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]

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

“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.