Friday, July 31, 2009
• You must be 18 or older
• US and Canada residents only
• The winner will be posted here on August 28, 2009. (If you don’t want to miss the announcement post, sign up to follow this blog.)
• Leave your name and email address in the comments to enter. (If you win, I'll ask you for your mailing address.)
• I will randomly select a winner. There will be consolation prizes for a number of runners-up, as Knopf is also sending some temporary dragon tattoos (ooh, look like Lisbeth Salander for a day).
Thursday, July 30, 2009
This week is still mostly free of school-related activities because it's the week of the county fair, which is a big deal around here. We haven't yet made time to go out there and admire the percherons and llamas, eat corn dogs and fried oreos, and try to resist the toss-a-ball-in-a-fishbowl-and-win-a-goldfish game. We really should go by and at least smile at the courageous people volunteering at the local gay-straight alliance information booth.
I'm contemplating why I think it's not a good idea for me to read fiction that describes how awful people can be to each other. Yes, it's good to be aware that sexual trafficking and repressive theocracies exist in the world, but I don't think that reading extended descriptions of the degradations women suffer in either of these situations, as in Levin's The Blue Notebook or Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, is good for me. I don't think that the danger for me, personally, is what one blogger recently described as Moral Tourism, but more the moral paralysis you feel when you don't think you can possibly make a difference. Maybe, like Blanche Dubois, I want to hang onto a few of my illusions, to believe that people are basically good.
And so I'm already in between seasons, in between chauffeuring duties and riding with my daughter as she learns to drive. I am moving forward without moral certainty. I'm contemplating W.H. Auden's poem In Praise of Limestone:
If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and beneath
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear these springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, for the nude young male who lounges
Against a rock displaying his dildo, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved, whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.
Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, sometimes
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for, accustomed to a stone that reponds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains comprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewelry or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us...
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
Something more than a mad camp. "Come!"cried the granite wastes,
"How evasive is your humor, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels,
"On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door." But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad."
They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these solid statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our Common Prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
Can you pick out a line or two that speaks to you in this poem? Mine is "the monstrous forms and lives/With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common."
I would like to open my eyes on a summer morning and have the strength to seek out new landscapes, undeterred by dreams of monsters. And also schedules of children.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Let me give you some evidence for my claims about how awful this novel is. The protagonist (I will not call him a hero!) is a self-proclaimed conservative Republican who introduces himself by describing his long-ago journalistic expose of corrupt government in his town for which, as he says "I was roundly despised by some of the best-educated and wealthiest people in town. Something about my uncaring, insensitive editorial policy. Elites hate to be proved wrong by the common man." Don't you love the name-calling? That's only the beginning. Oh, it gets better. Later he thinks "hm, I guess those dark-skinned angry-looking killers named Muhammed all over the world aren't radical Muslims after all....Hey, News-clowns! Tell the truth for once in your useless lives! Say the word! Say some word, Islamo-fascists! Jihadis! Something." Inevitably he progresses to calling all Muslims terrorists and seeking out people who also enjoy name-calling: "camel-jockey--rag-headed--dune-coon." The groups this guy belongs to just inform the ways he's despicable, rather than tempering any of his lunatic tendencies. Despite the fact that he fights against going crazy in the same way his mother did, by the end of the story this protagonist does not see the world the way most other people see it--which is one of the very definitions of insanity.
The Big Lie of the novel is that "anti-American, relativistic, multiculturalists...have...created a breeding ground on campus for hate-filled, violent, terrorist-sympathizing, anti-Semitic Islamic radicals." This protagonist wants all issues to be simple; he wants to boil them down to "good and evil," and he doesn't think about ideas, but merely feels. His reaction to attending a lecture is not to consider the ideas he's heard and weigh the evidence for them, but to have "an emotional response" and then--get this--to have a revelation: "as I sat there breathless and sweaty--then the thought came to me--as clear as if it were spoken aloud--spoken with absolute certainty, absolute conviction: Of course he's a terrorist. Of course he is."
The protagonist is so convinced by his own revelation that he later breaks the professor's kneecaps with a hammer in an attempt to get him to confess to terrorism. Of course, since this is a novel, the professor actually IS a terrorist and breaking his kneecaps makes it possible for the protagonist to save his own daughter from being blown up. I guess Klavan couldn't resist novelizing the traditional excuse-for-torture scenario. And the protagonist enjoys the torture: "but the thrill of it...Yes, that. The coursing rush of excitement, the old dark, mesmerizing sadistic joy--that belonged to me. Even at that moment, I could feel it flowing into my brain, into my belly and my groin. I could feel the old smoky sickness of lust and pleasure spreading all through me." Mr. protagonist thought he had given up sadism in favor of Christianity, but evidently not. Descriptions of the various kinds of sexual sadism he enjoyed in his younger days are detailed, and available for the reader's prurient interest.
The protagonist's misogyny manifests itself at first as a promise-keeper's twisted version of how to be a good husband and father. He wooes his wife by telling her that he's "the because-I-said-so guy, the head-of-the-household guy, that's me. Marry me and I call the shots. I'll break my butt to make you happy, and I'll try to give you the life you said you wanted. I don't cheat, I don't leave, and I am what I say I am." He soon shows his true colors, however, admitting that "frankly, I find the only way to avoid hitting women is to avoid women who need to be hit. Right then, Lauren needed a smack in the face, maybe a couple of them. I was itching to give them to her...."
If there is anything in this novel for me to disagree with, rather than simply be repulsed by, it's the exaggerated comic-book characterization of all college professors as uniformly leftist liberals who espouse political correctness and want to write articles like "Chador--A Source of Pride for Muslim Women." In fact, earlier this week--before I began to have my mind stained with oily residue from reading Empire of Lies--I sent an email note to an OSU professor of philosophy, Andrew Oldenquist, telling him how much I liked his recent article about why the U.S. should ban burqa wearing within our borders, and I got a gracious response.
I don't usually read a lot of non-fiction, although you better believe that the next few books I try reading to see if I disagree will be non-fiction. It seems to me that the promotion of hatred and fear in a novel like Empire of Lies is even more insidious than making the same arguments would be in non-fiction, because the author doesn't even have to attempt to give any evidence for his absurd claims.
Since I don't believe in book burning, I'm fantasizing about dumping this book in the toilet. Maybe I could take pleasure in breaking its spine with a hammer. Sigh. Or maybe I could just reread something better, like Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, to get the bad taste out of my mind.
Update: reading a book you disagree with is one thing, but reading seven over the next year is worth considering! I hereby subsume my little challenge into the better one at Shelf Monkey.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The back cover blurb says that the co-authors have "taken letters from this novella and transformed them into a vivid, authentic, and more recognizably 'Austen' milieu." I think what this means is that the roguish character of Lady Susan, as delineated by Austen, shares almost nothing with the more typically virtuous character of Lady Vernon in this sequel. It's really kind of a neat trick to use some of the letters detailing Susan's (Lady Vernon's) wickedness in a story where the wickedness is all on the side of the gossips, each of whom know only a small part of the real story about what's happening to Lady Vernon. And in the same vein, this story shows that Lady Vernon is genuinely fond of her daughter, whereas the letters showed Susan to be a selfish woman and a bad mother. So if you're ready to enjoy the cleverness of Rubino and Rubino-Bradway and read an almost entirely new tale, you'll enjoy this. If you're already acquainted with the letters as Austen wrote them, you should be aware that this is an entirely different story, and one that is not at all consistent with her original intentions for the characters of Susan and Frederica.
I was willing to give the new story a chance, but the first part was written very mechanically in the process of establishing who had already married who and for what reasons. The attitudes of Austen's era are expressed with some difficulties by the modern authors, who have their female characters think that for a young girl to accept a book on Botany "would be to declare oneself the most tiresome sort of bluestocking, but to reject it might be taken by Sir James as an affront to his generosity."
The story improves around Chapter 25, when Lady Vernon, whom gossip has connected with various men ever since the premature death of her beloved husband, begins to hatch a plan to marry her daughter off to the man everyone suspects her of wanting for herself. Once the main character has an effect on the plot, rather than being tossed helplessly about, the pace picks up. Although people still say unkind (and in this version, untrue) things about Lady Vernon, the reader knows all her secrets and motivations. One of her secrets is explosive, as it eventually "brought the fulfillment of all of Lady Vernon's hopes and the end of Charles Vernon's expectations."
The good end happily and the bad, well, not altogether unhappily but in a manner befitting their habitual behavior. What else is a Jane Austen sequel for?
Monday, July 27, 2009
Gilman is similarly hard to place, in terms of generation. Most of this memoir made me think she was a baby boomer, born in the 1950's. But she says her parents were hippies and that she was four years old in 1968. That makes her seem a bit young to say that she was "born just as the women's movement was catching fire" and a bit old for a childish ambition to be "an actress, a model, and a stewardess." And amusing as the title image is, it seems completely ridiculous to me that anyone born after all the episodes of I Love Lucy had already aired would believe that "a twenty-first century feminist" had to wear anything in particular--or forswear an entire category of clothing-- to keep her membership in the feminist club. Since this memoir is deeply rooted in New York City, perhaps it's that first-wave feminists there had a more stringent and longer-lasting dress code than the rest of the country? In the climactic title moment of the book, trying on a pouffy wedding dress, Gilman discovers third wave feminism:
"Why did it take so long to have this experience? Every woman should have this experience--and not only if or when she gets married. Every woman should see herself looking uniquely breathtaking, in something tailored to celebrate her body, so that she is better able to appreciate her own beauty and better equipped to withstand the ideals of our narrow-waisted, narrow-minded culture."
Yes, I'd like to know, too--why did it take you so long to have this experience? And why, in the post-1960's-free-love era, did you and your teenaged friends think that losing your virginity would make you "glamorous creatures"? How could it have taken you until your second year of college to realize that many of the people in NYC "saw themselves as characters" while truckers in places like Jarratt, Virginia "were of an entirely different ilk"?
And yet I couldn't completely hate this book. Gilman does have a way with words. I laughed out loud at the part where she describes trying to speak French and ending up "like the French-speaking equivalent of Latka Gravas on Taxi" (largely because my husband and daughter recently described my attempts to pronounce French words as like the double-voweled pronounciation of my son's Serbian chess teacher speaking English).
Also Gilman's story of a Thanksgiving dinner at Howard Johnson's when she was a kid is entertainingly told, and relates to the recent discussion here about the "truth" of memory:
"And so we inscribed it in our annals of the family: The best Thanksgiving ever. Occasionally, as teenagers, John and I prompted, 'Hey, remember that Thanksgiving we spent at Howard Johnson's?' Then we'd lovingly recall each detail, reliving our pleasure, our naive delight at the voluptuousness of it all....
Only years later, when we were waxing nostalgic about it again one morning, did our father audibly groan: 'Augh. That Thanksgiving we spent at Howard Johnson's. Was that ever a fucking nightmare.'
'Oh, it was horrible,' our mother agreed. 'The absolute worst.'"
When they find out their parents are getting divorced, Gilman and her brother overlay another version of "truth" on the memory:
"After our parents separated, John and I had the awful, nagging suspicion that...our entire home life had been like Thanksgiving at Howard Johnson's. Had we spent our childhood dancing around with ice buckets on our heads, thinking everything was just dandy, when really our parents were sitting there spellbound with misery? Apparently so."
So while I'm not going to run right out and buy the new book Gilman has just published (Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven, reviewed at A Bookworm's World), I might flip through it if I see it in the library. First I'm going to have to get all my friends and neighbors to vote for the library levy this fall--it's been a long dry spell at my local library--no new books. Looking at the shelves of "new" books there has been as disconcerting as trying to place Gilman in terms of one generation or another.
Do any of you identify with a generation? I never did until I heard of Generation Jones.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
So reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog in Alison Anderson's English translation was a rare pleasure for me--I read it slowly. I deliberately read short passages and did other things in between, because it's not a long book, and I wanted it to last. When I finished it, I had to blink the tears out of my eyes for a minute.
And then I did something that I don't usually do before writing my own review; I looked to see what a few other people had said about this novel, because the similarity between one of the two main characters--a 12-year-old girl--and Holden Caulfield (from Catcher in the Rye) was so striking to me that I knew it must have struck someone else. And yes, Michael Dirda, at the now-defunct Washington Post Book Review mentions it in his September 2008 review. The girl, who narrates a good many sections of this novel before you find out that her name is Paloma, says of herself that she is "hypersensitive to anything that is dissonant, as if I had some sort of absolute pitch for false notes or contradictions." Sure sounds like Holden's "phoniness" to me!
But there's not much else that's derivative about this novel. The way it is told, beginning with the viewpoint of Renee Michel,the apartment building concierge (a "typical French concierge," she asserts) and switching occasionally to the point of view of one of the building's residents, Paloma, sets up some low-level suspense and provides just a hint of perspective on Renee, one of the the most dignified but least self-aware narrators in modern fiction, right up there with Ishiguro's butler in The Remains of the Day. Renee goes to extraordinary lengths to disguise her intelligence and taste. Paloma is her mirror image in this. When they are brought together by their friendship with a Japanese gentleman who has moved into the building, they begin to reveal more of themselves.
Most of the intellectual underpinnings of the novel are mentioned, rather than explored; they are presented as elements of character by the philosophy professor author. The books that Renee likes to read shows what kind of person she is more than her unprepossessing figure or her ugly face ever can. There are intellectual references aplenty for the educated and self-congratulatory reader, most amusingly (for me, at least) in the names of the characters' cats. One reference that I didn't get is revealed in the NYT review of Caryn James:
The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within. Yet there is no mention of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Renée’s beloved Tolstoy, which may make this the sliest allusion of all. (What are the odds that a philosophy professor with a working knowledge of hedgehogs and Tolstoy would not have known it?) In Berlin’s famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”
Another insider's joke--one that anyone who has ever worked toward a PhD can enjoy about this novel--is Renee's description of the process, which includes her fascination "by the abnegation with which we human beings are capable of devoting a great deal of energy to the quest for nothing and to the rehashing of useless and absurd ideas."
Renee's concern with the elegance of grammar (surely a reflection of modern French rhetorical education, even though Renee prides herself on being an autodidact) is refreshing at first, although the charm of it wore thin for me long before the end. And Paloma's enthusiasm for all things Japanese, shared by Renee and celebrated in the person of the Japanese gentlemen, struck me as somewhat adolescent, despite delicate treatment of the theme of the ephemeral nature of beauty throughout this novel.
But those are minor cavils, as the writing itself is beautiful throughout, even in translation, and Renee's determined efforts to create her own "controlling vision" were interesting to me, as is what she calls her "combination of ability and blindness"--the way her thoughts dart effortlessly from Husserl, Kant, and Descartes to Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October, the quality of the light in Blade Runner, or the behavior of the dogs who live in her building.
Particularly moving is the section in which Renee describes the months leading up to the death of her husband. Employed to take care of trivia for others, she perceives that his illness is a trivial detail to those she serves: "to rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people--perhaps because their lives are more rarified...experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama. The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life...."
The section about her husband's illness and death made me think about all the people I meet in the course of a week in a small town, and how the disappearance of one usually does leave only a small indentation, not because I view everyone else in the world as there for my use, but because I'm so narrowly focused on what I have to do and the few people I've chosen to do it with. Renee is as guilty of seeing her tenants as users as they are of seeing her only as someone put there to help them.
However, the events of the novel change the two main character's tendency to stereotype others, as Paloma observes on first noticing Renee: "From a distance, she's a real concierge. Close up...well, close up...there's something weird going on." Later, when Renee is dressed up and some tenants don't recognize her, the Japanese gentlemen reassures her, saying "it is because they have never seen you....I would recognize you anywhere." Ultimately, this novel is about seeing more of who is around you, and getting more involved in their lives.
In the wake of a discussion I had with friends last night about why Henry Louis Gates' neighbors would call the police, rather than go over to see why he was breaking into his own house, this seems like a timely theme. And I found it to be a novel well worth reading slowly.
If you're interested in other views of this novel, there's a review and a list of some other blog reviews at Caribous Mom. Also The Reading Life relates the novel to "how a life of reading can shape a person."
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The recent diary entry blog extravaganza, started by The Lass, continued in style by Freshhell and opened up to bigger metaphysical questions yesterday by Harriet the Spy, started me thinking about the value of memory. Lots of book bloggers used to say they intended their blogs as a reading journal or commonplace book, which is how this one started. But I'm not the only one who has moved away from that as a focus for the blog. I like what Rohan has been working on over at Novel Readings, an index for novels, authors, and themes, although her kind of index is not exactly what I'm looking for. Here in this impromptu season of blog introspection, I'm not ready to articulate exactly what it is I'm looking for with this blog. I keep doing it because it's fun, not because I want some kind of record of what I've read in the last year and a half. For one thing, I haven't been reading great books; I've just been reading whatever came to hand. If I were forced to make this blog more intentional, it would be something like a class--"here are the books I've read that I think the world needs to know more about."
And yet, as Harriet points out, there should be a reason for this level of sharing. I came across a poem recently--Record, by Sally Van Doren--that relates to how I feel about why I blog. (Not what I think, mind, but how I feel):
Tell me what it is to know nostalgia,
To recognize the face which appears
In the raspberry patch and calls to me
Twenty years later, reminding me that
A was the one who asked me to a movie,
That B took me sailing, that C slid
His hand under my criss-crossed bra,
That D offered me a drive through
France in her parents' BMW, that E
broke my hymen with his thumb, that
F plied me with tequila, that G rolled
Me on a nest of sticks. I'll tell
You my secrets in return and we'll
Forget them, together, with every X and O.
It could be that years of being home with small children has rewired my brain so that I now believe the process is more important than the product for every endeavor. But I don't think so. It's not that I'm incapable of leading an examined life, or even remembering things. It's more that, as the father of Indiana Jones says, "I wrote it down so I wouldn't have to remember it."
My single chapbook of poetry, which I put together during the blur that was graduate school, is entitled "Preface to Photo Albums Three and Four." I'm starting to think that most of my collections--of poems, pictures, ideas--are like that. Yes, they're a record. But they're also a way of showing things differently, of getting more perspectives. If I didn't already have such an inspired blog title, I might consider changing it to something like "hall of mirrors." Because I hope you do see yourself here.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Here are a few of the gothic lite" details. On arriving with various wounds at a prison island, the 14-year-old hero, Conor, is put into a 6'X6' pool with "clouds of algae and slime" and "feeder mites....freshwater parasites" which "chipped off blood and scab, diving deep into gashes, chewing back to the bare wound." He spends two years alone in a dark, damp cell, scratching "a thousand calculations, schematics, and blueprints" on the stone wall in an alcove "with roughly the dimensions of four stacked coffins."
But Conor is so brave and true and valiant that not only does he triumph over the evil man who killed his King and put him in prison, no one has to die along the way--not anyone he cares about, not the leader of the prison gang who was hired to beat him every day, and not even the brutal prison guards.
I was irresistably reminded of the 1991 movie The Rocketeer while reading this book, published in 2008. There is little suspence about how Conor will triumph, since modern readers know that his designs for gliders--and ultimately an airplane--will work. And what do you have when you put together a novel with not-too-scary gothic touches and a not-too-suspenseful resolution? A pretty good adventure story for the sheltered children of the new millenium.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Everywhere we walked, there were people sketching and painting, and sidewalk sellers offering watercolors of famous Parisian scenes, plus small metal models of the Eiffel Tower, old newspapers and magazines featuring events from Paris, and picture postcards. The postcards, of course, are mostly why I was perusing the wares. As I've said here before, I love postcards, and I collected a stack almost 2 inches high by the end of the trip. I mailed them from the U.S. because I didn't want to take the time to buy stamps (despite the fact that a few of the cards I bought in Monaco came pre-stamped, for use in the fifteen minutes it takes to drive through that country).
When our feet got tired from walking through the cobblestone streets of Paris (and my bionic knee is now doing so well that I can walk far enough to make my feet tired!), we would sit on a bench for a while and watch the people walk by. One bench just outside of Notre Dame, on a bridge across the Seine leading to the Latin Quarter, was a particularly good people-watching spot. After reading a "Get Fuzzy" cartoon about European men wearing capri pants just before we left, we counted the number of men we saw wearing capris (by the end of our 12-day stay in Paris and Nice the count was 42). Everyone in Paris, men and women, wears pretty shoes. We saw very few people wearing athletic shoes, and those few were almost certainly American tourists. French men tend to wear very pointy-toed dress shoes, even for bicycling, and French women wear delicate sandals in June, often flats, but sometimes with 2-3 inch heels. We'd guess about the nationality of the people coming towards us based on their shoes and clothing, and then when they passed us and we could hear what language they were speaking, we'd get a pretty good idea about the accuracy of our guesses.
I'd never before been in a country where I didn't speak the language well, so reading and trying to communicate required a depth of concentration I'm not used to. I would savor the words I knew ("Ecoles" means schools) and repeat to myself the words I'd just heard pronounced ("St-Germain" doesn't sound like it does when I read it).
August in Paris
I have stopped here on the rue des Ecoles
just off the boulevard St-Germain
to look over the shoulder of a man
in a flannel shirt and a straw hat
who has set up an easel and a canvas chair
on the sidewalk in order to paint from a droll angle
a side-view of the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?
Alone in this city,
I sometimes wonder what you look like,
if you are wearing a flannel shirt
or a wraparound blue skirt held together by a pin.
But every time I turn around
you have fled through a crease in the air
to a quiet room where the shutters are closed
against the heat of the afternoon,
where there is only the sound of your breathing
and every so often, the turning of a page.
Art is a public activity in Paris, as is drinking coffee. When we saw people retreating into their walled gardens and behind their shutters, we imagined them heading for private pleasures, opening the box from the patisserie, letting the first pretty shoe drop to the floor, taking off those capri pants one leg at a time.
Reading is so often an introvert's pleasure, and I imagine Parisians take the time to revel in the privacy--the quiet, the immersion, occasionally the catch of the breath. Do you?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
And check it out--the sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is going to be Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters, according to Nonsuch Book. You can make suggestions over there on Northanger Abbey and...
Of course, I had to suggest Northanger Abbey and the Necromancer!
Update: Check out the entertainly written post at Bookshelves of Doom about all the Jane Austen/monster sequels.
Things are settled down now in our household; we've seen the Harry Potter movie (and liked it) and we actually have an unscheduled weekend coming up. We were going to go to a baseball game, but since the Columbus Clippers have a new baseball field downtown at Huntington Park we couldn't get tickets that weren't (literally) way out in left field when we started looking for some a few weeks ago. After years of sitting far from the field at Baltimore Orioles games, we liked the old Clippers field south of town, where you could sit close, catch foul balls, and call for tickets the week before.
So why didn't I remember reading Poison before? I think because it's almost like two books. The first is a traditional kind of fairy story, enlivened by the feistiness of the main character, who grows up in a swamp (this makes me want to burst into song every time I think of it: "I COME FROM THE LAND OF THE FOGGY, FOGGY DEW-EW-EW-EW-EW...WHERE WALKIN' THROUGH THE MEADOW IN THE MORNING IS LIKE WALKIN' THROUGH GLUE..."). The main character names herself "Poison" in a fit of adolescent bravado and in reaction to something her stepmother said, and then she goes off on a quest to find her baby sister, who was taken by the "phairies." Along the way she is tested and has adventures and succeeds in obtaining the object the Phairie Lord promises to exchange for her sister. He's an old-style dangerous fairy, with a face that "had all the beauty of the phaerie folk, but his eyes were hard and cruel and arrogant." When Poison completes the task he sets her, I'd say that's the end of the first book.
The second book is an integral part of the first, but it's the part I'd forgotten about when I began re-reading. It has to do with the fact that Poison names herself, and that she is telling her own story. It's less predictable, and more interesting. It's about the nature of fiction itself, and how we can know "the dancer from the dance." It was a fun part of the book for me to re-discover, so I don't want to give away the secrets and spoil any of the pleasure for you.
I know that much of Eleanor's pleasure in this book is the self-reflexiveness of the prose, as in this passage:
"She was tempted to remark that this place didn't seem so bad, but she knew well enough that the moment she did so, something horrible would happen to them. How was it that life, like a story, had such a sense of comic timing?"
I know this because, in our travels, I said something that was meant to be reassuring to her about how we were finding our way through the Paris Metro system and part of it came out "relax, now that we've done this, what can happen?" She blanched, and pointed out that in fiction, saying something like that is inviting immediate disaster.
But, in fact, there was no disaster, we made it to all our destinations by train, and if we have any wild adventures now that we're home, I think I can say that it's not fair to attribute them to my admittedly horror-movie-style question! Have you ever asked a question like that? If so, did life imitate fiction??
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
There are lots of categories. I would appreciate it if you would hop over there and nominate this blog in the category of "Most Eclectic Taste." Because if the books I review are not eclectic enough for your taste, let me know; I take requests!
For me, at least, knowing too much about an author's inspiration is a bit like watching Peter Jackson's special features on the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring--Legolas and Arwen, in particular, looked and sounded enough like how I'd imagined them all my life that it was an unpleasant surprise to hear how the actors sounded without lines to read. Sometimes it's better not to know, because then you can continue to imagine.
But some of us just can't resist reading everything available by our favorite authors. And so I got a copy of The Sagan Diary for my birthday, and I read it. I expected it to be what a previous reviewer calls it, a "contrapuntal work" to the three novels in the Old Man's War series (Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, The Lost Colony). But there's nothing in it that I hadn't already inferred from reading those books. There's a section in the chapter entitled "Speaking" about Jane's relationship to language that doesn't go any farther towards explaining the point of view of one who was born able to communicate mind-to-mind than the novel that introduced the idea did. Why I thought the diary might be able to, I don't know--it's the age-old science fiction conundrum of how can you imagine an alien with no mouth? Or no eyes, etc. It's almost impossible not to have some substitute for eating or seeing, because even human language--most of our metaphors--is so wrapped around those methods of sensory experience.
Also I was disillusioned to find a sketch of the character Jane Sagan looking exactly like the photos of Scalzi's wife that he posts on his website from time to time. Too much information! I had my own picture of Jane, and she was smarter, stronger, faster, braver--and more mysterious--than any human woman in existence could ever be. Plus, I don't like the implication that the hero is based on the author, because the author has already succeeded in making him larger than life. Why poke a tiny hole in the Macy's parade balloon of "The Heroic John Perry" just to see if he'll start zooming around on his strings and making that amusing brrrrff noise?
I was entertained by the preface, in which a military analyst complains about how useless the diary is for her purposes. Very eighteenth-century, preface-reading. I'm always quite agreeably entertained when a modern writer makes good use of the tradition.
I was puzzled by the lengthy appendix, a list of names, none of which I recognized from the Old Man's War novels, until I discovered that they are the names of people who pre-ordered the first edition of The Sagan Diary. Okay, harmless enough, but why preserve that appendix in the mass-market edition?
Have you ever procured a copy of something supplemental to the main works of an author of whom you are extraordinary fond and been a bit disillusioned by it?
Monday, July 13, 2009
I got to sit in the back of an overcrowded auditorium at the local college a couple of years ago and hear Margaret Atwood talk about her writing, focusing mostly on Oryx and Crake. It was a very good performance, and the line to have her sign a book afterwards was so long that I had to give it up, finally.
Those of you who follow this blog know that The Handmaid's Tale is a novel I think everyone ought to read. I didn't feel the same way about Oryx and Crake--it seemed a little on the SF side for some. But I do feel that way about The Year of the Flood. A recent interview with Atwood indicates that she's planning a third novel set in this world, so I'll be waiting anxiously for that!
Why do I think everyone ought to read this novel? The short answer is that it takes some of the things that intelligent people are most anxious about and shakes them up together to pose new and more interesting questions about what we can possibly do about any of this. Rather than escapist zombie fiction or a weighty ecological tome, The Year of the Flood is a novel that manages to explore the consequences of how we live now--particularly how we've been treating the environment and our attitude towards the inevitable pandemics to come--by showing the effects on a group of characters that includes someone with whom every reader will be able to identify. As another blog reviewer points out, no matter what you believe, this novel will "give you fits" and make you think.
The long answer is that there are so many pleasures in this novel that I can't possibly tell you about all of them. But here are a few examples. The novel includes hymns that the "God's Gardeners" sing for different occasions in the year, including predator day, when they praise the intelligence and agility of all predators, and "April Fish" day, which has some similarities to April Fool's day. It also includes short sermons by Adam One of the Gardeners, including this section on "Creation Day":
"The Human Words of God speak of the Creation in terms that could be understood by the men of old. There is no talk of galaxies or genes, for such terms would have confused them greatly! But must we therefore take as scientific fact the story that the world was created in six days, thus making a nonsense of observable data? God cannot be held to the narrowness of literal and materialistic interpretations, nor measured by Human measurements, for His days are like eons, and a thousand ages of our time are like an evening to Him. Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology."
Despite such scathing sections, though, the characters generally show humility about what they do and understand and even what they feel. On "April Fish" day, Adam One says that "to be an April Fish is to humbly accept and wear the label of God's Fools gladly, for in relation to God we are all fools, no matter how wise we may think we are." And at another point, a character recalls her previous attitude towards a certain group and realizes "we shouldn't have been so scornful; we should have had compassion. But compassion takes work, and we were young."
At the same time, though, the Gardeners have human failings:
"You'll want to grow your hair," said Nuala. "Get rid of that scalped look. We Gardener women all wear our hair long."
When Toby asked why, she was given to understand that the aesthetic preference was God's. This kind of smiling, bossy sanctimoniousness was a little too pervasive for Toby, especially among the female members of the sect."
What I like most about Toby, who rises to the highest level in God's Gardeners, an "Eve," is that she has doubts, and she doesn't hesitate to express them. And I like that what she is able to do because of living with the Gardeners turns out to be more important.
The flood of the title is a plague (if you've read Oryx and Crake, you know who unleashed the plague and how). The Gardeners call it "the waterless flood" because it wipes out most previous life on earth. The flood is the focal point of the novel; we find out what the characters were doing before, during and immediately afterwards.
Some of the fun of the novel lies in the variety of genetically engineered animals the characters encounter, some of them already familiar to readers of Oryx and Crake, and others not. The "liobam," for instance, is a "lion-sheep splice...commissioned by the Lion Isaiahists, keen to force the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom. They'd reasoned that the only way to fulfil the lion/lamb friendship prophecy without the first eating the second would be to meld the two of them together. But the result hadn't been strictly vegetarian."
For readers of Oryx and Crake there are extra pleasures, including stories about the adolescence of "Crake" and Jimmy and a little about what happened to Jimmy's mother when she left the gated community where she had lived and worked. I enjoyed it when the character Toby, living alone in the former health spa where she has weathered the "flood," sees the genetically engineered people created by Crake in the distance and she thinks they're a hallucination, with their "blue abdomens" and their "crystalline, otherworldly singing."
When you begin reading this novel, you may be, like me, someone who "knew there were things wrong in the world....But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else." By the time you finish it, you'll be less able to "live with such fears and keep on whistling." You'll want to do something. Maybe just one more small thing. Because this novel shows you how much small things can matter. By extension, how much you can matter. How much you already do matter.
Friday, July 10, 2009
The book I read this week and didn't like is Janet Evanovich's Finger Lickin' Fifteen. It's too bad, because I liked all fourteen of the previous Stephanie Plum novels, and even one of the "between the numbers" novels she came out with, Plum Spooky. When I look back at my review of Fearless Fourteen, though, I see that I didn't like the writing or the relationship between Stephanie and Ranger or Morelli as much as in the previous ones. Mostly I was in the mood for the silliness about video game terms. Well, in fifteen the writing has literally descended to the level of fart jokes. The reason Stephanie can't choose between Ranger and Morelli is so contrived that it reminds me of the last season of an old tv show, Moonlighting, in which the sexual tension between the two main characters was such a vital ingredient in the show's success that the writers went to ludicrous lengths for weeks and weeks to keep the characters from getting together. Even Grandma Mazur, who was good for comic relief in the previous novels, isn't funny explaining why old women love exhibitionists and cooking with Lula.
Lula, also previously good comic relief, becomes more of a two-dimensional character in this book. You'd think that characters once fleshed out (generously, in Lula's case) couldn't go backwards, but that's exactly what Janet Evanovich has achieved in Finger Lickin' Fifteen. Even the junk food of the title is robbed of its fun in this one, as it's obviously something only the young can indulge in. I'm sorry, Ranger fans, but Ranger is old in this book--he's too old to eat junk and still look good. Morelli doesn't appear much, so I declare him the winner in the contest for Stephanie--at least he still seems fun.
No one who appears in Finger Lickin' Fifteen comes off well. The book is like a joke that's been told once too often. If you have to find out for yourself, go ahead, but you can believe what I'm telling you about this one because "I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right."
I think being right about book reviews is more important than being nice. (Do you disagree? Tell me why in the comments!)
Thursday, July 9, 2009
As usual, once I relaxed into the slow pace of the writing, the charms of the way Mma Ramotswe thinks about even the smallest of tasks become apparent. She gets up early one morning and enjoys "the brief private time before the others would get up and start making demands of her. There would be breakfast to prepare, children's clothes to find, husband's clothes to find too; there would be a hundred things to do." But she resolves to take the advice of the person who told her that "our concern should be what is happening right now. 'There is plenty of work for love to do'....Yes, one should not worry too much." I think a mother of teenagers might want to reread that section every night before going to bed.
There are always incidental pleasures in reading about Mma Ramotswe's daily rounds. I loved her description of Sherlock Holmes: "He was a very famous detective....Over that way....He lived in London. He is late now."
We find out the name of the younger apprentice in this book, and even get to see where he lives. Mma Ramotswe finds that he understands how she feels about the loss of the tiny white van, and realizes "how easy it is to misjudge the young, to imagine that they share none of the more complex emotions that shape our lives as we grow older."
My favorite scene in this book centers around the extended description of Mma Ramotswe's premonition that something bad will happen to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni on a day trip he is taking. Like my father's premonitions always are, hers is wrong, and when she sees him getting out of his truck at the end of the day "she stopped her van where it was, some yards short of its normal place at the side of the house, and she got out and ran to him, the lights of the van still burning." The even-more-often-than-usual references to the way she is "traditionally built" throughout this book make the scene poignant and funny at the same time.
Also Mma Makutsi gets a new pair of shoes in this one. I also got a new pair of shoes as a birthday present, and some "red bush tea" from the cafe at Borders. Have you noticed that they carry it there now?
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Today I'm 29 again! I'll be spending the day outside.
Usually I like to take my kids to the pool or the lake, but today they have summer gym and then Walker has a scheduled chess demonstration from one of his teachers--the one who lives in Serbia--so we'll have to stick close to home. I might fill up a wading pool and read beside it in my back yard (despite the fact that our black cat Chester always ends up puncturing any inflatable parts when he presses down on one side so he can get a drink). The green and flowered wilderness of our yard is a lovely place to spend an afternoon with a book.
A Birthday Poem, by Ted Kooser
Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
Yes, I think I'll be outside until the cows come home--they live diagonally across the street and over the hill. You can see them lying in the shade under the tree in the bottom photo.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Flavia does not fancy herself a spy, but takes the part of Janie in terms of her hobby (she's a chemist). Her spying is part of her curious nature; when she discovers a body in the garden, she takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of how it got there, and along the way, she shows her intense loyalty to her reticent family circle. She gets around on her bike, which she calls Gladys, and she is tolerated and given considerable free rein by the Inspector assigned to the case, who gets to recite the lines of poetry from which the title is derived and politely declines to tell Flavia why the symbol for her in his notes is a "P."
Although Flavia figures out that the murdered man died from an injection of carbon tetrachloride just from smelling his last breath, she misses the fact that her family's cook knows no one in the family likes custard pie and so she makes one occasionally to take home to her own husband. Like the cook in Harriet the Spy, Mrs. Mullet doesn't always have enough patience to deal with the resident child genius, and when she laughs at Flavia, even Flavia is aware that "something in me that was less than noble rose up out of the depths, and I was transformed in the blink of an eye into Flavia the Pigtailed Avenger." That she can see herself this way indicates some potential for either increasing egalitarianism or noblesse oblige as she gets older.
In the end, Flavia figures out the mystery, although she has to have some help capturing the murderer. And this is only the first of her adventures; Bradley promises a series of mysteries featuring Flavia.
Monday, July 6, 2009
As in all good fairy tales, the elements of the story all turn out to be true in some way. The grandmother really was a princess. She really was put under a spell and then woke up. She was rescued by a prince. But that's only the surface of the story. Part of the reason the grandmother kept retelling the story throughout her life is that it has depths, and every time she tells another part, her granddaughters understand more, especially when they ask questions. For instance, when the prince comes, he
"sang, too, and as he added his voice to theirs, it was as if he witnessed all their deaths in the thorns. It was as if he had knowledge of all their lives, past and present and future....
How can they have any future lives if they're dead?....
The future is when people talk about the past. So if the prince knows all their past lives and tells all the people who are still to come, then the princes live again and into the future."
The charm of this tale is in the way it unfolds, bit by fragile bit, until you understand how all the pieces fit together, better even than the grandmother ever understood it herself. And also in the way the story is continued by the granddaughter as she comes to understand the courage of the heroes, who are "all sleeping princesses some time" but know "it is better to be fully awake."
This is not a bed-time story. It is a story to make you come fully awake, not because of lurid horrors--it's not that kind of Holocaust tale--but because you'll see more if you make your way through life with your eyes opened.
Friday, July 3, 2009
The one we all liked least was Margaret Peterson Haddix's Found. We weren't expecting to like it as much as her stellar Just Ella, but we did expect to like it as much as Running Out of Time, (which we read before the Shyamalan movie The Village came out) or Leaving Fishers. We thought it would be something like her Shadow Children series, which we all enjoyed. One of the main differences between the Shadow Children series and this new "The Missing" series, of which Found is the first one, is that Found is longer than Among the Hidden or any of its sequels. I think it's possible that Found would be better if it were more severely edited. But maybe it's partly that we're all older than Haddix's targeted sixth-grade audience.
The one we liked slightly better, mostly for the sake of its bad jokes, is Dale E. Basye's Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go. From the moment that "goodbye puppy" merchandise is mentioned, I was willing to give this book a chance. The jokes come at a good pace, accompanied by allusions like
"Where are we going?" Milton said with a motivating clap of his hands.
"The Surface!" Marlo and Virgil replied in unison.
"When are we getting there?"
For you non-Buckaroo Banzai fans, that's an allusion to some memorable dialogue and implicitly compares the "heroes" of the book to a bunch of really stupid aliens. But, in the end, we weren't pleased to find that this book is little more than an elaborate prologue to a second one, and our enjoyment of bad jokes goes only so far.
So when I got to Interworld, I was pleased that it had a plot and a main character I could sympathize with, even if the science is brought down to the young adult level by explanations like
"the thing to remember is that certain decisions--important ones, those that can create major ripples in the time stream--can cause alternate worlds to splinter off into divergent space-time continua. Remember this, or you'll wind up paralyzed every time you have to make a choice: The Altiverse is not going to create a brave new world based on your decision to wear green socks today instead of red ones. Or if it does, that world will only last a few femtoseconds before being recycled into the reality it split off from."
The plot is based on the idea that there is a power struggle between worlds where magic works and worlds where science works, and the hero has been recruited into an organization that attempts to keep a balance between the power of science and the power of magic:
"We of InterWorld have no problem with either ideology. Our problem is with HEX and with the Binary, who both seek to impose their belief systems and method of reality on other worlds--sometimes through war, sometimes more subtly."
Interworld has jokes; we all reacted to this one:
...I...looked at Jo, particularly at the two things that made her so different from me.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's just, where I come from, nobody has wings."
And, finally Interworld has a satisfying hero-saves-the-universe ending, complete with a big explosion:
"And then she blew, and it was wonderful. It was like a light show and a fireworks show and the destruction of Sauron's tower...everything you could imagine it could be."
And now, it's about time for fireworks shows all across the U.S. You could do worse than take a couple of hours to read Interworld before (or after) your local fireworks display.