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.