Monday, December 16, 2013

Russian Literature 2014

I just found a challenge (here) that may push me to finish a personal project I've been putting off for years now.  One of the first blog events I ever happened upon was a challenge to read Russian literature.  Because I am often overly optimistic but always methodical, I promptly went to the library and checked out and read several books on Russian history, made a list in chronological order of what I felt I should read, and started reading. 

I started with The Complete Prose Tales of Pushkin, some of which I enjoyed and some of which underwhelmed me.  I moved on to The Collected Tales of Gogol, with which I had the same experience and attempted but couldn't get into Dead Souls.   I read and enjoyed A Hero for Our Time by Lermontov but got frustrated at this point feeling like I was stuck in Russian Literature land to the exclusion of everything else.  So I quit.  Since then I have read Lolita, which I unexpectedly loved, Crime and Punishment, which I liked but didn't love, and Anna Karenina, which I absolutely loved and want to re-read.  I've also read a few mysteries by Boris Akunin and a couple of poems by Anna Akhmatova.   I still have on my shelf to read:  Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, First Love by Turgenev,  The Brothers K, War and Peace, Dr Zhivago, and a book entitled Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes, which is a history of Russian culture.   I also want to read more of Anna Akhmatova's poetry, Oblomov by Goncharov, and the dystopic novel We by Zamyatin. 

With all these grandiose desires reigned in now by experience, I am going to sign up for the 2014 Russian Literature Challenge, Level One.  If I read more than three, Hallelujah,  and if I read only one, Amen. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Experimental Reading

" dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive..." Calvino

Why do we read?  For the stories?  The characters?  The universal truths?  To be entertained?  To escape?  To learn?  To forget?   I don't know that I can verbalize why I read so much.  All of these reasons and more, and the reasons seem to change daily and to be different with the different books I read.    Sometimes I want to escape and sometimes just to be entertained.  Sometimes I want to forget, and sometimes I want to learn and to remember.  I suppose that's why reading works so well for me, because it's always different and always challenges me in different ways.

It's taken me several weeks to know what to say about Italo Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveler, and even now I'm not sure I know exactly what I want to say.   It's not so much that I found it difficult to read, once I realized what was going on and learned to suspend any expectations I might have about the book.  It certainly is not a book to read for plot or character development.  It seems to be a study in genres and also a study about readers and reading.    Did I enjoy it?  Sometimes.  But also sometimes I was bored and irritated with it.  Did I learn from it?  Maybe, if only by being exposed to that type of experimental fiction.  It seems to be a sort-of precursor to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Reading If on a winter's night a traveler was more akin to working a jigsaw puzzle than to enjoying a good read, but I'm glad to have read it, and I certainly enjoyed reading it along with other people and following their tweets about it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reading Without Writing

Gratuitous Book Pile Photo
"It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read."  Lemony Snicket

Lately I've been on a reading tear, much to the detriment of this blog.  Since last I blogged, I've read three novels:  If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman, and Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. 

I read the Calvino novel as an online read-a-long in November, and while I enjoyed it and am glad I attempted it with support, I am still trying to sort out my thoughts in order to write a post.  It is a challenging, complicated book.

For a change of pace, concurrent with reading Calvino, I read The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman, an entertaining, easy read.  I enjoyed the story and found the theme of the lengths to which morally strong people will go given a certain set of circumstances to be fascinating.

My most recent read, Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner was lovely.  This short novel (only 183 pages) made a huge impression on me, after starting off VERY slowly.  Around page 90, I was thinking I might abandon it. I am so glad I didn't.  Within the next ten pages, the book became and continued to be a novel I loved.  I can understand why this kind of novel is not for everyone.  It's very introspective, and almost nothing happens, but I loved the voice of Edith, the main character, and I loved the way she learns to accept herself as is throughout the course of the novel.  As a woman who grew up in a very conventional South, I can relate completely to her struggle.

Time to choose my next conquest!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shut the Front Door

photo by Anna Reavis

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau

This morning I heard a woodpecker, which, as I was in the woods at the time, should come as no surprise. What was surprising was that I had been in the woods for 30 minutes with him pecking at the periphery of my hearing before I shut up long enough to truly hear him. And by shut up, I don't mean I stopped talking. I was alone with only my dog, and except for saying, "stop, stay, slow down" to her, I hadn't spoken.   What wasn't quiet was my mind. It was churning, contemplating things done and not done and things yet to do: analyzing, understanding, interpreting, predicting all kinds of things. I was thinking about the books I'm reading, the people I'm around in my life, where a bathroom might be, what I could eat, and yes, beer.  It took me 30 minutes alone in the woods to shut myself up enough to hear that lovely woodpecker.

Most of our lives, including our reading lives, are like this. Overwhelmed with the urge to comprehend, analyze, and thus control, our environments, including what we read, we often forget how to be quiet, let go, and just let things and people be who and what they are and listen for the beauty surrounding us, quietly insistent, in the background of our everyday lives.  The  next time you come across a work of art, a poem, or a book that you just "don't get,"  be quiet, and  let it be. And what it will be is beautiful.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mid-Point of Calvino Read

"...putting behind you pages lacerated by intellectual analyses, you dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive..."

I'm participating in a group read of If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, in which we were to have half the book read by 11/15.  I'm not quite to the end of the first five/ten chapters, but I'm only lacking a couple of pages. 

This is an oddity of a novel.  It's the kind of experimental fiction (somewhat similar to Cloud Atlas) which would have completely intimidated me as a younger person.  Now I'm old, and I tend to think,  "If other people can read this, so can I."  Wonder if that means I can get through Ulysses yet?  Hmm...bettah not.

So, Calvino.  This book reminds me of a boyfriend.  You know, fantastic for brief periods but boring and annoying for the most part.  Although, in fairness to the book, I'd say the ratio of good to hum drum is closer to 50/50.  I do feel like Calvino purposefully manipulates his reader:  giving slack in the line, then jerking the hook and reeling you back in.  The book isn't a struggle to read, and I do find myself getting caught up in each little story, just as it ends, like the reader narrator.  I'm looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction

photo by amy

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."  Carl Sagan

As recently as a couple years ago, I almost never read nonfiction.  I don't know exactly why, but I suspect it relates to my use of reading as a means of escape.  Over the last few years, however, I've discovered that nonfiction is often precisely what I need.  With that in mind, and following this month's theme of Nonfiction November, here are some of the nonfiction books I've read over the last couple years that I would recommend. 

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond:   An engaging book providing Diamond's hypothesis for why Western Civilization evolved as it did.  This book is so full of interesting facts that I spent almost as much time making notes as I did reading.  I loved the PBS series from this book.  I've bought Collapse by Diamond to read but haven't yet gotten to it.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion:  A memoir of the year directly following the sudden deaths of her husband and concurrent serious illness (and later death) of her daughter.  So much of what Didion describes resonates with me because of my experience of my brother's sudden death in an auto accident when he was 16 and I was 21.  I also read her later memoir Blue Nights.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow:  An interesting, approachable, understandable description of different theories about the origin and nature of the universe and humanity's differing historical views of it.  I would assume this book might be too basic for most scientists but is a good overview for the rest of us. 

Wild and Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed:  While both of these books are quite different, I loved the author's voice and points of view in both.  Wild is a memoir of the author's ill-planned hike on the Pacific Coast Trail in the wake of her mother's death and her own divorce.  Dear Sugar is a collection of question and answer advice columns on pretty much everything involved in being human.

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean:  My most recently finished nonfiction work is an explanation and history of genetics.  While some of the book was a little dry, for the most part, I loved it.  Lots of interesting tidbits of info on the underlying stuff of life on this planet.  My favorite part was on epigenetics. I have Kean's Disappearing Spoon, which explores chemistry, to read soon.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris:  I listen to all of Sedaris's books on audio, narrated by him on my iPhone on long car trips.  The vignettes move from the hilarious, to the disturbing, to occasionally ho-hum, but are very often emotionally moving.  As I have lived in North Carolina my entire life, I feel like I'm hearing stories from an eccentric neighbor when I listen to him.  My favorite of his collections has been Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

My current nonfiction read is Spillover:  Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen, which explores the history and reflects on the future of zoonotic diseases.  I'm enjoying this one a lot and have his earlier work, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions to read soon.

Now that I've discovered the joy of nonfiction and the limitless, free education available to those who choose to pursue it, I try to keep a work of nonfiction underway concurrently with the novels I read.  I find these works a nice change of pace perfectly complementing my fiction reading.  Happy Nonfiction November!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shadows in Real Life

Shadows on the Lake
photo by amy
"You remember, when Queen Dido offers Aeneas hospitality, she says:  Having known misery, I have learned to pity the miserable.  Our poor wood-carrier is like Queen Dido." (Euclide to Cecile in Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock)

I'm going to start this post with an insight about myself I didn't like discovering and I think probably reflects poorly on our society at large.  Early on in Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather, a poor, poorly-tended child named Jacques says to the his friend Cecile:  "Sometimes sailors like children too."  And a little later, he begins to recount an experience he had with a priest.  Both of these happenings ended up being positive, helpful experiences for Jacques.  But before I knew what happened, I automatically assumed that both occurrences were going to involve some kind of abuse.  Why?  I've never been the victim of abuse.  I have no reason to make that kind of assumption.  All I can think is that as a society, we are so inundated with news about these kinds of abuses that it has become a go-to assumption for someone even as naïve as I am.  Is this a poor reflection on the world we inhabit or on the news to which we are constantly subjected?  I don't watch or read the news, but I still have these over-arching negative impressions so imprinted in my mind that these are the conclusions I reach with no evidence.  This makes me sad.

What makes me happy, though, is a novel like this one.  I love Willa Cather.  This is the fourth of her novels I have read.  I absolutely love her ability to transport me into the places and times of her novels. You don't read Cather for the plot; you read Cather for the perfect and perfectly beautiful descriptions of both the characters and the settings.  While not a lot happens in the novel, the plot does resolve nicely for someone like me who likes a happy ending.  I grew to love the characters:  Cecile Auclair, the twelve year old daughter of Euclide, Count de Frontenac's hand-chosen apothecary, who is also a lovely character;  the Count himself and old Bishop Laval, both of whom love and care for their people in understated, humble ways; sweet, damaged Blinker and little Jacques Gaux; Father Hector, the bishop to the wild ones, and Pierre Charron, one of the first true Canadians of European descent, who loves his land as few others do and makes a point of sharing that love with Cecile.

Since finishing Shadows on the Rock, I have been to the bookstore and to Amazon and to the library and acquired about 10,000 other books and have not been able to settle in to read ANY of them.  What to do, what to do?  Maybe another Cather?  We'll see.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

We All Need Healthy Attachments

Attachments to my kitchen houseplant
"I pictured a girl who could be that kind and that kind of funny.  I pictured a girl who was that alive...a girl who never got tired of her favorite movies...who saved dresses like ticket stubs--who could get high on the weather...I pictured a girl who made every moment, everything she touched, and everyone around her feel lighter and sweeter." from Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I started last week kind of down, aimless, purposeless.  Hell, who am I kidding...I start every day like that.  You know,  life--what's it about?  What's the point?  Existential angst ad nauseam.  So what does one do at that kind of nadir?  Go to the bookstore, of course.  And at the bookstore, I looked for Attachments by Rainbow Rowell after having read a book blog review wherein the author said something like "Go find this book.  Now."  Oh my lord I loved this book.  The people!  The dialogue!  The structure!

The two women friends sound exactly like my best friend and me when we talk.  Smart, funny, realistic, but wanting to be hopelessly romantic, hoping against hope, blah blah blah.  I'm so thankful to have this kind of friendship in my life, cause Lord knows I have no luck having any kind of long-term, fulfilling love interest.  I'm always a sucker for a happy romantic ending.  It's so encouraging to imagine that as a possibility, even if it's just in a book.  It's nice, on occasion, to read about love in all its potential, unrealistic glory.  Attachments was perfect for me last week.  So much so that I need another similar dose.  Now, where to find it...

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Serendipity

Everyday Elegance
photo by amy
 "Most of us shell our days like peanuts.  One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement."
from The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Serendipity: -- noun 1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. 2. good fortune; luck
I'm not sure I would say I have an aptitude for serendipity, but the last month, I certainly had at least two occasions of it at my local library.  I've finished three novels since last I blogged, two of which I had no plan to read, stumbled upon at the library, and ended up absolutely loving.  The two winners were The Universe vs Alex Woods by Gavin Extence and The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, both very different novels but both immensely enjoyable in my opinion.
I'll start with the other book, which I did not love (and which ironically was the book I went to the library to get--maybe I should stop planning ahead):  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  This book was very readable.  The plot moves right along.  It's fairly well-written and not hard to follow.  The problem from my perspective is that I lack the ability, which so many seem to have, of wanting to suffer vicariously through the fiction I read.  I've suffered enough in life.  I don't want to suffer with my fictional friends, and this novel read like a catalog of suffering.  It's as if the author said, "Let's see how many different horrors I can put these women through and include them all."  I understand that this kind of life is reality for many people in the world, including the women of Afghanistan, and I hurt for them.  I truly do.  I just can't take their suffering on.  I have to get up and be functional every day.  I have kids, a job, a mortgage.  I can't sink into depression for the suffering of the world, and that is what works like this do to me.
I suspect the reason I found the first novel I stumbled on, The Universe vs Alex Woods, so entertaining and engaging was because I absolutely loved the narrator, the teenaged Alex Woods.  I'm not going to say anything else about the book or what ended up being its very serious theme, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might read it.  My recommendation is go find this book!  It will only take you a few days to read, and it will satisfy you in the way all novels with heart-warming characters do.
I'm at a bit of a loss to describe The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  The writing is witty and intelligent.  The setting, New York City in 1938, is elegant and beautifully depicted.  The main character, Kate Kontent, is another person I would love to know. (Know, hell.  I'd love to be her.)  There are little nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout the novel.  The plot is engaging but not really what drives the book.  I can't tell you why exactly, but I feel like this one may end up being something my grandchildren will still be reading.
And now, I'm suffering from what one of my friends calls a book hangover.  I can't settle down to anything, because it all seems to pale in comparison to what I just finished.  I'm thinking an Agatha Christie may be in order to pull me through the next few days.  We shall see.  Happy reading!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Don't Rock A Wrecked Boat

"Suddenly there opened within her a chasm of infinite depth and from it flowed the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness.  I believe nothing.  Nothing whatever." from A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family by James Agee could have been a perfect work of art.  Had certain sections been omitted, it would have been a perfect work of poetic prose.  There are about 100 pages in the middle that disrupt the flow and feel of the rest of the book.  It's taken me many years to understand that it's acceptable for me to recognize greatness in a work, even if I don't love it myself.

Initially I was unsure about reading this book.  The sudden death of a family member is something I try to avoid thinking about / remembering.  But Agee describes perfectly, without being emotionally manipulative, the circumstances and emotions surrounding a loved one’s sudden death.  And because he says it all so much more eloquently and beautifully than could I, here are his words:

“You’ve got to bear in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.” 

“You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice -- except to go to pieces.”

“You start to really be alive, or you start to die.  That’s all.”
"That's what they're for, epitaphs...So you can feel you've got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it.  The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened."

“How can we bear to chatter along in normal tones of voice! she thought; how can we even use ordinary words, or say words at all!”

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Letting Go Henri Nouwen Style

“It is our great illusion that life is a property to be owned or an object to be grasped, that people can be managed or manipulated.”  Henri Nouwen

I’m a control freak.  I recognize this about myself.  Everything in its place; everything planned; everything on time, or I’m irritated.  I was well into adulthood before I realized other people weren’t usually like me.  I’m much more relaxed now than I used to be, but I still function better in an organized space, following a routine.  The problem with being a control freak is that you can’t control the people around you, the people you love.

In part two of Henri Nouwen’s Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, he addresses the issue of learning to let go and of realizing how much happier your life will be if you learn to relinquish control.  The metaphorical theme he employs in this part is of trapeze artists, noting “Before they can be caught they must let go.”  Personally, I cannot imagine letting go of a swing in mid-air and trusting someone else to time the catch correctly enough to save me from a fall.  Maybe that’s a good metaphor for why I am single, because Nouwen goes on to quote CS Lewis’s observation, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”  And I suck at being vulnerable.  It’s not in my nature.  Vulnerability implies giving over control, and well, we’ve already determined I’m a control freak.  

Nouwen asserts that life, love, the journey, all of it, is not about our ability to choreograph every step, but about our willingness to let it drag us along, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes laughing and reveling, to ends and destinations we can’t foresee.  When we try to assert our will over our lives, we are also trying to assert our will over those around us, with no regard for what they might want or need.  The truth is that we are all self-centered; we all want what we want.  The question is can we let go enough to love what we get and let go of what we think we want?  It’s so hard not to be afraid of the unknown.  It’s so hard not to try to control and organize everything, but we’ll never find out what waits for us if we don’t learn to let go of the known and accept the unknown.  Live outside your comfort zone; try something new. Be afraid; it's ok. You'll be amazed what your life can become.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

This Year's Beach Reads

This year at the beach, I finished three books, two of which were written for the YA crowd.  The adult book I finished was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.  I enjoyed the novel, but it was not my favorite Kingsolver, although she is one of my favorite authors.  I completely identified with Dellarobia’s plight in her marriage and family, feeling trapped and hopeless and trapped by that hopelessness.  So much of what she felt and thought were my own feelings and thoughts when my children were small.  Strange how much I miss those little kids now.  I didn’t feel like Kingsolver fully developed the plot line, though.  The plot either seemed to jump around a bit or seemed like pieces were left out.   Being a nature freak (as opposed to a freak of nature, which may also be true, but is a post for a different blog), I loved the butterfly lessons scattered throughout the novel.  

The second book I read was Wonder by RJ Palacio.  I’ve been putting off reading this story of a genetically differently formed child for a while, because I was afraid it would disturb or depress me, but it did neither.  It ended up being quite uplifting and even caused me to shed a tear, which, in reality, isn’t all that difficult to elicit.  I loved the quote/theme of “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind” (Wayne Dyer).  How much easier life would be if we could all just do that.  

And finally, my third beach read was Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.  I’m a sucker for quests / journeys of self-discovery, but this one left me a bit cold.  I felt like the Pi story embedded in the main plot line was redundant.  It was like reading the same story twice, just with different characters.  I think I would have liked the book a lot more without the unnecessary repetition.  I did love the themes of how people see and think and feel and reason so very differently and how important it is for us to embrace all these different paths on the same journey.  I absolutely loved the way Vanderpool tied the story lines up in a neat little box in the epilogue.  I am a lover of neat little boxes.

And now, back to reality and less reading time.  Much sadness.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Our Glory Is Hidden In Our Pain"

"..the gift of life has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses." Henri Nouwen
I’m going to do something a little different with the slim volume I’m reading called Turn My Mourning Into Dancing by Henri Nouwen.  I’m going to write about each section of the book because to do otherwise would be unmanageable.  The book reveals too many truths and inspires too many thoughts to do less.  

The first section of the book addresses how we deal with our own suffering.  There are so many different kinds of brokenness and loss in our lives.  We all struggle with letting the same situations and the same people break our hearts over and over again.  The worst pain doesn’t come at the time of wounding; it comes at the time of scarring.  We have all been scarred; we are all wounded.

Nouwen teaches that the way out of suffering is “in and through,” that we must accept suffering and move through it instead of fleeing from it.  He says that only those who can fully face, confront, and accept their pain can heal and grow.  Attempting to avoid and forget pain only temporarily masks it.  Embracing your whole life, including your pain, and finding peace in spite of it keeps you whole.  It sounds facile and cliched to say that it’s not about what happens to you but how you handle it, but it really is true.   And this is a truth we have to learn and re-learn every day.  It is perhaps the most difficult, yet most important of all truths of who we are, who we become, and how we affect the world around us.

Often, we need only to step outside of ourselves and our lives to forget in order to remember:   to forget the overwhelming mess we live in and to remember the overwhelming beauty that we live among.  Sometimes, just doing one little thing:  a walk, a ride, a movie, dinner with a friend will re-center our entire lives for that one moment in time.  And sometimes, that’s the best we can hope for -- one calm moment.  Because all life is really about is choosing to keep breathing in gratitude and breathing out compassion.  When we are wrapped up in our own pain, we skip right over the pain of others.  When circumstances around us seem to be spiralling out of control, we feel helpless and insignificant, and we rant and rave just to be heard, to exert some kind of control and influence.  But the voice that heals is the quiet voice of peace.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Did I Love The Ocean at the End of the Lane

photo by Amy

I'm going to start this post with a caveat so I don't engender angry comments.  I know a lot of people love everything Neil Gaiman writes.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane was my first adult Gaiman novel.  The caveat to this review is this:  while I seem to be reading a lot more than usual recently, I don't seem to be able to love anything I read.  In addition to the annoying weather, (it's been ridiculously hot and humid here in the South), one personal irritation after another keeps piling up, so maybe that's why I didn't love The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or any other book I've read recently.

When I first started the book, I thought I was going to love it, but it just never seemed to develop fully enough for me.  It felt more like a short story (or maybe a JF book), and I've never been a fan of short stories. Too many things felt undeveloped or incomplete, like an outline, rather than a finished work. I do often seem to feel this way when reading Science Fiction, so it could just be the genre for me.  One thing I do love about science fiction authors is their penchant for embracing vast philosophical questions like why we are here; where we are for that matter; who we are; and what happens to us after death.  I loved the idea introduced when the narrator wants to stay in the ocean of all knowledge and is told that if he does, he will eventually spread out into points of everything and become nothing.  That's a fascinating interpretation of what happens to us after death, I think.  Something about this idea reminds me of the end of Arthur C Clark's 2001:  A Space Odyssey.    Another interesting idea touched on in this part of the story is the fallacy of self-knowledge.  When our narrator finds himself in the ocean of all knowledge, he realizes that while he may be able to know and see everything, the one thing he cannot know or see is himself, his true image.  I like the idea that the only true unknowable to us is ourselves.  No one can truly, objectively see himself. 

One concept in the book that spoke personally to me was when the narrator says, "and I would imagine that I was in my boat on the ocean and that it was swaying with the swell of the sea.  I did not imagine that I was a pirate, or that I was going anywhere.  I was just on my boat."   Often when I can't sleep because my life feels overwhelming to me, I will imagine myself on a train to lull myself to sleep.  This is a very specific fantasy:  I am in a sleeping berth beside a window on an overnight train in Russia, crossing a snowy steppe with a view of the Ural Mountains in the background across the moonlit plain.  I have no idea where any of that comes from, as I have never been to Russia, nor have I been in a sleeping berth on an overnight train.  Reincarnation, maybe?  Regardless, it calms me and puts me to sleep every time.  And it calms me to know that at least one other person on the planet thinks this way too, even if it is a British author I will never meet. Maybe that, too, is the power of art, literary or otherwise; it helps us feel less alone in the world of our thoughts.
Another point of synchronicity to me occurred when Ginnie Hempstock says of Ursula Monkton, (who is the most insidious kind of evil, like Doroles Umbridge in Harry Potter -- the type masquerading as perfectly good):  "I don't hate her.  She does what she does, according to her nature."  This touches on a conversation I've had recently and often with a friend about people who hurt others with their neglect or selfishness or dishonesty.  Certainly, some people are natured to be selfish and dishonest and neglectful, and certainly they will hurt those around them, and those of us who are not natured to be that way would do well to accept the truth of who these people are and move on (and avoid them like the plague), but does that make it acceptable for people to be this way?  To have this kind of Zen attitude about these people is almost akin to saying it is acceptable for them to be thus.  I don't know exactly what I think of this issue, but I did find it interesting to run into it in this book, when I've been discussing it so much recently for personal reasons.

Interesting that a novel I didn't love provoked such an outpouring of words from me.  I think this has been one of my longest blog post.  I did find the book to be well-written, engaging, and entertaining, and Gaiman did a great job with the narrator's voice, which I found to be very convincingly child-like and natural.  I just wish the ideas and plot points had been more fully developed and explored.  Had Gaiman finished this novel, it could have been fantastic.  

Now I'm off to Barcelona to finish the Carlos Ruiz Zafon Shadow of the Wind series. 


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing Again

photo by me
"No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born...." Beatrice
I don't usually discuss movies on here, as this is a book blog, but last night I saw the new version of Much Ado About Nothing, and it was FABULOUS!  I may be a bit biased, as the witty banter in Much Ado makes it one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies.  The visual styling of the movie (shot in black and white, with classic clothing and hair-styles) combined with much of the original dialogue was a treat for eyes and ears.

Every time I see Shakespeare, I am amazed at how funny and true his words are today.  People truly do not change.  We continue to cross ourselves up over nothing and bicker and complain about nothing to the point of breaking each other.  Even when our natures are pure and true, we fall into the trap of exaggerating our problems and risk losing people we love over the superficially inflated molehills in our lives.

The new Much Ado About Nothing was a much needed 2 hour break from reality that left me still smiling this morning.  What a wonderful testament to the power of art that the words of a man 400 years dead continue to change hearts, minds, and moods every day, including mine.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Just Be Beautiful As You Are

Driftwood at Dawn
photo by Amy Brandon
"Stories are people.  I'm a story, you're a story...your father is a story.  Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we're lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we're less alone."  Alvis Bender in Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is book I should have loved but didn't.  I liked it, but for some reason (maybe the scattered, disjointed narration), it never grabbed me and held on.  I liked the plot, the characters, and the setting, but I didn't like the mechanics of the story jumping between different points of view so often and so abruptly.  There's a fine line between too many points of view and plot lines and the perfect amount, and Beautiful Ruins, to me, often felt a bit ADD. I found myself angered on occassion by having to stop reading in the middle of a story over and over to readjust to another story.

That said, and complaint department closed, the writing in this novel was lovely and moving, as were many of the ideas and truths revealed.  I love the theme of learning to appreciate the present, to live in the now, to be happy with the person you are, instead of always grasping and striving for more, and the lesson of how that continual grasping will make your life a beautiful ruin.  How much better just to be beautiful as you are, instead of a beautiful ruin of what you wanted to be. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

In Which I Finally Finish an Adult Book

Nellie Olsen and The Round House
photo by me

"In order to purify yourself, you have to understand yourself, Father Travis went on.  Everything out in the world is also in you.  Good, bad, evil, perfection, death, everything.  So we study our souls."

One would think with all the rain we've had this Spring here in Piedmont NC, I would have finished reading more than one adult book in the last month.  Not so much, and honestly, I have no freaking clue what I've been doing, certainly not mowing my lawn or cleaning my house.    Anyway,  today I read the last page of The Round House by Louise Erdrich.    This was my first Erdrich novel, although a friend recommended and lent me The Master Butchers Singing Club, which I started but had to abandon because I couldn't read the font.  I love getting old. 

Describing The Round House is not easy.  It is a mystery, a coming-of-age story, and historical fiction all rolled into one character and plot-driven novel.    I loved the narrator's voice; it reminded me of the John Boy Walton voice-overs at the end of every Waltons episode.  And while I found the Native belief-system stories and mythological histories interesting, sometimes they interrupted the plot flow and felt artificially inserted for only the purpose of disseminating them.  The plot points bringing to light the common-place and unpunished abuses of Native women and the purposefully convoluted, specious court system that is Native law were infuriating.  And at the same time, the escapades of the teen boys at the center of the plot, while sometimes crude and a bit over-the-top, were also often very funny.  I certainly did not see where the plot was going and am still a bit unnerved by it, but I'm glad I read the book and plan to read more of her work in the future.

Erdrich nails the deep, often hidden and hard to name parts of human nature in the quotidian evil of the Larks, the Atticus Finch-like honor of Joe's judge father, the Native-hating governor who surreptitiously and immorally impregnates a Native girl, and in the searching, unorthodox compassion of Father Travis.   She covers huge moral questions like the problem of pain and its partial answer of free will, the question of how much we are or are not our brother's keeper, as well as the central conflict of vengeance versus justice and how far we can go to right wrongs without destroying ourselves in the process.  This book gave me a lot to ponder, and I'm sure as soon as I post this, I'll think of something else I'd like to say.   In the meantime, happy reading to you all.  I'm headed back to Italy to finish Beautiful Ruins.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Just For Fun

Cartwheels in the Sand
photo by me

For the last month, I have been reading purely for entertainment.  I haven't blogged about the books I've been reading, I suppose, because I thought they lacked the proper gravitas for reflection.  But as I consider this idea, I think maybe I have been wrong.  Sometimes, life is so stressful and overwhelming, and it seems like every day is full of decisions that are full of portent and promise or disappointment that we need to escape.  We need to see ourselves in another place, another time, another world, even.  Being a lover of books, to me, doesn't just mean loving the books that "matter."  Sometimes it means loving the books that matter right then, the books that save you, every day, from the stress and ennui and overwhelming reality of life. 

The first "just for fun" book I read was Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.  I loved the mystery of this book at first.  The plot wore a little thin for me as the book went on, but it was entertaining and well-written for a YA fantasy novel.  I bought the second book and started it, but I'm not sure I'll stick with it.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone would be a great beach read.

After a YA fantasy, I switched to a YA (maybe a littel too much) reality in Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.  Eleanor and Park is also well-written, and I guess true to life for some people.  I don't know how realistic either character really is, but I enjoyed reading the book, even though the ending was very abrupt.  It's not a pick-me-up kind of book.

After these two, I entered the land of "WTH am I going to read now?" and started several books without finishing anything yet.  I started Beautiful Ruins by Jess  Walter and The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin, but now I've found The Round House by Louise Erdrich on my library's 14 Day Shelf and started it.  And I am still limping along on Les Miserable; I think it's going to take me all year.  I need a beach trip...a very long beach trip.  Happy Summer Reading!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Falling Off in the Middle

Apple Blossom Time
photo by Amy Brandon

“Outside was quiet.  Light clear as water created shadows of leaves curled and minuscule on the ground.  She looked at the sky as she walked, a passionate blue.  Cloudless.  In the grove by the far apple orchard the apple trees were in shadow.  The sun postured along the curvature of canyon and illuminated the walnut trees starkly….  The sun on the porous bank near where she stood was lit up, incandescent, the minerals glittering and the dull mud peculiar and particular even in its dullness.  Each pore and streak and detail was washed and brought forth as is a person’s face by the light.” From The Orchardist

 The last two books I have read I loved until half-way through.  I still liked them both at the end, but lost some of my feeling for each of them for different reasons.    The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin succeeded in evoking its time and place and in investing me in the characters and their lives.   The main complaint I have about the novel is that half-way through, the plot starts to drag out a bit.  I felt like the story could have been told a little more succinctly.  I also ended up fairly disliking the character of Della.  I wanted to like her, and naturally, I pity anyone who grows up like she did.  I just lost patience with her.   To be fair, however, I will have to say that I have no basis for understanding her kind of misery.  The older I get, the more I see, every day, evidence of how truly messed up a person’s upbringing can make him or her.  I’d say the contrast between Della and Angelene exhibits this point perfectly.  Regardless of the dragging middle part and the irritation I felt with Della, The Orchardist is definitely a book worth reading.  The descriptions of the land and the people and of how they are tied to the land, the family saga and the harshness of people’s lives, and the feeling of place and time in the novel reminded me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is one of my favorite novels.
After The Orchardist, I read The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.  The first chapter of this book is almost perfect, and I loved the brilliant, quirky, highly improbable dialogue, which was very entertaining and laugh out loud funny sometimes.  There are so many themes presented worth exploring and considering:  existential angst, living your best life anyway, how small people and small infinites matter too.    The last part of the book, however, was so difficult for me to read that I don’t feel like I can say I loved the whole book.  It needs to be read, deserves to be read, but was not an easy thing for me to get through.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Too Many Books Too Little Time

Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus
 Piazza della Signoria, Florence
Photo by Amy Brandon
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and Holes by Louis Sachar.  I read Holes because I was reading it aloud where I volunteer.  I enjoyed it but not as much as some of the reviews indicated I should.  It seemed a little over-hyped to me.    
I found The Song of Achilles to be very entertaining, and as I read, I researched some of the myths I was less familiar with, so it was educational in that way.   I enjoyed the story being told from Patroclus' point of view.   The point of view and the narration type brought freshness and immediacy to a story we all already know.  It's a good quick read if you're looking for some light entertainment.
I’m still chipping away at Les Miserable and Beowulf, and I am half-way through The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, which I am absolutely loving.  Within the first twenty pages of The Orchardist, I knew it was going to be one of those sagas that would sweep me up into its world.  I do love a novel that transports me so completely.   The OCD part of me is not happy being in the middle of so many books and not completing them, so now it’s time for some lunch reading!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Tempus Fugit

photo by Amy Brandon

"Walk without a stick into the darkest woods." Cheryl Strayed
Three of the stories Cheryl Strayed tells in Tiny Beautiful Things haunt me.  One is about her mother’s last gift to her, and it haunts me because it happened to me. Her mother’s last gift to her was a coat.  In 1993, when I was five months pregnant with my first child, I went to visit my mother in the hospital.   Her cancer was advanced enough that she begged me to pray for her death and told me she planned to wear the dress she wore to my wedding to her burial.  I was hurried, harried, overwrought, overworked, confused, and not wanting to hear anything she had to say about her death.  It was February.  I breezed into her hospital room coatless, because I’d finally reached the point where nothing I owned fit my growing belly.    Even in the midst of her death, she noticed my lack of a coat, forced cash on me, and made me go to the mall to buy a coat I could fit into.  I kept that coat, ugly and out-dated though it was, until last year. 
The second story Strayed tells that haunts me does so because nothing like it ever happened to me.  She tells of her mother’s buying a child’s dress at a yard sale years before Strayed ever thought of having a child and how her child eventually wears that dress.  This haunts me because my mother never bought either of my children anything, because she never had the opportunity.  Strayed speaks of how quotidian it is to some people to dress their kids in clothes their grandparents bought and of how shimmeringly beautiful that one dress her mom bought was because it was the only thing her mom ever bought for her child. 

The third story haunts me in a good way, because it makes me understand that I am not alone.  She advises a motherless woman’s fiancé to accept the emptiness that is part of the woman he loves and to accept that it will never be ok that her mother died when she was young.  She says that when you lack a parent, it’s like walking around with empty bowls in your hands that you can never fill.  I learned a long time ago that we learn to live around the voids left in our lives by death.  The best way I can honor my mother is to live the hell out of the life she gave me and to love my children the same way she loved me, like there was never anything more beautiful in the history of the world.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Finally Free From Freedom

Why My Reading Time Is Scattered
Photo by Amy Brandon

"All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.  Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli."
 Walter Berglund in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

After two months of back and forth reading, I finally finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   I struggle with books like these because it seems like I spend most of my life needing an escape from reality, rather than an inundation of it. I'm not arguing the brillance of Jonathan Franzen, but I'm not sure passively and reactively shedding light on the ills of our society is necessarily the most productive way to improve it.  Almost every aspect of this book microscopically picks apart the general malaise and some of the more specific sicknesses of the modern American family.  If you're looking for an escape hatch in your reading, don't pick up this one. 

Last week, I attempted to read Swamplandia by Karen Russell.  It became one of the few books I did not finish.  I could find no redeeming qualities to compel me to waste any more time that a few days on it. 

This week, I've started Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed and The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner.  We'll see if I have any better luck with these.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Know Thyself

This is Me.  The Real Me.
Photo by Anna Reavis

"Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City." Mrs. March in Little Women

I've had cause this week to contemplate judgement, forgiveness, and condemnation among people.  I was in the midst of thinking through the issue of why people are so willing, eager even, to tear other people down when I happened to catch Justice Sonia Sotomayor say to Gwen Ifill:  "If you try to find the best in people, they'll usually rise to your expectation.  If you try to find the worst, you'll find it."   Often, the people who are the most judgmental and critical of others are those who are unwilling to see and accept their own faults.  Condemnation is a fool's game, though, for we are all transgressors, only the details differ.

During the week, while I was considering this pervasive judgment of others and attempting to comprehend its appeal to so many people,  my daughter and I began another co-reading project, this time of Little Women.  Toward the end of Chapter One, the girls and Mrs. March discuss dealing with one's own personal burdens.  Mrs. March reminds the girls of their old habit of playing Pilgrim's Progress wherein one's burdens are in bags on one's back and after much trudging through "extremities," those bags full of burdens slide off and fall as they climb up the stairs toward "heaven."  

I think probably one of life's most important lessons, but also one of the hardest to learn, is to forgive yourself.  Refuse to carry your faults around as burdens.  Acknowledge them and let them go. Deal honestly with yourself.  Life is a beautiful mess.  Wade through it as best you can.  You may end up dirty and rumpled, but dirty and rumpled is when authentic people are at their happiest.  At the end, you want to be content to claim your life as your own beautiful mess and to feel as though you lived your best possible life.  Let those bags fall off.  Better yet, burn them.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Various and Sundries

Windows in Paris
photo by Amy Brandon

I've read three books and made headway in three others since I last blogged.  I don't find that I am able or willing to write an entire post about every book I read.  Number one, this would take away too much reading time, and number two, not every book deserves a post.  I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley because I liked the title and because I'd seen other bloggers reading it last year.  Almost the entire time I was reading it, I was trying to figure out when the story was actually going to begin, even at the end.  Not one of my favorites.  I followed that up with The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin, which I so thoroughly enjoyed that I ordered the sequel from Amazon as soon as I read the last (infuriating!) paragraph.  During the weekend that I was reading The Winter Queen, I watched North Carolina Bookwatch with DG Martin and caught his interview with Sheila Turnage, so I ordered her new book, Three Times Lucky.  It's marketed for kids, and it's definitely an easy read, but it's worth any adult's time who needs an afternoon's entertainment.

For the last several months, I've been picking up and putting down and plowing my way slowly through Les Miserable.  I first started the book on Kindle because of its physical size and the difficulty of holding up the novel, but I found that I had trouble getting swept up in the digital form, so I ordered the beautiful Penguin cloth-covered hardback classic and am now reading it.  Since I've switched, I've discovered that part of the problem with the Kindle version I had was the clunky, unappealing translation.  The Penguin, while causing carpal tunnel, is much more appealing all the way around.  The shocking news is that I am a 45 year old literature major who loves musicals, and I DO NOT know the plot of Les Mis at all!  I know, I know... where have I been?  It's fun to read it for the first time at this age, though.

I am also reading Natasha's Dance:  A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes, in preparation for some more Russian reading, which I am loving, and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, to which I am having a mixed reaction.  Franzen can definitely write, and Freedom grabs you on page one and doesn't want to let go, but I get overwhelmed and impatient with whiny, self-absorbed navel-gazers in my every day life, so I have to take this one, which seems full of these people,  in small doses.  It feels a lot like reading the thoughts of too many people I know and don't like.  Franzen does have that uncanny ability of good novelists to suck you into his time and culture, which unfortunately is also my time and culture.   As I said, his writing is really the star of this one.

So, with all that covered, back to Les Mis and the Battle of Waterloo.  Reading time, finally. Yay!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Opening Pandora's Box

photo by Amy Brandon

"I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild."  Cheryl Strayed

There are parts of who I am and of who I have been that I block and avoid like the plague because they are dangerous to me.  Sometimes it is impossible to think about the person I have been.  Sometimes it will break me to reflect on who I once was, and the only way to keep from crashing is to become someone else.  When I chose to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I had no idea I was about to spend a month inside the dangerous, wild places of my mind I actively choose to avoid.

I marvel at how lost we allow ourselves to become without the outside world even knowing we are lost.  Only recently have I realized how starved for affection we can become when we go too long without it.  I would not posit that having a mother is the only way to avoid this.  I know that some mothers do not fill this roll for their children, and I know that it is possible to be loved by someone else in such a way that you feel sated and full, instead of starved and alone, but to be motherless damages you in an unnameable, pervasive way.  To those of you still with mothers who want to pass judgement here and say “get over it,” I would answer that this view is easy to take when you are still mothered.  Some of you never had real mothers and so I’m sure will think I was lucky to have had what I did.  I agree.  And almost all you who read this, because you only know me through this blog, will not know that this issue is not a crutch or a well-wallowed bog for me.  What I have realized fairly recently is that I am who I am because I lost my mother when I did.  I am fiercely independent and alone and just as fiercely lonely and at odds with the choices I’ve made that have made me this way.  Repeated detachment subtlely shapes you into an island of your own.  You end up choosing to destroy normal just to keep yourself from falling into it. 

I can be in the middle of a perfectly quotidian day, and one sentence can, as reading Wild often did, lead to this:  how hard it is not to have one person who loves you anyway, loves even the unlovable in you, is on your side justifiably or not.  And then someone will ask me, “What’s wrong?” and I will have to say “nothing” because “everything” is too much.  

You can’t out run, out drink, or out dance the truth, so you may as well calm down and deal with it, and become who you were meant to be. 

How to Save a Life, One Day at a Time

photo by Amy Brandon   "Little things heal our hurts. Sounds, scents, the spoken word, and music that may mean nothing to someon...