwitz. Their two young daughters were hidden from the French police throughout the war and managed to survive. The eldest daughter, Denise, had saved her mother's notebook, in which she had begun her last work, about the fall of France.

Obviously, the dramatic background of Nemirovsky's life added to the power of the novel, but the novel itself is beautifully, searingly written. She had such a wonderful, clear-eyed view of the extraordinary events going on around her as she began this work, which was practically a real-time setting for the action. The "suite" has two completed parts, "The Storm" and "Dolce," of a planned five parts.

Nemirovsky's focus was on the reaction of various classes of French people to the country's defeat -- not fully recovered from the previous war -- and then to the occupation. Although collaboration with the Germans is a subject, she never mentions the plight of Jews anywhere in the book -- never mentions the existence of the concentration camps. Mostly for practical reasons, she and her family had converted to Catholicism in the years before the war, and she claimed no interest in the Jewish "cause." Some of the correspondence of her husband and friends is included in the Appendix as they tried to find out her whereabouts after her arrest. The horror of what happened is compounded by the fact that nothing they had done allowed them to escape the Nazi racial program, and even though they were aware of the camps, no one seemed to actually realize that being sent to them was almost certain death. The correspondence continued unknowingly even after she had died, and right up until the time her husband Michel was also arrested and sent to the gas chambers. The fact that the French police in Vichy France continued actively to pursue the little girls is a mind-boggling bit of inhumanity. I suppose it's only by examining the individual stories, that it's possible to start understanding the utter depravity of the Holocaust.

One of the striking things about the novel is Nemirovsky's observation of the basest of human instincts coming to the fore during the turmoil she witnessed. From every class of French life -- it became "every man for himself." In a particularly disturbing episode during the first panicked exodus from Paris, she describes some of the refugee women tossing their children aside and running from the German strafing attacks. By contrast, there are some, but not many instances of sacrifice and kindness, but very few characters who manage to retain any sort of moral integrity.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Summer reading

Having gone through a pretty long spell of reading rather lugubriously, I've been on a good run of books. I finished Out of Africa and liked it, but the longer I read the more uncomfortable it became for me. Although Dinesen seemed to have glimmerings that what had happened to the natives was unfair, regrettable even, there is still that annoying sense of Western entitlement to African land -- their right to "make something of it," to school and convert the natives, push them aside to reservations, and pronounce their cultural rituals as barbaric and unhealthy. It was also unsettling to read her blithe accounts of killing lions, iguanas, and whatever other animals came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sort of combining both of my discomfort zones, the local Masai were required to come and ask her (memsahib) to kill the lions raiding their cattle. I guess it would be necessary to place oneself back in the mindset of that time to understand how such incredible sensitivity could exist alongside the arrogance and imperiousness of the Colonial settler.

Next in my stack from the library (I'm so old-fashioned; I get BOOKS -- from the LIBRARY!) was Richard Fortey's Life: the first four billion years. I loved Earth, which was a history of our understanding of geology and plate tectonics. If you want a quick spin through the basics of evolutionary biology via the fossil record and other scientific developments, this is a pretty entertaining way of doing it.

Some of the Amazon reviewers (FWIW) pooh-poohed his style, his lingering over personal anecdotes, and his frequent quotations from poetry, but those are of course, the main points in his favor as far as I'm concerned. If I were a graduate student in paleontology, I wouldn't be using it for a textbook. Why do all these people who obviously already know it all, think he's writing for them? There are times when I think that many people use the Internet only to demonstrate their vast superiority over the rest of us underdeveloped plankton. Well, this multicelled organism quite liked it, especially his explanation and analysis of the "boloid collision" or K-T event, that wiped out the dinosaurs, and all of the controversy over the several theories offered for their extinction.

The book that I just finished was The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan, one of my favorite writers. Wow -- it's the first actual page-turner that I've read in awhile. It's wonderfully creepy and sad and moving. Three teenage "ghosts" of a Halloween car crash have been called back a year later to follow the variously guilt-ridden, obsessed, and devastated survivors of that night. The ghosts are invisible and powerless, mostly grim bystanders to the inevitable drama that is playing out on the anniversary of their deaths. It was very powerful and not without its moments of black humor. It also perfectly captures teenagers' stubborn belief in their invincibility.

I was going to go straight into Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, but after reading just the beginning of it, I think I'll pick something else. It wasn't that it was bad in any way, but I could just tell that it wasn't my cup of tea -- style, concerns, characters -- none of it seemed promising. I have the new translation of War and Peace now, but I think I'll save it for the fall. On the other hand, a frozen Russian landscape might be a great escape as the temperatures look to remain completely unbearable for the rest of the summer!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Out of Africa

It's been really busy around here, my allergies have been getting me down, and it seems like I'm always too pooped to read for very long. But I did start Out of Africa and I'm finding it delightful. It is as if she dreamed of Africa and is trying to capture it all before it dissolves in the daylight. What an amazing life that must have been. The stories (at least in the part I've read so far) are all about the Natives (her word) and the peculiar nature of her relationship to them. She recounts these stories as the solitary authority figure on the farm; and at least so far never mentions her husband, but already several times, Denys Finch-Hatton. Having seen the movie, I don't want to leap to the conclusion that her tale matches up too neatly with how her life was depicted in the film, though the essential facts are that Finch-Hatton was her lover and her wandering husband infected her with syphilis. In the book, so far, the husband is a blank. Ah -- the power of the Creator! It is hard to keep Meryl Streep's voice (as Karen Blixen) out of my head as I read.

I love her descriptions of the landscape, the African night, the animals, and the flora of Kenya. Of course, her observations of the different tribes and peoples, their culture and traditions, are very interesting, but also awaken in me my post-colonial critical perspective of the white, Western voice pronouncing on the Dark Continent. She seems to see herself as the translator of these peoples to Westerners, and I do think that it was a sincere effort of hers -- meant to acknowledge her affection and admiration for them, even as they are dismissed in many ways as inscrutable and Other.

Still, I hope it makes me dream of grassy plains, gazelles and lions, and starry, African nights with the hyena's eyes shining in the dark.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Out of Montreal

We got back from our trip to Montreal over an extended weekend. Luckily, we had lovely weather -- low 70s and sunny every day. Because the weather cooperated, we walked a lot of the city, including old Montreal and the waterfront, but I still didn't get to all of the neighborhoods I wanted to check out -- the Jewish delis in Mile End or the Marche Jean Talon, for example. No time for shopping either -- there were some music stores and book stores that I had read about, but I didn't find them. Maybe, we'll be able to take another trip. I think our next destination will be somewhere warm, though.

I've been listening to new Gary Louris, Patty Larkin, and The Raconteurs. Louris was a long-time member and lead singer of the Jayhawks, a band that will be sorely missed. I guess they are all on to their own projects though.

While on the plane, I started a Larry Watson novel called Montana 1948 that I just finished. It was good -- although it didn't have the same impact as the first novel that I read by him several years ago, White Crosses. I always highly recommend that one. Both of these novels are set in the lonesome border land of Montana with Canada. Both also involve small-town sheriffs, scandal, and death. Their similarity is striking -- variations on a theme, but not really redundant.

I have two books from the library -- Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa and Richard Fortey's Life: The first four billion years on earth. I will assume the latter does not go into a great deal of detail.

I'm not sure what's next, if either. I also find myself wanting to read some Thomas Carlyle; I'm thinking of those Victorians, having re-read some Tennyson and Rossetti lately.

Monday, April 07, 2008

On the nest

Finally, spring seems to have taken hold. Today was sunny, warm, and breezy. On my afternoon walk, I saw a hawk circle overhead and a pair of house finches perched in a cedar bower. The red bud trees are just starting to show their fire-pink nubs, and my favorite spring wildflowers are peeping out of the grass -- tiny dog violets, spring beauties -- and carpets of heal-all and dandelion, spreading around a single row of bright yellow daffodils.

I took one turn around the pond, populated by Canada Geese in aggressive, nest-defending attitudes. I try to keep a wide berth, since I don't want to pick a fight with a surly goose or alarm the mothers quietly sitting their nests by the shoreline. One breeding pair was loudly intent on kicking another pair off their turf, necks extended serpent-like as they advanced hissing (yes, a hissy-fit) and squawking. I don't know if it's correct to say squawking, but it sounds a lot more belligerent than "honking." What made the scene really amusing were the grazing "onlooker" geese turned in attitudes expressing a Jerry Springer-like fascination with the domestic fight scene. Smaller, but no less fierce, I also saw mockingbirds chasing each other around as they vied for territory. Whew, it's dangerous out there!

I didn't see any ducklings, but only a couple of mallard pairs on the pond and one American Coot. Even though I had looked it up before, I had managed to completely forget what this "duck" is. Sooty black all over with a whitish bill, they're not actually ducks, but belong to the rail family, which is why I had such a hard time tracking it down in the first place. I don't think they're uncommon, but the office park pond is the only place I've ever seen one. I learned that their bills are not flat like a duck's but triangular like a chicken's. So maybe now that I've reinforced it in my memory, I'll be able to identify them correctly from now on.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Opening Day

I refer to baseball of course. I usually feel very springy and hopeful on Opening Day, but like everything else, they've messed with it a bit. It used to be the first Saturday in April and was nearly always the Reds, but now they have these "special" openers like last night -- a single game between the Nationals in their new park and the Braves, which I didn't get to see because it was an ESPN game. A night game in March that wasn't even part of a series. What's that all about? It's all gone commercial! So I was just going to catch some baseball at lunch time today on the "official" opening day. It poured rain here, rained out the Yankees, rain delayed the Cubs and the Reds...maybe baseball will be better in April!

I just bought the new Raconteurs album but haven't really had a chance to give it a good listen yet. I thought it sounded less like the first Raconteurs and more like the last White Stripes. Interesting. We've also been listening to Rodrigo y Gabriele, which I bought my brother for Christmas, but it wasn't until he sat us down to watch the DVD that came with it, that I got motivated to buy it for myself. They are really amazing on the guitar, especially Gabriele. I love that Latin-influenced, heavy percussive sound. And being that I can barely get from G to C, watching those fingers fly, and make all that sound, just blows me away!

After finishing Weidensaul's book, I tried a novel by someone new. John Crowley has recommended Elizabeth Hand, so I checked out Mortal Love from the library. It seemed promising -- it was about the White Goddess myth, the Pre-Raphaelites, Algernon Swinburne, and that general time period, with several other entangled narratives. On the surface, it was in the same vein as Possession by Byatt, which I loved. But, it really didn't live up to Byatt--or for that matter, Crowley; so after meandering half way through without being in the least interested in the story or any of the characters, I gave it up. There was something about it that just got on my nerves. It wasn't terribly subtle. Maybe it was the pathetic male characters falling prey to the succubus/white goddess/Undine that just seemed strained and silly. What a bunch of dopes. I think I've lost my ability to suspend disbelief to that extent. Thus, I'm going to read Hermione Lee's bio of Willa Cather next. She's one of my favorite writers and I've already read her Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.

Other than that, I've still got my Final Four, since like many people I just went with number one seeds. Terribly boring, but obviously, quite correct.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

March madness

I'm actually talking about a "madness" not licensed by the NCAA and CBS (although I'll be filling out my brackets soon enough). I'm just mad that spring hasn't quite sprung; that in addition to feeding the little bastards all winter (the birds get the crumbs), I now have a squirrel condo in the soffit of my house; that I can't switch fast enough between G and C; and that I have to wear winter shoes and socks when I want to wear sandals. Well, at least March isn't February, which totally sucked.

So, here are the silver linings. First, I can now see all of my tulips and daffodils peeking above ground, and assorted other spring bulbs, which will be nice little surprises because I can't quite remember what I planted -- or where the squirrels moved them to (are you sensing a theme?).

Second, I've been reading a book by the wonderful Scott Weidensaul -- Return to Wild America -- which is beautiful and educational and makes my chest hurt because so much of it documents the terrible destruction we've visited upon the land and its inhabitants. When I read about the wholesale slaughters of wild creatures and landscapes that have been carried out over our history of "improving" this country, the surly, dark spirit lurking in me just wants to declare that we are going to get exactly what we deserve. (As many times as I think of Thomas Hobbes, I should really go ahead and read Leviathan. But would that improve my mood? I expect the sound bite is out of context--life is nasty, brutish, short--and that he actually believed in human advancement and a brighter future.) That was a long and tenuously connected parenthesis. I think there's an even longer Cormac McCarthy parenthesis out there, but I 'm not going to try it; I could sprain something. Also, all my silver linings seem to have black linings. But never mind.

Third, I am the happy owner of tickets to see Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova -- AND -- Elvis Costello and the Imposters both in May! That is in addition to Derby festivities. And there will also be baseball games, and all the players will look like normal, lanky fellows, except for the tubby pitchers, because Roger Clemens is testifying before Congress, and so they've had the bejesus (and androstenediol) scared out of them.

Fourth silver lining is that even though I stink now, I'm better at playing the guitar than I was in October.

Number five: I'm going to go buy some strappy sandals, goddammit. Just watch me.

Number six: I have an awesome husband who puts up with my finicky salad-eating ways.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Apparently, I just don't want to read anymore. I finished Stendhal and started combing my shelves at home for something "lighter." I threw out all the books that were tomes, which wipes out half of my existing library, and then disqualified everything that seemed dark or weighty, which effectively wiped out the other half. I then went to Borders, just to get inspiration, and didn't bring home a single book! While dithering around, I had picked up my Edgar Allan Poe collection and started to read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I finished it, but it was not a supernatural tale so much as a seafaring adventure, and not at all what I was looking for. It was actually just annoying. Cannibalism. Whoopee.

Is there such a thing as a book slump? Even the last Jane Austen that I read -- the one that I had lovingly saved -- Northanger Abbey was, dare I say, disappointing. It's definitely the least appealing of her novels. A clever parody of Gothic romances, no doubt, but no real meat or charm. Bother! John Crowley has been reading and writing about Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay on his blog. He is clearly delighted by it, and since I like literary bios, I might have to read it myself. I want to be delighted by my next book! Is that such a tall order?

So, I turned to my rock in times of reading disenchantment--poetry. Dylan Thomas. Not delighted either.

Also, to fill in my grump, I read last week that Marah has cancelled their U.S. tour with their new CD and the band has broken up...again. Fiddlesticks.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New Marah

Marah's new CD came out Tuesday. I just haven't been to buy it yet, but I've already listened to most of it since it's being streamed online. Looks like the reviews are strong; the link takes you to the player and their tour dates so far. I'm hoping they'll continue to add dates a little closer to me. We just saw a Marah-lite version over the summer, but I'm looking forward to seeing the full band back together. I hope they have great success. They definitely seem to have put some renewed efforts into publicity for this one.

Meanwhile, I'm still bogged down with The Red and the Black. When I do pick it up, I enjoy what I'm reading, and yet I'm just not compelled to return to it, so it going very slowly, and I'm over half way through it. Sometimes you're just not in the mood for a certain book, and I think that's where I am with this one. Still, I'm committed to finishing it at this point.

I had a little mini-breakthrough playing the guitar last night. Even though I'm not really much better or faster, for the first time I could kind of see how a song on the guitar comes together with the chords and the strumming -- it seemed like it might actually become a little less foreign. And the night before I had picked it up and just playing a G chord sounded horrendous! I mean, it sounded terrible, so I just put it away without even trying anything else. Go figure.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Reading light?

I looked back through my book journal (offline) to see what I had read throughout 2007, some of which I talked about here. I read a surprising amount of non-fiction early in the year -- a study of Virginia Woolf, a history of 20th century warfare -- and then lots of rather heavy novels and the new biography of Edith Wharton. My reading definitely tended toward the "serious" and several of them were real doorstoppers! And I never even made it to War and Peace, as intended. So now I'm thinking I might need to lighten up a little this year and put W&P off a little longer. Of course, I'm in the middle of Stendhal's The Red and the Black right now, which isn't exactly The Notebook. But after that, maybe I'll try something in the fantasy genre for a change of pace. I haven't seen any of the movie versions, but I'm thinking about the novel I am Legend, since no one ever thinks the movies do it justice.

I've mostly been thinking about music and getting my collection moved to my new iPod (thanks, hubby!). It's very cool to have all my favorite songs so handy, but there's so much stuff to collect, it's overwhelming. Also, I've been making noise on my guitar. I know it would be smarter to learn to play Kumbaya first, but who really wants to play that? I 'd rather make my ears bleed trying to play an actual cool song (with easy chords!) -- at least it's not boring. Maybe I'll finally learn to play *something* this year. My fingers still get sore and I don't think I'm much closer to learning how to strum. That whole music-math connection is intimidating to me, because I never got the hang of that either. It's like there is this whole compartment of my brain for those kinds of smarts that I can't unlock. It looks like it should be easy and straightforward, but it's so NOT for me.