Saturday, March 9, 2013

March 2013 Books

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Published: 2012
Rating: 5

Last Friday, I was in NYC with my daughter.  We were going to the hospital to visit my father who is recovering from surgery, when we came out of the subway and lo and behold, there was Shakespeare and Company Booksellers on 68th and Lexington!

We stopped in and over $100 later, this memoir was in my stash of finds along with New and Selected Poems: Volume One by Mary Oliver, Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in it's Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson, On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf, Bound to Last: 30 Writers on their Most Cherished Books edited by Sean Manning and cute thank you cards with "Merci" and the Eiffel Tower on the front.  I also bought my daughter The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin.

I had heard of this book, written by a son whose love of books was shared by his mother who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  During the last two years of her life, they formed a "book club" that was born out of conversations around books during the multi-hour chemo treatments.

I read half of this engaging memoir that night: dog-earring, underlining and writing a list of interesting books that I might want to read in the front (before discovering a nice alphabetized list in the appendix), and read almost to the end while on the bus back to DC the next day.

I say "almost" because the last chapters were about his mother's death, and since tears were expected, I needed to be alone.  For I've learned that crying while reading is most free and cathartic when done in private.

Any bibliophile will love this book for it is a celebration of how books can impact our lives.  And how an "extraordinary, ordinary" (as he describes his mother in this interview) woman's love of the written word is passed onto her children and in her dying months, offers a common ground for conversations around such important topics as death, grief, family, faith, purposeful living, etc.

I especially like this quote about books vs e-books.
One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality.  Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind.  But printed books have body, presence.....I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me.  They may make me feel, but I can't feel them.  They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight.  They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it.
As his mother takes her last breaths, Will looks around and sees that she is surrounded by her books.
...."a wall of bookshelves, books on her night table and a book beside her.  Here were Stegner and Highsmith, Mann and Larsson, Banks and Barbery, Strout and Nemirovsky, the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible.  The spines were of all colors, and there were paperbacks and hardcovers, and books that had lost their dust jackets and ones that never had them.   
They were mom's companions and teachers.  They had shown her the way.  And she was able to look at them as she had readied herself for the life everlasting that she knew awaited her.  What comfort could be gained from staring at my lifeless e-reader?
She died on September 14, 2009 - almost 6 months after my Josh.  I applaud Schwalbe for writing this poignant memoir that will keep his mother's memory alive, long after her death.  Maybe this is why I continue to write on Josh's blog for I feel a similar need to keep his memory alive.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Published: 1945
Rating: 3.5

When this book was made into a British TV mini-series over 30 years ago, Jeremy Irons played the protagonist and narrator, Charles Ryder.  He also performs the audiobook that I picked up from the library.  It was a pleasure listening to his smooth, silky voice change pitch, tone and accent based on the various characters: best friend and lover, Sebastian Flyte; his beautiful independent sister,  Julia Flyte;  aristocrat, Lady Marchmain; Oxford don, Mr. Samgrass; fellow Oxford student, Anthony Blanche; Canadian rogue, Rex Mottram; injured German, Kurt; and society-conscious wife, Celia.

I kept the paperback in the car so when I heard a particularly beautiful sentence, phrase or description, I dog-earred the page; there are many.

So why a rating of 3.5?  While I loved the prose, I didn't particularly like any of the characters and so hardly cared what happened to them.  Additionally, while listening, I had many questions which I ended up writing on the first blank page of the book.  After completing the book, my questions remained.

It is more clear to me now that as a reader, I am subconsciously asking questions about the characters, situations, scenes, plot and story and expect these to be answered in some fashion by the end.  I may not like the answers but that is better than not having them at all.  Despite that, I enjoyed the language.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

I found this passage beautifully written and so descriptive that I could see, taste and smell the berries, wine and smoke.
On a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine...they were delicious together - and we lit fat Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian's eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger's breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.
Charles' first impression of Sebastian:
He was magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.
And of Julia:
Because her sex was the palpable difference between the familiar and the strange, it seemed to fill the space between us, so that I felt her to be especially female as I had felt of no woman before.  
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Published: 2006
Rating: 4
Author web site

In the "For Readers" tab on her web site, Gillian Flynn talks about why she wrote this book:
Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women.... I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains....I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. 
This is an interesting point; one which I had not really pondered.  As it happens, I am listening to the audiobook, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoesvsky and while driving home today from a local coffee shop, was listening to Raskolnikov's dream in which drunken men brutally killed a thin old mare who, being unable to gallop pulling a cart full of people, was sentenced to death via whip, thick wooden shaft and iron crow bar.  It was the drunken owner and his equally drunk friends who delivered the blows across the rib, back, face and even in the eyes (very difficult to listen to this violence and brutality) while the women laughed.

How would this have read if women were doing the beating?  It is difficult to imagine women being capable of this kind of senseless cruelty but Flynn would say they are and it is time for novelists to uncover this sordid fact.   If this is what she wanted to do, I would say she succeeded.  The antagonists in her debut novel are malevolent, horrible, cruel, evil females.  The consequences of their baseness on the poor victims is gut-wrenching.

Flynn's prose is succinct and concise - my borrowed paperback was just over 250 pages - easily read in two sessions; a haunting, psychological thriller.

Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss
Published: 2011
Rating: 4
Good reads

In the first sentence of his poignant memoir, Strauss says, "Half my life ago, I killed a girl."

Both he and the girl were sixteen years old.  It was ruled an accident so he was not charged; he was free.  But was he really?

Despite keeping this tragic event a secret for eighteen years, it haunted him.  But it wasn't until he was married and the father of twins that he finally started writing about it, resulting in this memoir.  There is much in this book that resonates with me; I plan to write a post on Josh's blog.

Here, however, are a few sentences that I really liked:

How he describes that irrevocable moment - like poetry:
Pretty girl on a bike, a shy little thud, hysterical windshield.  And I'm somewhere in there too, trying to swerve, trying to disappear.
Good analogies:
West Shore Road follows the turns of the Long Island Sound like a tag-along sister. 
At the church door I took a shaky gulp and wrapped my palms around the handles and my heart was a live bird nailed to my chest.