Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Winter Birds

This afternoon I was working from home so I could meet the oven repairman for my gas range. It was a gusty day with the temperatures dropping on their way to the coldest point of the season tonight. I made sure to fill my feeders with seed and the birds flocked to them all afternoon, so I took some pictures of my regular visitors. At left is a chickadee, the most vocal and the tiniest.

Some of my favorite birds are the ones whose markings are the most subtle, like the junco and white-throated sparrow at below right. The WT sparrow has the obvious white patch at the throat, but so does a house sparrow. The difference is the little yellow eye dot, if you look closely, and the striped crown. The male house sparrow has a solid gray cap (no stripes) and a black "necktie" at the throat and breast. You can look at them side by side below at left. Juncos look like they're wearing a little black or gray frock-coat, the shades vary quite a bit. They have white breasts, obvious white outer tail feathers (best seen as they spread their tails in flight), and pinkish beaks. They are small and sparrow-like and stay mostly on the ground scratching around, rather than approaching the feeder. I saw one actually at the feeder for the first time only last week. I don't know what the big draw was. They are a bit more skittish than other birds -- quick to take flight when spooked, which unfortunately, I do often, because I'm always jockeying for a view.
In this group is another favorite -- the sweetest little songbird, the song sparrow. They're small and solitary; I almost never see more than one at a time, scratching on the ground, never at the feeder. When they're out on the power line in front of the house in summer they sing up a storm, a beautiful liquid, melodius trill. They have the same soft brown sparrow coloring but they are noticeably more streaked, all the way down on the breast. They also have a striped crown.
The more colorful varieties are very familiar, like the cardinal, although I, of course, like the muted colors of the female. They are very elegant, whereas the male is brilliant. Today I also got the titmouse and curious downy woodpecker, but I was not quick enough to snap the Carolina wren or nuthatch. I usually get two or three goldfinches, with as many as six scrapping with each other at the four-perch feeder.
While I've been completely too inattentive and distracted to read for the last month, I did take out my Christina Rossetti last night to read a few poems before bed. One of my favorites is "A Birthday" with the lines:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot...
It's a very simple poem, but one of the most beautiful lyrics in the language. It reminds me of that song sparrow singing in the hedge in summer.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

All Hallows

When November 1 arrives, despite all the official season-ending dates, it really feels like the beginning of winter. The clocks turn back, the trees are half-stripped, and the birds are extra-voracious at the feeders. They are the bright spot in my winters. I enjoy feeding them and spying on them out the back windows. I highly recommend Cornell Ornithology Labs' Project Feederwatch if you like to watch your feeders anyway. You can count your visitors and send the data in to have your own little part in a science project.

The juncos haven't arrived yet, but the goldfinches and chickadees have been flocking to my feeders. I live in a suburban area with very little yard, but it really doesn't take much. The only problem is...squirrels. Darn their rascally hides! I'm convinced they're studying higher mathematics in the off-season, trying to figure out the best trajectory to gain access to my feeders. Sometimes when I see them staring fixedly at the tube feeder, I imagine little thought balloons filled with equations, charts, and diagrams.

Book Report
I read Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I liked it; it made me consider what I was doing at age 24. It wasn't publishing a critically-acclaimed first novel. It came out about the time I was finishing my undergrad degree and getting seriously sidetracked. He has the amazing work ethic of great writers. Being that I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History several months ago, and it, of course, was published after Mysteries, it made me wonder what, if any influence, he might have had on that novel. They both feature a quirky, charismatic rogue's gallery of highly educated twenty-somethings, some pretending to be what they're not; sexual experimentation, if not transgression; buried secrets. Chabon is definitely more playful and Tartt darker, overall. It doesn't really mean much, except that one made me think of the other.

I believe I'm going to start a veritable mountain of a book -- Roy Jenkins' monumental biography of Winston Churchill. It looks fantastic, of intimidating learning and length. Perhaps, I'll attack it in parts, and read some novels in between.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Killer Angels & Generals

I read Michael Shaara's great novel of the battle of Gettysburg. When I read a book like this I always wonder how I managed to put it off for so long. Even with the historical facts so familiar, it remains gripping, almost suspenseful, as if it might somehow venture into one of those "What If?" alternate histories that have popped up in recent years. What if Lee had listened to Longstreet's advice about withdrawing and finding better ground? What if they had heeded Hood's suggestion to try an attack on the Union rear instead of a frontal assault in clear view of Union artillery?

Shaara is brilliant with the portraits of Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain. It gets to the heart of those complex dualities of war that equally attract and repel: horror and beauty, baseness and nobility, loneliness and brotherhood.

I couldn't decide on a follow-up novel from the Shelf of Obligation so I started a book about Napoleon and Wellington by historian Andrew Roberts. I'm not cheating -- I couldn't actually fit all the unread books in this house in one bookcase! Roberts' focus is mostly on what the two famous generals said, thought, and wrote about each other before their first and only meeting at the Battle of Waterloo.

It's pretty entertaining and anecdotal, and apparently Roberts will go to great lengths to toss off some groaner puns. On Wellington burning his violin as a symbolic act before seriously taking up his military career: "Did he resolve to roam while his fiddle burned?" Dude! I have a feeling I'm going to find out more than I ever wanted to know about Napoleon's bout with hemorrhoids. But I bet he has a punny witticism lined up for that topic too.

Well, the weather has turned bright and crisp after a gloomy spell. Today I filled up my bird feeders after a summer of slackness. The birds usually let me know when it's time. All that chattering in the backyard takes on a distinctly nagging tone. Two chickadees came to the mostly empty finch feeder at the window and looked in as if to say, "Hey LADY! There's a nip in the air -- get it?" So I listened and bought the freakin' bird seed. Now I suppose the squirrels will start gnawing on my pumpkins, just to send the message home.

Friday, September 25, 2009

It's been raining since Summer ended

Autumn is here, but there's no crisp, blue sky or gently drifting leaves. It has literally rained nearly every day and the leaves are driven down, clinging wetly to the brick patio and sticking to the windshield. There wasn't much of a transition from summer beach vacation (just a couple weeks ago now) and this mucky, humid, gloomy seasonal shift.

Right after I finished The Bluest Eye, at last report, I entered a restless, non-reading period, which I blamed on the unremitting bleakness of three novels in a row. It seemed my brain would only take glossy magazines and DVDs of The Wire for awhile. At the beach I began Orhan Pamuk's memoir/history of Istanbul to get me out of my funk. It was charmingly told -- an eccentric mix of autobiography, Istanbul minutiae, old photographs, and of course, Pamuk's chronicle of his family life and his relationship with the city itself -- a city he has never abandoned, its old glory faded, ruined in fact, pulled between East and West, the Bosphorous serving as gateway and mythic companion.

He explores the sense of failure and melancholy that hangs over Istanbul and its inhabitants -- something he calls huzun -- and reflects on how he has come to understand that deep sadness and accepted it as part of what he loves about it and what has nurtured him as a writer. He is playful, often funny, with terrific anecdotes of his family and his grandmother's museum-like rooms, his father's philandering, his "second life" and the imagined twin Orhan -- a happier, sunnier Orhan, who lives a charmed life elsewhere in the city.

I'm now reading a book that it seems I should have read long ago -- Shaara's Killer Angels. It really is inspired. Since I'm still in only the first third, I'll reserve further comment. And yes, I'm still working on that bookshelf by the bed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Read 'em if you got 'em

Like most book people, I have books all over the house that I've bought, borrowed, been given, hoarded and carried around from one house to another in boxes...but I still haven't read them. And, of course, I go on acquiring, reading some, but my acquisition outstrips my consumption. So, while mulling over what to read and changing my mind, or my mood, I decided to gather all those foundling children up from their corners and bookshelves all over the house, and I put them all in one bookcase by the bed. To read. What a notion!

So, now I have my cache of unread books, mostly fiction, but maybe a couple of non-fiction titles mixed in, and by god, I'm going to read those books before I get any more (okay, I won't return gifts!). I also decided to read rather randomly, so I've been kneeling in front of those two shelves, closing my eyes, and picking off whatever my hand landed on first.

I started with Continental Drift by Russell Banks, a book I had him sign for me when I worked at the local book store. I first read Rule of the Bone and later The Darling, and I really admire him, but he tangles with some intense material. I have to spread him out because of that. A couple of his novels were adapted into equally weighty movies, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. CD was good and god-awful depressing. I was so relieved to finish it that I thought that might do me for Banks, but actually, I always meant to read Cloudsplitter about John Brown, so maybe just one more!

Next, Larry Brown's Dirty Work, which I just finished tonight. This was his first novel, and the only one I've read by him. It was really engaging -- a tragic story about two Vietnam veterans who meet up and trade stories in a VA hospital, one black and the other white, both from Mississippi. I loved the voices of the characters -- they seemed pitched just right -- earthy, funny, heartbreaking. Larry Brown died young, unfortunately, of a heart attack at age 54 in 2004. What I didn't know about him was that he was friends with one of my favorite musicians, Alejandro Escovedo, and even played with the band a few times. He also was friends and played music with fellow southern writer (and a very funny man), Clyde Egerton, who I also met at the bookstore where I hosted the authors who were doing the requisite PR reading/signing.

I immediately picked my next book, which will be Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. I don't think I've read anything by her since Beloved. My new system is amusing me for the moment, anyway.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer time and the living is easy

When I posted last in May, it still felt like spring -- some days were still quite cool and often highs were only in the 70s. Well, we spent no time at all hanging out in the 80s and now, post-Solstice, it is sticky, clingingly hot with big thunderheads looming every day. I've been watching movies in the AC (Star Trek and Up at the theater, recently Slumdog, Tell No One, Chinatown, and In Bruges at home), taking in baseball games, and reading a bit.

I read John Crowley's newest novel, Four Freedoms, which hearkens back to the style of The Translator, rather than that of the more mystical, speculative fictions of the Aegypt cycle or Little, Big. The latest is set during WWII on the domestic front and centers on a fictional wartime airplane factory, which Crowley places near the real Ponca City, Oklahoma.

It treats many themes that I spent so much time exploring in my Master's thesis on literature of the earlier world conflict -- the war's left-behinders -- the old, the crippled, and the female non-combatants. How did this world, suddenly drained of most of its able-bodied young men, look and feel to them? An entire country bent toward one purpose -- making war successfully -- is suddenly dependent on those marooned at home, those who, heretofore, mattered the least in a culture that more or less rigidly defined roles based on gender and physical ability. What a rich, topsy-turvy, and liminal world for a writer of Crowley's genius to look into.

What next? I have a copy of The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, which Levi Stahl is making sound so fun right now, and also The Lost City of Z. I've started neither, rather dipping into Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure and the Fitzgerald translation of The Illiad.

I've been listening to Phoenix's latest, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which I like a little more each time I play it, and Morrissey's The Quarry. And I'm completely enthralled with Okkervil River -- everything. They're at the top of my list for the band I most want to see next. They aren't exactly coming around to my neck of the woods anytime soon, but I'll keep an eye out.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thinking about summer reading, part one

I don't know that I read completely different books in the summer, but I always look forward to the annual "summer reading" specials in newspapers and on radio shows and hearing what everyone is recommending. I also just enjoy the idea of people slowing down to focus on books and the pleasure of reading for a change. It's easy to forget that not everyone has abandoned this simple and affordable leisure activity for movies, video games, and the Internet, not to mention, sexting. I hear that's big right now.

I worked in a bookstore for a long time, and one of the best things about it was turning customers on to new authors or forgotten titles. I've been thinking about some of my favorites and deciding which ones I would suggest as great summer reads. Personally, I tend to read more nonfiction and longer novels in the fall and winter -- my "project" reading. But in the warmer months, when I hope to hit the beach at least once, I load up on fiction, especially mid-length and shorter books that are easy to carry and that you can finish in an afternoon or two. So here's my list, in no particular order. I was going to do a sort of top 10 in one post, but I think I'll spread them out over the next couple of weeks. And I hope other readers out there (is there anyone out there?) will drop in and tell me about some of yours. I'm always in the market for recommendations -- non-fiction included.


For some reason, I like a good creepy book when the sun is blazing; ghosts and murders and otherwise murky dealings are nice counterpoints to waves splashing and greasy sunblock prints on the pages. A big staff favorite from my days at Hawley-Cooke was Peter Cameron's Andorra. It's one of those quiet, subtly building stories in which you know there's something really sinister going on but you can't quite put your finger on it. Then, wham! it hits you between the eyes with a two-by-four. A very twisty tale, cleverly written.
  • Something similar: Dennis McFarland's A Face at the Window or Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods; and just about anything by Stewart O'Nan.
  • In a classic vein, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw; Dracula; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Western (sort of)

I'm always trying to get people to read Willa Cather. One of my favorites is A Lost Lady, the story of the beautiful Marian Forrester told by a young admirer, Niel Herbert, who -- as he grows from a boy to a young man -- loses his romantic illusions about her. Niel's disenchantment mirrors the transition of the romantic, pioneering West (embodied by Marian's older husband, Captain Forrester) to the anti-heroic, grasping, and exploitative modern age. (Although, of course, I'm not suggesting that the latter three qualities only came in with the Modern era.) Two of my favorite writers of the West are Cather and Cormac McCarthy. I actually think they have a lot in common. This hit me after reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, which rather bizarrely kept bringing to mind Blood Meridian.
  • Longer and worth it: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing; Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose
Romantic and exotic

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be my all-time favorite summer book. Just a few years ago both me and my husband read this one while at the beach. It's magical storytelling about a young girl whose strange upbringing and difference end up getting her into trouble with the local priests who think she is possessed by demons. The young exorcist, of course, falls madly in love with her. This is a short novel bursting with beauty, mystery, and otherworldliness.

  • Not anywhere near as wonderful, but still very good: It's been awhile since I've read any Isabel Allende, but I really enjoyed The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, and Of Love and Shadows.
  • Not Latin-American: The Map of Love by Ahdaf Souief -- a big multi-generational family saga and love story set in turn-of-the-century Cairo. Juicy.
That's it for now. And by the way, I provide Amazon links for easy reference, but I highly recommend your local, independent bookstores for new and used books.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bleak House

Maybe it's just that the Dickens I've read has been so spread out -- beginning at some point with A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities -- but I seem to forget from novel to novel how richly the characters are drawn and how funny he is. It's been quite a long time since I've read any Dickens, so Bleak House again surprised me.

One thing that struck me was how contemporary the social satire feels. I suppose people have hated lawyers ever since there have been lawyers, making this plot, which turns on a famous suit in the Chancery Court, immediately accessible to any reader awash in a sea of courtroom dramas and high-profile cases, where justice -- if it comes at all -- is too little and too late.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

The other primary target in Bleak House is the hypocritical do-gooders who are very interested in helping the miserable in far-flung places while ignoring the suffering close to home (Mrs. Jellyby); those whose chief interest is in lecturing the poor about their morals instead of offering material help (Mrs. Pardiggle); and those in power who argue about the problem but never do anything (Parliament). Meanwhile the destitute live evilly in slums like Tom-all-alone's:
In the midst of which dust and noise, there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom [personification of the poor] only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice. And in the hopeful meantime, Tom goes to perdition head foremost in his old determined spirit.
Some sections of the story are told in the first-person narration of the protagonist, Esther Summerson, a rather saintly character with mysterious origins and a lonely childhood, who becomes one of the wards of John Jarndyce -- a wealthy, older gentleman who is a party to the most famous and long-running estate battle in the Chancery Court: Jarndyce and Jarndyce. It is the sort of case that has become a joke in the creaking machinery of the judicial system -- one that has ruined and wasted lives already and will also swallow up the youth of Richard Carstone, a Jarndyce cousin also in the care of the benign John, along with a young female cousin, the beautiful Ada, to whom Esther is devoted.

The central mystery of the novel is Esther's parentage and tied to that mystery is a murder. Solving these and tying up the loose ends of Jarndyce and Jarndyce speeds the last third of the novel along and brings to the forefront one of the best characters, Inspector Bucket. While Dickens isn't credited with being the father of the detective novel, he ushers the genre in by creating one of the first fictional detectives. Polite to a fault, garrulous, and with eyes everywhere, Bucket reminded me of no one more than the t.v. detective Columbo. He even has the wife who is much talked of, but who never really appears in the foreground. I couldn't get Peter Falk out of my head as I read!

Dickens is known for being a little over-the-top in pulling the heart strings, but I have to admit, it worked on me at least a couple of times. One instance in particular was touching because it came so unexpectedly: from a character, so rigid and pompous revealing an amazing capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Dickens created some great stock characters -- all of one virtue or vice -- but he was most successful when characters were allowed to show those contradictory impulses and traits that make them more fully human.

Bleak House is simply a treat if you don't let its length put you off. It has inspired me to work my way through the Dickens' oeuvre eventually.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company

This is the rather clunky title of Brian Hall's novel of Lewis and Clark, which for simplicity's sake, I'll refer to here as Company. First of all, let me admit that I'm more ignorant of Lewis and Clark history than I knew, rather embarrassing since I live in Louisville, home of the Clarks, as well as the Filson Historical Society, which is one of Hall's resources. I had to get some non-fiction guides to clue me in to many of the facts and to help separate history from fiction (although sometimes the "history" is fuzzy enough to admit fiction).

As I wrote recently, one of my favorite contemporary novels is Hall's The Saskiad, as different from Company as it can be. I loved it so well that it pains me to say that I nearly gave up on this one near the beginning. I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, although I do think it's flawed. But I will say that even the flaws are indicative of Hall's talent, which takes some explaining.

In The Saskiad, Hall found the perfect voice for the young girl -- so note-perfect that you fell right into the story. As they say in theater, he never broke character. In Company, this talent of Hall's becomes the novel's flaw for me. He has quite an illustrious cast of characters, based, of course, on historical persons, which is quite a thing to pull off, particularly if you're trying to establish that authentic voice for each one of them and tell the story through multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, he does it so doggedly that I sincerely wanted to strangle Thomas Jefferson with his own cravat and hold Sacajawea's head under the Missouri just so I wouldn't have to hear her tell the story. This is surely not a good sign with characters that I am inclined to admire!

This is what I mean: To illustrate Lewis' impatience for Jefferson's longwinded, fanciful, and learned monologues on nearly everything under the sun (while the hopeful explorer just wants to study the maps prior to the expedition), Hall unreels pages and pages of our forefather's verbal meandering. Oh, it produces the effect perfectly that he must have imagined it to have had on Lewis, but perhaps at the expense of the reader as well, who just wants to get on with the story a bit. This is a mere quibble of the impatient, thought I...until it came to be Sacajawea's turn.

Hall (as he says in his notes at the end) tried to approximate the native voice as much as possible, choosing vocabulary picked up from Shoshone language guides and supplying a sing-song, dreaming quality to her narration. And if his goal was to show that a non-English-speaking native woman of the plains inhabited a world entirely alien from us, then he certainly succeeded. The problem for me is that much of it is nearly incomprehensible. With great difficulty, I pieced together the story she was telling and even lazier readers than I would be tempted to skip ahead. This, combined with the "earthy" vocabulary used, repetitively, to describe her world and her experience just had an unpleasant effect -- it's a veritable storm of cunts, shit, fuck, dirt, vomit, etc. Now, this might be mere prudery on my part, except it had the same effect on me as the passage with Jefferson, which was all noble subjects and high-flown language. It just became exasperating -- a little too much of a good thing. I wanted brush strokes and got ax blows instead.

Now, I will say that her sections became less irritating as I went along; either I got used to the style, or it became less dense, mirroring her growing familiarity with the White Men and her new milieu. And of course, the bulk of the narrative is from the perspectives of Lewis and Clark, and both of these "voices" are very well done. Hall subtly communicates the genuine admiration these two had for one another, but also the streaks of impatience, pettiness, and jealousy that must have colored their relationship. And, most importantly, he avoids two yawning pitfalls the narrative could have sunk into. First, he did not romanticize Sacajawea into some Disney princess or overdo her as Feminist Icon (or God forbid, cook up some romance between her and one of the principles). He simply gave her her due; her story is extraordinary without embroidering it, even in fiction.

The other thing Hall didn't try to do was overwork the theory that Lewis may have had feelings for Clark that were not entirely platonic. There are some reasons to think this could have been the case, but it's speculation, and Hall wisely leaves the idea to float out there on its own as an intriguing possibility.

I ended up liking it better as I neared the end, but Company isn't as easy a recommendation as The Saskiad. Hall sticks close to the historical record, but creatively fills in the gaps and shows admirable restraint with some of the more complicated material.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Angels of Destruction

Author Keith Donohue's story gets off to a quick start -- a knock at a lonely old lady's door in the dead of a winter night, a small, threadbare child standing in the cold. The woman is Margaret Quinn, a widow who has never fully recovered from the loss of her own daughter who ran away to join a revolutionary cult -- the Angels of Destruction -- as a teenager a decade before. The strangely knowing nine-year-old is either a runaway herself, or perhaps an angel, born of the woman's prayer to have her own daughter returned. There is a bit of ambiguity introduced as to the role of the girl, who stays with Margaret to be passed off as her grandchild in an elaborate ruse. But the novel definitely favors the supernatural identity of Norah, the waif, who can perform miracles that amaze her fellow third-graders and her best friend, Sean. Another darker, more sinister presence hovers in the background, always watching, insinuating himself among Mrs. Quinn's acquaintances, asking pointed questions about the mysterious Norah Quinn.

There is one brief mention of the name Noriel, which the dark, watching presence inscribes on a snowy windshield early in the novel, suggesting a link with Norah. I did not read up on my angel lore while reading this, but according to, Noriel is the angel of the fourth month, which doesn't really shed any light on the plot, but maybe someone else knows more about this than I do.

Whether you think Donohue pulls off the supernatural part of the story or not, the novel is really about the unambiguously human characters -- awkward, fatherless Sean, lonely Margaret, and her wayward daughter Erica. The themes are familiar ones -- forgiveness, redemption, hope, faith. A novel like this, with one foot in the invisible and supernatural, invites comparison with someone like John Crowley, and it's sure to pale in that comparison. That's not really fair, of course -- it's like comparing every novel about a dysfunctional Southern family with Faulkner or every fishing tale with Moby Dick. My excuse is that I've actually been reading Crowley concurrently. That being said, I think Donohue has written a very engaging story with some minor flaws. I enjoyed it. I wanted to see how he wound it all up in the end, and how the characters fared. Here's a short quote to give you a little flavor of the story:

She was used to moving numbly through the desolation of her life. Like the survivors of momentous devastation, she patched her sorrow and moved on to some semblance of normalcy. And now the girl had come, and Margaret sensed the cracks in her will to abide nothing but the memory of her daughter. Everything, bad as it was, had been fine, bearable. But this morning, Norah had shattered the world.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Choosing one book among the thousands

Oh, what exciting blog posts I come up with. This one is just me thinking out loud about what I'm going to read next, as I just picked up a couple of requests from ye olde library. In addition to the books I have in my home stash just waiting for the right moment, I've also been thinking of going on a tear through the Victorians (again).

From the library, I just picked up a brand new title that I saw reviewed in last week's NYTimes, Angels of Destruction, by Keith Donohue, whom I haven't read before; and also, Brian Hall's novel about Lewis and Clark, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, mostly on the strength of how much I loved Hall's The Saskiad. I connected with that book in a way that I've done with very few novels. While I wasn't reared in a hippie commune like the protagonist Saskia, I did have the same freedom of movement growing up in the country with lots of time to myself and indulgent parents who just let me lay about reading and fiddling with words. Like her, I was totally immersed in mythology and lived in my imagination, feeling like an outsider most of the time. I thought Hall completely nailed the funny inner life of an awkwardish, teen girl with a balance of humor, seriousness, and poignancy. It's been several years ago that I read it, and I would have to resort to my old-timey, handwritten book journals to fill in more details.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about Dickens and the Victorians, in general, after reading Eminent Victorians last fall. It's one of my favorite literary periods, home to one in my triumvirate of writer-goddesses, George Eliot (the other two being Austen and Woolf). I've read quite a lot of that company, yet with some rather enormous gaps -- not much Dickens (only A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and no Trollope at all. So, first on my list is Bleak House, which I was assigned to read way back in a "rise of the English novel" class in college, but skipped out on -- I was just too overwhelmed at the time to plow past that first twenty odd pages about the fog in London. But when I finish it, I can say it took me twenty-five years to read Bleak House!

I really cleared the decks to read War and Peace over the winter and didn't get distracted, but like most serious readers, I always have so many candidates crowding their way to the front! I'm usually interested in about fourteen things at the same time, but I've learned that I don't really enjoy trying to read more than one book at a time. (I might make a teensy exception, since I'm currently re-reading Little, Big.) So, I think I'll try the Donohue, which will go fast if I like it, and might fall off the list if it doesn't grab me; then Hall and finally, Dickens.

And dear God, if you have any other recommendations, don't tell me about them!

(Just kidding.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dream houses

Last night before bed I was reading Crowley's Little, Big. One of the central images in the novel is the mysterious house at Edgewood, which depending on one's approach, has many different front's -- in effect, many different houses in one. They all connect on the inside, a rabbit warren of hallways, doors, stairs, and curious rooms that meet at odd angles. And last night I dreamed first of going down a long, tree-lined avenue and on both sides were all sizes and styles of houses, lining a very green and quintessentially American street. There were painted ladies and shotguns and Cape Cods, but as I was telling my companion in the dream, how strange to find such a street in the middle of desert in Saudi Arabia -- like a mirage!

And then the dream changed slightly and I was on another street with impossible-looking houses, Gothic looking structures and cathedrals, only these buildings were partially buried in the ground, up to their gabled roofs and domes -- one very like the dome of St. Paul's. They were not destroyed or harmed, just built into and underneath the ground, with trees and vegetation all around them, and one knew that they were massive and intact under the earth when you entered inside. I did go in one, and the floors were leaded glass, and you could see the shadowy floors plunging below.

Houses have always been a central image in my dreams ever since I can remember. Houses familiar and completely foreign -- I remember dreaming vividly of a house in Africa, hexagonal or octagonal, with windows from floor to ceiling, set down in a jungle so that I could see the wild outside, the birds and animals and exotic flora curling around the decks. And familiar houses, sometimes even my own, always have secret rooms or entire floors that I've forgotten; they are filled with things I've forgotten, treasures. Doors, attics, secret compartments, winding hallways, and staircases are everywhere in my dreams and whatever I think I'm about to find or could find remains just out of reach and often I can't find my way back in once I've left.

Of course the other thing I read before sleeping was Matthew Arnold's poem, "The Buried Life"; hence, the buried houses, I suppose.

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us--to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ryan Adams and the Cards

It's kind of funny how you have to approach a Ryan Adams show: Expectation (if he's "on," it has to be great), exasperation (I hope he's not freaking out this time), speculation (will this be the last show before he breaks up the band?). So I actually felt sort of relieved when I got to see a full set, he didn't do anything too weird, and his voice sounded fantastic. Success! I thought the best moment was when he broke loose with "Come Pick Me Up," not just because it's one of my favorites, but because it came pretty early and I thought it signaled a wide-ranging affair from his huge catalog. The only disappointment was that there weren't more rockin' songs like Magick thrown in. I totally agree with Jeffrey Lee Puckett's review that all of the songs were the same tempo -- very mellow. I would have liked more energy. But that feels a little nitpicky considering he really did perform well in that purple light. It wasn't as dark as the last time when he hid under the infamous hoodie, but I only saw the silhouette of Ryan. Man of Mystery.

I did have an insight into the mystery, however. When he finally engaged the audience in a little midset chit-chat and the lights came up just a bit, he said something like, okay, you've scared me enough, you can take the lights back down. And I thought, it's not just an act, he really is uncomfortable performing! Performance anxiety -- possibly debilitating? It kind of fits in with the drugs and alcohol, which might have been his way of controlling it, and now all clean and sober, he has do it differently -- practically in the dark, at a safe distance from the audience. See, speculation. Well, it's one theory. I know that he blames inner ear and hearing problems "on the record" as his reason for the rumored abandonment of music for his literary career. Who knows, but it would be a shame if stops recording, hard as that is to imagine.

Levi Stahl

When John Crowley links to anything on his livejournal page I feel compelled to check it out. That's how I found The Whole Five Feet and now, I'vebeenreadinglately, Levi Stahl's blog. Sometimes when I think I read a LOT, I run across someone who puts me to shame. Or maybe it's not so much that I don't read as much, I just don't read as well, as critically, and as deeply as others do. And I certainly don't write as well about reading. Reading the entries in Levi's blog makes me want to hang up my sad little tappety-tap keys and find a Harlequin romance.

His recent post about Penelope Fitzgerald will motivate me to finally read one or more of her novels. She's been on the radar for a long time, but somehow, I've just never got around to her. I just requested several books from the public library, and I will now have a few more to put on the list. Of course, I just started re-reading Crowley's Little, Big.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Sport and a Pastime

I finished James Salter's novel, title above, having previously read The Light Years. I've heard many people gush about him, particularly other writers, but I have to say, I don't really get it. The writing is good, of course, frequently lovely and I enjoyed his wonderful evocation of the French countryside, describing the seasons, the light, the empty sidewalks and cafes. But the people -- the characters -- I don't connect to at all. He reminds me of Fitzgerald and of Hemingway in the kinds of people he writes about, the floaters on the waves of other people's money, angst-ridden adventurers, the sad, jaded rich, and beautiful virgins/whores that figure as enchantresses and victims and the left-behind. They never seem real to me, and in fact, they just get on my nerves. Is it a class thing? Those vaguely patrician, Ivy-league educated ne'er-do-wells and American women who go abroad to get a title and a villa? It's all just a little too precious for me.

I won't say I hated it, but I read it without much joy. In a better way it reminded me of William Maxwell's The Chateau, but mainly because both stories concern Americans (always cast as innocents -- a well-worn theme) abroad in post-war France, adrift in an alien, if alluring culture. Well, anyway, I think that does me for the Salter experience.

I've been thinking I might re-read (which I don't often do) Little, Big by Crowley. It definitely merits another reading, and I'm sure I'll soak up more the second time. It's so magical and mysterious and suggestive. A review on its 25th anniversary just appeared in the Guardian. He has a new novel in the works -- WWII era, I believe.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Holy the Firm

I re-read Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. An excerpt:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead--as if innocence had ever been--and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. (Harper and Row, 1977)

She is like Donne to me -- difficult, brilliant, stark, unafraid to plumb the depths and attempt a measure of the heights. She delights and scares the bejesus out of you at the same time. She makes you pick up the dictionary. Pay no attention to anything I write, but read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Reading big, important books

I just finished War and Peace today; it took a couple of months, reading at a pretty leisurely pace. As I've already written, I fell in love with it from the beginning, and I didn't change my mind about it. What is amazing is that Tolstoy wrote such a beautiful, sprawling novel seemingly to illustrate his view of history and his critique of the great man theory. The Epilogue dealt mainly with his argument against the traditional view that watershed events -- particularly wars, revolutions, mass migrations -- are driven by heroes like Napoleon and Alexander -- that their will, genius, power-wielding carries the masses to do their bidding. His story, with its many characters, high and low, bad and virtuous, weak and strong, shows that this view is false; that causes and effects are impossibly complicated; that our perspectives are too limited; and it can only be the interacting masses of wills and relationships, along with a mysterious equation of constraints that he calls necessity and freedom, which actually makes "history." There is no way I can quickly boil down what he took about 1200 pages to get at and no guarantee either that I understood it perfectly as he meant it, so I'll leave it at that.

But here's one takeaway that I have from reading another of the Big Important books: it is nearly always the case that they are hyped to be much more dense, unapproachable, and difficult than they really are. Your reading pleasure will be maximized reading W&P if you are a student of history, particularly military history, but you can just as easily chuck all the theories of history and just read it as adventure and romance on a huge scale -- an epic family drama. The only difficulty is keeping the Russian names straight in the beginning, and of course the time commitment if you are a slow reader, but otherwise, it's great fun. I've had exactly the same experience with Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, and Ulysses, all of which I approached with a sense of intimidation, but which I found to be genuinely entertaining. (Okay, there was a long bit about the sperm whale industry in MD that made me want to poke Melville with a stick, but you can skip that; no one is going to call the lit police.) I was very nearly finished with Ulysses when I finally started to get the "big picture," but there are many charms along the way, even if you suspect you're missing a lot.

You can argue all you want about the dead, white guys dominating literature for so long, but it's not just a conspiracy -- the great books are really pretty great, and you can still enjoy the wonderful diversity of contemporary fiction -- men and women, white and black, the dead and the undead (vampires have had their voices silenced for far too long).

Perhaps, I'll test my theory further one day if I ever read Finnegan's Wake, which has always looked fairly incomprehensible to me. If you've read it, let me know.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Marah and Brandi Carlile

Dave Bielanko and Marah

I make it a rule to see Marah at every reasonable opportunity, and I'm never disappointed. We were all psyched to see them in their latest formulation (temporarily without Serge, the other Bielanko brother, and with a new drummer and bass player plus Christine, the keyboardist) and arrived at the appointed place...only to find it completely deserted! Refusing to believe it, we got out and saw the sign pinned to the door -- the show was moved to another bar. Every time I've seen them, they've been relegated to a smaller, crummier venue. They really ought to be packing out the Palace or the Waterfront on a summer night. I think it bothers me more than, say, Dave Bielanko, who seems to take it in stride. I think he's genuinely more interested in the music and the experience than achieving wealth and fame, and they never shortchange an audience, no matter how small.

On this night, I was in the middle of an allergy attack, which made me feel miserable, but between a medicinal, near gag-inducing swig of my hubby's bourbon and Marah finally coming on, it magically dissipated. It was a somewhat surreal evening of kick-ass music, a dirty backroom dive, and these crazy-dancing ladies who kept drinking white russians and buying them for the band, prompting Dave to claim, "It tastes just like Christmas morning!" And through all of this, from the time we got there until we left around 2 a.m., some poor dude was sitting on a stool, as completely passed out on the bar as I've ever seen anyone. I never saw him stir, apparently not even when the gals playing foosball adjusted his chair to give themselves more space, or -- needless to say -- while the band ten feet away ripped through, "Coughing up Blood." Someone else needs an intervention.

Well, one good thing about such intimate gatherings is that you actually get to talk with the band if you want to. I had to stick around to buy a new tee, since my only other one from Marah is too small to wear in public. I told Dave how much we always enjoyed the shows and asked him about the new album. He said they were close to finishing it up in Nashville (the next stop) and that he thought Serge would be ready to rejoin them when they toured in April. He and Christine were both very nice, tired, and grateful for kind words. I'm so glad I stayed up past my bedtime.

Brandi Carlile and Sondre Lerche

In the Pops series, the Louisville Orchestra teamed up with Lerche to open and Brandi for the headliner. Lerche is really impressive. Such a youngster, but with lots of poise and a fabulous crooner voice. I think the crowd in Whitney Hall was well-pleased with his performance, since of course, everyone was really there for Brandi. And even though he didn't play guitar with those huge, Norwegian mittens from the PR headshot, I still enjoyed it!

My expectations were high for Brandi, since she's one of my very favorite artists; I actually think she was even better than I thought she'd be. Her voice is phenomenal -- really, really big and strong -- the recording process does not add a thing that's not already there. And if you possibly can, you aspiring leaders-of-the-band, manage to frame yourself with identical twin musicians! I love the harmonies Phil and Tim Hanseroth bring, and of course, the guitar skills. Oh, and I should not forget the barefoot cellist, Matt. She sang new songs from the forthcoming album, which were strong -- "Dreams" and "Oh Dear" -- some from her other records including "The Story" and "Follow", and great covers of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Hallelujah." She does the best Johnny Cash since Johnny Cash! She's so inspiring. She's the reason I bought a guitar (even though it's currently gathering dust in the corner), and now that I've seen how skinny she is in her second-skin blue jeans, I'm also inspired to get a little more running in. Dang you, Brandi Carlile!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Good stuff

We saw Gary Louris and Mark Olsen last night. My husband and I were both impressed by G.L.'s guitar skills, and I was astounded at how great they sound together live. Like Simon and Garfunkel, theirs are just two voices that blend together beautifully. I was happy to see the bar packed for them (SRO), even though that sort of thing is harder and harder on my back and knees. Orthopedic shoes? I'll just suffer for other people's art, I guess. Lots of Jayhawks' fans there -- all, as they say, "of a certain age."

I just rediscovered Okkervil River after hearing some of "The Stand Ins" -- a sequel of sorts to "The Stage Names," which when I first heard it, didn't grab me at all. I like the other so well, I'm going back now to give it another listen. Also, I'm still fascinated by Antony and the Johnsons (they have a new CD out); I first heard Antony on the Leonard Cohen tribute, "I'm Your Man," and I've been checking him out since then. I still haven't bought anything, but I'm still trolling through some of the songs, trying to figure out what I'd like best. He definitely has a different sound going on, but I like it -- there's something a bit otherworldly in his music, but you wouldn't want to dance to it, unless you're dancing over someone's grave maybe.

I've embarked on the fourth and final volume of War and Peace, which has vaulted into my favorite novels of all time very easily. As lengthy as it is, or maybe because of it, I'll be sad to finish it. If I'm stranded on a desert island some day, and the smoke monster isn't coming for me (Lost -- I'm in too deep to stop now), I'd like to have a copy of W&P with me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

On crap

I generally stay away from commenting on things that I don't like. Rants can be very tiresome and there's no end of things to deprecate, whereas there's so little that approaches sublimity. One should be more selective. However, having subjected myself to a weekend of UTTER crap, I feel compelled to flush it out of my system. I wanted to call this post On Bullshit, but it's been taken, of course.

I'll start with the movie Beowulf, starring a high-profile cast of actors who might have thought they would be less embarrassed as CGI "enhanced" versions of themselves in this stinker. My husband called it, jokingly, clay-mation. Other than stealing some of the same names and general setting, this Beowulf bears more resemblance to the Grand Theft Auto video franchise than the epic, Old English poem. Why not just make your movie without attempting to reference the original, if nothing about it suits you? It's as if the screenwriters were still so ticked about having to read it for their British Lit survey, they decided to give it a good, old-fashioned Hollywood fucking-over just for spite. Please! Blame the teachers, not the poetry.

The movie was both gross and inappropriately funny as when nude, faux-Beowulf's manly bits kept getting the Austin Powers sight-gag treatment. Helmets, chandeliers, roof beams all kept getting in the way of the "camera." Naked Beowulf slithering all over Grendel's mucousy backside was just inspired...but by what I don't know and don't wish to know. And instead of a shaggy, swamp beast, insert Angelina Jolie with weird, barefoot stilletto-heels. Now that's some monster! Oh, it was just so very awful and juvenile in it's presentation that it seemed downright mean-spirited. My husband had the good sense to fall asleep -- at least until I poked him and made him sit up.

Sadly, a moody, artistic, elegiac movie version of Beowulf could be made with the right spirit and creative people involved. I thought of something like Julie Taymor's Titus, which also starred Anthony Hopkins (the unfortunate Hrothgar here). A throbbing score, beautiful Scandinavian vistas, and dialogue studded with that wonderful Old English cadence would be something to see. But instead, crap. Utter crap, even.

The Grammy's

Thankfully, I was reading War and Peace while this was going on, which is kind of like viewing an eclipse through a pinhole -- you won't risk permanent blindness. It was one trainwreck performance after another, with only a few exceptions. Strangely, everyone seemed better dressed than usual. You should at least be able to count on the Grammy's for some really tacky getups.

The benighted idea of pairing classic acts with newcomers served neither well. The greats seemed desperate and sad, while the newbies were just plain bad in comparison. Stevie Wonder with the Jonas Brothers? Ouch. And what about trotting out the only surviving member of the Four Tops? More pain. Which brings me to a few points about Katy Perry, bless her. Some of it really wasn't her fault, because I assume she wasn't responsible for the "production" components.

First, if one is going to be vamping while surrounded by giant fruit, at least go with the sexy kind -- pomegranates, figs, juicy mangoes. At any moment I expected to see the Fruit of the Loom guys popping out from behind an apple. And they might have busted better moves than Perry, which leads me to the second point. Sign that girl up for Madonna's dance camp! Of course, she probably felt justifiably ridiculous having just descended from a giant banana. And from all the hoopla about this song, you would think she invented lesbians, or lipstick lesbians, or even lipstick. I'm bemused since Jill Sobule was the first woman to sing a song titled -- gasp!-- "I kissed a girl" way back in the pre-Twitter era of 1995, while Perry was still going to Vacation Bible School. All of which is not really a knock on Katy Perry herself, who seems clever and is trying to make the most out of what may only turn out to be 15 minutes of fame.

So, there's really no moral here, other than that I find crap disturbing. I just needed to get that out of my system.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

In the grip of winter, distractions must be found

The snow and ice did not quite melt away before the chill set in anew -- today, a brisk wind blew clouds of snow off the rooftops of the office buildings producing, for a few moments, a faux blizzard. Real snow fell this morning, but didn't last, and it's rather bitterly cold, refreezing the old snow and ice. I wrestled the wheeled trashcan to the curb this morning, up and over the ridges of snow and found a cove between shoveled mounds to perch it near the curb. Everything becomes difficult -- routine chores, walking, driving, concentrating on work.

Companionably, London was hit by a snowstorm that brought the city to a halt, and the citizenry is none too happy about it. School closings! One quote in the Guardian was someone bemoaning the officials' unpreparedness and remarking that a bad example was being set for children, who were being taught that when things get difficult, just stay home and have fun. If that person were transported to the U.S. and could observe our love and acceptance of snow days, he might wonder afresh how it is that we became the most powerful nation on earth.

And in yet another example of American sloth compared to the British -- we who choose a mere 25 or 50 or at most 100 "best novel" lists from time to time -- the Guardian newspaper has compiled a list of 1000 novels "everyone must read." Now seriously, Americans don't even want to read a list that long, much less the actual novels! I feel certain that I can die without regret, if die I must, not having read John Grisham's A Time to Kill, or even anything of Martin Amis. Of course, those Guardian folk are probably indulging in some good-natured hyperbole with the "must read" directive, particularly when one of their own, the lamentable Victoria Beckham (aka Posh Spice), infamously claimed never to have read a single book. I thought every English person was born clutching a copy of Bleak House.

And finally, my browsing uncovered another tribute to John Updike by one of my very favorite writers, Ian McEwan, summing up thusly:

The Updike opus is so vast, so varied and rich, that we will not have its full measure for years to come. We have lived with the expectation of his new novel or story or essay so long, all our lives, that it does not seem possible that this flow of invention should suddenly cease. We are truly bereft, that this reticent, kindly man with the ferocious work ethic and superhuman facility will write for us no more.
Under the banner of welcome distractions, it seems as if the music world is conspiring to send all my favorites to town in the next two months. I already was planning to see Gary Louris and Marc Olsen, Brandi Carlile, and Ryan Adams. Today, I see that Marah is also stopping over this month, and the Cowboy Junkies are playing a gig with the Louisville Orchestra in March. I need to win some radio tickets or I'll go broke. I did find one freebie last night -- the Von Bondies' (also touring, but not nearby) new song, "Pale Bride." He may be Jack White's sworn enemy, but I like Jason Stollsteimer's voice a lot; the VBs certainly have a lot of attitude live. It's still one of my favorite rock shows. I'm sure the small venue had something to do with it. I thought they'd disbanded, it's been so long since I heard anything out of them.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ice Storm

Suffering through a snow and ice storm is inconvenient at best and often very dangerous, as we Kentuckians are finding out. However, aesthetically speaking, it is a wondrous thing to behold, particularly if you don't have a tree knifing through your roof and you're not freezing to death. For a day before the snow turned to ice, the birds in my backyard were obviously fueling up. All day, cardinals, house finches, juncos, and sparrows clustered around the feeders. My goldfinch feeder, full of nyjer thistle seed, usually lasts weeks. It was drained within a day and a half. Everytime I looked outside three or four would be fighting over the two perches on the tube. In the picture, two of them sit on the fence, waiting their turn, flanked by house sparrows.

A dead, brown landscape transformed overnight into a glittering, crystalline world, and the birds disappeared. Individual magnolia leaves, coppery-brown, suspend in their own glass boxes like bees caught in amber, but perfectly clear, every vein visible. A heavily beaded dogwood stands against a Wedgewood blue sky, bare barberry hedges drip with diamonds, the holly leaf's sharp points grow into claws of ice. Every surface is brilliant with refracted light and icicles lengthen into daggers and spears, dripping off every roof and gable. The first night of the storm, at 2:30 in the morning, I awakened to the first crash of limbs falling in the neighbor's yard. All night and into the next day you could stand on the porch and listen to cracking, groaning branches giving way and exploding into the surface of ice-crusted snow as if a giant beast was lumbering though a forest.

Today, it is sunny and clear, and the melting has begun. There is a continual drip, slide, crash, and sizzle. Maybe the birds will venture back out from their hiding places.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, RIP

In that category of public figures that you don't really know, but care about, I always find it particularly sad to say goodbye to writers. Their work, which has been such a pleasure and an education, is at an end. We can only re-read and savor what's left behind -- which is invaluable -- but never will there be anything new.

Even though Updike has never been one of my most-loved authors, he has always been a writer that I have admired for his lovingly crafted and poetic sentences and for an old-school, writerly work ethic. He's always seemed a throwback to writers like Dickens and Trollope in sheer volume, and like those other giants of Victorian letters -- the combined novelist, essayist, and critic who seemed to know everything and be capable of illuminating any subject.

I've read Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, and a smattering of essays and short stories, but personally, I like him best for Gertrude and Claudius. It takes a certain renegade quality and degree of confidence to take on something as canonical as Shakespeare's Hamlet and transform that story, without doing damage to the original, to something uniquely your own. And, of course, he will always remain memorable to me for the book that I started and couldn't finish. It was probably not a good choice, since I was bound to compare it with Garcia Marquez, but Brazil was a book that I could put down. However, his vivid comparison of yams to a certain part of the male anatomy has stuck in my mind. And the fact that I have never walked through the produce section quite the same person says something about the power of the image and the writer who created it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Austerlitz and after

I just finished Volume 1 and am well launched into Volume 2 of War and Peace. The last bit of V1 was Tolstoy's version of the Battle of Austerlitz. And apparently, it's not just we southern Americans who can't stop fighting wars long gone and lost. Courtesy of the BBC, the picture accompanying this post is a somewhat recent re-enactment of said battle.

I'm very taken with W&P. The characters are marvelous and, although I knew it was set during the Napoleonic wars, I don't think I realized how much of it would be based on the history of those actions. It's always interesting to figure out how writers decide where history and fiction part ways. For example, one of the "characters" is General Kutuzov -- a real person, but I'm assuming the young adjutant Prince Andrei is Tolstoy's creation. I love it. I've always been interested in the Napoleonic wars, but mainly Napoleon's dueling with Wellington, so this earlier part is educational.

I read with nerdly relish the battle scenes and try to imagine how it must have looked. I learned to love battle maps for that reason. I'm not very good with maps, but even I, after staring at them long enough, and reading the descriptions can finally begin to see how the geography shaped the action. I first had this breakthrough when reading WWII accounts of the ground war in the Philippines. Suddenly, some of what I read started to make more sense.

And speaking of maps, I like the way Tolstoy treats the drawing rooms and dining rooms of Russian society in the same way he sets the stage for the war scenes. He's always careful to say exactly where everyone is sitting or standing in relation to one another, and he tracks their movements and conversations with the same careful attention to detail. There are as many schemers, glory-seekers, and adversaries in these settings as on the fields in Austria. There's Anna Mikhailovna with the heavy artillery, Prince Vassily with the feint, and there's poor, blundering Bezukhov in full retreat. I should try to sketch one of those out! One of my favorite scenes has been the deathbed struggle over securing old Count Bezukhov's will before he finally croaks. It's deliciously funny. Well, maybe it isn't supposed to be...but it is. Thankfully, I've managed not to find out too much about this novel -- I suppose people don't find it easy to sum up such a plot and cavalcade of characters, and I've never seen the movie versions. I know Henry Fonda played Pierre Bezukhov but I'm seeing someone who looks a lot more like Oliver Platt or even P. Seymour Hoffman. He needs to be more rumpled and portly (at least, thus far).

On another track entirely, a much shorter and amusing read is John Crowley's latest blog post about his recent run-in with the law.

Monday, January 05, 2009

War and Peace 2009

I've finally decided to tackle Leo Tolstoy's classic. I read The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich a while back and liked them both. So, for the foreseeable future, if anyone ventures to ask me what I'm reading, then the answer is going to remain the same.

I've also just started listening to the new album (I still call it an album, even though I downloaded the MP3s from iTunes) by Kasey Chambers and her husband, Shane Nicholson, Rattlin Bones. It's one of those rare ones that you love from the first listen and every song is a keeper. Their voices are really beautiful together -- I'm a sucker for a good duet. But it's more than just duets -- it's two people really singing songs together. You don't think of Jack White and Brendan Benson doing duets, for example, or Steven Page and Ed Robertson. The collaboration is a little more involved than that -- from the songwriting to the instrumentation. Anyway, it just made my "best" list of 2008 (I think it was released in September). In no particular order, here are my other favorites from last year:
  • Cardinology, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
  • Acid Tongue, Jenny Lewis and peeps
  • Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
  • Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket
  • Consolers of the Lonely, The Raconteurs
  • Angels of Destruction, Marah
  • Vagabonds, Gary Louris
Coming up, I hope to see Brandi Carlile, Louris, and Adams in the next few months, and I'll keep my fingers crossed that the latest incarnation of Marah, comes around sometime this year. I just read at Kelly Willis' site that after a few April shows, she is on extended hiatus from the road, having found that four small children and a tour bus don't really mix. I can't imagine how it could, since her husband is also a musician.