Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Booked To Die" by John Dunning

Published: 1992
Read: 2011
Genre: fiction
Setting: Denver
Rating: 3
Review: Goodreads

Right when you walk into the local library, there is a carousel that showcases various genres.  A couple of weeks ago, it was "Books About Books".  If that doesn't interest a bookish person, not sure what will.

I picked this up after reading the jacket:  "Detective cop Cliff Janeway probably knows as much about books as he does about homicide."   Hmmmmm.  Then flipped to the back to read about the author.  "John Dunning - an expert on rare and collectible books, he owned the Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver for many years....."  Sold.  The book began the pile of books checked out that day.

I liked it.  A good book to read before going to sleep.  The other two books that I'm reading, Villette by Charlotte Bronte and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, are not good "before I sleep" candidates.  I need to be wide awake for Bronte and Didion's book is just too sad to read before heading off to dreamworld.

Since detective books are plot driven and too much disclosure would ruin the book, I will give a few high level thoughts.  From my reading in this genre, the motives for most murders are lust, love or greed. Usually for a person and/or for money.  In this case, the object of desire is books, which when sold would yield a lot of money.

As the narrator, Detective Janeway gives the reader a crash course in the world of book scouting and book selling.  Interesting stuff.  Add a few murders that seem to be linked but are stubbornly difficult to solve and you have a classic "who-dun-it.  The addition of a couple of intriguing female characters add layers to the plot.   A quick and fun read.

"The Art of Reading": Audiocourse by Dr. Timothy Spurgin

Update - 2/26/2011
Finished the course and would highly recommend.

In a recent post, I talked about an interesting and thought-provking course that I have been listening to in the car called The Art of Reading.   Lots of good information that I will chronicle in this post.

Artful reading
  • Take reading more seriously
  • Formalist approach - close reading of the words on the page
Authors: Real and Implied
  • Think of authors more like a character
  • Most authors do not begin with a theme
  • T.S Eliot in the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he promotes the idea that the author's personality has little to do with his/her writing.  There is a difference between the "man who suffers" and the "mind that creates."  It is the creative mind that influences the writing, not the person who suffers everyday life. 
  • In Wayne C. Booth's classic study, The Rhetoric of Fiction, he says the real-life author is different than the "implied author."  
  • "The implied author is the figure who materializes in the book itself, the man or woman whose personality is implicit in the story and the storytelling. 
  • Suggests reading author interviews in the Paris Review.
  • Remember this: the author is not the narrator
  • First person narrator - Eg. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe.
  • Third person narrator - Eg. Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Indirect Discourse - Eg. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  Third person narrators borrows language from characters without quotes or identifying tags. 
  • Shift between first and third person - Eg. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Several first person narrators - Eg. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. 
  • Questions to ask after page 10:  Is this first or third person?  Why did the author chose this? 
  • Interesting characters are not often the nicest or most likable
  • Interesting characters, even unlikable ones, can grow and change
  • An artful reader will monitor their responses to the characters.  
  • In E.M Forster's book, Aspects of the Novel, he talks about "round" and "flat" characters.  According to him, "the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way."
  • Other things to look out for:  What is the internal conflict or struggle.  What is the crisis?  Is there a reckoning with the past and/or the self? 
  • Short stories by Anton Chekhov
  • Minimalist - Ernest Hemingway
  • Maximilist - William Faulkner
  • Lyricist - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Reading for the Plot - Five Simple Words
  • Beginning: introduced to characters, setting, etc.  Then a destabilizing event
  • Middle: Complications, possibly more destabilizing events, conflicts
  • End:  Resolution - either tragically or comically (sad or happy)
  • Plot: List of events in order of their presentation to the reader
  • Story: Same events in chronological order
  • Exercise - while reading, make a list of events as they occur.  Note which ones are in the past.
Master Plots
  • Hero takes a journey
  • Stranger comes to town
  • Rags to Riches
  • Love conquers all
Chapters: Pattern and Rhythm
  • Pre-read book.
  • Talk time to look at organization of the book.  If there are parts, how many?  How many chapters in each part?  Read the first sentences in the beginning chapters to get a sense of narration and style. Eg.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and My Antonia by Willa Cather.
  • Suggest to take a break after the first part.  List chapter numbers on a page and next to each chapter note the following:  introduction of main character, change in setting, destabilizing event.  Try to get a feel of the pulse, pattern or rhythm of the book. 
Scene and Summary: Showing and Telling
  • Scenes: mainly dialogue.  Help the reader observe characters directly.
  • Summary: used by narrator to set the scene, bring up to date, generalize, analyze. 
  • Eg. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Disgrace by J. M Coetzee
Big Scenes: Subtexts, Motives and Secrets
  • Eg. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Look for scenes where the dialogue deepens our insight into the main character, remembering these questions: 
  1. Why does a character enter the scene? What is the reason? 
  2. Does the character know what he/she wants?  What is the real motive?  Do they even know? 
  3. What is the character's main goal?  And is it known to all? Why or why not? 
  4. Good scenes usually involve miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disappointment.  Is this going on? 
  5. The only tool for character in a good scene is language.  What are they saying?  What words are they using?  Why? 
Dialogue: Good, Bad and Ugly
  • Comic dialogue:  character's speech is exaggerated. Eg. Right Ho, Jeeves  by P.G Wodehouse
  • Naturalistic dialogue: spontaneity and immediacy.  Leaves many things unsaid. Eg. of both: White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
  • Bad dialogue - when character makes speeches or monologues, in place of narrator's summary.  Flat, boring, unrealistic.  Eg. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.  Prof Langston's speech to the detective upon seeing the dead man sounds like a university lecture.  Unrealistic. 
Picking up the Tools - practical ideas to implement while reading
  • Pre-read - eyeball the entire book to get a sense of the design
  • 50 page test - give the book at least 50 pages before deciding to continue
  • Look out for destabilizing events - usually in the first few pages.
  • What is the master plot?  "Hero Takes A Journey" or "Stranger Comes to Town"?
  • Once a third of the way through, stop and take stock.  Think about the plot and the characters.  Formulate questions.  Make predictions.  Perhaps re-read the first chapter to see if it is different.
  • Close reading - pay attention to the words and language.
  • Take note of passages that are striking in terms of summary, dialogue, description, setting, characterization, showing not telling, etc. 
Suggested Bibliography
  • How Fiction Works by James Wood
  • The Making of A Story by Alice LaPlante
  • Writing Fiction by Burroway and Stuckey-French
  • 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel by Smiley
  • Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Villette" Read-A-Long: Chapters 12-17

Third post for this read-a-long, initiated by Unputdownables.

I am enjoying the book thus far as we have made our way into Volume Two.  But am feeling a bit frustrated that Lucy is not more forthcoming about her past.  I have the same questions as last week:  Where did she come from?   Who is her family?
What happened to her?   Why is she all alone?

She is a mystery, an enigma, hiding the details of her past while dropping hints which for me, only brings up more questions.  Hence the frustration.  Anyone else feeling this?

In the audiocourse, The Art of Reading, Professor Spurgin talks about the difference between flat and round characters from E.M. Forster's Book, Aspects of the Novel.  Round characters are "dynamic, complex, and unpredictable" and are therefore far more interesting than flat characters who are predictable, one-dimensional and boring.  Lucy Snowe is definitely a round character.  I find her to be a study in contradictions as the next three examples show.

1)  On the one hand, she is unambitious and a wall-flower, perfectly content to settle for a "ho-hum" kind of life.  Back in Chapter 8, she says: "Inadventurous, unstirred by impulses of practical ambition, I was capable of sitting twenty years teaching infants the hornbook..."

And yet when faced with a challenge, be it teaching a large group of students for the first time, or at the very last minute, taking a major part in a play, she finds the resources to do so and with success.

2)  She comes across as a stoic, cool, aloof person and yet underneath, has deep, intense feelings.  At times, like a bubbling pot of water that overflows, her emotions get the best of her.  She feels anger, bitterness, loneliness, fear, and anxiety.  Once the emotional outburst is over, she puts a lid back on her feelings as shown in this passage:
"Yet as the laugh died, a kind of wrath smote me, and then bitterness followed....I cried hot tears...complicated, disquieting thoughts broke up the whole repose of my nature. However, that turmoil subsided: next day I was again Lucy Stowe."
3)  When the school is full of people, she separates herself, preferring to live in her "own still, shadow-world."  Another example of this is when, after performing in the fete, she "retired into myself and my ordinary life.....Withdrawing to a quiet nook, whence unobserved I could observe - the ball, its splendours and its pleasures passed before me as a spectacle."

Yet when everyone leaves for vacation, her reaction is surprising.  One would think she would enjoy the emptiness, stillness and quiet.  But no, quite the contrary.  She ends up having an emotional breakdown, she is so distraught.
"My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its chords. How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless! How vast and void seemed the desolate premises! How gloomy the forsaken garden - gray now with the dust of the town-summer departed....I hardly knew how I was to live to the end."
Lucy is not only full of contradictions, but is full of secrets.  Secrets of her past that she refuses to disclose to us readers.  She keeps things from others such as when she knew who Dr. John really was. Why would she keep this to herself?  Why not disclose who she was and renew a relationship with not only him but his mother?   Her motive is unclear which I find disconcerting.

So Lucy is not only full of contradictions and secrets but also fear.  Fear of intimacy.  Fear of rejection. Fear of loving and being hurt.  These are my guesses based on how she reacts to the care and kindness from Dr. John and his mother.
"I left that I still had friends...towards whom, my heart softened instinctively and yearned with an importunate gratitude, which I entreated Reason betimes to check. 'Do not let me not think of them too often, too much, too fondly...let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream...still repeating it, I steeped that pillow with tears."
Despite being left in the dark, I am still interested in Lucy.  I want to know what happens to her. Will these contradictions in her personality get resolved?  Will she find happiness?  What about love?

I love Bronte's use of language and am now considering how and where to keep a running list of memorable quotes of this and future books.  Anyone else doing this and if so, how?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Borders Bookstore Closing

The local Border's bookstore in Tysons Corner, Virginia is closing its doors in a few short weeks.   I found this out via email and the big 20-30% off notice sealed the deal.  After two trips in as many days, I came home with 19 books and 4 of my favorite blank journals (always stocking up).   All in all, a very bookish weekend.

First Day's Find

Memoirs - I have been very interested in this genre since Josh's death.  Truthfully, the more intense the better. I am most drawn to memoirs that are written from the heart, or better said, the gut.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didon
  • Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azir Nafisi
  • Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes
On Fiction - I am almost done listening to the audiocourse called The Art of Reading.  It is fantastic.  I picked up a couple of recommended books to read and have for reference. 
  • The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth
  • How Novels Work by John Mullen
Non-fiction - Why I got this book, I have no idea.  Just jumped out at me.  I ended up giving it to my mom to read first.  I loved the look on her face when she took the thick book, ran her hands over the cover, thumbed through it, all the while saying, "very good....I don't know much about her."  Then my dad picked it up saying he was almost done with the book he is currently reading and may read this one next.  I guess my parents will have to arm wrestle for it.  I should've picked up two copies! 
  • The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China by Hannah Pakula
Journals - I look for these now in every Border's bookstore.  They are MUCH cheaper than their Moleskin counterpart but work just as well. 

Second Day's Find

  • A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates
Classics: I have these on my Nook but have found through my participation on the Villette Read-A-Long sponsored by Unputdownables, that I really need to have the hard book - to dog-ear, underline, write in margins, etc.  Of course, I couldn't just get one classic, now could I? 
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • Little Dorritt  by Charles Dickens
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Non-fiction - have seen this recommended in more places than I can count. 
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham - want to read this and see the movie.  All I know is that suicide is a topic. 
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - recommended in the audiocourse The Art of Reading

I grouped these last as they are part of a personal challenge or goal.  I picked up the Vladimir Nabokov book,  and saw that he discusses several book in great detail.  What I found most fascinating were pictures of notes all over the pages of his books and diagrams of the settings.  I figured it would be like sitting in on one of his lectures.  These are some of the books:  
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenon
  • Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Frank Kafka

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"A Grief Observed" by C. S Lewis

Published: 1961
Read: 2011
Genre: memoir
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads

This has been on my list of books to read for quite a while, really since Josh died almost two year ago.  I received a comment on a previous post that it was a most helpful book.  So I finally got it at the library and read it in one night - while in a hotel, traveling for work.

When C.S. Lewis' beloved wife, "H" died, he poured out his feelings in a journal which is the content of this short but powerful book.  The pain, grief, sorrow, and despair radiates from the pages.  Although his experience is of spousal loss, the use of analogies to describe his deep feelings, apply to other losses such as mine.

Analogies of loss/grief:
Getting over the loss of a loved one is like getting over the loss of a limb - it will never happen.  See this post from Josh's blog for the quote and my thoughts.

Grief like a spiral:
"For in grief nothing 'stays put.' One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.  Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?  But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?" 
Grief like a long valley:
"Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.  As I've already noted, not every bend does.  Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn't a circular trench.  But it isn't.  There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn't repeat."
My thoughts:
I agree.  Along these lines, I've likened grief to being on a journey, unwelcome but necessary.  To delay or deny the journey, however difficult, will only bring harm (see this post for more thoughts).

I've also thought about grief being like an archery target with the center bulls-eye surrounded by concentric circles.  If THE LOSS is the center and the circles are various points in time, clearly even 3, 4 or 5 years after the death does not move the bereaved very far from the middle.  In other words, time does not distance someone from their loss as quickly as one might think.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it will soon be two years since our son died.  In some ways, it feels like forever; sometimes, like yesterday.  Either way, his absence is louder than his presence ever was.  And I don't see this diminishing any time soon.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Villette" Read-A-Long: Chapters 6 - 11

Second post for this read-a-long, initiated by Unputdownables.

I am writing this on the Sunday prior to Thursday's posting deadline as I can't help but want to read ahead.  Before doing so however, I need to stop and write for fear that knowing more of the story will influence this post.  This is a new exercise - to stop in the middle of reading, think deeply about what's been read and write.  Depending on how this goes, who knows - a new habit may begin!

In chapters 6 - 11, we read about Lucy Snowe 's move from London to France, more specifically a town called Villette.  As an impoverished, single woman with no family or friends (as far as we know), she has only herself to rely upon.  I find her decision-making process haunting.
"I had nothing to lose.  Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past forbade return.  If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer?  If I died far away from - home, I was going to say, but I had no home - from England, then, who would weep?  I might suffer; I was inured to suffering: death itself had not, I thought, those terrors for me which it has for the softly reared.  I had, ere this, looked on the thought of death with a quiet eye.  Prepared then, for any consequence, I formed a project." 
Any other woman, including myself, might have been in the throes of depression if this were her life.  No home, no family, no one who would weep if she died.  A woman familiar with suffering, one not "softly reared" nor afraid of death. It is this lack of fear that gives her the courage to sail to a different country and attempt to find work.  On this trip, when events occur that would frighten many, she gives cool appraisal to herself.
"I asked myself if I was wretched or terrified.  I was neither.  Often in my life have I been far more so under comparatively safe circumstances.  'How is this?' said I.  'Me-thinks I am animated and alert, instead of being depressed and apprehensive?' I would not tell how it was."
She assesses her situation again, once safely bunked.
"Some difficulties had been passed through, a sort of victory was won: my homeless, anchorless, unsupported mind had again leisure for a brief repose: till the 'Vivid' arrived in harbour, no further action would be required of me, but then..Oh!  I could not look forward.  Harassed, exhausted, I lay in a half-trance."
The words she uses to describe her mind, in fact, aptly portray her current state:  homeless, anchorless, unsupported.  "Poor thing," I think.  But she has no self-pity - in fact, as she later stands on the ship's deck alone, she feels happy and confident that as long as she has health and a stable mind, Hope is not far.
" peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star."
A fellow passenger, Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, tells Lucy of a position as an English governess for Madame Beck, directress of her school.  Lucy decides that she will pursue this opportunity and in anticipation of the reader having issue with the decision, she says:
"Before you pronounce on the rashness of the proceeding, reader, look back to the point whence I started; consider the desert I had left, note how little I perilled: mine was the game where the player cannot lose and may win."
With this passage, it is clear we are reading about Lucy Snowe's accounting of her life - her memoir.  And while writing, she presumes judgements made by the reader and attempts to dispel them or at least, to justify her actions.  On her trip to Villette, she describes her mounting anxiety like a tiger.  I find this analogy haunting and horrible. She is someone who is close to being victimized and perhaps devoured by anxiety.
"These feelings, however, were well kept in check by the secret but ceaseless consciousness of anxiety lying in wait on enjoyment, like a tiger crouched in a jungle. The breathing of that beast of prey was in my ear always, his fierce heart panted close against mine; he never stirred in his lair but I felt him: I knew he waited only for sun-down to bound ravenous from his ambush."
With fate guiding her, Lucy manages to not only find Madame Beck, but is hired first as governess, then as an English teacher.  Her description of M. Beck is riveting:
" attempt to touch her heart was the surest way to rouse her antipathy, and to make of her a secret foe. It proved to her that she had no heart to be touched: it reminded her where she was impotent and dead. Never was the distinction between charity and mercy better exemplified than in her....In philanthropic schemes, for the benefit of society at large, she took a cheerful part; no private sorrow touched her: no force or mass of suffering concentrated in one heart had power to pierce hers.  Not the agony in Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear."
Upon hearing that Madame Beck wants her to take over an English class from a departing teacher, she is mortified as it would mean leaving her "comfort zone."  Her reasoning to settle for an unobtrusive and uninteresting life is this:
" work had neither charm for my taste, nor hold on my interest; but it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from intimate trial; the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know.  Besides, I seemed to hold two lives - the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter."
This passage really hit me.  She has suffered.  Even severely.  I have as well, with the tragic death of our son.  And with that horrific event, went all feelings of happiness, either for present or for the future. And so Lucy's thought - that happiness would simply be the absence of severe suffering rings true for me.

I am surprised at the number of interesting quotes in these 6 chapters.  Will the rest of the book be this way?

What I am learning about Lucy:

  • she is self-reflective, assessing her thoughts and feelings as honestly as possible. 
  • she is an observer - like a fly on the wall.
  • she is quiet which makes her unnoticeable, in the case of young Dr. John. To others like Miss Fanshawe, she is a good listener. 
  • when push comes to shove, she is quite resourceful.  Eg. obtaining employment from Madame Beck, handling a class of 60 testy students - with no support, whatsoever. 
Questions about Lucy:
  • Where did she come from?  Who is her family?  What happened to her?  How did she come to be in such a desperate situation? Will we ever learn about her past?
  • She seems to just "go with the flow."  What else will happen to her?  Is there any happiness in her future? 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"How Reading Changed My Life" by Anna Quindlen

Published: 1998
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads

A very quick read by a bestselling author whose love of books radiates from the pages.  She attributes this love to a certain restlessness as a child, and says this:
"So I wandered the world thought books.  I went to Victorian England in the pages of Middlemarch and A Little Princess, and to Saint Petersburg before the fall of the czar with Anna Karenina.  I went to Tara, and Manderley, and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses, with their high ceilings and high drama, as I read Gone with the Wind and Jane Eyre."
A number of other quotes from the book are on this post so I will not re-type them here.  I do however, want to write about some thoughts she has on why and what women read and how this differs from men.  Despite being broad generalizations that will not be true for everyone, I would like to explore further.
"...I began to think that women read differently than men....a Gallup poll taken in 1991 showed that women were more likely than men to find reading a more relaxing pastime than watching television....Some bookstore owners say their women customers are more likely to read novels, while the men more often choose biographies and history. Perhaps women feel more of a need to escape their own lives and take up those of others than men do."
"But it also seemed to me...that women seem to see reading not only as a solitary activity but as an opportunity for emotional connection, not just to the characters in a novel but to those others who are reading or have read the same novel themselves."
"This ability of a book to lesson isolation is important, not simply for personal growth, but for cultural and societal growth as well."
I am also remined of a quote by Maureen Corrigan in her book, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading.  Here, she muses as to why she and fellow bookworms read:
" for authenticity.  We want to get closer to the heart of things, and sometimes even a few good sentences contained in an otherwise unexceptional book can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or sometimes, profound epiphanies...Readers, professional or casual, are alert to passages in a book that illuminate what was previously shadowy and formless."
It is the combination of these thoughts that speak to me.  My life is now segregated in terms of "pre" and "post Josh" - like a thick black line or better said, a chasm that irrevocably separates my two selves.

"Pre-Josh", I read novels.  Quickly.  The faster, the better.  I wanted to connect with the characters and get lost in their story. These kinds of books are aptly called "brain candy" by some.  "Post-Josh", I read for "emotional connection" and to "lesson isolation" as Quindlen says.  I also read to "crystallize vague feelings" and illuminate the "shadowy and formless" as said by Corrigan.

In fact, everything I read now is with a filter - plain and simple: Josh's death. I am searching for authenticity or truth.  I look for meaning and understanding.  I want to find the answer to THE unanswerable question: "Why, Josh, why?"

I was thinking about this over two weeks ago and drew a funnel in my journal.  At the top, where the width is greatest, I wrote the following: dreams, writing, journaling, books, thoughts, quotes, ideas, conversations, stories, memoirs, fiction, survivor of suicide books, parental bereavement books, lyrics, movies.  At the bottom of the funnel, is THE question.  After drawing this, I wrote:
"So, as opposed to others, who have no real issues, pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy, and read just to read, because they like books and have been bookish all their lives, I read and write for salvation.  To avoid or bypass mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, my own temptations of suicide. To be able to function.  Reading and writing is a life support.  It sustains me.  Guides me.  Illuminates.  Forces me to follow thoughts and ideas that would previously be unknown or simmering in my subconscious, wreaking havoc.  Reveals what is dormant - thoughts or feelings that lie beneath conscious thought.  If left untouched or not brought to the light of scrutiny, it could in fact, cause mental illness, breakdown, even madness."
It surprised me then, how quickly and easily these words flew from pen to paper.  And as I re-read and type them now, they still ring true.

Grieving is a lonely business.  I would not survive if not for the companionship offered in books and in my journal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Emma" by Jane Austen

Published: 1815
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction: classic
Setting: Highbury, England; early 19th century
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads

I've had my Nook since April 2010 and have been undecided about it's usefulness. I like to dog-ear, underline and write in the margins of my books and find the Nook's highlight feature sorely lacking.   However, the other night, I downloaded 100 classic books (in two volumes) for only $6.  Can't beat that.

Emma is the first book I chose to read, mainly to see what additional nuggets could be gleaned beyond the movie adaptations.

As opposed to the protagonist in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett, whom I really like, I wasn't sure about Emma Woodhouse.  As the story unfolds, her actions denote a proud, spoiled, arrogant, manipulative, petulant girl/woman.  Saving grace is her naivety and interestingly enough, her selflessness.  For the motivation for her manipulating events and people is for their best interest (according to what she thinks, of course).  This is evidenced by the match-making of Miss Taylor, her governess and dearest friend to Mr. Weston.  She would never have done this, if truly selfish.  As it turns out, her father, Mr. Woodhouse, is far more self-centered than she.

Over the course of the book, I was back-and-forth on my opinion of her.  But in the end, her self reflection and corresponding ability to accept fault won me over.

Memorable quotes:
When she was soundly rebuked by Mr. Knightly regarding her careless and hurtful words to Miss Bates:
"Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of this representation there was not denying. She felt it at her heart.  How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?"

When she realized how arrogant she has been regarding the matchmaking games:
"With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body's destiny.  She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing - for she had done mischief.  She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley."

When she found out that Harriet had accepted Mr. Martin's proposal of marriage and therefore she herself, could be truly happy to accept Mr. Knightley's proposal:
"The joy, the gratitude, the exquisite delight of her sensations may be imagined. The sole grievance and alloy thus removed in the prospect of Harriet's welfare, she was really in danger of becoming too happy for security.  What had she to wish for? Nothing, but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgment had been ever so superior to her own.  Nothing, but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future." 
What else can be said about Jane Austen's writing other than sheer brilliance?  I look forward to reading her other books.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Villette" Read-A-Long: Chapters 1-5

While perusing through various book blogs today, I came across the Villette read-a-long, hosted by Unputdownables.  I was instantly intrigued because in a recently read book by Maureen Corrigan, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, she wrote about the haunting nature of Charlotte Bronte's story.

I didn't think much of it, but then as the evening wore on, I kept thinking about how nice it would be to read this book along with others.  So thanks to the ability to download the book onto my Nook at 9:30pm, here I am.

I know absolutely nothing about the story and honestly after reading quick 5 chapters, I still do not know very much.  I am curious about Lucy Snowe.  Who is she?  Why is she on her own?  Why, when we are first getting to know her, as an established guest at Mrs. Bretton's home does she take a back seat to a tiny, precocious and utterly strange six-year old girl?  She appears to be like a fly on the wall.  An observer, not a partaker.

Several years pass and we find her desperate for money and therefore needing to work.  Which she does, caring for an invalid woman, Miss Marchmont,who unfortunately dies before making good on her promise to bestow some financial gift to poor Lucy.  I found the following quote, which was also quoted in Corrigan's book to be more than just sad - it was stifling and claustrophobic.
"Her service was my duty - her pain, my suffering - her relief, my hope - her anger, my punishment - her regard, my reward.  I forgot that there were fields, woods, rivers, seas, an ever-changing sky outside the steam-dimmed lattice of this sick chamber."
In her own words, Lucy would have "crawled on with her for twenty years..."  Lucky (or maybe unlucky, depending on what happens) for her, upon the death of her ward/employer, she has to move on.

Bronte has pulled me in.  I want to know what happens to this poor girl.

To see all the posts, click on "Villette Read-a-Long" in the right hand bar.

"Faithful Place" by Tana French

Published: 2010
Read: 2011
Genre: fiction, mystery
Setting: Dublin, Ireland; modern time
Rating: 3
Review: Goodreads, I Write in Books
Author web site

Third book in the series of the Dublin Murder Squad.  In The Woods is her first book, where Detective Rob Ryan is the protagonist and Cassie Maddox is his partner.  In the second book,  The Likeness, Cassie is the protagonist and her boss, Frank Mackey is the supporting character.  In this book, Frank is the lonely protagonist but mid way through, French introduces a young detective named Stephen Moran who assists Frank, albeit reluctantly.

As with her other books, I found this to be a quick read.  A classic "who dun-it" story that moves along with no sluggish sections.  In the quest to be a more thoughtful reader, I am asking more questions and actually figured out who the culprit was early on.  Still, there were plenty of unforeseen twists and turns which kept me reading.  I wonder if she will write about Moran next?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More Than One

In the past, I was a singularly focused reader. These days, there are so many books I want to read that I can't just limit myself to one.

A couple of days ago, I download Volumes 1 and 2 of Barnes and Noble's 50 Classic Books.  So 100 books for 6 bucks.  I started reading Emma by Jane Austen right away.  My first time reading the book and although I know the story from watching movies where Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow play Emma, that did not detract from the book.  In fact, I was eagerly awaiting to read the carriage scene where Mr. Elton professes his love for Emma, to her deep chagrin. It was a "laugh out loud" moment.

I am also reading the third book of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series.  A well written "who-dun-it", page turning story.

I am also listening to The Art of Reading while driving in the car.  I ordered this course from The Great Courses web site.  On sale from $180 to $50.  I work from home so my listening tends to be while on errands.  The next few weeks, I will be spending a lot more time in the car going to visit clients so am looking forward to longer stretches of soaking in Professor Spurgin's knowledge.  His lectures are interesting and thought-provoking.  I have found listening to this as well as reading books like Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing have enhanced my own reading pleasure.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing" by David Morrell

Published: 2003
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-Fiction
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads
Author's web site

Found this at the library while looking for The Art of Fiction by John Gardner.  I picked both books up, skimmed through the Gardner book and read this one cover to cover.  A quick and easy read with interesting anecdotes from his life, including experiences in writing his first novel, First Blood and the subsequent translation to the famous Rambo films.

I found this book helpful not only in thinking about the fledgling story in my head about Josh, but in my goal of being a more thoughtful reader.

His thoughts:

  • Write conversations with "alter ego" to flesh out ideas for a story and/or to create character sketches
  • Avoid flashbacks as in his opinion, they move the story backwards.
  • He prefers third person limited over first person. 
  • Description should be multi-sensory.  He tries to use two senses in addition to sight.
  • Read the first sentence, then paragraph of new books at the bookstore once a month.  Take note of the ones that grab my attention verses those that don't and ask why.  
  • Be like Hemingway who practiced stand alone dramatic paragraphs with little to no adjectives or adverbs. 
  • No speech tags except for "said" and "asked".   Will force to write more descriptively. 
"I'll track you down and murder you!" Jill shouted. 
"I'll track you down and murder you!"  Jill's cheeks were as scarlet as her hair.

"I gave that jerk the best three days of my life," Jill said proudly. 
"I gave that jerk the best three days of my life," Jill shoved back her shoulders and stood straigher. 

Memorable quotes:
How characters should control plot and not vice versa.
"In the worse kind of novel, the plot controls the characters, often forcing them to do ridiculous things, because at any narrative cost, the novelist has to strain to reach the big explosion at the climax.....In the opposite and better kind of novel, however, characters control the plot.  Properly motivated, their fears and desires set events in motion and cause the plot to proceed to a satisfying inevitable end."
On plot and conflict
"Without conflict, no plot can be interesting....As far as I'm concerned, in the abstract there's only one plot, and it goes like this: A person or group or entity wants something.  Perhaps it is to survive a blizzard, to get married, to dominate the world, or to save a child trapped in a fire, whatever.  Another person, group, or entity throws up every barrier imaginable to stop that goal from being achieved.
Recommended reading:

  • Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
  • Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (powerful 1st POV)
  • Huck Finn by Mark Twain (1st POV)
  • Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (3rd POV)
  • Raymond Chandler detective series (1st POV)
  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (3rd POV)

"Every Last One" by Anna Quindlen

Published: 2010
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Vermont town, modern time
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads
Website devoted to her work

I saw a review of the book in the Washington Post awhile ago and remember thinking, "this is just up my alley.  Tragedy occurs in the life of a regular mom which she has to survive."  I am reminded of the book, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, where Maureen Corrigan identifies a sub genre called the female version of the extreme adventure story.  In fact, she says her thoughts about this genre began after reading Quindlen's 1998 novel, Black and Blue.  The protagonist of that book was an abused wife and mother who eventually runs from her husband but lives in mortal fear for the day he tracks them down.

As opposed to the male extreme adventure story made popular by Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm where men are in life-and-death situations, often against elements such as a mountain or the sea, Corrigan says the women in the female version are working just as hard to survive, but their settings are domestic.  Their struggles are internal - emotional and/or psychological.   I would say this book fits into Corrigan's sub genre.
"This is my life:  The alarm goes off at five-thirty with the murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling me that there has been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas." 
With this first sentence, Quindlen thrusts us in the middle of Mary Beth Latham's busy life.  She is a wife of almost 20 years, a mother of three teenage children and has a successful landscaping business.  The spark has gone out of her marriage as depicted in the following quote:
"I can't quite recall, or evoke, that strange and powerful feeling that made me yearn to be with him every moment of every day, that made me think "till death do us part" sounded wonderful instead of simply like a very, very long time."
Her kids are her life - like me and most moms that I know.  She struggles with wanting intimacy with Ruby, her beautiful, independent seventeen year old daughter and with her fraternal twin boys, Alex and Max who are in middle school.   While Ruby is fine now, she had struggled with anorexia.  Alex is the athlete and popular one, while Max is the musician, quiet and depressed.  While reading the book, I was drawn into their lives with a pit in my stomach as I knew something really bad was going to happen to this family.  A family with issues, but what family doesn't?

NOTE: This book is helpful in my grief journey so the following contains spoilers.

Then "IT" happens.  With me, it was the suicide death of my seventeen year old son.  With Mary Beth, it was the nearly total disintegration of her family.  And of her.  The second half of the book is a story of survival.  Some of her thoughts brought me to tears because I can relate.  To her grief, her sorrow, her guilt, her struggle to cope, her emptiness.  

Meaningful quotes:
"One of the worst aspects of living now on the far shore is that across the chasm I can see my glib unknowing self.  I despise that woman, her foolish little worries and her cheap sympathies.  She knew nothing.  But I can't truly wish on her what I know now."
"My memories are booby-trapped."
"I have two selves now, too, the one that goes out into the world and says what sound like the right things and nods and listens and even sometimes smiles, and the real woman, who watches her in wonder, who is nothing but a wound, a wound that will not stop throbbing except when it is anesthetized.  I know what the world wants: It wants me to heal.  But to heal I would have to forget and if I forget, my family truly dies."
"It was not so much that I wanted to die; it was just that I could not bear the incessant feeling of being alive.  And then it occurred to me that I was already dead; that what was left behind was a carapace, like the shells of cicadas...I had been full, of creating children, of taking care, of tasks and plans and a big bright future, and now all that was left was a translucent skin of what had once been my life."
"The worst part are all the things they are missing.  All the things they won't get to have."
It has difficult to answer the question, "How are you?" from well-meaning friends.  Mary Beth's best friend comes to stay with her one weekend and wants to know.  Mary Beth can't answer her and thinks:
"Why should I share what no one wants to know?  Why should I listen to the words of those who know nothing?  I can predict what they will say:  It will get easier.  Lie.  You can handle this.  Lie.  Time heals.  Lie.  Time just passes. Slowly."
This is a book of a woman coping with a loss so great, it could drown her completely.  But because she has a son to look after, to care for, to live for, she will survive.  She must survive.  

I feel the same. 

Other books by Anna Quindlen
  • Black and Blue
  • One True Thing
  • Good Dog. Stay
  • How Reading Changed My Life

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" by Maureen Corrigan

Published: 2005
Read: 2011
Genre: memoir
Rating: 3
Review: Goodreads

While in the section of the library that houses books on books and books on reading, this title, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books jumped out.  Ahhh - from an obvious book lover and avid, even obsessive reader.  Who reads books to escape from life and conversely, to find out about life, or more specifically, about herself.  The first sentence in the introduction grabbed me:
"It's not that I don't like people.  It's just that when I'm in the company of others - even my nearest and dearest - there always comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book."
The apple did not fall far from the tree, at least on her father's side as he was an avid reader.  Her mother, however, was a different story.  But Corrigan attributes her ability to write book reviews for NPR's Fresh Air as well as several other publications meant for the average reader, to the practice of sharing books in an interesting way to her non-bookish mother.  She is also a Professor of Literature at Georgetown University and thus has the enviable job of reading for a living.  Doing what she loves to do during work hours - a free person.  The idea of being "free" comes from a quote, also in the introduction, by Eric Gill, a British social critic:
"The free man does what he likes in his working time and in his spare time what is required of him.  The slave does what he is obligated to do in his working time and what he likes to do only when he is not at work." 
Unfortunately, I am in the "slave" category as what I do during work hours is what is needed to pay bills, provide benefits for my family, etc.  What I'd rather be doing is read, read, read.  My secret dream is to be independently wealthy so I could do just that.

I struggle to write a meaningful review on the rest of her book as there were many parts, frankly, that I skimmed.  She talks about three genres that have meaning in her life: the female version of the extreme-adventure story, the hard-nosed detective story and stories that reinforced the Catholic, pious, self-suffering theology.  I was interested in the first third of the book and that's about it.

Similar to Manguel, she "peppers" reflections about her life with gleanings from books: characters, settings, themes and quotes.  And vice versa.  It is as if a giant file cabinet filled with all sorts of details from beloved books reside in their heads, ready to be pulled out at will.   I would like to incorporate this type of thinking in my own journaling.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"A Reading Diary" by Alberto Manguel

Published: 2004
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction; memoir
Rating: 4
Author's web site

In the forward, Manguel likened books to the universe before it came into being.
"This latent existence should surprise no reader, for whom every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hands that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness,  The following pages are my attempt to record a few such awakenings."
Manguel's goal was to re-read a favorite book each month and record his thoughts, reflections, impressions and memories - anything that was prompted by his reading.   A scene, setting, character or quote could set him off on a tangential thought of another book, or of a long forgotten memory, a dream, wish, hope or epiphany.  The following is a perfect example of how a piece of dialogue from Don Quixote made him think about his need to be an owner rather than a borrower.
"Don Quixote tells Cardenio that he has "more than three hundred books" back home.  Cervantes' books (and books on Cervantes) occupy three shelves in my own library.  I notice that I still have the book on Cervantes that Javier Cercas insisted on lending me.  I must send it back...There is something of the visitor who outstays his welcome in borrowed books.  Reading them and knowing that they don't belong to me gives me the feeling of something unfinished, half enjoyed.  This is also true of library books."
It was interesting to see evidence of a thoughtful reader at work; one who thought how to apply his reading to daily life:
"I like Badger very much.  He doesn't mind a certain neglect of manners, "nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everybody speaking at once.  As he did not go into society himself, he had got an idea that these things belongs to the things that didn't really matter."  Note: It might be useful to compile a list of "things that don't really matter". Such a list would enormously alleviate my daily lot of worrying."

A stinging rebuke regarding authors like Casares, that are unknown by most readers.  My note to self: expand my own reading to translations of authors from other countries.
"The ignorance of the English speaking reader never ceases to amaze me."
I enjoyed this little reading diary as evidenced by the many quotes in my own journal.

Other books by author:

  • A History of Reading
  • The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
  • The Library at Night

Twelve books read and referenced:

  • The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • The Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Francoise-Rene de Chateubriand
  • The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Don Quixiote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
  • The Pillow by Sei Shonagon
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  • The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Associative Reading?

I've spent the past few days immersed in book blogs; entering a world where a passion of all things books runs rampant.  The bloggers are from all ages and backgrounds and choose to spend their time blogging about what they are currently reading, what they have read and what they plan to read.  About where and how they store their treasures.  About "bookish" days where hours are spent perusing book stores and of course, buying books.  They also blog about the self control needed not to buy books and many have signed up for the TBR challenge to help reduce the amount of un-read books. And there are muses about preferences: male vs female authors, e-book vs hard copy, write in books or not, etc. etc.

While overwhelming, it is exciting to find a group of like-minded people...who love and appreciate books.  Who learn from them.  Who want to broaden their horizons.  Who like talking about them.  They seem to be a safe and welcoming group.

One blogger is reading A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.  I found her post and quotes from the book interesting so while at the library, I picked it up and another book of his, A Reading Diary.  I started this one first as the purpose of the book intrigued me.  Essentially he re-read his favorite books over a year and kept a diary of his thoughts.  It is interesting to see how this well-read reader was reminded of other books, settings, characters, quotes while reading, creating his own "mini" anthology.  He also wrote about how the characters, themes or setting related to his life and/or current events.  I jotted down references to over 30 quotes from this small book.  (I am one who writes in books and was forever having to restrain myself from the usual dog-ear, underline, margin writing.  I need to buy this book!)

He likes lists, as do I, and after writing down the 10 books that were by his bed, he wrote:

"Each of these books capriciously influences my reading of the one next to it.  Is all reading associative reading?"

YES, I say to myself and out loud.  I am the perfect example.  I have been "listening" to book lovers talk about books on their blogs and now I want to read what book lovers have written for their fellow book lovers.  And one perspective is not enough.  Which is why I have a whole list of blogs that I peruse as each person has their own "voice", preference and perspective.  Taken individually, it is a bit "thin" for lack of better word but taken as a group, wow - enlightening, enriching, interesting.  It is like a smorgesboard where I can pick and choose - what I like.  What helps.  What I agree with.  What I can learn.

My own list of books checked out on the same day bears witness that for me, reading is associative.

A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Leave me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan
the bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Every Book It's Reader by Nicholas Basbanes