Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sick, sick, sick

Being sick really stinks. Especially on your very last week of freedom before going back to work and facing the mad crowds of students, colleagues who want to brag about their summer research and travel, and endless, pointless meetings.

Wasn't feeling too great on Sunday, but I simply attributed that to a bit of overindulgence the previous evening while out with some old friends visiting from out of town. Boy was I wrong! Monday morning greeted me with a stomach ache that made me double over, high fever and chills. August isn't flu season, is it? What did I do to derserve this?? Hubby has been a dear, though, and made me lots of jello and brought me ginger ale every time that I bellow for him to attend to me.

This is a bit of a setback both personally and professionally, as I was hoping to get a bit more research and writing accomplished before going back to work and to write up my long overdue reviews of the following books for the Summer Reading Challenge and Southern Reading Challenge: A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O'Connor), The Heart of a Woman (Maya Angelou), Mademoiselle Victorine (Debra Finerman), The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon). I have my work cut out for me! I have, however, felt justified in indulging myself in some good reading--reading, after all, is a more passive activity and requires less energy than writing.

My advisor attributes my current ill health to my last few tireless days of writing to finish another chapter of the thesis during which I ran down my resistance. Hmmm...is this is her way of appeasing me for having slashed the prior chapter?!

Regardless, I am simply thankful that we bought a new mattress last week and that I have a nice, long novel to read. If confined to bed, it helps one's morale (and keeps one's mind off the tummy ache) to be at least comfortable and entertained.

I spent the great majority of Monday (and most likely will do the same today, as well) reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I found this novel in hardback a few weeks ago on the discount table of a bookstore for a mere $5.00. Based on the 300+ pages that I have read in my sickbed, I would have been quite pleased with my purchase had I shelled out the full price...and then some! I have heard people complain that this one gets off to a slow start and that it could have been edited down from its 500+ pages (yes, this one is a chunkster!), but I disagree. I like slowly moving narratives--if there is a reason for the pace and an eventual reward. In this case, it works for me. I look forward to finishing this and sharing my thoughts on it. For now, here's a brief description from Amazon:

If your pulse flutters at the thought of castle ruins and descents into crypts by moonlight, you will savor every creepy page of Elizabeth Kostova's long but beautifully structured thriller The Historian. The story opens in Amsterdam in 1972, when a teenage girl discovers a medieval book and a cache of yellowed letters in her diplomat father's library. The pages of the book are empty except for a woodcut of a dragon. The letters are addressed to: "My dear and unfortunate successor." When the girl confronts her father, he reluctantly confesses an unsettling story: his involvement, twenty years earlier, in a search for his graduate school mentor, who disappeared from his office only moments after confiding to Paul his certainty that Dracula--Vlad the Impaler, an inventively cruel ruler of Wallachia in the mid-15th century--was still alive. The story turns out to concern our narrator directly because Paul's collaborator in the search was a fellow student named Helen Rossi (the unacknowledged daughter of his mentor) and our narrator's long-dead mother, about whom she knows almost nothing. And then her father, leaving just a note, disappears also.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Booking through Thursday

Although my blog content admittedly has been lacking lately, I'm afraid that I'm not doing much better today. I've seen several people doing Booking through Thursday and I haven't done any memes at all so far, so here goes.

Do you have multiple copies of any of your books?
If so, why? Absent-mindedness? You love them that much? First Editions for the shelf, but paperbacks to read?
If not, why not? Not enough space? Not enough money? Too sensible to do something so foolish?


Yes! I do have many duplicates among my books. Most of the duplicates I have because they are books that I study and often use in my research, so having different editions prepared by a variety of scholars is useful because they have different insights in their footnotes and introductions. This is why I have so many copies of Renaissance French books and the Bible (I study early religious reform—before Luther—as expressed in literature of the period). Some of the other French duplicates I have because a professor in graduate school discovered that he had different editions from the ones he had ordered for us in the campus bookstore. So, all of us poor grad students had to scrape our pennies to buy his editions of the texts so that we could all follow along in class. Thus, I have multiple copies of Balzac, Montesquieu, Voltaire…there are even a few more that I don’t mention below.

I’m sure that I have more duplicates than the ones I list. Sadly, the great majority of my books are in storage, so I’m working mainly on memory here. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we will find a new house soon so that all of my books can be restored to their proper place on shelves instead of in boxes!

The Bible: 5 copies (New Jerusalem, New Oxford Annotated, Revised Standard, a French language edition, and a leather-bound one that my granny gave me as a child)

Jeanne Flore, Les Comptes amoureux : 5 copies—this is the book I’m writing my thesis on. So, I have a microfilm copy of both the original and second editions (1540 & 1542), two modern editions and my very own English translation, which I hope to publish next year (again, keeping the fingers crossed!)

Rabelais’s Gargantua: 4 copies
Rabelais’s Pantagruel: 3 copies

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence: 2 copies; one movie tie-in--I hate movie tie-ins, so I had to buy another nice paperback


I love old hardback books, so these two I own in both modern paperbacks and vintage hardcover:

Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga: 2 copies; one cheap paperback and one nice old hardcover from 1928
Marguerite de Navarre, Heptaméron:3 copies (2 French; one old English language hardcover)

  • Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun: one paperback; and one autographed & personalized paperback that I got when I met her at a public lecture a few years ago (she is so nice and thoughtful; I loved her!)

    The fault of former grad school prof (2 editions of each):
    Balzac, La Fille aux yeux d’or
    Montesquieu, Lettres persanes
    Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques
    Beaumarchais, Le Mariage de Figaro

    As for these two from childhood, I bought stray trade paperbacks of one book in each series, loved them and then had to buy a complete matching set, resulting in a couple of extras.

    C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: one stray paperback; one in complete set
    Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods: ditto

I hope to catch up on reviews this weekend!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Why people read less these days...

I just learned this morning that our state general assembly decided to provide extra funding to students already on scholarships and studying math or the sciences. My immediate thought was: what about the humanities?? We're important, too! Just apparently not in the "real" world. When expressing my severe revulsion to this new development, my husband simpy shrugged his shoulders and replied: well, the state needs more doctors and engineers and accountants right now. But, if there is a monetary value placed on certain majors, isn't this dictating to our students what they should study? Despite my obvious concern as a college French teacher wanting to keep her classes on the schedule, I also think that this is really sad for our students. It's discouraging them from broadening their horizons. It's preprogramming them to devalue reading and writing and art and music and history and language and...lots of other things, too. Yes, students do usually have to take a certain number of required classes in these subjects, but they treat them as just that: requirements. They put these classes off as long as possible and arrive to class with poor attitudes, limiting the possibility for teachers like me to inspire them--if they are already seniors, it's too late for them to switch majors even if they do end up appreciating my subject. I'm not bitter because I study and teach a field that makes less money and interests fewer students. Truly, I'm not because I love what I do. I simply wish that our culture were more open to quality of life, self-discovery, exploration of the world, etc. Life is so much more rich when we probe its contents, all of its contents. Am I over-reacting? Probably a bit. Am I fighting a losing battle? I sure hope not.


This recent clip from the Colbert Report touches on my above complaint. Sometimes when things are depressing, you just have to laugh at them. And Colbert certainly made me laugh here:

Friday, August 3, 2007

Kiddie Lit

I have kept up with the Harry Potter series over the years and admit that I have quite enjoyed them. I have a strong affinity for children’s and young adult literature and sometimes even wish that I had taken a few courses in it in college and graduate school to better appreciate its place in literary history. Fantasy series that draw on the imagination and call for a bit of thinking like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time books were among my favorites and had I been born a couple of decades later, I’m sure that I would have treasured Harry Potter. In fact, there are several great series out there today that Harry Potter aficionados may enjoy such as Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap books (Magyk, Flyte and Physik) or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—Pullman’s are wonderful, imaginative, intelligent books.

What I have enjoyed about J.K. Rowling is that while her characters go through amazing trials and tribulations, and have first hand experience with ugly, adult matters of death and loss, they remain unspoiled by their experiences and, though not naïve, retain their youthful innocence and vigor. These are kids having fun, enjoying and relying on one another’s company, even when they have to muster up every drop of courage in their young bodies to face hideous obstacles. And wouldn’t it be fun to be a kid at Hogwart’s? Rowling has an impressive—and smart—faculty of imagination and a great gift for coining terms for her inventions. I can’t imagine any of her creatures, spells, potions or curses having more apt names, abilities or consequences. I think that her world of witches and wizards is so convincing precisely because of this skill.

The seventh and final Potter book did not disappoint me. Like the others, I nearly finished it in one sitting, staying up all hours of the night to find out what would happen next. I was pleased with how she ended the series: she explained the puzzling actions of Dumbledore and Snape, worked out the mysterious connection between Harry and Voldemort and strengthened the bonds between her hero and his two great friends Ron and Hermione. We learn more about the psychology of these three as they mature into responsible adults. There are hints of love, inner turmoil, self doubt, concern for the greater good. My only complaint—and I’ve discussed this with my brother—is that the Deathly Hallows, supposedly a central aspect of this book if we are to believe the title, receive only peripheral attention. I can’t quite say that they were an afterthought, but I was a bit disappointed that their importance was not more fleshed out. A minor complaint in this otherwise exciting, satisfying read. And the epilogue certainly opens the door for a next generation of Hogwart’s fans. Although Rowling may have meant it when she said that there would be no more Harry Potter books, there is certainly room for a next generation!

So who is your favorite HP character? I’ve always liked Ron Weasley. Poor old Ron lives in the shadow of his best friend and just can’t seem to live up to his standard. How can you not find him endearing. I also have a particular fondness for redheads, having married one! Apparently, though, I have more in common with Hermione. I suppose it’s not too far-fetched since I was slightly nerdy and awkward until I got contacts and grew up a bit.

By the way, in this post, I learned that the sorting hat would put me in Ravenclaw. How about you?

What Harry Potter Character are You?

Hermione Granger

You are a smart and intelligent person. You use your smarts to help out friends. You can be emotional at times but you always seem to be in the mood to help someone out.

Personality Test Results

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Good Ole Southern Road Trip

I just got back home after nearly two weeks at the beach and I have to say that I have missed blogging. It's growing on me. A long stint at the beach is a hard life, I admit, but it was for the purpose of eliminating all distractions (read: internet connectivity) and to get some quality writing done on my dissertation. I returned home happily, having accomplished a lot, including my first real tan in about 10 years! I also did a good bit of pleasure reading, finishing The Shadow of the Wind, the new Harry Potter book and making a nice dent in Maya Angelou's Heart of a Woman. Reviews are in the works.

In the meantime, the clock has been ticking away--the Southern Reading Challenge Sense of Place Contest ends today! My husband and I are trying so hard to create our own sense of place, having made a offer on this lovely house this past weekend. Doesn't seem like this one will work out, but who knows. It does look really homey, though, doesn't it? I can picture some comfy rockers on the front porch, maybe some ferns hanging from above... If not this one, maybe something else (and even better!) will come along.


Flannery O'Connor had a beautiful homeplace on her farm, Andalusia. Her room, where she wrote the majority of her works, was in the front left corner of the country plantation below. The tree-lined dirt road leads up to the front door. Her peacocks roamed the grounds at will, harassing visitors and feasting on her flowers. There are no longer any peacocks on the grounds, but it's not difficult to imagine them.

So, here's my sense of place entry. Not really fair of me to use so many pictures, but I had fun with this! Great idea, Maggie!

These excerpts from "A Good Man is Hard to Find" remind me of driving up the old dirt road to O'Connor's home. I like to think that one can at least partially experience the sense of place that she creates here when visiting Andalusia.

The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. [...]

The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath, she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat. [...]

She said that it was going to be a good day for driving [...]. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. [...]

The grandmother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it [...].

They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly
along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Creating a sense of place

During her fantastic Southern Reading Challenge this summer, "rockin' girl blogger" Maggie is holding a Sense of Place Contest in which participants choose a passage from one of their reading selections and post a picture that illustrates the quote. This is a great way to help us recreate, or at least to better imagine, the atmosphere of southern literature. This is a quite appropriate companion to our reading challenge, as the below sign posted at the home of late southern author Flannery O'Connor illustrates (apologies for the poor quality of the picture, not sure why that happened).


In case you can't read it, here are the first couple of lines transcribed:

The agricultural setting of Andalusia, with its laborers, buildings, equipment, and animals, figures prominently in Flannery O'Connor's work. Southern fiction places great emphasis on a sense of place, where the landscape becomes a major focus in the shaping of the action.

Iliana at Bookgirl's Nightstand posted this entry. I'm planning on entering, too, probably with a quote/photo from Flannery O'Connor. In the meantime, the contest has gotten me thinking about how other authors and artists create a sense of place in their respective works.

Last night, my baby brother and I (though technically, he's not really my baby brother anymore since he's nearly 25) went to the Decemberists' concert at Chastain Park in Atlanta, GA. I am a big fan of this band because they express such creativity. Their songs are actual stories that are interesting in their own right. The lyrics often read nicely even without the music, often quite literary, inspired by folk tales (the three Crane Wife songs are based on a Japanese tale), historical anecdotes, or literature and evoke a distinct setting and atmosphere. For example, on the latest album (The Crane Wife) the song Yankee Bayonet is a Civil War story of lost love that very successfully carves out a sense of place: the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Read the lyrics, listen to the song, and contemplate its landscape--the foothills of Oconee County, South Carolina.

"Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)"

Heart-carved tree trunk, Yankee bayonet
A sweetheart left behind
Far from the hills of the sea-swelled Carolinas
That's where my true love lies

Look for me when the sun-bright swallow
Sings upon the birch bough high
But you are in the ground with the voles and the weevils
All a'chew upon your bones so dry

But when the sun breaks
To no more bulletin battle-cry
Then will you make a grave
For I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then
Then

When I was a girl how the hills of Oconee
Made a seam to hem me in
There at the fair when our eyes caught, careless
Got my heart right pierced by a pin

But oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas
All the bellies and the bones and the bile
Though I lingered here with the blankets barren
And my own belly big with child

But when the sun breaks
To no more bulletin battle-cry
Then will you make a grave
For I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then
I will be home then

Stems and bones and stone walls too
Could keep me from you
Scaly skin is all too few
To keep me from you

But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
Though our skin may not touch skin
Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
I will come on the breath of the wind


Here's a little glimpse of the concert:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Book Thief

The Book Thief is an amazing book. It is really and truly wonderful. It’s one of those books with which I so thoroughly identify and which I so enormously appreciated that I wish that I had written it. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it or check it out of the library right now! Yes, I do genuinely mean this. And no, I am not engaging in gratuitous hyperbole by evoking all of these fluffy adjectives and trite expressions. I realize that it is a growing trend these days to qualify anything and everything as unbelievable, amazing or incredible to the –nth degree. In this case, however, a state of wonder and amazement is a quite appropriate description of my reaction to this book.


From the Oxford-English Dictionary:
Amazement, noun. 1. gen. Loss of one's wits or self-possession; mental stupefaction; bewilderment, perplexity; 2. spec. Overwhelming fear or apprehension; 3. spec. Overwhelming wonder, extreme astonishment.
Related words: admiration, awe, bewilderment, marvel, wonder, wonderment

Wonder, marvel and admiration are precisely what I felt while reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. This seems fitting, for the author is trying to remind us of the wonder and marvel that so often passes unseen in our daily lives.

The Book Thief is narrated by Death, but Markus Zusak depicts him not as a gloomy, frightening grim reaper-type character. Rather, Death is an acutely sensitive, meticulous observer of humans. He does not seek victims, but simply does his job, collecting souls once their bodies expire and recounting with tender wonderment the circumstances of the event, the opportunities missed, the genuine, unbridled emotions as those close to the deceased (which Death terms “leftover humans” and “the ones who are left behind”) react to their loss. The narrator punctuates the story with brief interventions, offering dictionary definitions in the style of mine above, descriptions of his observations or background information about the characters or the situation. Death seems to crave the experiences of the Living and their glorious vitality; he describes the world in wistful detail, with poignant analogies and vivid colors. Death depicts a scream as “dribbling down the air,” a leaf as “dry and hard, like toasted bread,” darkness “stride[s] forward,” words “fell like injuries from his mouth,” or are “stranded on the paper, beaten down for her to walk on,” sometimes even “like waves, breaking on her back.”


Words are, in fact, at the crux of this story. Words have power: power to harm, power to enchant, power to protect, to facilitate escape or to divert, to record and to affirm one’s thoughts, the very essence of our existence. Hitler, the Fürher (leader) as he is referred to in the book, controlled Nazi Germany with words, labeling its citizens and programming their conceptions of one another. Liesel Meminger, our young orphaned protagonist, has a fascination for words. Her mother, a suspected communist in Nazi Germany, delivers Liesel to a foster family (Hans and Rosa Hubermann) on Himmel Street in Molching, a small town in the outskirts of Munich, but her deep curiosity for books and their stories propels her through this and other tragic events. Death intervenes to describe her foster parents:


***SOME FACTS ABOUT***
HANS HUBERMANN
He loved to smoke.
The main thing he enjoyed about smoking
was the rolling.
He was a painter by trade and played the piano
accordion. This came in handy, especially in winter,
when he could make a little money playing in the pubs
of Molching, like the Knoller.
He had already cheated me in one world war but
would later be put into another (as a perverse
kind of reward), where he would somehow
manage to avoid me again.


***SOME FACTS ABOUT***
ROSA HUBERMANN
She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her
browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun.
To supplement the Hubermann income, she did
the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching.
Her cooking was atrocious.
She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she ever met.
But she did love Liesel Meminger.
Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.
It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.

Words, books and stories are Liesel’s sustenance; learning to read and then, to write, is as life-altering for Liesel as are the political changes in the world around her. Before even acquiring these skills, Liesel is enthralled simply by the material nature of books, a black cover with silver words embossed across the front: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Liesel picks up the book left behind in the snow by a young boy who had dug her brother’s grave, concealing it from her mother and later hiding it under her mattress in her new foster home and earning her Death’s moniker for her, The Book Thief. It is her papa, Hans Hubermann, who gives her the gift of words by teaching her the alphabet and how its sounds combine to form meanings, sentences and stories. These lessons begin as a cure for Liesel’s nightmares about her brother’s death and develop into a healthy obsession that becomes a cure for the larger ills of her war torn world. Liesel reads to people in order to share this ephemeral joy—she reads to the Jew whom the Hubermann’s are hiding in their basement and who becomes her great friend, she reads to a neighbor who grieves for her dead son, she reads to her friends and their parents who seek shelter from air raids in a basement.

Liesel’s life essentially begins when she learns to read The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a narrative about death. Likewise, Death finds some semblance of life through his narrative about Liesel reading. The Book Thief is a story about Liesel, but it also is a primer of life’s simple joys and the importance of human kindness, a reminder from Death that in life one can find infinite treasures even in the smallest, most unlikely, unexpected or insignificant places, objects, events and people. The world is an open book, a cabinet of curiosities (like the one to the right) in which words allow us to share our wonder.

Someone whose advice I deeply respect told me recently that it is important to find moments to act childlike (though preferably, not childish), in order to rediscover the world through innocent, naïve eyes, as if seeing things for the first time. Liesel’s story can help us to recapture this sensation and to bear in mind that life’s journeys are just as rich and important as the end result. Life is beautiful. Even when bombs are falling, books are being burned and everything seems hopeless. Even then, there is beauty just waiting for someone to notice.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Back from the beach!

This Monday isn't quite as mundane as usual since I'm still enjoying that post-vacation glow--quite literally, in fact, as my usually pasty white skin has acquired a lovely tan. Not only was my self-indulgent week at the beach relaxing (I admit to much wine consumption, pleasure reading, sunbathing and a massage at the local spa), it was also rather productive. I produced an incredible 14 pages of my thesis! Sometimes a simple change of scenery can do wonders to one's muse. How can one not be inspired by a view as beautiful as this?

Due to the utter lack of internet connectivity (I managed to connect to the local ad hoc network, only to discover that the signal was too weak), I have a lot of catch-up blogging to do. Write a review of Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find for the Southern Reading Challenge, respond to blog comments, post a photo for the Sense of Place Contest, review The Book Thief for the Summer Reading Challenge 2, which I have nearly finished, not to mention lots of blog reading to see what everyone else has been up to...

In the meantime, can't let a Monday go by without a bit of procrastination. Due to my recent reading of and newfound affinity for a particular southern author who happens to be from my hometown and whose farm-turned-museum I visited only two weeks ago, this quiz is particularly eery. I said in a previous post that I was hoping to find a kindred spirit in this writer, well, this is just weird! So which author's fiction most resembles you?









Which Author's Fiction are You?




Flannery O'Connor wrote your book. Not much escapes your notice.
Take this quiz!








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Monday, July 2, 2007

Can blogs be trusted?

Maggie of Maggiereads posed this question recently and it got me thinking. Here's my two cents:

I began my blog in hopes of curing my writer's block. I wanted to give myself an outlet for thinking and writing about books other than those that I have to read for my research(regardless of how interesting they may be). This seems to open the floodgates for me and get the creative juices flowing, for as a fellow blogger commented on her post, it's a purge to write a book review.

I am convinced that it is important not only to read and write, but to read and write about a variety of things. Book blogs create a dialogue that allows us to contemplate and comment on others' thoughts, encouraging us to broaden our reading horizons. Wouldn't it be hypocritical of me to push my students to discuss literature if I didn't engage in a bit of discussion myself?

When reading a blog, we simply need to be aware of its purpose. Maybe we are asking ourselves an ill-defined question. Instead of "can blogs be trusted," maybe we should ask: "what is the goal/purpose of this blog?"...

Maggie's goal of making us read is quite successful! Thanks to her challenge, I have discovered that I quite admire Flannery O'Connor's writing and have added another of her books to my list.

Another Mundane Monday...

but this one isn't so bad since I get to go to the beach for a week after only a few hours of work! As a consequence, blogging may be spotty this week--no internet connection at the beach house. I'll have to search out a place with wi-fi.

I've been dragging my feet about working this morning and discovered that based on this very scientific and foolproof quiz (ha!), I am a "dedicated reader." What type of reader are you?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Literate Good Citizen
Book Snob
Fad Reader
Non-Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Friday, June 29, 2007

Specimen Days

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham is a beautifully written work. He structures the book into three distinct short stories—“Into the Machine,” “The Children’s Crusade,” and “Like Beauty.” Although these stories may very well stand alone as distinct narratives, they coalesce in such a way that allows Cunningham to label his work a novel (the full title of the book is Specimen Days: A Novel). The stories merge in location (New York), character names and relationships (Catherine and Simon, who are romantically involved and a young deformed boy, Lucas) and the evocation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Each story is set in New York in a distinct time period—“Machine” takes place in the early days of the Industrial Revolution; “Crusade” in present-day NY and “Beauty” 150 years in the future—yet the consistency of characters allows the stories to melt together. In these stories, Cunningham satisfies the reader by hypothesizing various answers to the question “what if?” What if this character had died instead of that one? What if this character could be saved from his own self-destruction? If circumstances were different, would this relationship have worked?

Plot summary from wikipedia:

-The first short story, 'In the Machine,' is a Ghost Story. 'In the Machine' takes place in New York City during the Industrial Revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age.

The principal characters include Lucas (a disfigured young boy), Catherine (a young woman who was to marry Lucas' elder brother) and Simon (Lucas' recently deceased elder brother).

-The second short story, 'The Children's Crusade,' is a Noir Thriller. The story is set in early twenty-first century New York City. The story plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city.

The principle characters include Cat (an African-American woman working in a New York City police department), Simon (Cat's businessman boyfriend) and Luke (a child terrorist).

-The third short story, 'Like Beauty,' is futuristic Science Fiction. The story is set in a New York 150 years in the future. In the story, New York City is overwhelmed with refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

The principle characters include Simon (an adult male cyborg), Catareen (an adult female alien lizard living as a refugee on earth) and Luke (a homeless boy).

In a book review in New York Magazine, Caleb Cain observes: “This ghost story […] sets in motion themes, images, and characters that are reincarnated in the two compelling tales that follow.” Indeed, Cunningham slightly alters his characters’ names and social status in keeping with their respective societies, all the while exploring the same relationships, albeit it from slightly different angles. “Lucas lives in 1870’s New York, and he fears that the dawning machine age has made Whitman’s wishful thinking about death come horribly true” (NY Magazine review). Lucas, suspicious of the animated machines that are gradually replacing the roles humans once occupied, fears that his dead brother Simon’s soul has been captured by a machine. In the final story comes full circle with the novel’s beginning, for here, the cyborg Simon truly is a soul captured inside of a machine, becoming increasingly human in his affections and affectations.

Throughout the stories, the reader senses the haunting presence of Walt Whitman, in fact the title itself is a Whitman reference. The talismanic evocation of his poems, particularly Song of Myself, first by Lucas, then by Simon suggests that the individual dissolves into a common humanity and world experience. Each story, each life experience is but a specimen of a larger, universal truth. With the progression of the stories, the characters are closer and closer to approaching this truth, culminating in the tender relationship between a cyborg and an alien (strangely, this seems much less weird than it sounds). The following oft-quoted lines illustrate this idea particularly well:

-It is you talking just as much as myself…I act as the tongue of you.

-I am large…I contain multitudes.

-I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

- Nobody really dies. We go on in the grass. We go on in the trees.

-All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Even after a bit of reflection, I can’t say that I completely understand this novel. I would have to reread it several times in order to fully appreciate its complexities. Cunningham is a gifted writer and although I may not have grasped all of Cunningham’s intentions, I truly savored his prose. I found myself thinking about the book often, longing for my evening reading time. The below passage from the first story is particularly beautiful and aptly illustrates the presence of Walt Whitman. Here, Lucas describes the pain of having injured himself in the machine:

After some time, a flower blossomed in Lucas’s mind. He felt it, and unfurling of petals, a transformation from bud to bloom. The pain was there still, but it was not in him anymore. The pain had left him as the spirit leaves the body of the deceased. It had made of itself a curtain, shimmering, as if curtains could be made of glass and the glass were veined with colors and tiny instances of light. The curtain hovered, fragile as glass, around Lucas and Catherine. It encircled them. Pain ran through it in capillaries of blue and green, of softest pink. Where it was most intense, pain produced watery quiverings of illumination, like light on a river. Pain surrounded them, and they were here, inside it.

Lucas didn’t think he slept. He didn’t think he dreamed. He was able, though, to see things he ordinarily saw in dreams. He saw that outside the pain curtain, outside the walls of the room, was the hospital, with its patiently damaged supplicants and its crying man. Outside the hospital was the city, with its houses and factories, its streets where Walt walked, m
arveling at everything, at smiths sweating over their forges and women strolling under feathered hats, at gulls circling in the sky like dreams the hats were having. Outside the city was the book, which invented what Walt saw and loved, because the book loved Walt and wanted to delight him. Outside the book…was there anything outside the book? Lucas couldn’t be sure. He thought he saw a distance, an immensity that was in the book and outside it. […] (85)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Oh, the sacrifices!

Since another thesis deadline is approaching, today is a lazy blog day and sadly, it's looking like tomorrow may turn out the same way. I find the comics on this website hilarious. When that happens, it's time to graduate and move on already!





Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Short Stories

Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, has occupied much of my reading time over the past few days. I must admit that I am quite pleasantly surprised by her writing. This book had two strikes against it before I even picked it up: 1) it was written by Flannery O’Connor--reason for my (unjustified) distaste explained in prior posts; 2) it is a collection of short stories. I am one who likes long, slow novels—The Forsyte Saga, Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina, In Search of Lost Time, you get the picture. When I fall in love with a writer, I want as much as I can get. I want to go on reading for days, even weeks on end. I don’t want the experience to end, at least not any time soon.

This is, in fact, rather ironic because the majority of my graduate work (including the thesis that I am currently writing) has focused on the short genre in medieval and Renaissance France, collections much like Boccaccio’s Decameron. Obviously, I don’t like to mix work and pleasure reading. I have surprised myself, however, by my recent reading choices. In fact, a delightful new pattern began to emerge a couple of months ago when I picked up Alice Munro’s Runaway. She has an ability to pack an enormous amount of character development into only a few pages. Then I discovered that Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, marketed as a novel, is actually made up of three interlinking short stories. And this leads us to Flannery O’Connor. She reminds me of Alice Munro, though the latter delves much deeper into the psychology of her characters. The stories in Munro’s collection are held together by the common theme of the book’s title. The author is preoccupied by the conflicts, whether internal or external, that cause her characters to miss out on something, to run away from what it seems that they want or need. So far (and I’m not quite halfway through), the unity of O’Connor’s collection also seems to lie in its title (logical, right?) and she sets the mood for the entire book in the first, eponymous story. For the women in O’Connor’s stories, it does appear that a good man is hard to find, but I’ll hold off on discussing this book for now.

Simon over at Stuck in a Book had this to say yesterday about short stories:
in general, their brevity and structure mean a short story can hang on a single moment, issue or point - a novel would be quite weak if it tried the same thing - so it's much more sink or swim. When they succeed, like Mansfield's 'The Garden Party', for instance, they really succeed. When they fail... well, at least you haven't spent weeks to be disappointed.
Actually, the brevity and singular focus that used to leave me unsatisfied is precisely the quality that I now am beginning to appreciate. I may even join that Seconds Challenge that I have seen popping up on books blogs lately in order to get a second helping of these writers' stories. Otherwise, I'm likely to return to my old habit of putting them off and that would be a shame.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Mundane Monday Mornings...

Do you find yourself resisting returning to work after a nice weekend of reading and resting? Monday morning procrastination is by far my worst vice. I really should be working on my research, but as "they" say, it's not the work that is hard, it's the discipline! Here’s my latest quasi-book related distraction, which I have a feeling my friend Megan would love:

Find Your Hogwarts House: The Harry Potter Sorting Hat Personality Test.


The sorting hat says that I belong in Ravenclaw!

Said Ravenclaw, "We'll teach those whose intelligence is surest."

Ravenclaw students tend to be clever, witty, intelligent, and knowledgeable.
Notable residents include Cho Chang and Padma Patil (objects of Harry and Ron's affections), and Luna Lovegood (daughter of The Quibbler magazine's editor).


Take the most scientific Harry Potter Quiz ever created.

Get Sorted Now!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Specimen Days

I finished Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (another summer challenge read) this weekend and am still trying to assimilate it. Cunningham writes exquisitely. I found myself rereading multiple passages, savoring his prose as I would a bite of Belgian chocolate or a sip of fine wine. I'm not quite ready to post a review of the novel, which actually is a series of three interconnected novellas. I prefer to mull over it a day or two and fully consider each story separately as well as the whole that they create together. This novel really merits a reread in order to fully absorb everything that is going on. I will say that I highly recommend Michael Cunningham and that I intend to read more of his work, perhaps The Hours.

Cool Atlanta Attractions

Friday evening, my husband and I decided on a whim to take off to Atlanta for the weekend to see the Georgia Aquarium. The world's largest aquarium, this place is a must see for any nature lover. But, be forewarned that the crowds are truly awful on the weekends; we were pushed, shoved and jostled by many small children and strollers. Armed with an enduring patience, we spent several hours admiring otters, penguins, sea lions, beluga whales, jellyfish and the showcase of the aquarium, the two impressive whale sharks.

We also visited the new World of Coca-Cola museum. At $15 each, we probably could have skipped this one and not missed much. If you collect vintage ads or glass bottles, this place would be right up your alley, though. We did enjoy two things there: a short animated mock documentary film called The Happiness Factory and the tasting room where you can sample soft drinks that Coca-Cola markets all over the world (there's one sold in Italy that is quite disgusting!).

If you do make it to Atlanta this summer, check out the High Museum of Art, especially the LouvreAtlanta exhibit. Through 2009, the prestigious Musee du Louvre in Paris will loan many treasures from its collections. Now on display are decorative arts of the kings and paintings by Velasquez, Poussin, Fragonard, Rembrandt and others.

Southern Reading Challenge participants might enjoy a visit to the Margaret Mitchell House, the birthplace of the author of the classic, Gone With the Wind.

And if you make it even further south, you might enjoy the Uncle Remus Museum in tiny Eatonton, GA, birthplace of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of the beloved Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear. And near Eatonton in Milledgeville, don't forget Flannery O'Connor's ancestral farm, Andalusia, where she raised peacocks.

If you can brave the heat and humidity, these Atlanta area attractions aren't half bad!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Southern Books!

My goal for the Southern Reading Challenge was to read one southern book in each summer month, June through August. My three picks are listed over on the right. With only one week remaining in June, I figured that I should get on the stick! After a trip to our cozy, local bookshop, I came home this afternoon with the first two: Maya Angelou's autobiographical book and Flannery O'Connor's short story collection. Sorry to be slow getting started, Maggie, but my TBR pile was just so seductive!


Think I'll start off with Flannery O'Connor as I have a rather morbid curiosity for this writer. From what I hear, her Southern Gothic style does not make for good bedtime reading as it can be a bit disturbing in its realism at times. After being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, lupus, O'Connor lived the last fifteen years of her life on her ancestral farm, Andalusia, in my hometown of Milledgeville, GA. Her mother, Regina O'Connor, lived in a beautiful, grand antebellum home in downtown Milledgeville, one of the few southern towns that Sherman did not burn in his March to the Sea. Her home was right next to the church where I attended preschool and kindergarten and she did not take kindly to having kids playing and hollering too close to her property. She wasn't shy in voicing her opinion, either! This experience, combined with Flannery's ethereal presence about town made an impression on me--locals revere her, for there is a scant number of famous people, much less published authors, from this small town. Since I have lived away from my hometown for a number of years, I have developed a fondness for it, but there was a time when I was repulsed by anything associated with the place. I felt stifled growing up there and left for college without looking back. Now, however, I look forward to discovering O'Connor's work. Rather than rejecting her for her ties to Milledgeville, perhaps (?) I will find in her a kindred spirit. She was, after all, a misfit (an Irish Catholic in the middle of the Bible belt!) simply trying to find her place.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things is a coming-of-age story about childhood dreams, superstitions, insecurities, fears and fantasies. Just as a child might do in his imagination, John Connolly masterfully melds classic fairy tales with original fiction. He convincingly creates for his protagonist a vivid and troubling alternative reality, a land where David goes to escape from his new step-mother and infant half-brother in search of his dead mother, but where he discovers that he himself, not his blended family, is the obstacle to his happiness.


From the author’s official website:

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the loss of his mother. He is angry and he is alone, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness, and as he takes refuge in the myths and fairytales so beloved of his dead mother he finds that the real world and the fantasy world have begun to meld. The Crooked Man has come, with his mocking smile and his enigmatic words: 'Welcome, your majesty. All hail the new king.'
And as war rages across Europe, David is violently propelled into a land that is both a construct of his imagination yet frighteningly real, a strange reflection of his own world composed of myths and stories, populated by wolves and worse-than-wolves, and ruled over by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a legendary book . . .The Book of Lost Things.

Although this is my first John Connolly novel, I was not surprised to learn that he is a renowned author of mystery/crime novels, several containing paranormal overtones, and that he has also published a collection of short stories steeped in the supernatural. I originally thought that this was a book for children, but the author’s skill at describing some of the gruesome events—a huntress who grafts human torsos onto animal bodies to make the hunt more challenging, a Crooked Man who kidnaps children, harpies and half-human wolves who feed on humans—make this more of a story for adults who wish to rediscover the tales and terrors of their childhood. Imagine your worst nightmares realized, for that is what inhabits this land. With the help of several benevolent characters he meets along the way—the woodsman from Red Riding Hood and other characters inspired by fairy tales and legends—young David must confront numerous obstacles, villains and beasts in order to reach the king, whose Book of Lost Things is said to hold the secret of how to return home. Through his various trials and battles, David not only learns how to fight his opponents effectively, but also how to fight in his own inner turmoil. The reader witnesses both his journey through this magical land and David’s journey to adulthood.
If you are a sucker for good fantasy or fairy tales (and think the Brothers Grimm rather than the more recent Disney remakes), pick this one up. It will not disappoint. From the first page, you will be enthralled by Connolly’s superb writing and convincing, vivid imagination. I was impressed and plan to give his mystery novels (a genre I don't often read) a try.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

On Nightstands and Reading Habits

It seems to me that the objects on a person’s nightstand can be pretty revealing. Take mine, for instance. I have two alarm clocks (one typical electric clock-radio and one battery-operated old-fashioned alarm clock just in case the power goes out) and the book I am currently reading. On the shelf below, there is a large basket of books that I intend to read soon and want on hand when I finish my current read. On the floor, there are a more books that won’t fit in my to-be-read basket. My husband has rather different taste. On his nightstand, there are two remote controls, a couple of books on real estate, a couple on sports and Freakonomics.

I guess that there are two types of people: those who love to read and those who don’t understand the first type. It doesn’t take much to entertain me and my preferred type of entertainment is quite portable. I could spend hours reading in any relatively quiet place—the couch, the bed, the car, the beach, the back porch. My hubby, however, quickly grows impatient with books and his book choices tend to be more practically oriented—geared to learning a skill, perfecting a hobby, understanding the economy. When I am found with a book, he is usually found relaxing in front of the TV. Maybe this has to do with the imagination. I love forming images in my head of the characters and places that I read about. This relaxes me, diverts me, and provides an escape from what may be on my mind. I find the TV over stimulating—the light, the noise, the commercials—but, I think that some people must find comfort in having ready-made images provided for them and being able to see the action. Maybe imagining what the words describe takes too much effort. Or maybe these are simply habits that we unconsciously acquire as we grow up. I was often sick as a child and remember spending lots of time inside reading. My husband rarely was ill and was very active, constantly playing outside. No time to sit down and read meant that he didn’t develop the habit. And old habits die hard, don’t they? So, in the evenings he watches TV (and yes, occasionally his bad TV does catch my attention) while I curl up beside him with a book. And this works for us.

Review of The Book of Lost Things tomorrow. C'est promis!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Writing to find one's voice

We just returned from a long weekend with our family at an inn in the mountains of North Carolina where we spent a blissful, relaxing three days gazing at the mountain, napping in the afternoons, chatting and reading on the porch. I experienced my first massage, which I fear could become a serious addiction. During these lazy days, I read The Book of Lost Things, a novel inspired by the dreams and fairy tales of childhood, which I enjoyed immensely. I anticipate posting a review in a day or two. I returned home rested, relaxed and completely resistant to the idea of working on my research.

In lieu of re-entering the dysphoric state that "real" work brings on and ruining my post-vacation serenity, I prefer to hide in my study and pretend to work. Today, I have a few thoughts on writing (obviously I am rather obsessed with this topic of late). I recently began sharing my writing (both my blog and my research) with my husband. He told me a day or two ago that when I write, I seem to have a voice; he glimpses personality, even recognizes a distinct persona in my writing. Why is it that I feel so much more comfortable on paper than I do face to face? I have such trouble with interpersonal communication, particularly conferences and meetings. It’s not that I am socially awkward or lacking in appropriate social skills. I just don’t think well on my feet. I can never think of anything to say spontaneously; I am terrible at small talk. It is as if my mind is a void; I don’t feel anything; my personality retreats. When writing, I reflect, collect my thoughts, weigh the impact of my word choices, edit, revise, polish, and improve. I can manipulate my thoughts to my satisfaction, a quality that is utterly absent in spontaneous speech. Writing is my substitute for talking, in a sense. It is my effort at self-expression. When my self-expression is stifled, when I do not allow myself time to write, garden, cook, sew, decorate my home, have lunch with a friend, I grow very depressed. And my research writing suffers. Funny how that works, isn’t it? If I take time away from the research, I ultimately produce more, but if I force myself to do nothing but the research, I accomplish very little. I feel as though I have been trying to communicate my thoughts for ages and haven’t been able to find my voice. Writing seems to be the antidote. I have read that writing anxiety is akin to social anxiety in that it requires exposure of the self and ultimately, the completion of tasks. The experience gained by regular practice gradually increases competency and lessens anxiety. To find one’s voice through writing is to acknowledge one’s creative individuality, to quietly, yet assertively recognize one’s power: I have original, novel thoughts and am capable of effectively expressing them in order to persuade, to entertain, to instruct, to claim my place in the world. Profound stuff, isn’t it?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fairy tales in books and film

I watched Pan’s Labyrinth last night, a Spanish language film set in Spain during WWII. The heroine, Ofelia, is a young girl of about seven or eight whose widowed mother has remarried and is now expecting a baby. Ofelia escapes from the uncomfortable situation by telling stories to her baby brother inside her mother’s belly and by reading books of fairy tales. Although the adults around her try to suppress her imagination, Ofelia has gumption and often wanders off into the nearby woods. There, she discovers a magical labyrinth guarded by a fawn who tells her that she is in fact princess of a land underground and must complete three tasks in order to be reinstated to her rightful throne. We witness Ofelia’s tasks throughout the film and her difficulties in carrying them out in an adult world filled with turmoil and power struggles and devoid of imagination.

I loved this film because it reminded me of other, similar books and films from my childhood: The Never-ending Story, Labyrinth, Willow, The Princess Bride, The Castle in the Attic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Pan’s Labyrinth inspired me to pick up my new copy of The Book of Lost Things, as the epigraphs I mentioned a few day ago seem to indicate that this book will be similar. I don’t think that it will disappoint, for it begins “once upon a time.” I’m not sure what it is about fairy tales that has so entranced me since childhood. Perhaps because they tend to involve people or animals who are able to surmount their troubles in incredible ways while learning unexpected things about themselves during their journey. That’s just one quick stab at it. I’ll keep this thought in mind as I read The Book of Lost Things. More on this later...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Writing satisfaction, at last!


Don’t readers take for granted the process involved in creating those books we love? I know that I do. Once I discover a great author and devour his/her latest book, I long for another, checking bookstores and websites constantly for signs of a prospective publication. When none seems in sight, I grow terribly impatient. Some writers do possess the good fortune to be quite prolific, producing a novel a year or something equally incredible and impressive. It is only when I sit down with my research notes and try to write something myself that I remember how difficult it is. Oh, how it can drain one’s brain. But, how sweet is the satisfaction of a perfectly constructed paragraph. The sentence that effectively, accurately and (hopefully) eloquently articulates those jumbled thoughts in one’s head. Of course, the type of writing I’m talking about is much less creative and on a minuscule scale compared to what a novelist would do, but it does require a certain amount of original thought and inspiration. And inspiration comes at a high price! I had a breakthrough today and it’s a beautiful thing. I produced a mere three sentences, but those 91 words actually state an idea that has suffered many, many imprecise attempts at expression over the past week or so. Yeah me!
Note to self: Next time you pick up a book for pleasure reading, do not read quite as casually. There’s no telling what sort of inner turmoil the author endured to get those words on the page!
P.S.: Try to remember tomorrow how great it felt to produce something. That is motivation in itself.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Send Me

We're off to the beach for the weekend, so not much time for blogging today. Thought I'd share this author interview from QPB's insider column. I really appreciated the humorous take on family dysfunction in Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. Patrick Ryan's debut novel Send Me also looks into family dynamics, though from a rather different angle. Based on the rave reader reviews on QPB and Amazon, I may have to order this one. [below interview excerpted from qpb.com]

Associate Editor Justin Ravitz recently sat down with author Patrick Ryan to discuss his new book, Send Me
JUSTIN RAVITZ: In a nutshell, what's your book about?
PATRICK RYAN: It's a big nutshell: it's about people trying to do the right thing, and screwing up, and my trying to understand why they screwed up. I think that nobody really knows how to be a good mother, father or sibling. It was about having compassion for all of these people. And giving a panoramic view of this family.
JR: I loved the atypical structure. You told the story of this family through six members of this family, by jumping back and forth randomly over 40-odd years. We enter each scene nearly mid-action, and this odd sense of dislocation sheds a remarkable kind of beauty and nuance to each scene. What inspired this approach?
PR: Thanks! I never wanted to write a traditional novel. I never saw it as having one arc. I think that when people experience life, we don't experience it chronologically. In our heads we make these leaps to memories from when we were five to now. I wanted to try to mirror that. Each of the six main characters has his or her own arc, and sometimes they overlap.
[...]
JR: What, if anything, unifies this fractured, dysfunctional Kerrigan/Ragazzino family? What brings them together?
PR: I think that each one of them arrives at a place where he or she is very much aware of his or her shortcomings and culpability. But I didn't want any of them to be heroes or villains or "good" or "bad" people, necessarily. I don't believe in those pure extremes; everyone's sort of in the middle. I wanted them to be messed up and aware of that. That's what life is, that's who we are.
JR: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
PR: It's either an inspiring or pathetic story (laughs). I was born in DC, I grew up in Florida, went to Florida State, got my MFA at Bowling Green State in Ohio, and then embarked on a long series of jobs, one after another, and wrote the whole time. I was a housepainter, bartender, teacher, waiter, retail, I worked at a law firm . . . Between 1988 and starting Send Me in 2003, I wrote, finished, revised and sent around seven novels that I was never able to publish. I also started and got about halfway through eight more. All those years, it was always about having some crummy job that I had no interest in so that I could write. I wrote five days a week. And every book I finished I thought "this is the one, this is the one." But I got really down and depressed before I started Send Me. This sounds so corny - I thought "I can't obsess every single day about having my book published. I have to let go of the prize." And something clicked in my head and I just relaxed a bit. And I started writing better.
JR: Are there parts of yourself, your own history and family amidst these characters?
PR: Almost all of the events themselves are made up. The one thing that's really true is that my mother does think that she's a reincarnated model from a Vermeer painting (laughs).
JR: I have my own theories, but what's the meaning of your title?
PR: To me it's three things: 1) Deliver me from all this. 2) Sort of an abbreviated "you send me," I always thought that meant "I get a big kick out of you," but I found out that in the fifties it actually meant "You make me horny." (laughs) 3) You're driving me away from you, send me out of here, get me out of here. [...]

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The House on the Strand

I first encountered Daphne du Maurier as a teenager when my grandmother loaned me her worn copy of Rebecca. I remember being completely enthralled, holding my breath with every turn of the page. Had I not had such high expectations for my reading of The House on the Strand due to my fond memory of Rebecca, I may not have been left quite as unsatisfied. This wasn’t a bad novel, just a bit disappointing. In fact, the premise is interesting. I tend to enjoy plots alternating between the twentieth/twenty-first centuries and the Middle Ages or Renaissance—Michael Crichton’s Timeline, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, The Intelligencer, The Eight, even the not-so-well-written Da Vinci Code, though the last three are not truly time travel books, but rather mysteries solved with clues from the past.

Plot summary from daphnedumaurier.org:

“Dick Young has been lent a house in Cornwall by his friend Magnus Lane, a professor of bio-physics. He has agreed, while he is there, to act as guinea-pig for a new drug that Magnus has discovered; and the small bottles which hold it are waiting for him in the laboratory at Kilmarth.
With no idea of what the result will be, he takes the prescribed dose - and without warning finds himself back in the fourteenth century, in this same Cornish countryside. During the following days he takes successive 'trips'. Each lasts only a short time, but always he is back in the same surroundings. Invisible, inaudible, he finds that he is a kind of alter ago of Roger Kylmerth, steward to Sir Henry Champernoune, lord of the manor of Tywardreath. He witnesses intrigue, adultery, murder, feeling himself personally involved.
Are the experiences hallucinatory, a subconscious escape from dissatisfaction with his own marital life? Or has he really traveled back in time? This is the question Dick asks himself.
More and more he grudges the hours spent away from these people of long ago, resentful of the time that must be given to his loving though suspicious wife and to his stepsons, intruders into his secret life. With immense skill, the tension is kept on both levels, and, as Dick grows ever more obsessed by his trips into the past, so the reader begins to share his addiction, and to find that past and present become inextricably, perilously mixed - until the final, stunning climax.”


It was the limited character development that truly frustrated me in this novel. Dick Young seems to me a rather shallow individual. We know very little about him, only that he recently ended a career in editing due to displeasure with his job. Dick is a malcontent whose curiosity for the fourteenth century is piqued simply because it is different from his present—perhaps equally complicated, but more logical to him. He seeks refuge from a nagging wife and two stepsons at his friend’s country estate and his brief forays into the past deepen this estrangement. Since Dick is merely a passive observer of the past and has no interaction with the families whose history he is tracing, these passages of the novel have an artificial quality. We witness along with Dick only isolated events in fourteenth-century Kilmarth and have little opportunity to develop sympathies for these characters. Furthermore, Dick’s interactions with the people in his present hardly earn our compassion, either. He conceals his drug-induced time travel from his wife and this growing obsession becomes his only motivation, causing his family relationships to rapidly deteriorate. Du Maurier is quite successful at depicting the single-mindedness of an addict completely dependent on his drug of choice. I only wish that she could have drawn me into her story in the way that her character was drawn to his vice.

If you are looking for a good time travel book, try Connie Willis or Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent book The Time Traveler’s Wife. And for a satisfying Du Maurier read, pick up one of her more celebrated books. There is a reason this one is obscure.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The troublesome task of writing

Sitting here and trying to make myself write makes me want to scream. AAAAAAAAAAA!!!!! I would rather do anything other than write my dissertation. I would rather read or take a walk outside; I would rather iron and fold clothes; I even would rather scrub disgusting pots and pans or worse, the drain in our shower. I am so (figuratively) sick of the thought of it that I feel (physically) sick when I try to do it. Why is this? Is it the effort? Yes. Is it fearing that I have nothing to say? Yes. Is it fearing that I won’t finish by my “deadline”? Yes. Avoidance is just easier. But avoidance brings guilt. And with guilt comes aggravation, irritation and general disappointment in self. Everyone says “just push through,” “just divide it into smaller chunks,” but I “just” want to smack them all. Do I really want to get my PhD? I thought that I did. It would open more doors in my future (even if I decide not to take them) and I suppose that options are good to have. It would mean giving up if I didn’t continue to write and that is not the greatest character trait. Do I dislike the thought of leaving this part of my life incomplete more than I dislike the thought of writing? Yes. Then what’s the problem? Why all the inner turmoil? Why do I struggle so? It’s such an enormous, daunting task. That’s why. But, lots of people have done it. People do it every day. If they can do it, so can I. Right?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Cats, the booklover's companion

I just received two books in the mail today from QPB: The Book Thief and The Book of Lost Things. I am eager to start both, particularly The Book of Lost Things. I couldn't resist flipping through it and simply based the two epigraphs, this is a book after my heart:

▪ Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life. -Friedrich Schiller

▪ Everything you can imagine is real. - Pablo Picasso

Today I have cats on my mind. There seems to be something about booklovers’ personalities that draw them to cats. A generalization, I know, but it does seem to ring true more often than not. I have seen references to cats on several book blogs, most recently at Danielle’s A Work in Progress. In her tribute to the glorious lethargy of cats she remarks: “I think cats have the right idea sometimes--find the sunniest, most comfortable place in the house and just take a nap.” I most heartily agree. I envy my Emmy sometimes, basking in the sun before the glass doors or atop my desk, sprawled out across my papers where she has a view of the hummingbird feeder through the window. Occasionally, for a special treat, I’ll swivel my desk lamp towards her—she enjoys the warmth of her own personal heat lamp. Now, that’s not a bad life in my opinion. I’m thinking of my good friend Megan today, who recently lost her cat Loba to cancer. Hang in there Megan!

I’ve always liked T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Of course, the original poems are decidedly more enjoyable than Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical adaptation. This excerpt reminds me of our gray tabby:

The Old Gumbie Cat

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits - and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!


But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family's in bed and asleep,
She slips down the stairs to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice -
Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teaches them music, crocheting and tatting.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or in the sun or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits - and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!


Friday, June 1, 2007

A Good Book and a Pot of Tea

Today being June 1st, I am beginning my two reading challenges: Southern Reading Challenge & Summer Reading Challenge Round 2. For SRC2, I am challenging myself to read half of the books in the list at left. That will make 10 total for me this summer, including my three for the southern challenge. I can do this!

What better way is there to kick off my summer reading properly than to treat myself to some new books and teas? There are few more delicious combinations.

The FedEx man made my day yesterday when he brought me a small brown package from Adagio Teas. I recently discovered this company and so far, I am impressed. The selection is great; prices aren’t bad and delivery is fast. This time, I ordered the rooibos vanilla and the apricot green tea—I’m drinking a pot of this one right now and it’s quite yummy; the apricot is very delicate. Would be arguably more pleasant paired with a good novel rather than required dissertation research, but will look forward to that treat this weekend as I hope to find the time to finish my current read, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. Made a trip to our local bookshop last night and picked up my next two picks: Mansfield Park and The Jane Austen Book Club. These will be immediately followed by one of my southern picks, of course.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Spot of Bother

My most recent read was A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon. I was able to get it as an advanced paperback from QPB. I started it last Thursday evening, was eager for more on Friday, but had to restrain myself as we had guests for dinner and it wasn’t very socially appropriate for me to ditch them in favor of a book. I finished the entire thing in one sitting on Saturday. With my husband away for the day, that left me and our cat to indulge in some much-needed R&R. In my opinion, there are few things better than snuggling up on the couch with my cat, a cup of tea and a good book.

Mark Haddon’s quirky, flawed characters (they remind me of those in Nick Hornby’s novels) have a way of grasping and holding my attention. I can’t wait to find out what problems will happen next and how they will react and respond. A Spot of Bother is about family, relationships and communication, or rather the lack thereof.

Everyone should be able to identify with at least one of the characters and if not, you are way too perfect, which I find highly suspicious. These characters are all so human, imperfect and funny without even meaning to be. They have misconceptions of one another, things are left unsaid or unnoticed and arguments happen as a result of this. The family patriarch, George, prides himself on ignoring unpleasantness:

Talking was, in George’s opinion, overrated. You could not turn the television on these days without seeing someone discussing their adoption or explaining why they had stabbed their husband. Not that he was averse to talking. Talking was one of life’s pleasures. […] But it did not change anything.
The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely. How anyone could work in the same office for ten years on or bring up children without putting certain thoughts permanently to the back of their mind was beyond him. (4)


George’s problems begin once he retires and realizes that this may not be the ideal way of living life. But he’s not the only one in the family with issues; his entire family is struggling to find happiness. His son, Jamie, is in a similar situation:

Jamie could see now, with absolute clarity, what he’d done.
He’d bided his time. He’d got away. He’d built a little world in which he felt safe. And it was orbiting far out, unconnected to anyone. It was cold and it was dark and he had no idea how to make it swing back toward the sun. (230)


This may not sound too uplifting, but Mark Haddon makes family dysfunction fun and mental breakdown both poignant and comical. I highly recommend! Mark Haddon’s first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is equally enjoyable and original.