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

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:

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.

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!


Make A Quiz More Quizzes Grab Code

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
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz