Thursday, June 01, 2006

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.

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