Friday, June 30, 2006

Miss Brodie and The Finishing School

“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or is you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write,’The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

So begins Muriel Spark's last novel, The Finishing School,
a satiric look at a private progressive institution that Miss Jean Brodie in her prime would have been quick to deem a “crank” school and would have been loathe to be associated with.

Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina Parker operate College Sunrise, a school where parents with “dire wealth” consent to send their teenagers for a year or two to get them out of the way. College Sunrise could not in any way compete with the famous schools and finishing establishments recommended by Gabbitas, Thring and Wingate in shiny colored brochures. Indeed, College Sunrise was almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, it was frequently dismised as being rather shady. The fact that it moved house from time to time, that it seldom offered a tennis court and that its various swimming pools looked greasy, were the subject of gossip when the subject arose, but it was known that there had so far been no sexual scandals and that it was an advanced sort of school, bohemian, artistic, tolerant. What they smoked or sniffed was little different from the drug-taking habits of any other school, whether it be housed in Lausanne or in a street in Wakefield.

When the novel opens College Sunrise is in operation on the lake at Ouchy after previously being located in Brussels and Vienna. Nina conducts “casual afternoon comme il faut talks” with the school’s eight students ("'Be careful who takes you to Ascot,' she said, 'because, unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.'") while Rowland teaches creative writing. In fact, one of the students, 17-year-old Chris Wiley, red-haired, handsome, annoyingly self-assured, has enrolled in College Sunrise specifically so that he can write his historically inaccurate novel on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rowland reads the opening pages of Chris' novel, finds them "quite good," and then experiences a debilitating case of writer's block where his own novel is concerned. Most of Spark's novel is thereafter concerned with the uneasy relationship between Rowland and Chris: Rowland's jealousy at first amuses Chris, who taunts Rowland with his hidden-away work-in-progress and thrives on reports that Rowland has been searching his belongings in a desperate attempt to find it. Later, after Nina is finally able to convince Rowland that his obsession with Chris' novel is bordering on insanity and he seeks a cure by temporarily checking into a monastery, Chris finds he requires Rowland's presence or else he is unable to write. Clearly, the madness goes both ways.

Nina wants Chris gone but realizes his tuition is needed less the school go under. She begins an affair with an art historian who lives in a neighboring villa. Rowland knows and doesn't care; he's busy attempting to sleep with the servant who is sleeping with Chris.

Nina, her lover, and the students all speculate whether Rowland's obsession with Chris' novel is actually a case of misplaced homosexual desire.

Finally, two of the publishers Chris has sent his novel to come to Ouchy and begin to offer a bit of perspective on Chris's talent and prospects. Chris' confidence is momentarily shaken, but he's quick to once again manipulate those around him, especially when he sees Rowland's chances at literary success wax considerably. I won't say who or how, but someone almost dies.

Now, while I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I remained largely indifferent to The Finishing School. I read it twice to see if I could put my finger on what kept it from being a more enjoyable, a more memorable read. The best I could come up with is that Spark’s natural inclination to omit all but of vital import undercut her efforts here. Chris and Rowland discuss whether they feel their characters take on a life of their own; Chris maintains that his are firmly under his control and can do nothing he does not will. Spark’s characters here definitely fall under strict authorial control; she pushes them about to advance her story without bringing them fully to life. And why she chose to have the character whose writing is called "actually a lot of shit" by a prospective publisher, who recognizes that Chris' approaching success is based on his youth, not his talent, be the one whose methods most mimic her own is definitely beyond my understanding.

I also thought that the use of flash forwards, which I am, in general, exceedingly fond of, and found most effective in Jean Brodie (and in The Driver's Seat, which I read last month), undercut my concern in The Finishing School. While knowing that Miss Brodie is to be betrayed, that Sandy will become a nun, that Mary will be killed in a fire (or that that strange Lise is going to be murdered before morning comes), heightens the suspense and keeps me engaged with how future events are to come about, foreknowledge here deflated my interest. Why should I care now about the state of Rowland and Nina's marriage when I know she's going to be much happier as an art historian married to someone else? Why should I care now that Chris' novel is no good if he's still going to manage to get it published? Why should I care now about any of the students at the Sunrise School when I know they all have enough money or family prestige to take the rough edges off their years to come?

Based on these two books, I'd have to say that if an author can't or isn't willing to vary her style and technique from book to book, she ought to take care that the stories she has to tell will work with her style rather than against it.

I'm late getting this posted compared to everyone else, so I'll wait to discuss Jean Brodie in the Metaxu Cafe forums. I will say I'm glad this Slaves of Golconda reading gave me reason to read it again--I read it back in high school and retained very little--and that I do intend to read more by Spark. I'm going to chose titles for the most part, though, from the first half of her career when her style is economical, but not yet miserly. I don't have a problem meeting a writer halfway, but I'm not willing to do more than that.

Ellie in a bag, or Friday cat blogging resumes

Our camera has been in the shop the last few weeks. The guys broke it in this week on its return by taking pictures of Ellie in one of her favorite environments: the plastic bag.

Be sure to check out the 93rd Friday Ark today. Carnival of the Cats will be at Watermark on Sunday.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rebecca West
English journalist, novelist and critic.
"I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Instead of starting on my Slaves of Golconda posts on Muriel Spark last night the way that I should have (posts due Friday), I spent my prime reading hours thinking about how I need to get back on track with my summer reading challenge. So far I've read six out of 21 books from the list, plus three impulse reads, although I'm not going to think of any books by or about Rebecca West as impulse reads from this point on; if I deviate from the summer titles it should be because of West.

Or because of Proust. Stefanie is starting a separate blog for the reading of In Search of Lost Time, with discussion starting in mid-July. Since Swann's Way is actually on my original priority reading list for the year, I'm going to squeeze Proust into my summer reading instead of holding off until fall. I made an attempt to find In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and How Proust Can Change Your Life in the library last night, but the in-progress shifting of materials onto compact shelving had worked its way to the PQs up on the fifth floor and it was simply too difficult to navigate around the moving crew and all their huge plywood carts. Maybe in a few days.

I did start Mary Lee Settle's The Scapegoat and I'm already in love with the young narrator's voice. The story is based on a 1912 coal strike massacre in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley. Mother Jones is to make an appearance.

Oh, and if you are yet unaware of Ella's Nosy Questions series, my interview at Box of Books went up on Saturday.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Boys, girls, books, parents

A week ago Thursday while I was eating breakfast I happened to read a David Brooks op-ed in my local paper. Brooks begins his piece on why boys don't read as much as girls with a nod to the "angst and Orwell" study that came out earlier this year, then claims that the books women chose as their favorites are "a lot better than the books the men chose." Considering that this was a David Brooks column, I immediately smelled a trap.

By the end of the article, sure enough, Brooks has put boys' falling reading rates on the shoulders of schools that force boys to sit still and subject them to consciousness-raising material, which, of course, fall under the category of books with female protagonists. Boys should be taught more Hemingway, Tolstoy, Homer and Twain or else the schools will turn "many of them into high school and college drop-outs who hate reading."

Later in the day I followed a link to a Boris Johnson piece in the Telegraph that opined as well on the falling reading rates among men, in a much more obnoxious, yet entertaining way. I was quite heartened still later to come across The Kids and Family Reading Report, which does not address the differences between males and females at all, but indicates that parents need to become more involved, not less, when their children become independent readers—by serving as reading models and by helping their kids and teens find books of interest. Thirty-one percent of kids are classified as "high frequency" readers; although 74 percent of parents say reading is the most important skill their children can have, only 21 percent of parents read daily themselves.

But before I could pull anything together for a post on these items, all my time and energy went into caring for the pug.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I discovered Victoria's fabulous insights in "Women, Books and Boris," and this Washington Post article, which casts doubts on a gender crisis in the schools (it appears to be more one of race and class): "much of the pessimism about young males seems to derive from inadequate research, sloppy analysis and discomfort with the fact that although the average boy is doing better, the average girl has gotten ahead of him."

I hope this means boys can be expected to have a Margaret Atwood or a Harper Lee mixed in with their Hemingway and Homer in the schools now without the adults having full-scale hissy fits.

And I hope more parents will take their kids to the bookstore or the library, and that they'll chose something for themselves on the trip.

Monday, June 26, 2006

We had Ginger put to sleep this morning. We're very sad, but otherwise we're doing okay. She didn't suffer, and for that we are grateful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

So glad I don't live in Raleigh. This article doesn't mention it, but the one back in the spring indicated that some of the people challenging Beloved, The Color Purple, and The Chocolate War didn't even have kids in the system--they were homeschooling.

Obviously for some it's more about censoring books in general than "protecting" their own children.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bad weekend

Not a good weekend. A bloody awful one as a matter of fact.

Our pug was attacked by a much larger dog early Saturday morning. The morning routine is to put her out the back door then meet her at the front when she's finished doing her doggie business (it doesn't take long since she knows we feed the cats canned food while she's outside. She likes to eat the leftovers). We assume someone else must have put their own dog out to "self walk" on Saturday and the animal added a quick dash through other people's yards when it encountered geriatic gimpy Ginger, methodically moving through her morning routine, and whoever initiated the confrontation, Ginny came out the worse for it, with puncture wounds on her back, side and front leg.

The vet thought a thousand dollar surgery would be ideal, but he also thought Ginny would be facing a six-months quarantine confinement once she recovered since records showed she'd not received a rabies booster the last two times we'd taken in and that he might not get an answer out of Animal Control in Raleigh until Monday. At that point we were all in agreement that it might be better to have her put to sleep.

But then the return call came in from Raleigh that if we signed a form stating we were aware she might have rabies, she could go home with us. We opted not to spring for surgery, but to have her wounds cleaned and closed and see how well she'd do on antibotics and pain meds. So far she appears to be doing well, but we'll get the official opinion when she goes in for a check-up this afternoon.

S. had to stay with her while L. saw R. off at the airport in Raleigh and I drove her car back to Charlotte from Chapel Hill (this after a quick lunch in Durham). R.'s been sick and on antibiotics since Friday (and L. just showed up home from work with some of the same symptoms), so you can imagine how much enthusiasm she had the 21-hour trip she had in store. Unless she encountered even more delays than were built in to start (long layovers in Boston and London), she should have reached Prague about an hour ago.

And then when I got home from work last night, I discovered that even though S. had set up the dvr properly to record Deadwood, the machine malfunctioned and recorded Full House instead.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The end of the week in books

There was a Rebecca West in the library last night checking out videos. This was the most exciting event that took place at the library all week.

Books read this week:

Remember the Patrick O'Brian novel where Jack Aubrey takes a French frigate so easily that Aubrey cannot understand why the outmanned ship bothered to put up a fight? Aubrey and his naval surgeon find an especially large egg that's clearly on the verge of hatching in the metal-reinforced cargo hold. Naturally the hatchling prefers Stephen Maturin to all others and Stephen must resign his shipboard duties to care for the young creature. And after a disastrous dinner party ashore, Stephen joins the Aerial Corps and trains to fight Napoleon's forces from the back of his dragon and . . .

Oh wait. I didn't read O'Brian this week; I read Naomi Novik. Novik evokes the Aubrey/Maturin series in His Majesty's Dragon, the first installment of the Temeraire series. Blending fantasy with history, Novik imagines what the Napoleonic wars could have been like if dragons had been part of the mix (there's a brief mention of dragon participation during the Crusades that I hope Novik chooses to expand upon at some point).

Captain Will Laurence begins the novel clearly in the Aubrey role, willing to do his duty when the just-hatched dragon Temeraire selects him as his handler but regarding a life in the Aerial Corps as quite a step down for a Navy man: he won't be able to marry, run an estate, or go about in society, as aviators aren't regarded as quite respectable and are required to live in remote areas of Britain where the dragons cannot disturb anyone. As the novel progresses Laurence's deepening concern for Temeraire and his fellow dragons makes him assume more of Stephen Maturin's characteristics, but it is Temeraire himself who plays Stephen's role in the various philosophical discussions between the two (while all the dragons can talk, Temeraire is very intellectual and interested in obtaining knowledge from books). I was pleased to see the Principia being read to Temeraire (who understood it rather well) since I'd so recently encountered it as the narrator of The Last Witchfinder.

I'll be reading the rest of the series to find out what's in store for Temeraire and the rest of the dragons. The fate of one in this volume had me in tears.

Also read Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Slaves of Golconda discussion will take place on June 30, so I have nothing to say about this one yet.

Checked out from the library:

The Stone Reader. A dvd recommended by MFS in comments on Monday. A delightful documentary about books and readers that I hope to watch a second time before taking back to the library. Sparked an interest in Catch-22 in my son, which I deepened by telling him this was the book his dad brought me to read while I was in the hospital after having him.

The Adventures of Johnny Vermillion. According to the cover flap, the Vermillion gang "can transform A Midsummer Night's Dream into grand larceny." Should be fun.

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. I checked this one out previously, but held back on reading it since there was talk of a discussion with local Readervillans, but after reading an interview with Davis this week, I don't want to put it off any longer.

A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve. I love the cover and it looks as if it would read quickly.

And, although I meant not to buy books this month, I made a trip to the used bookstore this afternoon and came home with a few. My excuse is that my sister, who has been saying for months that she wanted to see An Inconvenient Truth and was supposed to come to Charlotte today to see it with me since there's no chance it'll ever play in our hometown, decided late this morning that she wouldn't be coming today. With a free afternoon ahead of me, I decided to take a load of books to the store to trade for credit. Unfortunately, and very very par for the course where this store is concerned, only one of the books was deemed worthy of trade-in, and I was forced, forced I say, to justify my trip across town by buying books instead. (I'm sure you all understand.)

Books bought:

The Judge by Rebecca West

H.G. Wells and Rebecca West by Gordon N. Ray

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name by Heather Lende

The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman. The book that inspired The Stone Reader mentioned above. This one is definitely not going to be a quick read.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Lesky Girls

(An early poem by Louise Erdrich. . . By the time this one came out in the Carolina Quarterly in '79, she was editing a small newspaper for the Boston Indian Council and had published poetry in three other journals.)

All autumn, black plums
split and dropped from the boughs.
We gathered the sweetness
and sealed it in jars,
loading the cupboards and cellar.

At night we went down in the bedclothes, laden
beyond wht the arms were meant to carry aone,
and we dreamed that with our shirts off
in the quarry, the cool water
came under to bear us away.

That season our sleep grew around us
as if from the walls
a dense snow fell and formed
other bodies, and the voices
of men who melted into us, burning, and children
who drifted, lost, looking for home.

After the long rains, the land gone bare,
we walked out again to the wind breaks. White crown
of the plum trees
had filled the purple throats of the iris.

We lay in the grass,
the bees drinking in tongues,
and already the brittle hum of the locust
in the red wheat, growing.

Again, the year come full circle, the men
came knocking in the fields,
headfuls of blackened seeds,
and the husking, scorched mountains of sunflowers.

We went closed, still golden, among the harvesters.
Shifting the load from arm to arm,
they drove us into town.
We shook out our dresses and hair, oh then

there was abundance come down
in the face of the coming year.
We held ourselves into
the wind, our bodies
broke open, and the snow began falling.

It fell until the world was filled up, and filled again,
until it rose past all the limits we could have known.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Tar Heel writers name best American fiction

In response to the New York Times Book Review survey, J. Peder Zane of the Raleigh News & Observer asked Tar Heel writers to name their choice for best work of American fiction from the past 25 years:

Write what you know, aspiring authors are told. The same might be said about what we read. These selections suggest that the world depicted by the Southern writers -- dominated by rural landscapes, twangy speech patterns, traditional value systems, a palpable sense of history and absence of great wealth -- resonate most strongly with North Carolina writers.

Blood Meridian, the Cormac McCarthy novel that was a runner-up in the New York Times survey , took top honors. Casting votes in its favor were Clyde Edgerton, Bland Simpson, Ron Rash, Betty Adcock and Al Maginnes.

Toni Morrison's Beloved, which easily topped the previous list, received a single vote in the North Carolina survey. Haven Kimmel, who selected it, calls it "the single most moral novel ever written, while remaining a work of unsurpassed beauty."

There are lots of interesting goodies in the list of best novels. Marianne Gingher, head of the creative writing department at UNC, selected Ana Veciana-Suarez' The Chin Kiss King. This was the only novel on the list that I'd never even heard of. I'm fortunate that the library has it since it's out-of-print.

John Irving, who admitted to voting for himself in the previous competition, here has Tony Abbott singling out A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Gail Godwin is partial to Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak. Sarah Dessen calls Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist "the perfect novel."

Kaye Gibbons missed or ignored the part about selecting an American novel, naming Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White instead. That's Gibbons for you. Sharyn McCrumb took care to note that her top novelist, Neil Gaiman, while born in Great Britain, now lives in Minnesota.

Also of interest on the N&O site, Zane's long list of upcoming releases.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The trick with a Rebecca West novel is to approach it with caution and respect, knowing that you have time and attention to spare. Don't assume you can skip, skim, or read carelessly; you can't. She is to be read word by word; and then, if only you allow her, she will construct such a convincing edifice around you that the longest afternoon, the weariest train journey will pass as if by magic. She will have led you by a caring fictional hand into another world; and you will have spent a more animating and enlightening time in that land than in this. I know no writer better able to do it.

--Fay Weldon, introduction to Rebecca West

Weldon says the three best West novels are The Return of the Soldier, The Judge, and The Fountain Overflows.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Rebecca West and dragons, too

I decided upon a new reading project over the weekend. I'm going to study Rebecca West—read her novels in order (in order written or in order published, I've yet to decide), read a volume of her letters, various works of her non-fiction, as well as the Victoria Glendinning-written biography..

Since most of her works are out-of-print I'll need to rely on the university library for the material unless I happen upon something in the used book store. I do want to purchase copies of the Glendinning and West's letters since those will be slow reads; I also will need to acquire another copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon since R. has taken possession of the copy I bought her last year and I expect that completing that one alone will take me years. I'll probably get started on the project with library copies and then replace them with my own over time.

I won't get really geared up on my West reading until I finish the Summer Reading Challenge—17 books still to go. And I'll get back to the Summer Reading Challenge as soon as I finish Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, a book that sounded perfect for my son that turned out better-suited for myself.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Anything Goes

Anything Goes is second-tier Madison Smartt Bell. It's out-of-print with no paperback release to its credit, and the first two professional reviewers at Amazon make it blatantly obvious that they did nothing but skim it, else they'd have known that Melungeon isn't the main character's last name as they attest, but the term used in the Appalachians to describe his mixed-race appearance. Another professional reviewer asserts that Kurt Cobain is alive at the time the book takes place—yet the main character thinks about Cobain's suicide several times during the course of the book, including the first chapter.

Twenty-year-old Jesse is the bass player in a covers band—Anything Goes-- that plays roadside bars up and down the eastern seaboard. When the band isn't touring, he lives outside Nashville with the snakehandling dope-smoking band leader Perry, whose lectures he attempts to ignore, but eventually comes to realize he's internalized. His father, an alcoholic who abused him throughout his childhood, is attempting to stay sober these days and repair his relationship with Jesse. It is through his efforts that Jesse meets the big-with-child, big–with-voice Estelle, who Perry later agrees to hire as the band's lead singer.

While I wasn't that interested in reading about Jesse's bandmembers' adventures with the type of young women that frequent roadhouses, I did enjoy the book's sense of place—Asheville, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, then on down into Florida—and the musical discussions and musings. I was still on the fence yesterday as to whether I'd continue reading this one when I reached a pages-long section in the second chapter devoted to contrasting Emmylou Harris's vocal performance on Julie Miller's "All My Tears" to her decades earlier take on "Wayfaring Stranger:"

"Break your heart," Perry said, nodding a little with the beat. "If she could get the voice she had then together with what she knows now. . ."

That got me almost annoyed enough to say what I thought—that Wrecking Ball was a great album, that Emmylou was singing truer now than she ever had and never mind if she'd lost a little something off her range, and that nothing anybody said could take any of that away from her. Almost but not quite. One great advantage of living with Perry was that I never had to bother polishing my own opinions. It was just as easy to use his.

He turned from the stereo and looked right at me. "Ain't that life for you, now? When you once gain the knowledge, come to find out you lost the wherewithal."

What a great lead-in to the cd that's waiting for me at the public library: Mark Knopfler and Emmylou's All the Roadrunning.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Yesterday morning I added a few new blogs to my sidebar. I hit the "Save Template Changes" button and a few moments later received an error message. I couldn't read the message since most of Blogger's type shows up as boxes on my machine when I use IE, which I still use for the most part since attempting to publish with Firefox on my machine generally leads to Javascript errors. (We either need a new computer or the resident computer expert needs to sort a few things out.)

At any rate, I assumed the worst that had happened was that I'd need to add the new blogs again. I waited to do so until I reached the library last night, then became too engrossed in The Last Witchfinder to bother with blogging until I was back home again and wanted to add the Morrow to my list of completed books in the sidebar.

What I discovered is that not only had all the content I'd ever added to the template vanished, but much of what Blogger had put there was gone as well.

This morning I copied and pasted template material from my other blog and have made a start at restoring links. I didn't have haloscan for comments there, so it appears I've lost everyone's recent comments here. Considering that haloscan placed ads in them and didn't archive, I'm not likely to attempt switching back.

I've been toying with switching the template altogether for awhile; don't be surprised if things look very different here the next time you return.

And please note that I managed to write this entire post without cursing once.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The fragrance of book glue

I needn't remind you that readers have always constituted a minority within your species. Merely by opening this chronicle of mine, you have placed yourself in rare company. The odor of bowel wind is known to every human, but the fragrance of book glue has crossed only a fraction of mortal nostrils. And yet it behooves us not to judge the unlettered too harshly. We must stay the impulse to write CHUCKLEHEAD above their doors and carve DOLT upon their tombstones. For in days gone by, at least, a certain chariness toward typography made sense. . . .

And so we see how throughout history the community of readers has been prey to sinister forces—to pedants and priests, legislators and lunatics, deities and demagogues. You have paid for your passion in humiliation, mutilation, and sometimes even—as when Henry VIII burned Bible translator William Tyndale as a heretic—immolation. I salue you all, as do my fellow books. Were you to call yourselves heroes, we would not smirk. Show me an accomplished reader, and I shall show you a person of many virtues, thoughtful and articulate, comtemplative though rarely passive, temperate and yet benignly Ambitious.

--James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder

So, is it the Apocalypse yet?

Somehow it seems appropriate to mention today (06/06/06) that my brother gave me Salem Kirban's 666 , a precursor to the Left Behind series which my sister now claims to be reading, back in the mid-70s. His insistence that I read it was in retaliation to my well-intended suggestion that he might like J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey . I was awfully fond of the Glass family in those days and I had the idea that he would appreciate Franny's attempts to pray without ceasing— which, to my mind at the time, seemed awfully similar to his own all-consuming religious efforts.

Instead, he took offense, and I got Lecture Number Whatever on how I was reading all the wrong things and I should turn away from the false and on and on and on until 666 was thrust into my hands to put me on the straight and narrow path of godly reading and righteousness.

I didn't read it.

I made a bit of an effort, honestly, and I still remember the line the wife kept saying to her husband--"I'll see you at the Rapture"—and I reached the antichrist, but I just. could. not. get through it.

I don't even know what happened to the copy he gave me.

And now here it is, one month short of 30 years after his life abruptly ended, and I'm looking this stupid book up on Amazon to see if it's still in print, to see if anyone besides my brother even read it, and I can see the same divide in the reader reviews that had managed to separate me from the sibling I'd previously felt the most connection to.

Because he was smart. Because he liked to read. I was young and I thought that was enough.

But it wasn't.

And that was the first apocalypse.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Because yesterday was L.'s birthday, I was too busy all weekend to do more than complete the first part of The Last Witchfinder, but I'm continuing to find it an excellent read. I'm looking forward to spending a large chunk of time on it over the next couple of evenings.

R. bought Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma for her dad on our trip to the bookstore on Saturday, and bought me a trade copy of Housekeeping so that she can take my mass market as her plane read when she leaves in a couple of weeks. I fell for the cover of Susan Richards Shreve 's A Student of Living Things and promptly placed a library hold on it when we returned home. I'm going to try to go for an entire month without buying any books.

I am also going to try to exercise daily for the next month as well.

I don't think June is going to be a pleasant month.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Read it whilst ye may

A bonfire of books. The thought curdles me. Some say my species is imperishable, but they lie, for ours is a chillingly provisional immortality. Although we commonly outlive our creators, the curious scholar need look no further than the inferno that razed the Library of Alexandria to realize that a book may vanish irretrievably, leaving behind only a whiff of carbon and a pile of ash. Gutenberg, of course, did much to allay our angst--for us the coming of movable type was equivalent to the arrival of gonads among you vertebrates--but the fact remains that visions of extinction haunt all texts. The moral of my dread is simple. Treasure each volume you hold in your hands, and read it whilst ye may.

--James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder

Three books for the challenge

The Summer Reading Challenge officially kicks off today. I jumped the gun a bit, beginning to read books from my list last week. I needed a head start before I became distracted by something not on it.

First read for the challenge was Dominic Smith's The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. Daguerre, rendered delusional due to years of mercury exposure in his photo-making process, finding portents everywhere, believes that Armageddon is nigh. He compiles a list of ten items that he wishes to photograph before the world ends, beginning with a beautiful woman (naked) and ending with his first (and only) love, Isobel Le Fournier. The first provides a means to the last, and I was left teary-eyed in the final pages.

Once he had discovered the power of this metal as his fixing agent, he delved into its history and lore. He became a devotee, a reader of the epic poem of quicksilver. It was a monarch in the ordained tria prima of alchemy, brother to sulfur and sister to salt. It had been the secret furnace of tantric recipes in India, had been poured into the kernels of Italian hazelnuts to form amulets against bewitching. It was the gleaming polish rubbed onto the point of a Prussian plow to prevent the growth of thistles in a turned field. It was the deathly unguent infused into loaves of hard bread to locate drowned and trapped bodies in the British fens, the loaves sinking to dead men like their souls in reverse. This metal that would not yield to form, that resisted the clutch of the human hand and yet was absorbed by the skin upon touching. A gift from the cinnabar mines of Spain. A metallic sonnet, a love letter written by God and veined through the earth for millennia, fissured through slate and sandstone, waiting for its highest calling.

Next up was Elizabeth Strout's Abide With Me. Small-town minister Tyler Caskey, grief-stricken by the death of his wife, feels cut off from God and congregation and obsesses over Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who he wishes to emulate. His younger daughter lives in another town with his domineering mother. His five-year-old daughter Katherine, who seldom speaks at home, screams at school and tells her Sunday school teacher that she hates God. Good will for Tyler begins to turn to anger and resentment. The one person Tyler feels a connection to, his housekeeper, disappears, a fugitive from the police.

Once started, I couldn't put this one down. Strout captures small town life in the late 50s, with its bomb shelters and stay-at-home mothers waiting to be sprung from their perpetual state of boredom by the 60s, talking incessantly of contaminated cranberries and floors and whatever gossip can be dredged up to sustain them. Yet my good will for the book was gone by the end—Katherine's issues are too easily and tidily resolved, Tyler's congregation rallies around him once he suffers a humiliating public breakdown a little too completely, and a character's suggestion that Tyler must get in touch with his late wife's parents so that they can be grandparents to his daughters, which Tyler agrees with, seems rather disturbing in light of the fact that the reader had earlier been led to believe that his wife's father may very well have sexually abused her and her friends.

Rhonda Skillings had told both Mr. Waterbury and Mary Ingersoll that her brief conversation with Katherine Caskey indicated there might be something going on between Tyler and his housekeeper, there had even been, apparently, some gift of a ring. And while Rhonda was unsure as to whether the situation was as serious as Katherine might think, she told Mary and Mr. Waterbury that it was certainly important—for the time being—to hold the information in the strictest of confidence. But Mary Ingersoll went home and told her husband, except that didn't count—he was her husband; you can tell your husband anything—and soon she telephoned a friend. "Don't tell anyone," she said, and believed the assurance she heard, because this, after all, was an old and trusted friend. After that, with the sense of facing a box of chocolates and thinking—Oh, just one more—she called another friend. "Don't tell anyone," she said.

Much better was Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier , a gorgeous novella set on an English estate during World War I. Captain Chris Baldry is sent home from the front, shell-shocked, suffering from a case of anmesia that's wiped the last 15 years from his memory. To say anything more would be to spoil this jewel-like book.

"How you've forgotten!" she cried, and ran up to him, rattling her keys and looking grave with housewifery, and I was left alone with the dusk and the familiar things. The dusk flowed in wet and cool from the garden, as if to put out the fire of confusion lighted on our hearthstone, and the furniture, very visible through that soft evening opacity with the observant brightness of old, well-polished wood, seemed terribly aware. Strangeness had come into the house, and everything was appalled by it, even time. For the moments dragged. It seemed to me, half an hour later, that I had been standing for an infinite period in the drawing-room, remembering that in the old days the blinds had never been drawn in this room because old Mrs. Baldry had liked to see the night gathering like a pool in the valley while the day lingered as a white streak above the farthest hills, and perceiving in pain that the heavy blue blinds that shroud the nine windows because a lost Zeppelin sometimes clanks like a skeleton across the sky above us would make his home seem even more like a prison.

Highly recommended.

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...