Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books Bought in Nov and Dec, 2011

The following books have been added to Mount TBR due to a November trip to UVA to visit my daughter and a very recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble.

There must be a lot of bookish people in Charlottesville, VA to support a relatively large number of used bookstores.  That makes sense for this picturesque place is where Thomas Jefferson built his home, Monticello and founded the University of Virginia.  He is responsible for one of my favorite bookish quotes:  "I cannot live without books".   In fact, we learned while on a tour of his famous home that he had three extensive book collections in his lifetime.  The first burned in a fire.  The second was sold to the government and became the nucleus of the Library of Congress.  With the money made from the sale, he immediately began buying books again (of course) for his third collection.

Listed by genre and author:

  1. Austen, Jane - Northanger Abbey
  2. Dumas, Alexandre - The Count of Monte Cristo
  3. Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
  4. Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
  5. Fitzgerald, F. Scott - Tender Is the Night
  6. Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
  7. Forster, E.M. - A Passage to India
  8. Hemingway, Ernest - The Sun Also Rises
  9. James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw, The Aspen Papers and Two Shoes
  10. Jeroux, Gaston - The Phantom of the Opera
  11. Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  12. Nabokov, Vladimir - The Gift
  13. Richardson, Samuel - Pamela
  14. Scott, Sir Walter - Waverly
  15. Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet
  16. Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
  17. Waugh, Evelyn - Brideshead Revisited
  18. Wharton, Edith - The Age of Innocence
  19. Wharton, Edith - Ethan Frome, Summer, Bunner Sisters
  1. Forman, Gayle - If I Stay
  2. Morrison, Toni - Beloved
  3. See, Lisa - Peony in Love
  1. Beaty, Jerome - The Norton Introduction to Literature
  2. Roberts, Edgar and Henry Jacobs - Literature: An Introduction of Reading and Writing
  3. Rosenfeld, Jordan - Make A Scene
  1. Kincaid, Jamaica - My Brother (3)
  2. Jong, Erica - Fear of Fifty
  3. Lezine, DeQuincy - Eight Stories Up: An Adolescent Chooses Hope Over Suicide
  4. Rosenblatt, Roger - Making Toast
  5. Struss, Darin - Half Life
  6. Szabo, Ross and Melanie Hall - Behind Happy Faces
  7. Wright, Norman H - Recovery From Losses in Life
  1. Tennyson, Lord Alfred - In Memoriam A.H. H.
  2. Young, Kevin ed - The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing - I have been looking for something like this since Josh died. 
Christian Apologetics:  The Signature Classics of C.S. Lewis
  1. Mere Christianity
  2. The Screwtape Letters
  3. The Abolition of Man
  4. The Great Divorce
  5. A Problem of Pain
  6. Miracles
  7. A Grief Observed

December 2011 Books

December has been a productive and thought-provoking reading month which is setting me up for the New Year.  I plan to continue with the monthly posts but will make a slight change - I will publish as soon as the first mini review is written and will update as I go along.

Anne of Avonlea (#2) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1909
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
In order to continue the series, I bought the ibook, The Essential Works of L.M. Montgomery for $5.98.  In this book, Anne is working as a schoolteacher at her old school and living at Green Gables with newly widowed Marilla Cuthbert.  New characters are introduced and in Anne's interactions with them, we see a more mature, but still highly likable Anne.

Anne of the Island (#3) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1915
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Anne takes the opportunity to go to Redmond College.  The book spans the four years that she is there in which new friends are made, marriage proposals are rejected, the "tall, dark and handsome" man of her dreams appears and at the end, Anne finally realizes who she really loves.  So far, my second favorite book in the series.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
Published: 1990
Rating: 5
List: 1990 Man Booker winner
Goodreads review
Awesome - I loved it!  A challenging book to read which I tackled by taking notes on each chapter (setting, character, technique, etc).  By technique, I mean them all.  Byatt uses the 3rd POV limited, 1st POV and at times, the narrator's own voice is prominent.  She also uses letters, journal entries, poems and short stories to tell this literary mystery.  The story moves between two different time periods and is described as a Romance by the protagonist Roland Mitchell - first a Quest, then a Chase and finally, a Race.

In this masterpiece, Byatt is both a novelist and a poet.  I love what her character, Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash says about the two forms:
What makes me  Poet and not a novelist - is to do with the singing of the language itself.  For the difference between poets and novelists is this - that the former write for the life of the language - and the latter write for the betterment of the world.
There is another passage in which the narrator speaks of the various kinds of readings.  I LOVE this quote and have put it on my list of bookish quotes.
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark -  readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how.  In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known, it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.  
This is a perfect description of when writing illuminates the truth, and of the experience when the reader stumbles upon this truth.   It is THE reason why I read.  Now, after Josh's death, after my life has changed irreversibly and irrevocably, I read to understand, comprehend and discover - what do I feel about death?  About what happens after?  About grief, pain, suffering, loss and guilt?  About losing a child?  About suicide?  About surviving?

I couldn't turn the pages fast enough at the end.  The surprise ending was immensely satisfying as poetic justice prevailed.  I have to admit to skimming some of the longer poems which I must make myself tackle upon a re-read.  I highly recommend.  I watched the 2002 movie version with Aaron Eckart and Gwyneth Paltrow and would also recommend but would suggest reading the book first.

Anne's House of Dreams (#5) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1917
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
This is the fourth book that Montgomery wrote but is the fifth in the events chronicled.  Our heroine is now Anne Blythe, happily married to her childhood rival, Gilbert who is now a doctor.  They move away from quiet Green Gables to Four Winds Harbor, a busy port town where Montgomery introduces us to another group of interesting characters.  I miss the Anne of the previous books, where her stream of consciousness chattiness revealed inner thoughts, making her so endearing.  For example, I would like to know how she felt about her marriage, the birth of her children and some of her losses.

Anne of Windy Poplars (#4) by L. M. Montgomery
Published: 1936
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Interestingly, this book is the 4th in the series chronologically but was published 21 years after the third book.  The story is told primarily through Anne's letters to Gilbert so we once again are seeing life, people and events through Anne's eyes.

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young
Published: 2007
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
A friend gave this book to me after Josh's death but I did not feel ready to read it until now.  It is the story of a father's struggle with faith after the abduction and brutal murder of his young daughter, Missy.   The narrator calls the father's grief, The Great Sadness, which "draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt.  The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders.  Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair and he had somehow become part of it."  It is an accurate description of my grief - especially in the first months.

The author attempts to answer age-old, difficult questions such as why do bad things happen to good people, why doesn't God intervene, how can we trust God when bad things happen, etc.  The book has made me think about my own faith in the aftermath of our tragedy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Published: 1843
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
I confess to having a "Dickens aversion" based on a thoroughly unenjoyable Great Expectations assignment in high school.  These days, I much prefer seeing the made-for-TV versions of his novels such as Bleak House (2005), David Copperfield (1999) and Little Dorrit (2008).  But after listening to Dickens scholar Prof. Tim Spurgeon's two audio courses, The Art of Reading and The English Novel, I feel sufficiently motivated to try one or two Dickens novels in 2012.  This short story was a good starter.  Already I can see that Dickens is a master of description.  I love this passage about Scrooge:
"Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas."     
Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies audio course by Prof. Harold Bloom
Rating: 2 upgraded to 4
This low rating is more a reflection of me than of the material or the professor's delivery - I understood about 50% of the content.  One thing I will say, these tragedies are truly tragic - full of murders and suicides.  I know Shakespeare's command of the English language has set a standard so high, few can reach it.  In fact, I wrote a post on a simple quote that really spoke to me: Give sorrow words.

Therefore I feel as though I could gain a tremendous amount upon reading the plays myself, so will plan to tackle at least one in 2012.

Feb 2012 update:  I need to update the rating from 2 to 4 as in retrospect, especially having read two plays so far, his knowledge and delivery of the material was very good.  I plan to eventually read all 7 tragedies discussed in this audio course after which I will probably re-listen to the lectures.

Day After Night by Anita Diamant
Published: 2009
Rating: 2
Goodreads review
I enjoy historical fiction, especially when about courageous women and so was disappointed when this did not live up to my expectations, especially when I liked Diamant's The Red Tent.  Upon reflection, I think it was hard to tell this particular story from the viewpoint of four women who came from very different backgrounds and whose experience of the Holocaust was so varied.  I felt the author just scratched the surface of their stories and as a reader I wanted more.  When I read their names on the page, I couldn't "see" them with my reader's eye.  The women were not distinct enough and I had a hard time keeping them straight. Others may have better luck.

Anne of Ingleside (#6) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1939
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
Anne has faded to the background, becoming "Mother, Mummy or Mrs. Dr." The stories now center around the adventures of her six children.   I miss Anne's point of view and wish Montgomery had continued to show life through her eyes, perhaps via letters or a diary.  This is why the rating has dropped to a 3.  That said, this was a nice series to read at the end of the year.

Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Published: 1947 (posthumously by her father, Otto Frank)
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
Wow.  That is all I can say about this incredibly moving diary from a precocious, highly intelligent, adolescent girl written from June 1942 - August 1945, during the German occupation of Holland in which she and seven other family members and friends hid from the Nazis in what she called Her Achterhuis or The Secret Annexe.  Her writing is so descriptive; one can see and smell her small world.  She is reflective and introspective - well beyond her years.  My favorite examples are in the following two passages:
I have one outstanding trait in my character, which must strike anyone who knows me for any length of time, and that is my knowledge of myself.  I can watch myself and my actions, just like an outsider.  The Anne of every day I can face entirely without prejudice, without making excuses for her, and watch what's good and what's bad about her.  This "self-consciousness" haunts me.... July 15, 1944 
I am guided by the pure Anne within, but outside I'm nothing but a frolicsome little goat who's broken loose.  August 1, 1944.  This was the last entry before they were turned into the Gestapo 3 days later and a mere 9 months before the end of the war.  
In an entry dated April 4, 1944 she writes about her love of writing and prophetically says that it will keep her alive after her death.
I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work.  I know myself what is and what is not well written.  Anyone who doesn't write doesn't know how wonderful it is.  I used to bemoan the fact that I couldn't draw at all, but now I am more than happy that I can at least write.  And if I haven't any talent for writing books or newspaper articles well, then I can always write for myself.......I want to go on living even after my death!  And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.
The group of eight were one of the last Jews sent to Auschwitz and all perished except for Anne's father, Otto.  Anne's mother died in January 1945 while Anne and her sister, Margot died a couple of months later in another camp, Bergen-Belsen.  Anne was fifteen years old.

She should have survived - to fulfill her dreams of going back to school and becoming a famous journalist or writer.  She should've been allowed to grow up, fall in love, get married and have children.  She should've been able to revise and edit her diary, be involved in its publication and witness the worldwide impact of her story.  She should've been able to see the plays and movies spawned from the book.

I live in the Washington DC area and have never visited the Holocaust Museum.  I need to go.  I have avoided books/movies like Sophie's Choice or Schindler's List because the horror was too much; I did not want to read or see such disturbing images.  But now I am intimately familiar with death, grief, sorrow and pain, and therefore do not shun such topics.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Theme Thursday: Happy

Theme Thursdays
Theme Thursdays is being hosted by Reading Between the Pages and is a fun weekly event that will be open from one Thursday to the next. Anyone can participate in it. The rules are simple:

  • A theme will be posted each week (on Thursday’s)
  • Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from the current book you are reading
  • Mention the author and the title of the book along with your post.
This will give us a wonderful opportunity to explore and understand different writing styles and descriptive approaches adopted by authors.  This week’s theme is to symbolize the month of December and festivities..   HAPPY

I have just finished reading Possession by A.S. Byatt, a challenging but thoroughly rewarding read.  My quote: 
"Roland stared at sleek Val, who had the shine of really expensive and well-made clothes, and more important and unmistakable, the glistening self-pleasure of sexual happiness.  She had had her hair done in a new way - short, soft, shaped, rising when she tossed her head and settling back to perfection.  She was all muted violets and shot-silk dove-colours, all balanced and pretty, stockings, high shoes, padded shoulders, painted mouth.  He said, instinctively, "You look happy, Val."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

November 2011 Books and Audiocourse

It is now December 4th and with the addition of the books/course below, I am just eight books away from reaching one hundred in 2011.  I have never come close to reading this many books in one year - ever.  This underscores how vital books have been to my grief journey.  I am in full agreement with Thomas Jefferson's famous quote: I cannot live without books.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
Published: 1983
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
I would like to be a more discerning reader so have collected a number of books such as this one - books that describe how fiction works.  I also have some story ideas percolating in my head, that one day I may try to write.  For the more experienced fiction/creative writers, this may be just what you are looking for.  But for me, the ultra novice, "don't know what I am doing" wanna-be-writer, it was difficult to get through.

Blue Nights by Joan Didon
Published: 2011
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
A short memoir by a well known author who has suffered multiple losses within a short period of time.  On December 30, 2003, while her adult daughter Quintana was in the hospital overcoming a life-threatening infection, her husband died from a sudden heart attack.  Then on August 26, 2005, the proverbial "other shoe" dropped as her daughter, who suffered complications from the initial infection, died.  In October, 2005, she published a moving memoir about her first loss, The Year of Magical Thinking - reviewed in this post.

It is evident that writing Blue Nights helped Didion process her daughter's death.  She asks many unanswerable questions. She thinks of other friends who have died. She reviews specific memories and ponders their significance.  Why does she remember these and not others?  She allows these memories to trigger others and so leads the reader down a meandering path of events that occur in real time, the recent past and the way, way past.  She ponders aging and dying.  A quick and moving read.

On a side note, this is the first book that I read on my new iPad and loved the experience.  I like the large screen and the highlighting and note-taking capability.

My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid
Published: 1997
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
I bought this book from a public library book sale in Charlottesville, VA while visiting my daughter.  Kincaid is another writer who has penned a memoir about loss - her brother who died of AIDS in Antigua on January 19, 1996.  This memoir chronicles a complicated grief because she has a very angry, hateful and unresolved relationship with her mother which gets in the way of her feelings for her brother.  Her thoughts stream together in long sentences which I sometimes found difficult to follow but at other times, were beautiful and brilliant.  She has unique thoughts on death that has made me think.

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
Published: 1981
Rating: 3
Lists: 1,001
Goodreads review
I bought Kincaid's book at The Book Rack, a used bookstore in S. Yarmouth, MA this past summer and decided to read it after finishing her memoir, My Brother.  It is a short book, only 148 pages, which I read in one day.  It is a coming of age story - about an only child, Annie John, born to a beautiful mother whom she first adores and then comes to hate/love - sound familiar?  Telling quote: My mother would kill me if she got the chance.  I would kill my mother if I had the courage."  Yikes!  The consequence of this dysfunctional relationship is severe as Annie suffers from deep depression and what I would call a breakdown.  My unhappiness was something deep inside me, and when I closed my eyes I could even see it....It took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped in cobwebs."   It was painful to read about a love-hate relationship between mother and daughter again.

Anne of Green Gables (#1) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1908
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
This has been sitting on my bookshelf since January 2011 when I bought it at a local library book sale.  I was looking for something light and fun to read after finished some pretty heavy books and this did the trick - I loved it!  For some reason, I was ready to fall in love with Anne Shirley, eleven-year old orphaned girl who went to live with an older spinster couple, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert on their farm, Green Gables located on rural Prince Edward Island, Canada.  At the end of chapter 8, about 20% into the book, I wrote down the following reasons of why Anne was such an engaging character:  innocent, vivid and real imagination, curious, gumption, honest, love of life, she sees beauty in nature that is missed by others, bright and articulate, unpretentious, a reader and a true romantic.  The book follows her many adventures and was so successful with early 20th century readers that Montgomery ended up writing a series, which I happily plan to read.  UPDATE:  I watched the 1985 made-for TV movie starring Megan Follows in the title role.  I loved it so much that I have watched both sequels.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
Published: 1817
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
Jane Austen web site
Jane Austen Society of North America
I decided to read this in keeping with the unplanned "Anne" theme as I've  recently read Anna Karenina, Annie John, Anne of Green Gables - why not another book featuring an Anne?  I initially gave it a 4 (as how could any book match the beloved Pride and Prejudice), but changed it to a 5 because after finishing, I didn't want the story to end.  So I researched what good sequels were out there, found one by Amanda Grange (below), paid full price ($12.99 for the ibook), downloaded and read in one day.  I also rewatched the movie with Rupert Penry-Jones as the handsome and dashing Captain Wentworth and Sally Hawkins as the heroine, Anne Elliot.  I look forward to reading Austen's other three books: Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.  A Google search shows numerous sites created for Jane Austen fans and a Society called the Jane Austen Society of North America or JASNA - who knew?

Captain Wentworth's Diary by Amanda Grange
Published: 2007
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Author's web site
Authors's Goodreads blog
Grange has written a number of Austen male protagonist diaries, starting with Mr. Darcy's Diary (2007).  See this interesting online interview on her decision to do so.  I found Grange's version of when Anne and Frederick Wentworth initially fell in love completely believable.  It is a satisfying companion to Austen's original.

The English Novel  by Professor Timothy Spurgin
Audiocourse by The Great Courses
Rating: 5

Borrowed from the library, I had high hopes for this course based on his other course, The Art of Reading.  I listen to the CD's while driving so one requirement is that they are interesting and this did not disappoint. This course begins with what is typically regarded as the first English novel, Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson and ends with notable contemporary works by Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.  18th century books such as Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding, Tristam Shandy (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe have been added to my TBR pile.  Works by Sir Walter Scott (Waverly 1814) and Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady 1881) join other 19th century "to-be-read" authors: Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot.  In Spurgin's discussion of a particular novel, he not only talks about the work itself, but spends time on the author's biography and the time period in which he/she wrote.  He ties in critical historical and social events that influence the writer and the work.  His love for literature is evident and so each lecture was a pleasure to listen to.  I would highly recommend.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

October 2011 Books - Voices of Women (and Tolstoy)

I went on a vacation in early October and underwent the usual turmoil of trying to decide what books to bring with me.  In the end, I decided to focus on women writers.  For some reason, I wanted to hear their voices, their thoughts and absorb whatever lessons they had to teach.  I enjoyed most of my choices.  This exercise has only served to make me want to read more from other women authors.  Tolstoy is included because I started Anna Karenina in September and finished in October.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella
Published: 2005
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
I bought this book at a local library book sale and brought it with me on vacation because I knew it would be a fast and fun read - brain candy.  It did not disappoint but my favorite by Kinsella is still Can You Keep A Secret?  I read that book while in Europe with my daughters, where at the end of each exhausting day, feet sore from sight-seeing, we curled up in bed, engrossed in our own books.  Interesting how books can be part of vacation memories and experience.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Published: 1973
Rating: 5
Lists: 1,001
Goodreads review
Bought at a local library book sale because it is one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I loved it.  For some reason, because of where I am in life, the book was life changing.  It is hard to condense the impact of this book in a small paragraph so I won't even try.  Suffice it to say that my journal is full of thoughts and one day, maybe I will write a proper post.  Or now that I think of it, maybe not as it is quite personal.  We'll see.

their eyes were watching god by Zora Neale Hurston
Published: 1937
Rating: 5
Lists: 1,001, TIME 100 Best Novel
Goodreads review
I got this book off my daughter's bookshelf, (she had to read it for a college course), and I loved it.  The reader must get used to the very strong, Southern, black slang dialogue which is contrasted to and interspersed with an extremely  literate narrator. Very interesting.  The imagery is wonderful.  The protagonist, Janie Crawford follows her heart, for better or for worse.  Her story moves quickly and succinctly - beautifully written and constructed.  The pace is perfect.  Would highly recommend.

The Writing Circle by Corinne Demas
Published: 2010
Rating: 2
Goodread review
Bought this book at a Border's closing sale as I am interested in books about writers, even if it is fiction.  If writing clubs are anything like what is described in this book, I will pass.

His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina by Danielle Steel
Published: 1998
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
Best-selling author writes about the challenges of raising her handsome and talented son, Nicky, who suffered from manic depression. At nineteen, he took his life.  Her goal in writing was to 1) preserve her son's memory and 2) help parents who are trying to raise a child with severe emotional issues.  As a mother who also lost her son to suicide, I could relate to her pain and grief even though her story is very different than mine.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shield
Published: 1993
Rating: 4
Lists: Pulitzer Prize (1995), 1001
Goodread Review
A beautifully written book about an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life.  It is about good and bad marriages.  About how sex does not equal love.  About how much women want what I now call "The Dream" - romantic love.  And how hard it is to find.

Jane Austen by Carol Shields
Published: 2001
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
Bought at the overwhelmingly huge NYC city bookstore, The Strand this past summer.  I decided to read it after finishing The Stone Diaries by the same author.  A short book - it is a quick, enjoyable read for any Jane Austen fan.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Published: 1873
Lists: 1,001
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
A fascinating book of love, lust, anger, revenge, hope and fear - basically every human emotion is felt by one or more characters.  The world of high society is contrasted with the simple country life.  Psychological, sociological and cultural issues which could be cumbersome to the reader, are masterfully explored by Tolstoy. The stream of consciousness technique depicting Anna's tragic thoughts at the end of the novel, before the infamous suicide, feels so real.  I am glad to have read this particular translation and would highly recommend.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

September 2011 Books - A Month of Memoirs

I have fallen off the wagon in terms of writing full posts on books so am now trying something else: mini posts on all the books read in a given month.  I hope this will be easy enough for me to do - we'll see.  Without intention, this months is all about memoirs.

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron
Published: 2011
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
I bought this book at the local Border's closing sale because I had just read her father's short but powerful memoir, Darkness Visible, depicting his struggles with depression and suicide.   Her writing is honest, clear and unflinching but not bitter, as she recalls life with a self-absorbed, emotionally volatile literary father and absent mother.  The book documents her journey or quest, via research and writing, towards answering the simple question: "Who was my father?"

History of a Suicide: my sister's unfinished life by Jill Bialosky
Published: 2011
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Bought this at the local Border's closing sale - how could I not pick this up?  The author's sister Kim, took her life at age 21.  Twenty years later, Jill is searching for answers to the two infamous questions asked by most if not all suicide survivors: "Why" and "Could I have prevented it?"   Like me, she turned to books such as poetry, fiction and non-fiction for understanding.   Heavily dog-earred and underlined, there is a lot that I can relate to.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Published: 2010
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
I have been eyeing this book for months but did not want to spend full price so when I spotted it at a local Border's book closing sale, I couldn't resist. Conroy is a writer but first, he is a lover of books and language (words).  His book collection numbers several thousand.  He reads around 200 pages a day, a habit born in high school.  His passionate chapter on "The Count" (Leo Tolstoy) makes me want to read War and Peace.  Book lovers will enjoy.

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
Published: 2006
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Bought this book at a used bookstore in Hyannis, MA.  A quick and enjoyable read.  Julia married later in life and settled in France with her husband, an employee of the State Department.  She quickly became a foodie - to the nth degree.  The book follows her interesting and eventful life as she first learned to cook, then teach cooking while co-authoring the famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961).  After publication, she spent time in the US promoting her book  and met famous cooks like James Beard, with whom she became a life long friend.  Upon returning to America for good, her TV show The French Chef made her a household name.

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman
Published: 2000
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
An interesting foray into the world of serious cooking.  Who knew what it takes to make a terrine, be it seafood, rabbit or duck?  Those who do will love this book.  Those who have no idea, like me, will get an education.

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Published: 2004
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
A quick read about the author's friendship with the poet and memoirist, Lucy Grealy whose book Autobiography of a Face was on my TBR list.  I did not realize the connection.  Their friendship began in college and continued through their writing careers - through fellowships, jobs, publishing books and fame.  A major subject of the book, of Lucy's life and thus their friendship is Lucy's distorted face and the sheer torture endured to obtain, through seemingly barbaric means, a normal one.  Lucy is big on talent but short on love and in the end, it all will be too much for her.  She struggles with depression and substance abuse, attempting suicide numerous times.  She dies in 2002 from what is ruled an accidental overdose.  Naturally, as soon as this book was finished, I read Grealy's memoir.

 Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Published: 1994
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
At the tender age of 9, Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma (bone cancer) in her jaw.  Treatment was surgery, the removal of part of her jaw followed by 2.5 years of radiation and chemotherapy.  Once back in school, she was teased mercilessly but felt like it was deserved because she was so ugly.  Relief came in college, where she was accepted despite her strange looks,  and she found poetry.  The book ends with her hoping that a brutal surgery to repair her jaw will give her the normal life which she so desperately wants.  Unfortunately, we know from Patchett's book, that it does not work.  We also learn of the fame bestowed upon Grealy when her book was published and as noted above, her descent into fatal depression.  The two books go together to give a fuller picture of Lucy's brief, colorful but tragic life.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

22 Books for $18.50

Today's cold and rainy weather deterred the usual droves of casual book buyers at a local library's every-other-month book sale.  Those who braved the elements were serious bibliophiles, eager to add to their home library without breaking the bank.  Armed with my wish and TBR list, I scoured the boxes of books on and underneath long tables, wondering what treasures I would find. I love these book sales.

The atmosphere was cordial, complete with whispered "excuse me" or "pardon me" as we tried to navigate around one another.  As time went on, it became more difficult due to our growing piles of books.  Twenty-two books may seem like a lot, but many bought far more.  Some, like me, put our finds in a bag which was either slung over the shoulder or carried on the forearm, a test of bicep strength.  Others placed their books in boxes which quickly grew too heavy to carry and had to be shuffled on the floor.

When books are this inexpensive, there is no hesitation to place in the bag.  The only pang of regret comes when I see one that was bought at full cost.  It only lasts a millisecond as I happily think of all my current finds.  Oh well, can't win them all.

Upon coming home, I organize them by genre and record them in my book journal.  Then I open each book and write the following: 10/1/2011 - brought at Tyson's library book sale.  I like knowing when and where I bought my books.  Some have their previous owner's name.  If these books could talk, I wonder what they would say.  Here is the list:  

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature (2nd ed) 
  • Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol II  (5th ed) - compliments Volume 1, which I bought at a previous sale in April. 
Literature and Writing
  • Barnet, Burto and Cain - Literature for Composition
  • Boynton, Mack - Introduction to the Short Story
  • Thornley, Wilson - Short Story Writing
Non Fiction
  • Beard, James - Fish Cooking.  I recently read Julia Child's book, My Life In France, in which she speaks of her friendship with Jim Beard, celebrity cook who helped promote her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  This is an example of how one book begets another, as I would have never noticed this book or author.
  • Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth - On Death and Dying.  This landmark book solidified the 5 stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Later, the application was broadened to grief. 
  • Pennebaker, James - Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion
  • Manning, Martha - Undercurrents: A Life Under the Surface
  • Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
  • Homer - The Odyssey
  • Lawrence, D.H. - Women in Love (didn't realize I already had this book)
  • Lawrence, D.H - Lady Chatterly's Lover
  • Cather, Willa - O Pioneers!
  • Ishiguro, Kazuo - The Remains of the Day
  • Jong, Erica - Fear of Flying
  • Kinsella, Sophie - The Undomestic Goddess.  Her books are like "brain candy" - fun, easy reads.
  • Lahiri Jhumpa - Interpreter of Maladies.  I bought this because of the Pulitzer Prize sticker on the front.  Goodread reviews are very positive. 
  • Lahiri Jhumpa - The Namesake
  • Millhauser, Steven - Martin Dressler.  Another Pulitzer Prize winner, but unfortunately, has mixed Goodreads reviews.
  • Shaffer, Mary Anne and Annie Barrows - The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.  I LOVE this book.  I read it on my Nook and now, my daughter wants to read it but it is not a "lend me" e-book.  So I bought it.  I can't wait for her to read it so we can talk about it. 
  • Wells, H. G - Four Novels:  The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Summer Book Finds (and thoughts about this blog)

Wow - I've added it up and have bought 89 books this summer, from June to August.  I hate spending full price for anything so most have been bought at the local library sale, a Border's closing sale and used book stores in Virginia (where I live) and Cape Cod/Vermont (where we spent our summer vacation).  The good news is that I did not buy much else - who wants to go into a cute boutique in Hyannis, MA or Richmond, VA when there is a used book store across the street?

I have also thought about this blog and it's purpose.  I have "fallen off the wagon" in terms of posting reviews which really bothers me, but more in a chore-like way.  I have resolved to think about this blog as a part of my grief journey, and what may have helped me in the past (i.e. timely blog posts) may not be helpful now.  And that I should be okay with the purpose changing from time to time.  For example, I am now using it to keep up with my 2011 list, my wish list and my TBR list.  The latter two have been printed out and serve as my guide in book buying sprees.  I am also using the blog roll on the right to visit other blogs/posts.  And that is enough for now.

I did want to catalogue what I have bought this summer by genre and author as it is a good indicator of where I am at and what books interest me at this particular point of my journey.  I have read some of these books and use the Goodread rating system:

1 - didn't like it
2 - it was ok
3 - liked it
4 - really liked it
5 - it was amazing

  1. Carroll, Lewis - Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass 
  2. Shelly, Mary - Frankenstein
  1. Angelou, Maya - The Heart of a Woman (#4) 
  2. Athill, Diana - After A Funeral 
  3. Baker, Russell - Growing Up
  4. Bartok, Mira - The Memory Place 
  5. Bialosky, Jill - History of a Suicide (4)
  6. Conroy, Frank - Stop-Time 
  7. Conroy, Pat - My Reading Life (4)
  8. Conway, Jill Ker - The Road From Coorain
  9. Conway, Jill Ker  - True North 
  10. Conway, Jill Ker  - When Memory Speaks 
  11. Dinesen, Isak - Out of Africa and Shadows On the Grass
  12. Dillard, Annie - The Writing Life (2)
  13. Flaubert, Gustauve - The Letters of Gustauve Flaubert (1830-1857) ed by Francis Steagmuller
  14. Frame, Janet - An Angel at My Table 
  15. Gaskell, Elizabeth - The Life of Bronte
  16. Grealy, Lucy - Autobiography of a Face (4)
  17. Hamill, Peter - A Drinking Life 
  18. Karr, Mary - The Liar's Club 
  19. Levi, Primo - Survival at Auschwitz
  20. Prose, Francine - Anne Frank: The Book, Life and Afterlife
  21. Ruhlman, Michael - The Soul of a Chef (3)
  22. Shield, Carol - Jane Austen (3)
  23. Seierstad, Asne - The Bookseller of Kabul 
  24. Styron, Alesandra - Reading My Father (5)
  25. Styron, William - Darkness Visible (5)
  26. Tomalin, Claire - Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life 
  27. Welty, Eudora - One Writer's Beginnings 
  1. Atwood, Margaret - Alias Grace
  2. Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaiden's Tale 
  3. Card, Orson Scott - Ender's Game 
  4. Chiaverini, Jennifer - #4 The Runaway Quilt 
  5. Chiaverini, Jennifer - #5 - The Quilter's Legacy 
  6. Demas, Corrine - The Writing Circle  (2)
  7. Doctorow, E.L. - Billy Bathgate 
  8. Doctorow, E.L.Ragtime 
  9. Doetsch, Richard - The 13th Hour 
  10. Edrich, Lousie - Love Medicine 
  11. Ellroy, James - L.A. Confidential 
  12. Eugenides, Jeffrey - Middlesex 
  13. Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
  14. James, P.D. - Death in Holy Orders 
  15. Kazuo, Ishiguro - A Pale View of Hills  (3)
  16. Kerouac, Jack - On the Road 
  17. Kincaid, Jamaica - Annie John (3)
  18. Kingsolver, Barbara - Prodigal Summer 
  19. Lamb, Wally - I Know This Much Is True
  20. LeCarre, John - The Little Drummer Girl 
  21. LeCarre, John - The Russia House 
  22. LeCarre, John - Smiley's People 
  23. Mankell, Henning - Faceless Killer (4)
  24. Martin, George R.R - # 1 Game of Thrones (#1)  (4)
  25. Martin, George R.R - #2 - Clash of Kings  (4)
  26. Martin, George R.R - #3 A Storm of Swords (4)
  27. McCarthy, Cormac - The Road 
  28. Oates, Joyce Carol - Blonde 
  29. Quindlen, Anna - One True Thing
  30. Roth, Philip - The Plot Against America
  31. Roth, Philip - Zuckerman Bound 
  32. Russo, Richard - Empire Falls 
  33. Salinger, J. D - Catcher in the Rye  (5)
  34. Shields, Carol - The Republic Of Love 
  35. Shields, Carol  - The Stone Diaries (4)
  36. Smiley, Jane - The Greenlanders 
  37. Updike, John - Rabbit, Run 
  38. Wilson, Gayle - The Suicide Club (2)
  39. Zusak, Markus - Book Thief 
Historical Fiction
  1. Diamant, Anita - Day After Night (2) 
  2. Flanagan, Thomas - The Tenants of Time 
  3. Follett, Ken - Fall of Giants 
  4. Mantel, Hilary - Wolf Hall 
  5. O'Brien, Tim - Going After Cacciato 
Essays/Short Stories/Anthology
  1. Charters, Ann - The Story and Its Writers by Ann Charters
  2. Chekhov, Anton - Forty Stories 
  3. Dillard, Annie - The Annie Dillard Reader 
  4. Hamilton, Edith - Classic Bestseller Mythology
  5. Oates, Joyce Carol - Will You Always Love Me? 
  6. Quindlen, Anna - Living Out Loud 
  7. Woolf, Virginia - The Virginia Woolf Reader ed by Mitchell Leaska
  1. Adler, Mortimer - How To Read A Book (3)
  2. Bartlett, Alison - The Man Who Loved Books Too Much  (3)
  3. Gardner, John - The Art of Fiction (3)
  4. Henry, James - The Art of the Novel 
  5. LaPlante, Alice - The Making of A Story: The Norton Guide to Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction
  6. Pratt, Steven - Superfoods 
  7. Prose, Francine - Reading Like A Writer  
  8. Thomas, Uzzell - The Technique of the Novel 

Monday, August 22, 2011

"The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Published: 2009
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 3
Reviews: Goodreads

This book reminded me of the recently read, In Cold Blood, as both authors found a relatively obscure story which was to be the subject of a magazine article but instead, became an obsession and a much bigger story, warranting the larger canvas of a book.

Because Bartlett chose to write in the first person (as opposed to Capote who wrote in the third person),  the reader is privy to her initiation into the world of rare book collecting.  She reads extensively of past bibliomaniacs and conducts interviews with the subjects of her book, John Gilkey, unrepentant, prolific book thief and Ken Sanders, rare book store owner and self-appointed detective, determined to bring him to justice.
We were all tenacious hunters - Gilkey for books, Sanders for thieves, and me for both of their stories. 
As she becomes submerged in the world of books and book lovers, she reminisces about the special books in her youth like Charlotte's Web:
For several days I lived in Wilbur's world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte's death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book.  I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world.  I still do this. 
She explores the collecting obsession which is embodied in Gilkey, a man who will go to any lengths to realize his dream of owning a vast library of first edition books, and therefore being the envy of all:

Every collector, by definition, seems to be at least a bit obsessed, a little mad.....the accumulating never ends.  

While I have no interest in being a rare book collector, I did find this book interesting and a quick read.  My favorite bookish quotes are below and after reading, I spent some time thinking about my own obsession with books.
....books are historical artifacts and respositories for memories - we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on. 
Books....root us in something larger than ourselves, something real.
Touring a personal library is a lot like going through someone's family photo album.
I love this quote from John Milton (1644) which says the soul of an author is in their book:
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.
Since Josh's death, books have become a vital part of my grief journey. Within their pages have come help and support from survivors of suicide who have courageously written their stories, from parents who have lost children, from memoirist writing about tragedies in their own lives, from fictional stories that explore the subjects of suicide, death, grief and mourning.

I have also expanded my reading to literary fiction in the quest to broaden my own knowledge and become a better writer.  I have become a more voracious reader as time goes on, on-track to read 100 books this year, an all-time high.  Finding books to add to my TBR pile is a newly found hobby.  For example, during our summer vacation on Cape Cod, my daughter and I found three used books stores and 18 reasonably priced books.  In Vermont, my favorite bookstore Northshire, had expanded their used book section and 14 new and used books were added to my take home pile, much to the chagrin of my non-bookish husband.

What can I say?  While always a book lover in the past, it has become an absolute necessity.  And now, because of Milton's quote, I am more cognizant and actually humbled to think that when I read a book and ingest the words, that I am taking in part of an author's soul.  Writing and reading are both sacred acts.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"A Pale View of Hills" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published: 1982
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3
Lists: 1,001 books
Review: Goodreads

Ishiguro's first novel is haunting, reminding me of his other beautifully written work, Never Let Me Go, published in 2005.  In both books, a female narrator tells of what happens in her past.

Although I loved the prose, the narrative was frustrating.  I had lots of questions while reading which remained unanswered and after finishing, I wrote in the margin, "I don't get it - at all."  In situations like this, I rely on Goodreads and found that many others felt the same way.

Halfway through the book I questioned whether or not Etsuko Sharingham was a reliable narrator.  But I think the true question Ishiguro is exploring is would any of us be a reliable narrator in the same situation?  He answers via her musing:
Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.
Is the same message within the title?  In my journal, while thinking of the word "pale" and with a thesaurus' help, I wrote the following:  washed out, weak, fragile, dim, faint, feeble, muted, faded, subtle and soft.   After reading the book, I think the title suggests that views of the past expressed in the book will be dim, faint, and muted or in other words, "pale".

Etsuko is a widow, living alone is some English village and at the beginning of the book, her daughter Niki, who lives in London is visiting.  We find out that six years earlier, Keiko, her daughter via her first husband, committed suicide while living in Manchester (horrible - she hung herself and was not found until a few days later).  Prior to that, Keiko lived at home but in self-imposed isolation from her family.  She did not interact with anyone, not her mother, step-father or step-sister...for years.  Very strange, bizarre behavior.  Why was this tolerated?

It is during Niki's visit that the story is told.  Etsuko's memories are prodded after some discussions with Niki about  the past.  An image of a little girl playing on a swing, seen while they are at a teashop, sticks with Etsuko, invades her dreams and causes her to remember people and situations when she lived in Japan.  So the narrative swings from present to past and in the end, is all tied to Keiko's suicide.

Within Etsuko's memories is another question that Ishiguro explores: what are the consequences of a mother's guilt?  In her case, was it so great, so intolerable, that she had to invent an alternate mother (Sachiko) and daughter (Mariko) in order to remember the past?  Is it possible for a person to disassociate from themselves so much that they create a fictional reality?  Maybe.  To me, this is a disturbing question.

As a survivor of suicide myself, I found this passage to be tragically true:
I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture - of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end.  The horror of that image has never diminished but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one's own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.
I would recommend this book with the following caveat - beware of unanswered questions and an ambiguous ending.  If you do read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Published: 1960
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5
Review: Goodreads
Lists: Pultizer Prize (1961); 1,001 books

Harper Lee’s first and only novel published in 1960 was an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and made into a movie with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in 1962 (in my Netflix queue). 

The story is told in the first person by an older Scout, looking back on her life growing up in Maycomb, Alabama with her father whom she calls Atticus, her older brother, Jem and their cook, Calpurnia.  Her mother died when she was young.  She is a likable protagonist, a tomboy with spirit, gumption and a lively imagination.  The most excitement in their idyllic, sheltered life comes from trying to draw out the reclusive and mysterious Boo Radley until Atticus takes on a case which polarizes the community and brings racial tension straight into Jem and Scout’s world.  In short. Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a “white trash” young woman.  There are no witnesses, it is her word against his.

While I have wanted to read this book after finishing other books about adolescents such as Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, it went to the top of my TBR list after seeing her name in the dedication page of another recently read book, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird is somewhat autobiographical as Lee grew up in the Deep South, loved to read (like Scout), her father was a lawyer (like Atticus) and one character, Dill was modeled after Capote.

Moral lessons abound within this quick read:

Atticus to Scout – on trying to teach her how to get along with people she may not agree with or understand:  
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Miss Maudie (neighbor) to Scout about Atticus: 
"Atticus Finch is the same person in his house as he is in public" and "People in their right minds never take pride in their talents."
Atticus to Scout on why he took the Robinson case: 
"This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscious.  I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man" and "before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.  The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscious."
Jem and Scout had watched the trial and with the black/white and right/wrong idealism of youth, he was angry at the verdict. Atticus' explanation to Jem:
The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.  As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it.  Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
When Jem and Scout are talking about classes in Southern society: 
J – I’ve thought about it a lot lately and I’ve got it figured out.  There’s four kinds of folks in the world.  There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump and the Negroes. 
S - Naw, Jem, I think ther's just one kind of folks.  Folks.
J - That's what I thought too when I was your age.  If there's one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other?  If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?
Notable passages

For some reason, I love this sentence (about Aunt Alexandra's husband):
She married a taciturn man who spent most of his time lying in a hammock by the river wondering if his trout lines were full.
About Dill:
Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.
Great description of Maycomb (long but I couldn't pare down - all good):
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.  In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square.  Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square.  Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.  Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.  There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaires of Maycomb County.
On Scout's second cousin:
Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean.  He was the most boring child I ever met.
When Jem and Scout visited Calpurnia's church:
The warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us as we entered the church yard - Hearts of Love hairdressing mingled with asafoetida, snuff, Hoyt's Cologne, Brown's Mule, peppermint, and lilac talcum.
On why Aunt Alexandra was so irritable on the Lord's Day:
I guess it was her Sunday corset.  She was not fat, but solid, and she chose protective garments that drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Aunt Alexandra's was once an hour-glass figure.  From any angle, it was formidable.
On being a Southern woman:
Why ladies hooked woolen rugs on boiling nights never became clear to me.
I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently and drank cool water.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

Published: 1965
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction novel or true crime novel
Rating: 5
List: 1,001
Review: Goodreads, A Guy's Moleskin Notebook

With this brilliantly written novel, Capote created a new genre: the non-fiction novel and/or the true crime novel.  It was initially published in four installments in the New Yorker and then in novel form in 1965.  Rather than writing a book full of facts about a horrific crime in a sleepy Midwestern town, Capote used these facts to create a spell-binding story.  Once started, I had a hard time putting the book down.  

The book is divided into four parts called I) The Last to See them Alive, II) Persons Unknown, III)  Answer and IV)  The Corner.  Within the parts are sections separated by white space, no chapters.

Capote and Harper Lee (author of To Kill A Mockingbird) went to Holcomb, KS, scene of the gruesome murders to conduct interviews.  He followed the story through the trial/sentencing and was able to interview the murderers while incarcerated.   There are two movies that depict this time in Capote's life, Capote and Infamous.  Both are in my Netflix queue.

Quotes to remember and why:

Rather than just listing items that accompany a guitar and 12-guage shotgun in the back seat of the car, Capote adds a literary flair:
A flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and a hunting vest fully packed with shells contributed further atmosphere to this curious still life.
If Dick's face truly looked like this, what a piece of descriptive writing:
...his face, which seemed composed of mismatching parts.  It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center.
Even a cat is worthy of a well-constructed sentence:
Pete, a tiger-shaped tom weighing fifteen pounds, is a well-known character around Garden City, famous for his pugnacity, which was the cause of his current hospitalization; a battle lost to a boxer dog had left him with wounds necessitating both stitches and antibiotics.

This reminds me of Josh's glasses that are still in his room....
Upstairs in Kenyon;s room, on a shelf above his bed, the lenses of the dead boy's spectacles gleamed with reflected light.

When locals were getting on Dewey for not solving the crime at Hartman's cafe, Mrs. Hartman rebukes them with these three simple words which says it all.
Hush your meanness.
Dewey had worked on four simple murder cases before this one. I like how clear and concise this sentence is:
Prior to the Clutter mystery, the four cases cited were the sum of Dewey's experience with murder, and measured against the case confronting him, were squalls preceding a hurricane.
How Perry looked at the trial in a borrowed shirt and jeans cuffed at the bottom:
..he looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.
Death, grief and suicide are prominent themes so I wrote a post on Josh's blog.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Published: 1855
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5
Review Goodreads

Last year I watched an excellent adaptation by BBC, on the recommendation of my daughter.  Since then, I bought the Works of Elizabeth Gaskell on my Nook for a whopping $4.  I started to read this novel and found the highlighting and note-taking feature so cumbersome, I had to buy the paperback.  Now I can dog-ear, write in the margins and underline to my heart's content.   I have come to the conclusion that an e-reader is not necessarily my cup of tea unless I have a sudden urge to download and read a Debbie Macomber book in one night.

Gaskell was a wife and mother before becoming an author.  Her first book, Mary Barton (1848) made her an instant celebrity.  North and South was first published in the familiar installment mode in Dicken's Household Words between September 1854 and January 1855.  She became a lifelong friend of Charlotte Bronte and wrote a biography at the request of C.B's father.   Apparently North and South is of a similar theme to Bronte's book, Shirley (1849).

I loved the book: the prose, characters, setting, description and dialogue.  To me, it was Pride and Prejudice meets North and South.

Margaret Hale is our heroine and lives in an idyllic town in the south of England called Helstone.  Her father, a clergyman decides to leave the Church of England and take up a position as a tutor in Milton (northern England) much to the chagrin of his wife.  The family is uprooted and the difference in surroundings and lifestyle are like night and day.  Milton is a manufacturing town and one of Mr. Hale's pupils is a factory owner, John Thornton.

Through an omniscient narrator that goes inside the minds of both main characters, Margaret and John, we see the differences between these two parts of England - almost as if they were different countries.  The North vs South themes in the book:  apprentice vs. student, pragmatic vs. philosopher, man vs. gentleman, manufacturing vs. agriculture.  The other themes have to do with the manufacturing industry itself:  Master vs. hand, management vs. labor, owner vs. union.

Both Margaret and John have pride in their way of doing things and are prejudiced against the other, hence the similarity to Austen's book which was published over 40 years earlier, in 1813. In fact, chapter 11 is titled "First Impression" which was the original title of P&P.

The basic romance plot line of Margaret Hale and John Thornton remind me of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Austen's P&P and interestingly enough, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

  • Boy and girl notice one another (Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth at the dance, Mr. Thornton and Margaret at her Milton home, Rhett and Scarlett at the Wilkes' barbecue).
  • Boy is attracted to the girl first and professes his love.
  • Girl rejects boy.
  • Boy saves girl.
  • Girl sees the positive attributes in boy.
  • Some misunderstandings which drive me as the reader, crazy.
  • Girl ends up loving boy. 

I look forward to reading other novels by both Gaskell and Bronte.
  • Mary Barton (1848)
  • Shirley by C.Bronte (1849)
  • Cranford (1853)
  • Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857)
  • Wives and Daughters (1866)
It is a bit surprising how much I am enjoying 19th century British literature. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Mentor: A Memoir" by Tom Grimes

Published: 2010
Read: 2011
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3
Reviews: Goodreads

My reading journey has led me to the world of memoirs.  I remember seeing this book last year and made a mental note.  During a Border's closing sale a few months ago, it was purchased and added to the ever growing TBR pile.   I picked it up before going on a 2-day business trip last week, thinking it would be a perfect airport-airplane read while providing some food for thought - a good choice.  

This poignant memoir is about the impact of a mentor, Frank Conroy, director of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop on a fledgling writer, Tom Grimes.  It also offers a glimpse into a writer's life and if accurate, it is a lonely, difficult, anxiety ridden, insecure life.  Why would anyone want to do this?  I ask the same question when reading articles about people who want to run a marathon in every continent or about a 51 year old man who recently biked from California to the East Coast in 11 days - why??  I guess it is a calling or maybe a better description - an obsession.

Meaningful quotes below:

Grimes' reasons for writing:
Writing was my center of gravity.  If I quit, I'd implode.
It's my way of controlling my world and my emotions.  I focus on sentences.  For several hours a day, nothing else matters.  I live inside language.  And while I'm often frustrated by writing's difficulty, I am also at peace.
Writing is a necessity.  I exist on sentences.  I forget my sense of failure.  I forget time. I forget that I'm aging.  I forget that one day I'll die.  Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting to the reader is the only leap of faith I'll ever take. 
I never want to die and when I'm writing a novel I believe I never will.  
I can relate to some of Grimes' feelings.  About how writing is a centering activity and a way to work through intense feelings.  I've had to rely on writing to survive our personal earthquake, the suicide of our beloved 17-year old son.  In the aftermath, during the wee hours of the night, words flowed from pen to paper.  Into my journal, then onto Josh's blog.  Then onto this reading blog.  And over 2 year later, I have not stopped.  I try to be as true and uncensored as possible - about what I am feeling and thinking.  It has been a lifesaver.

Difficulty of a writer's life:
The ground a writer stands on is no firmer than water.
I've chosen a profession and life that promises to humble me.
The six months I'd spent hunched over my desk in a small cold room near an ice-glazed storm window had ended.  I felt as if I'd ascended from the ocean's frigid, black floor, broken the water's surface and taken a deep breath.  A world did exist apart from the intensity of making sentences and the anxiety of scratching my way toward an ending.
Interesting thought about the connection between writer and reader, as imparted to Tom by Frank.
A reader must feel the continual, but unobtrusive pressure of the writer's soul behind every sentence.

Very good example of "show, don't tell".  Grimes is in the locker room of a pro baseball team, for research purposes. In my book, I underlined the adjectives and circled the verbs. 
First they pulled long, white socks above their knees and secured them with navy blue stirrups.  Next, they hoisted jock straps over their hips, stepped into spandex shorts and then reached inside them to snugly place a hard rubber cup over their testicles.  They tugged short-sleeved Mets T-shirts over their heads, slipped into immaculate white, blue and orange pinstriped uniforms, and then knotted the laces of their polished black cleats. 

Tom's very graphic, intense description of his sister's attempted suicide.  Horrible.  She tried to disembowel herself with a carving knife.  This didn't work so she plugged in an electric carving knife and slit her left wrist.  The noise woke up her husband and two young children.  When the boys saw her covered in blood, "she seemed to be wearing a horror mask. The boys began tearing at their hair, trying to rip it from their skulls.  As he dialed 911, they ran into the dining room and circled it's table, shrieking."

When Tom was diagnosed as clinically insane - his haunting, descriptive metaphor:
I felt like an eggshell that had been dyed with vivid colors, then pinpricked and drained.  It may appear solid, but beneath its decorative surface it's hollow and nearly weightless.
Read Frank Conroy's critically acclaimed memoir, published in 1967: Stop-Time