Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, May 9, 2021

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres

I have this new thing. I pick a small handful of books (three or four) from my massive TBR pile to be my next reads. I put them on my end table in our reading room. Then I pick the one I'm least interested in to read first, and work my way through the small pile until I've read them all. Then I get to make a new pile. 

Captain Corelli's Mandolin was the book I was least interested in from my newest pile. I've known about this book for a long time (mainly due to the movie, which I've never seen) and had always meant to read it someday, and then I feel sure it was mentioned in glowing terms in Oh, Reader magazine (but of course now that I'm looking for it I can't find the reference). Meaning to read it and glowing reference aside, I knew it was set in wartime and you know I don't like reading about war. But I did it anyway. 

And throughout most of the book I was . . . SO BORED. Is it just me? Isn't this supposed to be an amazing book? I ended up forcing myself to meet a quota of 25 pages every evening so that I would eventually make it through. Some evenings I didn't read at all. And then, three quarters of the way through--ugh, all the horrors of war, culminating with that awful firing squad scene. And then the death of Father Arsenios! Why do people like this book? It's horrible. This was followed by more boredom, as the feeling of denouement continued for pages upon pages upon pages. And so many years of youth and beauty are wasted, which I found far more annoying than romantic. 

So what about the movie? I'm even less interested in watching it now. Though I must admit that most of my resistance stems from the fact that Nicholas Cage plays Antonio Corelli. I can't imagine that being a good thing.

"How to Read and Why" by Harold Bloom

I first started reading this book years ago and (no idea why) abandoned it relatively quickly. But, as usual, I've always intended to come back to it.

My first impression, then and now: this book would more accurately be titled, "What to Read and Why." There are general nuggets about reading throughout the book, but the main structure comprises reviews of specific selected works that are either short stories, poems, novels, or plays. However, I chose to read this book because I expected to learn what its title states, so that's what I'll focus on in this post.

Regarding the general nuggets about reading, first there are five principles to restore the way we read:

  • Clear your mind of cant (not can't, but "speech overflowing with pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven")
  • Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read (instead, reading is meant for self-improvement, at least until "primal ignorance has been purged")
  • A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light ("if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others") 
  • One must be an inventor to read well (I take this to mean that you must be willing and able to read between the lines, and to have confidence in your interpretation)
  • Recovery of the ironic ("the loss of irony is the death of reading")
Bloom says one of the reasons why we should read is that "it makes us wish we could be more ourselves." I take this to mean it allows us to learn more about ourselves, which is supported by later statements in the book: "We should read to strengthen the self . . . only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self."

Bloom says the "how" of reading is to read "only the best of what has been written." (Unfortunately, if he addressed the question of how we determine which works achieve that category, I didn't make a note of it and I've forgotten. Although obviously Bloom considers all those works covered in his book to be worthy.) In reading we should also "be vigilant, apprehend and recognize the possibility of the good, help it to endure, give it space in your life . . . read with wise passivity," which is to say, pay attention to what you're reading, and think about it. How to think about it? "Ask, do the principal characters change, and if they do, what causes them to change?" Bloom also encourages re-reading: "Perhaps to some degree you become what you behold the second time around." 

So, how should How to Read and Why be read? I read this book through from beginning to end, not diverting to the referenced works in between. But regarding the works I'm unfamiliar with--am I really going to remember what Bloom said about them once I get around to reading them? Should I go back and review the applicable portion of Bloom's book after I read each work? Would it have been best to wait and read Bloom's book after I became familiar with all the works it refers to? Maybe it should be read piecemeal: Review the table of contents, make a list of works to read, and alternate between reading works and reading Bloom's chapters. It does seem that for How to Read and Why to be of greater value, the specific works should be fresh on your mind as you read each applicable section of Bloom's book.

Why should this book be read? I think that the general consensus would be that it enriches the reading experience . . . though it could also possibly come with some unintended negative consequences. For instance, being told I should read "only the best of what has been written" momentarily caused me to more intensely regret the time I've already wasted on unworthy books. And, as Bloom is obviously incredibly well-read--probably to the extent that it would be impossible to catch up--I feel envious of  Bloom, in awe of his superior knowledge of the written word. But even these bleak thoughts can be turned around: why not start now and aim to read only the best? Why not try to catch up, even if it will be impossible? After all, as with many things, it's the journey that matters more than the destination.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

"Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall" by Kazuo Ishiguro

It was quite brave of me, don't you think, to immediately pick up another book of short stories after how much I didn't enjoy the book of short stories I read immediately before this one.

My bravery was rewarded, because I liked this one a lot. (Not that this should surprise me, coming from Ishiguro, but I had expected as much from Calvino and was disappointed.) Nocturnes comprises five stories, all of which revolve around musicians or music lovers (or both), and some characters are shared between them. Each story is slightly different in tone, with threads of humor or sadness or tension, and each story is equally strong (whereas many short story compilations have clunkers). I tried to choose a favorite and could not. The aging singer serenading his soon-to-be-ex wife in Venice? The music buff who sees himself through the eyes of old friends from university and discovers that he may be a loser? The self-absorbed guitar player living with his sister and trying to do as little work as possible in her restaurant? The talented saxophone player who has never made it big because he's just a little too ugly? Or the cellist who is tutored by a theoretical genius? Each has its own merits.

I'd already finished four of the stories before I looked closely enough at the cover to realize that the birds on the wires were like musical notes on a staff! I actually tried to play them on the piano but they didn't make a recognizable tune (not to mention the fact that it was difficult to determine what the rhythm should be). 

Friday, April 9, 2021

"Difficult Loves" by Italo Calvino

I didn't expect to dislike this book. I suppose at this point I have only read one other Calvino (Baron in the Trees), but I loved that one, and I thought all other Calvinos would follow suit. So it was a slight shock, and somewhat disappointing, to read these short stories. 

"Dislike" is probably somewhat strong a term. I certainly didn't hate this reading experience. But it did not match my expectations of short stories. I remember crazy Mrs Van Patten teaching us that short stories are a distillation of the novel: greater impact in a smaller format. Calvino's stories strike me more like excerpts. Not completely unworthy of reading, but certainly not sharp or strong. 

The book is divided in to three sections: Riviera Stories, Wartime Stories, and Postwar Stories. I'd say my favorite story of the book was "The Adventure of a Reader", where a man enjoys reading on the beach until he is distracted by a beautiful woman, at which point his interest in his book is in conflict with his attraction to the woman. I found it humorous, and I also related to it, because the pull of the book is stronger! But, in general, I would not call these stories memorable--and that is not solely due to my literary amnesia.

I did notice a striking resemblance to Hubert Mingarelli's writing, especially in the middle section ("Wartime Stories"), with their quiet subtlety. But the Mingarelli books I have read evoke more tension, in their own soft and spare way, and I find them more intriguing. 

I have been meaning to read Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler for years. I think the time grows nigh (despite the fact that it's no longer winter, and it seems like I ought to curl up with that book on a winter's night). Luckily Difficult Loves has not put me off. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"The Trick to Time" by Kit de Waal

This is not my kind of book.

I should have known better than to even try it. Sam bought our copy, mainly because everyone was talking about how great de Waal's first novel (My Name is Leon) was, but this one had a more interesting title. He tried to read it but found it boring and didn't get very far through it before he gave up ("it just goes on endlessly about dolls"). I thought maybe he was being unfair, and maybe he didn't give it long enough. Plus, it was published by Penguin! They're usually pretty good at picking books I like. 

Oh well. Not this time. 

This is the story of Mona the middle-aged Irish dollmaker. Actually there's a carpenter who makes the dolls, and Mona dresses them and paints faces on them. Mona's mundane life in her doll shop is interspersed with memories from forty years before, when she was newly married to William. At least there is some element of mystery that propels the reader to find out what happened in the intervening time.

So why was this book not a good match for me? Part of it is the overall general sense of the book. It seems to be a typical example of Women's Fiction (not to be confused with a Beach Read, though I am sure there is some overlap). There is something that bothers me about writing that is targeted to women readers. I want to read something that doesn't try to pigeonhole me.

Specifically, there were several other things that rubbed me the wrong way. I found the characters flat. And for the ones that were slightly more dimensional, their facets were incongruous. I think back to books I've read where the characters were utterly real. I can't pinpoint the difference between those and these, but there definitely is one. These characters were all acting parts, and not very good at it. Maybe I would have felt more drawn to the main character if I'd been through what she had; lucky for me, I have not. However, most really good books can make me feel the experience I'm reading about even if I've never experienced it myself. 

I thought at times the writing was quite cliched--of course the main character gets a new, short, chic haircut halfway through the book. And of course when her love interest sees her for the first time with her newly shorn locks, her hand immediately "flies up" to touch her new 'do. 

And yes, there's a trick to this book (not just to time), and yes I guessed the solution long before it was revealed. I blame the cover quote, which made me aware that the book has "one of those endings that makes you want to reread the whole book." That, put together with my tendency towards speculation, set me on the right track. But rather than a feeling of satisfaction when I found out I was right, it was disappointing. Not least because the ending certainly did *not* make me want to reread the whole book.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise" by Brix Smith Start

This was not a typical read for me, as a quick glance at the rest of my blog would tell you. I definitely gravitate more towards novels, and if I were to get a wild hair and want to read an autobiography or memoir, I would probably choose one by someone I've heard of before. But Sam, who has been a fan of The Fall since he was 14, idolized Brix Smith. He's the one who bought this book, and read it first, then told me he thought I should read it, because Start's is a pretty amazing story.

And he's right. It's pretty incredible, the circles Start has traveled in and the successes (and not just in one field) she has experienced. Although my initial impression of the book was that it was a bit disjointed and full of name-dropping, I'd say by the time she met Mark E. Smith she'd found her rhythm in writing and in relaying her memories, and even for someone like me (clueless about the history of The Fall) it was interesting to read. I wouldn't label it as a Must-Read for the random person in general, but I do think that anyone interested in The Fall would love it.

It's a bit disorienting, knowing that Sam actually interviewed Mark E Smith (twice!) and came away with the sense that he was a nice person ("almost avuncular," Sam says) when obviously, on the whole, he was pretty horrible to Brix and the other band members. Sam has also read Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith" and says Smith doesn't even mention Brix (they were married for five or six years!) and just glosses over the albums they created together, despite the fact that many think they're the best of The Fall's albums. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

My lovely husband surprised me with this book just over a week ago. Surprise books are the best! Especially when it's a beautiful brand new hardcover by a can't-miss author. I believe it was Marie Kondo who once said the time to read a book is as soon as you get it. And I think she's right. There are some unread books on my shelves that I've had for years, and I can't help but wonder if I'll ever actually get around to reading them. I think, unlike travel which is only enhanced by spending time looking forward to it, I am probably at peak excitement about a book when I first acquire it. Waiting to read something doesn't make me more eager to read it; it just makes it more likely that I'll come across something I'd rather read in the meantime. 

Anyway, in case you hadn't guessed, I wasted no time in diving into Klara and the Sun. The story is told from the point of view of an AF (Artificial Friend), which is basically a life-size solar-powered robotic companion doll (albeit one that is quite technologically sophisticated). Klara starts out in a store in the city, until she is purchased to live with a girl named Josie. 

To me the most interesting thing about this book is the exploration of the thoughts found in an artificial mind. Klara is not completely emotionless, but she does not experience feelings with true human intensity. She is very observant and can make logical connections based on her observations, but she doesn't necessarily understand everything she sees, and the reader is limited by the boundaries of Klara's realizations.

Overall the story had the feeling of a parable or a fable, as if what was on the surface was simple and straightforward but floating on top of deeper, hidden meanings. Though I must admit if there were deeper, hidden meanings . . . I did not get them. Did you?

Sunday, March 7, 2021

“Night Waking” by Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss is three for three with me. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. And the great thing is that she has four more novels just waiting for me to read them! 

In Night Waking, Moss tells the story of Oxford history fellow Anne Bennett, inextricably trapped in motherhood and an exile of sorts on an isolated Scottish island. She never has enough time to work on her book (an academic work on the history of childhood), or enough sleep, or enough support from her husband whose priority is counting puffins, and (though she would never admit this or maybe even realize it) she is addicted to the extent of her young sons’ need for her. 

Anne’s story is interspersed with excerpts from her writing, quotes from people like Anna Freud whose works are referenced in her book, and the history of the (fictional) island of Colsay on which her family is living. Throw in a police investigation regarding the bones of an infant that turn up in the garden and you’ve got yourself a pretty intriguing mix. 

Though the book has elements of mystery that any good police investigation would indicate, the dominating force of this story is Anne’s fraught relationship with motherhood. And Moss’s writing is so intensely real that I had to remind myself I was not Anne, and that I had no cause to be irritated with my husband who (quite unlike Anne’s Giles) is a superstar of a husband and father and doesn’t care a lick about puffins.

I wonder why I am so partial to female authors? Though I have certainly enjoyed books written by men, my list of favorite authors is (with one obvious exception) almost exclusively female. I think it must be, as happened with this book, that a female writer is naturally more able to write in a way that connects with my female mind. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

"Leave the World Behind" by Rumaan Alam

Here's another book that my sweet husband gave to me for Christmas. I'd never heard of it, or the author, which I suppose means I didn't peruse any Best Books of 2020 lists. 

Clay and Amanda have temporarily left the bustle of New York City behind and rented a house in a quite part of Long Island where they plan to spend a relaxing week with their children. Late one night, not long into their stay, they are startled by a knock on the front door. It's G.H. and Ruth, who say they're the owners of the rental; they've fled Manhattan after a widespread and unexplained blackout. 

The book delves into tensions between the strangers, and their fears of the unknown; Ruth and G.H. don't bring much news with them, and due to the remote location of the house they are basically cut off from society, which means no news in the Information Age--though in this case, no news is almost certainly not good news.

The book is written from an omniscient point of view. With every line of dialogue, each character's unspoken thoughts are shared as well. The effect, to me, is the distinct opposite of subtle; but despite the lack of subtlety, the story is still mysterious and compelling. The omniscience does not give the reader a complete view of what is going on in the world; we get a bit more information than the frightened group at the vacation rental, but not much more.

There was a nice side effect to the anxiety induced by the book: when I finished reading, I felt a sense of relief as I returned to the real world. So, yeah, we're in a pandemic and America is divided politically, but things could be worse!

Does the cover art remind anyone else of the scene where Barb disappeared in Stranger Things? No? Just me?

Sunday, February 28, 2021

"The Invisible Land" by Hubert Mingarelli

I'm pretty sure I finished reading this book a week or so ago, and I'm pretty sure too much time has passed for me to do it justice in a blog post. I really need to be more careful to blog when a book is fresh on my mind (AND before I've allowed it to become eclipsed by reading other books). 

This is another of Mingarelli's subtle but powerful books (that is, of course, impeccably translated). It's novella-sized and, I think, better consumed in one sitting. It tells the story of a photojournalist and the young soldier assigned to drive him around the German countryside in July 1945 in order to photograph German families in front of their houses. As the days pass, apprehension builds quietly. 

Hubert Mingarelli, who sadly passed away just over a year ago, has written a number of novellas centered on or around the Europe of World War II. He is certainly not alone in writing about that time period, but he is unique in his treatment of the topic: oddly serene while simultaneously rife with tension.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

"Big Macs & Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World" by Vanessa Price with Adam Laukhuf

I told Bookworm Child (who I suppose will technically be Bookworm Adult in a few short months?) that the only thing I wanted for Christmas was for her to tidy her bedroom. Well, her bedroom is still a mess, but she gave me a lovely gift bag stuffed full of all kinds of things that she knew I would like. This book was one of them. 

I'd actually seen this book somewhere in the weeks leading up to Christmas (maybe at Target?), picked it up and gave it a look, then put it back down, I guess mostly because I don't eat many Big Macs anyway. But of course if my child gives me a book as a gift, I'm going to read it. 

Unfortunately I'm going to have to hope that my children don't read this blog, because (while wine is for me, and food is for me) this book was not for me. It's cute, and it's funny, and I love the drawings and photos, but ultimately I had to force my way through it, fighting boredom and feelings of pointlessness. In fact, I ended up skipping over most of the descriptions of pairings (though I at least read the title of each one) because, after the first few, they felt a bit meaningless. They struck me the same way as the back labels of wine bottles: sometimes it seems like the writer just made up a bunch of crap. Crap that sounds amazing, of course! But crap nonetheless. 

The first portion of the book is educational, which would be helpful except that for me it did not stick. It's all about levels of acid, sugar, tannins and alcohol, and how these affect the flavor (and other characteristics) of a wine; different wine-growing climates; how to describe the way a wine tastes; and different types of wine. It's obvious that Vanessa Price knows her stuff. But (despite the light-hearted tone and humor) I found it dull reading, and even after reading it, *I* don't know her stuff. 

Then we get to the pairings (which are myriad, and which is where the pointlessness comes in). I'm sure the majority of the food suggested is meant to be accessible for Everyman, but so much of it is crap! I'm not about to eat Marshmallow Peeps or Honey Nut Cheerios just so I can see how great they taste with the wines they're paired with. Not to mention the fact that most of the wine in this book would be impossible for me to find. (And why would I bother trying to find it if I don't want to eat the food it's paired with?) 

I did read all of the "Winesplaining" and other brief articles interspersed throughout the book, which was fun and informative but mostly served to belie the purported accessibility of these pairings. I mean, really, I think the cover and title of this book are misleading. They make you think it's going to be down-to-earth, but it's not. It's hoity-toity and out of my wine league. But it was fun to read about how the "other half" lives! One example of this, which is probably the one part of the book that will stick in my mind, is from Chapter 15 ("Expense-Account Prep Course: For Ladies Who Power Lunch," which obviously is not for Everyman): a dessert called the Arctic Bird's Nest that is served at Aquavit in New York City. I'd like to try that someday. And if I ever have the chance to do so, maybe I can pair it with a Cypriot Commandaria (like Keo St John, which is fortified, or Tsiakkas, which is not). 

I must admit that Sam and I are in a wine rut. We each have a favorite chardonnay, and we share a favorite red and a go-to champagne (ah, excuse me, actually prosecco), so this book temporarily gave me a slight impulse to be a little bit more adventurous, like I was in my wine blogging days. But what was I doing in those days if not looking for my favorite wines? And now that I've found them, why would I start looking again? Besides, I never could decide which wines I liked best unless I tasted several together, and I never could remember what I thought of each without writing it down, but also I never could really put wine descriptions in writing--I was just making crap up like the people who write the back labels for wine bottles. 

Vanessa knows why Sam and I drink champagne every Friday

Friday, February 12, 2021

"So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell

This is a beautiful little book, a novella really, that is both subtle and intense. The unnamed narrator, an old man, relates memories from a brief period of his childhood. The writing is evocative and utterly real-seeming, surely because the story is partly based on the author's life (e.g. the narrator's mother dies of the flu in 1918; William Maxwell's mother died of the flu in 1918) which blurs the line between fact and fiction and made it impossible for me to see where the divide occurred. The story deeply but quietly explores the themes of guilt, divorce, trauma and grief. 

Most of the plot occurs at a remove from the narrator; he is an observer rather than an active participant. He tells the story of his classmate, Cletus Smith, and the love affair between Smith's mother and the farmer next door that causes the fracture of both families and the death of the farmer. The narrator puts his memory of what he was aware of as a child together with newspaper accounts and realizations that occur to him as an adult, and fills in the gaps with speculation. 

This is one of those books that doesn't spell everything out clearly--it requires some reading between the lines, which I appreciate because I feel it is a sign that the author has respect for the intelligence of his readers. I enjoy the challenge of reading books like this. However, I also find it mildly frustrating, especially if I am uncertain as to whether I am interpreting everything the right way. My solution in this case? After finishing this book, I literally immediately reread it to try to parse out more of its secrets. (This didn't take long, at 135 pages.) It's a sure sign of the quality of this book that I didn't find the re-read boring, and I do feel like it solidified my confidence in my interpretation. For instance, in my first read-through I thought I detected hints that the murder was committed by someone other than the character everyone suspected; my second read helped me determine that wasn't the case.

I just have two question remaining. First, on page 5 of my copy, the narrator says, "one of the crimes mentioned in that book took place in a house on Tenth Street, one street over from the house we lived in when I was a child." I tried to make this crime out to be something that is described in further detail later in the story, but I think I have come to the conclusion that it's merely tangential and is never mentioned again. Second, the ear (also mentioned on page 5) . . . I don't understand why this was done (or where it ended up). After reading the book twice, I'm pretty sure it's up to me to decide the answers to the ear question.