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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin" by Alex de Jonge

Rasputin (1869-1916) is someone who has always drawn my curiosity, just like the Borgia family, the Nephilim, and the Bermuda Triangle. Since I've been reading Anna Karenina (yes, I'm STILL reading it) and realizing my knowledge of Russian history is sadly lacking, my mind has drifted back to this biography of Rasputin which I read several years ago.

For my taste, this book was too much about The Times and not enough about The Life. Back when I read it, I was more compelled to find out about the myths surrounding Rasputin than about the truths or underlying reasons for the existence of those myths. (In retrospect, however, the myth-busting aspect of it seems more interesting). I must admit I found it rather dull and dry reading, though it nearly became a page-turner in the last 40 pages as the plot to murder Rasputin got underway. (That's not really a spoiler, is it? I mean, you knew he died, right?)

Anastasia Nicolaievna
I was also disappointed that the execution of the Tsar and his family received barely any mention, but as those killings occurred approximately 18 months after Rasputin’s death, it makes sense that this book would not encompass that event. But now I want to read about “the rest of the story,” including the royal family’s execution, and I want to read about the stories of their daughter Anastasia possibly surviving with amnesia (another topic I've always wondered about). The author of this book briefly made it clear that he believed the real Anastasia died with the rest of her family.

To quickly sum up the author’s take on Rasputin: He was a Siberian peasant who set out on the path to infamy by taking to the road as a pilgrim in search of salvation. It seems he found a “religion” which was one-of-a-kind, cobbled together from an assortment of practices (both accepted and unacceptable) found in Russia at the time. Various disciples followed him, beginning with those in the clergy and progressing up to Tsar Nicholas and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. Rasputin’s control over the royal family was not absolute (although it came closer to complete domination in regard to the tsarina), but his influence was quite potent, especially in contrast with his humble beginnings.

It seems people generally had one of three reactions to Rasputin. Some (few, mostly men) could see through Rasputin from the moment they met him, and had no respect for him. Others (especially women) were instantly and completely enthralled by him as a holy man, but later their eyes were opened by all the damning evidence proving his righteousness a sham. Very few had the third reaction, which was to be captivated by him from beginning to end, ignoring all evidence of immorality, no matter how clear-cut it was. There were only two people (possibly three) who had this latter sort of reaction: the tsarina, her friend and confidante Anna Vyroubova, and (the possible third) the tsar.

Would you want to have sex with this man?
When people saw Rasputin for what he was, what did they see? He was a drunk and a lecher. He used sexuality in his “religion,” either challenging himself to resist temptation by standing in its path, or with the laughable notion that God wants us to sin so that he has something for which to forgive us. It seems Rasputin was very badly behaved, becoming increasingly depraved throughout his life, and usually not doing much to hide that fact.

This book somewhat dispelled the myth that Rasputin was a puppeteer controlling the tsar and tsarina. He was able to get many government appointments passed, usually by directing the tsarina to suggest appointments to the tsar, but he did not always succeed at this. What was clear to me through this book was that Rasputin really didn’t seem to have a Big Plan. He was not following an agenda. Though he did frequently stress the desire to avoid needless shedding of blood (in war), he seemed to have no more cohesive goal than to enjoy his power as a generous benefactor (meaning it didn’t seem that he pushed any government appointment for political reasons; he did it just because he could--almost as if he was merely doing it to impress people), and to live the good life, doing whatever pleased him.

The author writes that Rasputin was capable of mild foresight, giving some successful predictions that were vague enough to merely be guesses guided by common sense. The author also mentions that his foresight must not have been anything great if he could not foresee his own murder. However, in the way the author describes the night of the murder, there was an inkling of the possibility that Rasputin did know but was resigned to his fate.

It appears indisputable, although the book left the mechanism unexplained, that Rasputin was capable of healing, namely with the tsarevich Alexander Nicolaevich who suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin was always able to stop Aleksey’s episodes of bleeding, even (at least once) from afar. The author says perhaps Rasputin would put off his arrival until after the crisis was over, making the supposed "healing" merely a matter of timing; or perhaps he knew of some sort of peasant remedy. If not one of these two explanations, then perhaps his ability might have been truly supernatural.

I have not yet decided if my curiosity about Rasputin was sated by this book. I do think that de Jonge covered all available information. His book was very well-researched and had so many sources that I find it impossible to believe that he left out any information that might be found elsewhere. In other words, although there may have been more to the life of Rasputin, any other information has been irretrievably buried in the sands of time. I find myself coming to the conclusion that there would be no point in reading a different book about him in hopes of finding new information. However, I bet I would enjoy reading fiction about him.

Have you read any good books about Rasputin, or about the execution of the Russian royals in 1918?
The Romanovs       

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Keep the Devil Dancing" by Tom Wright

This is the third of four unpublished manuscripts by Dr. Tom Wright. It frames the second Wright novel I read, What Dies in Summer, by focusing on Jim's Aunt Rachel in her childhood and then during the aftermath of Summer.

Rachel spends most of the book reliving old wrongs in her memories of a tainted childhood, but the story ends with a promise of renewal and a sense that Rachel has the strength to overcome the sins of the fathers she has borne for years. Once again, as with Wright's other novels, there is a thread of mystery entwined in the story.

This is not the photo I would have chosen to go with the book, but it's the closest thing I could find. It evokes the nostalgia of youth and the grass-withering heat of Texas, but it's not hard to imagine there could be evil hidden within the idyllic scene.

The picture in my mind shows a young girl swimming in a pond during the heat of summer, her horse tethered nearby. Her back is turned, but she's just been startled by a noise from the path behind her. Oooh! Wouldn't you like to know what made the noise!

If you missed my posts about the first two manuscripts I previewed, you can find them by clicking on the Tom Wright label below.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Added to my wish list

Inspired by Allie's retrospective on the books she has marked off her list over the past year, I thought I might flip that idea on its head and tell you about the books I've recently added to my Leaning Tower of TBR. I have not yet acquired copies of the first four, but they're the most recent titles I've added to my List of Books I Want to Read.

The Vanishing by Tim Krabbe. I think what sold me on this one is the way Chris described it as "terrifying" with a "masterful use of suspense." I must admit that hearing it is short was also quite appealing to one who is STILL floundering in the middle of Anna Karenina.

My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares. I've avoided other titles by Brashares ever since The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (not that it was a horrible book; it just was not quite my type, though it might have been if I were twelve), but when Zara said Memory was even better than The Time Traveler's Wife, I changed my mind.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connellly. We have already established that I love fairy tale retellings.  As if that weren't enough, Jess's description of the story as "far freakier" than Pan's Labyrinth really caught my attention.

Rock Island Line by David Rhodes. The tipping point with this one was probably when Lisa said it was "dark and brilliant at the same time." The story she relates of the author is also pretty compelling.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Renae chose this for our Book Club meeting in October. Unless it's just my literary amnesia getting in the way, I don't recall that I've ever read anything by Wharton, although I've had this one and Ethan Frome on my TBR list for ages. Not only that, but I actually own a 1907 edition of Madame de Treymes which I've not read. Shame on me! I'll need to do something about that soon.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Words of the Day

I only have about a dozen words left on my original List of Words to Look Up, but I seem to be coming across new ones at such a rate that I have no worries about ever coming to the end of my Dictionary Days. Or maybe I should say I am worried that I will never come to the end of them.

1. Expatiate. I am reading The Wind in the Willows to the kids at bedtime, about ten pages every night. In chapter five, Rat and Mole return to Mole's cozy little home, where Mole finds himself so happy to be. "His spirits finally quite restored, he must needs go and caress his possessions, and take a lamp and show off their points to his visitor and expatiate on them, quite forgetful of the supper they both so much needed." I guess this word probably means something like "to talk about," and a synonym might be "expound."

But guess what? I could have sworn this word was used in the audio version of Anna Karenina too! It sounded like it said, "That now, having expatiated his sin against the husband, he was bound to renounce her, and never in future to stand between her, with her repentance, and her husband." However, my print translation uses the phrase "atoned for" instead, which makes me think the word was not expatiated, but expiated. We will leave it up to the jury to decide whether I misheard or the reader misspoke. Either way, I got what I paid for. But back to expatiated--Webster says: To move about freely or at will; wander; to speak or write at length or in detail. Score one point for me!

2. Osiers. Also from The Wind in the Willows. Who would have thought there would be so many obscure words in this book? When Rat is enticed by Pan's flute-playing, Mole says, "I hear nothing myself . . . but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers." I am guessing an osier would be yet another plant that grows near water. Webster says: Any of various willows (esp. Salix viminalis) whose pliable twigs are used for furniture or basketry. Sounds just like the trees we used to swing on at the Duck Pond! Near water! Two for two. That's a good start.

3. Ossian. From Anna Karenina. Oblonsky the philanderer says, "You see, I suppose you must know the Ossian type of woman . . . the sort of woman one only sees in dreams." OK, so I'm assuming this type of woman is super hot and sexy, but thinking of an "ossuary" throws me off. Maybe he's talking about a nightmare. Perhaps there's a female skeleton who stalks him in his sleep. But . . . probably not. I am going to go with the guess that an "Ossian" woman is like Garth's Dreamwoman who always walks in slow motion with a wind machine and the song "Dream Weaver" in the background. Although I can't help but wonder, since it's capitalized, if maybe an Ossian woman comes from a certain part of the world. Is Ossian like Oriental and Occidental? Webster says: Ohhhh, Ossian was a person! Should I have known that? He was apparently a legendary Irish bard, authenticity debatable. Um, no points on this one. Especially since I still don't know what sort of woman would be described as Ossian. If you know, will you please tell me? I'll give you one point if you do.

4. Intransigent. From We Were The Mulvaneys. Corinne is comparing her boys, stubborn and strong-willed since birth, to her sweet and amiable baby girl. When the boys were babies "their intransigent male selves [were] assertive as their tiny, floppy penises." My guess: unassailable, indelible, unchangeable, undeniable. Webster says: Refusing to compromise or to abandon an extreme position or attitude; uncompromising; irreconcilable. So I guess it's more like obstinate than constant, but there are only shades of meaning between the two, so I'm taking the point.

5. Importunate. Also from Mulvaneys. "Dozens of geese and even killer swans honking, hissing, flapping their wings as these importunate strangers invaded their territory." I want it to mean "unfortunate," since you can make it into that word by changing only the first three letters, but I will guess it means someone or something that does not belong. Webster says: Troublesomely urgent; overly persistent in request or demand. Nope, I don't get any points for this one either. But I did manage to eke out a total of three points this time.

I will now treat you to a freebie of a historical nugget. In Anna Karenina, as he is totting up his debts, we learn that Vronsky has a sister-in-law who is "the daughter of a penniless Decembrist." I didn't bother trying to guess on this one, but I was curious as to the definition. Webster says: One taking part in the unsuccessful uprising against the Russian emperor Nicholas I in December 1825. Now, isn't that interesting! I never would have heard of that term without reading this book. But I really just wanted to mention it so I could tell you about a band called The Decemberists who have at least one really good song (you should check out "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect." Thanks, Kugs!) Not surprisingly, though I didn't know this until just now, the band was named after The Decembrist revolt. TWELVE HUNDRED BONUS POINTS. No, not really. But don't you feel a little bit smarter?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Summer Rain" by Marguerite Duras

Literary amnesia notwithstanding, I find it odd that I have absolutely no recollection of reading this book. Not even when I try to refresh my memory by re-reading my old notes from nearly 6 years ago. I know I read it--I still have the book, it's sitting under my elbow right now--but, though I have physical proof, I have no mental proof. This is especially surprising because it sounds like quite an interesting book. In reading what I wrote about it, I am intrigued and wondering if maybe I ought to read it again.

Originally published in French as La pluie d'été in 1990 (of course I read an English translation), this is a very short book with small pages and lots of gaps between paragraphs, but not necessarily a fast read. Apparently I found it rather bizarre. I wasn't quite sure I actually understood it all. I hate to admit it, but I think it was slightly over my head.

Here's what I wrote down as a synopsis six years ago: A poor welfare family lives in Vitry, a rundown suburb of Paris. The father and mother are foreigners, Emilio from the Po valley in Italy and the mother (sometimes Natasha, sometimes other names that I don’t recall at the moment and can’t quickly find by flipping through the book) of indeterminate origins (she claims she doesn’t remember where she’s from, although she did at one point live in, or at least travel through, Siberia).

This mother and father like to read a lot, though they mostly just read books that they find in trash heaps. The mother is very fair and beautiful, the father dark and wiry. They have seven children. I am not sure that the younger ones are ever mentioned by name, but the two oldest are Ernesto and Jeanne. Jeanne is beautiful, just like her mother. Both of these children are supposed to be very young (Ernesto 12 and Jeanne 11, or perhaps they are twins, it is ambiguous) but they look older (Ernesto looks like he might be in his 20s, and perhaps he actually is; this is never made quite clear).

All of the children are neglected, as the parents send them out of the house in the morning and don’t let them back in until supper time. Neither the mother nor the father has a job. Sometimes they go into town to drink all night, leaving the children home alone. None of the children have ever gone to school, and they can not read or write. (Side note: isn't that odd for parents who love to read?)

They finally decide to send Ernesto to school, but he only lasts ten days before he walks out because “they teach me things I don’t know.” He continues to get an education by listening in at the school windows when it suits him, and when he finishes with the lower schools, he goes on to University classes. Turns out he must be some kind of genius, because he amasses knowledge without being taught. In fact, it seems that he teaches himself to read with no help.

Jeanne also starts to attend school but only goes for four days, and she doesn’t seem to have Ernesto’s genius. However, there is some kind of odd connection between Ernesto and Jeanne. They are very much in love with each other, and although it is not spelled out word for word, incest is hinted at between the two.

Bottom line: whatever “it” is, I don’t think I got “it”. This might be an interesting book to read for Book Club . . . maybe someone there could explain it to me. Oh, and speaking of Book Club, you can read what Lydia though of our first meeting here.

Here's something I found out just today: this book is a little bit backwards, because it was first a movie instead of the other way around. It's definitely not like one of those Disney "movie novelizations," in case you hadn't already gathered that from my synopsis. Anyway, the 1984 movie was called Les enfants ("The Children") and the book's author was one of the movie's directors. Too bad it's not available through netflix.

Have you heard of the book, the movie, or the author? I didn't recognize any of her other works, even though there were more than a dozen listed at the front of the book.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"We Were the Mulvaneys" by Joyce Carol Oates

Book club tonight was grand. We've started small, with only three members, but I still enjoyed the heck out of it. For where two or three are gathered together discussing books, there I am in the midst of them.

Lydia's pick for our first meeting was We Were the Mulvaneys. I have been meaning to read this book for years. Oddly enough for a literary amnesiac, I remember exactly when I decided I needed to read it. I was on an airplane, and the girl sitting next to me was reading. I kept surreptitiously sneaking glances at her book and reading what I could (I wonder if she knew? I tried not to be obvious) and was hooked by what I saw at the end of one chapter.

As I read the book this week I tried, but failed, to find exactly what it was that had caught my attention. It could very well have been the narrator's unspoken thought, "Did you know, Marianne: how by breaking the code that day, you broke it forever? For us all?" But I can't be sure if that was it.

Speaking of the narrator, he is supposed to be a 30-year-old man, but I couldn't get past the idea that the story sounds like it is related in a girl's voice. (I wonder if I would have had the same problem if I hadn't known the author is a woman.) There were so many exclamation points! That was the problem. No man--much less one who writes for a newspaper--is going to write so excitedly that he uses at least one exclamation point on every page. It got so that those exclamation points jumped out at me and poked me in the eyes.

And then the narrator was unrealistically omniscient. He knew all kinds of things that there's no way he could have known. He attempts to explain this away, but I remained unconvinced. Oates would have done better to not introduce a narrator at all. Or, this book may be one that would have worked well with multiple narrators taking turns with each chapter.

I was also disappointed that I did not get to hear what Patrick would have said in his valedictorian speech. I'd been curious to know whether he would use his speech as a means of revenge, delivering a scathing polemic, or if he would take the easy way out and keep it harmless and inoffensive. We speculated at book club that he never even wrote a speech.

As for the trouble that each of the Mulvaneys grappled with in their own way, I couldn't help but wonder: did Corinne think that, by her decision and actions, she was saving her marriage? Instead, she destroyed her family, and she never seemed to see that. None of us at book club could relate to the way she and Mike handled the situation, and it was almost as hard to understand Marianne's forgiving acceptance of both the ostracism and the undeserved guilt.

Going into the last section of the book before the epilogue, it seemed that the sheaf of remaining pages was too flimsy to form a satisfactory resolution. I felt just like Margaret Lea reading her first Vida Winter book, fearing that there weren't enough pages remaining for the promised thirteenth tale. I dreaded what I foresaw as a non-resolution like "and so, life sucked, but it went on." So I was pleased to find that I was content with the ending, and the hope and healing represented there.

On the other hand, at the end of the book I merely had a sense of relief that it was over instead of that great feeling of ahhhh, that was good. I didn't hate the book, though I didn't love it, either. But it was worth reading, if only to quench years of curiosity.

I've been waiting four years for this day!

Cute picture, huh? Click here
to see where I stole it from.

In seven hours and 36 pages, I will be blissfully sipping wine, munching on AB's Really Good Dip, and discussing We Were the Mulvaneys with Lydia and Renae. Book Club is back! I'm almost too excited for words.

Partly inspired by Whitney, who recently formed her own book club (though too far away for me to join), and partly sparked by Lydia, an avid reader I met when we worked together a few years back, I decided to stop waiting for a book club to come to me. All it took was Lydia's interest to encourage me to form our own group.

Through a quick flurry of emails we resolved to Make It So. Lydia enlisted Renae with little to no arm-twisting, and Renae has promised a few new members who will join us after this first, hurriedly slapped together meeting.

Tonight will probably also be a time of discussion of our club's guidelines (which is a slightly less restrictive word than "rules," but I still don't especially like it). We've already decided a few things: there will be wine, there will be food, we will meet once a month, tentatively having settled on the third Friday, rotating hosting duties between our houses.

One big thing that we have yet to consider is the selection of books. In my old book club--which I loved, though I want to consciously avoid forcing this new book club into its mold--the host of the current month selected and procured copies of the book to be discussed at our next meeting. This was great for two reasons: exposure to books I may not have chosen or even heard of on my own (without endless deliberation and concession), and--my favorite part--it was always so exciting to be surprised by the new selection. (OK, yes, I have to admit it was only almost always exciting. There were a few disappointments over the years.)  Stinkers notwithstanding, "The Reveal" was one of the highlights of Book Club.

I saw another interesting option for choosing book club books at Dolce Bellezza. Once a year they have a Choosing Night, where they settle on their reading list for the coming months. I like this because it would be a sure way to avoid unwanted re-reads. But I'm not sure if I can give up the monthly anticipation of "which book will be next?"

What are some other good ideas for choosing book club books?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: My favorite book by Gregory Maguire

By popular demand (or, well, because Kristi asked about it), this Nostalgia Post is about my favorite of the three Gregory Maguire books that I've read: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (in case you hadn't already gathered which book it was from the picture of the cover).

Here is a case where the blurbs do the book justice and don't talk it up more than it deserves. Take the quote attributed to the Nashville Tennessean: “A tale so movingly told that you will say at the end of the first reading, ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this good.’ ” Or from the Detroit Free Press: “An arresting hybrid of mystery, fairy tale, and historical novel...” And, further, with Booklist, saying, “Highly absorbing... Maguire’s precise, slightly archaic language... sweeps readers through this mysterious and fascinating story.”

This novel takes the original Cinderella fairy tale and styles it so that the entire story is completely plausible and could have actually happened in real life. There is absolutely no magic involved (though plenty of imagination and intrigue), but towards the end the Cinderella character (Clara) makes up some nonsense to appease her sleepwalking stepmother, using parts of the magic in the original story (the pumpkin coach, the fairy godmother).

The book opens with Margarethe and her two daughters traveling from England back to Holland where Margarethe was born. Margarethe’s husband Jack Fisher was killed by an angry mob in England and, having no family left there, Margarethe and her daughters, Iris (younger and incredibly plain) and Ruth (who is mentally somewhat slow, and physically large and ox-like), left Harwich to find Margarethe’s grandfather in Haarlem, using their last bit of money to pay for their passage. Of course, when they arrived, they found that the grandfather was dead and gone, leaving them to either beg for charity or find a job for Margarethe as quickly as possible. They managed to meet a charitable and somewhat eccentric painter named Luykas Schoonmaker, better known as the Master, who gives them a temporary position.

Not many days later a man named Heer van den Meer calls on the Master to inquire about a commission, and when he finds out that Iris speaks both Dutch and English and is about the same age as his daughter, he decides he wants Margarethe, Iris and Ruth in his household in order to teach English to, and be a companion for, his daughter. Van den Meer’s daughter Clara, though very beautiful, is quite reclusive and is not allowed outside the garden walls surrounding their house. It takes her a while to warm up to Iris but she finally does, in the best way she knows how.

An interesting slant to the story is the presence of a number of painters and others with creative talent. The book delves into the way things are seen with an artistic eye, which I found a curious coincidence, as right after I read this book I picked up My Name Is Asher Lev (which deals intensely with the same theme) for book club. Confessions also reminded me quite a bit of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, if only for the Dutch setting and the painterly milieu. I think a reader who enjoyed one will also like the other.

I just found out today that Confessions was made into a movie in 2002. Apparently it was a pretty big flop, as netflix doesn't even list it. Even so, I kind of wish I could see for myself. Have you seen the movie, or even heard of it?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Speaking of the hype machine . . .

Right now I am reading a book that is marred by Oprah's symbol. The Dork's post about the hype machine brought my irritation about it to the forefront of my mind.

I resent the power Oprah holds over the publishing industry. No one person should be allowed so much muscle. I really don't have a problem with her as a human, other than the worrisome fact that so many people seem to think her opinion is golden. I prefer to think that Paul the Octopus is a better arbiter of good taste.

I will acknowledge, however grudgingly, that she (or her minions) have picked some good books, but her endorsement has a negative effect on me. That big "O" on the front of a book tends to repel me rather than attracting me. I don't mind so much when she chooses a classic (not the least because it's fairly easy to find a copy without her endorsement printed on the cover) but, with the newer books she has chosen, I am more likely to pass over one she has marked and pick up one she has ignored.

That said, I must admit I have found myself reading quite a few of "her" books (and I'm afraid the other half may be on my TBR list). Not on purpose, of course, although I'm sure that in some sneaky underhanded way my choice was related to hers--meaning, perhaps I heard about a book merely because of the notice it received in her hype machine. I also do like the idea that perhaps she has persuaded some non-readers to pick up a book. But that doesn't make the whole idea much less distasteful to me.

How do you feel about the Big O? (I mean, of course,  the one on the cover of so many books.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Revenge of the Audio Books, Part Two

Thank you to Dolce Bellezza for bringing Renoir's
beautiful "Two Girls Reading" to my attention
Even though audio books allow for multitasking, I find I still prefer "real" reading. Whenever I have time to actually sit down and do nothing else but read, I always choose the paper-and-ink book over the audio version of Anna Karenina. I am sure that I miss things when I am reading the book with my ears instead of my eyes.

Also, just as I had previously surmised, when listening to the audio version my mind tends to wander the same way it does when I'm in church. All of a sudden I will reach a point when I realize my mind has gone off on a tangent and I have no idea what the reader is talking about. To be fair, that occasionally happens to me while eyeball-reading, too. I will get to the bottom of a page and realize that, although I looked at every word present, I have been inwardly composing either a grocery list or my mental agenda for the day rather than comprehending the words I'm looking at. On the other hand, with the tangible book I am much more likely to catch my inattention sooner and to go back to the point where I diverted from the book so I can read what I missed.

You know how different people learn more successfully in different ways? Some learn better by hearing, some through sight, and I guess some people have to pee on the electric fence themselves. I may have a combination of visual and tactile learning styles, but for a long time it has been obvious to me that auditory learning is not my strong suit. Audio books confirm that for me. Even so, I will be forever grateful to the format for allowing me to get through Anna Karenina. (Not that I've gotten through it yet, but I assure you I will, even though it may take longer than forever.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Still reading . . .

I feel like Titian's Sisyphus, but with more clothes on
It has been nearly three weeks since I started reading Anna Karenina. Of course, I took a break to read The Help earlier this month, and now I am reading We Were The Mulvaneys instead (more on that another time), but I am not accustomed to spending more than one week reading a book. I am finding it frustrating. Recently I jokingly mentioned to someone that I don't do well on projects which take more than a week to complete, but maybe there was more truth to that than I realized.

It has happened a time or two in the past, of course. I think it took me years to finish reading Under the Tuscan Sun. (If it wasn't literally years, it sure felt like it). I spent weeks on The Historian; I still can't figure out what the deal was with that book, because it had a great story and was well-written, and yet it felt like a slog.

However, I read both of those books before I started blogging. I think this blog may be the source of my frustration with spending so long on Anna Karenina. I have Blog Itch, and I need to scratch it, but it is taking me too long to read this book!

I am really enjoying the story, I am entirely convinced that it will be worth the time I spend, and I have absolutely no plans to abandon the book, but I have partially resorted to a solution I have never tried before. I have downloaded audio readings of the first three parts of Anna Karenina from LibriVox.

I feel like I am cheating! I fully and completely admit that I have done this so I can finish the book faster. For me, actual eyeball reading is faster than listening to an audio book, but I haven't yet figured out how to read while I am washing dishes or running or cooking supper. After spending two weeks reading 100 pages, I happily find that through the magic of LibriVox I have been boosted ahead to page 310 in just the past few days. But, ugh, nearly 500 pages to go, and LibriVox does not have complete readings past page 360. Maybe some kind souls will jump out there and volunteer time and voice so that I can listen to the rest of this book.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire

Rachel's post on "Wicked: The Musical" reminded me, as the Google homepage already had earlier, that today was the 71st anniversary of the release of the movie The Wizard of Oz. What better day to put up my Nostalgia Post about Gregory Maguire's book, Wicked? I can still squeeze it in, as it won't be tomorrow for 26 more minutes (in my time zone, anyway).

This book first caught my eye while I was browsing at Target, my home away from home. It was the end of a year of belt-tightening and I was on a small shopping spree. When I saw the book, I assumed it would be a back-story of the Wicked Witch of the West, neatly dovetailing with the book by L. Frank Baum (which I hadn't yet read at the time, but like any good American I was fairly familiar with the movie).

As I'm sure you all know by now, I was right about the back story bit, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about the dovetailing. This book took Baum’s story and turned it on its head. It was as if Baum’s book had been written from an entirely different perspective and he got it all wrong.

Of course the main difference is with the witch herself. Other than being green and having a somewhat prickly personality as a result of her skin color, the “Witch”, Elfaba, is really not wicked at all. She is different, and perhaps shunned, but she is actually kind-hearted and bent on social equality, not evil. She goes to college (or possibly more of a prep school) and has a circle of close friends, one of whom, unexpectedly, is the “good witch” Glinda mentioned in the original book and movie. Most surprising (to me) of all, Elfaba has a passionate love affair. Who would have thought?

Glinda is another character that appears quite differently in this book. She is written in Wicked as a silly vain snob, although she is not as flat as all that, undergoing growth and changes and actually befriending Elfaba. In the end it is indeterminate as to whether she is (either knowingly or not) an agent of evil, but the possibility is there. And speaking of Evil, The Wizard is It. He is enacting great change and revolution in the land of Oz, and not for the better. The entire population (except perhaps for Elfaba) is terrified of him and his henchmen, the Gale Force (ha ha) who sound more like Gestapo.

I love fairy tales and am drawn to retellings (although not the modern, politically correct ones for today's children. Someone has subtracted all of the frights and thrills, reforming evil rather than vanquishing it, and allowing everyone to live happily ever after whether they deserve it or not). I don't mind a bit when an old favorite is retold in a darker and more sinister manner. I must admit, though, that I could have lived without the creepy weirdness of the multi-species sex club with enforced audience participation.

Since reading Wicked, I have read two more books by Maguire. One of them was on the mediocre side (Mirror Mirror), but the other I loved and will probably post about at some point.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Words of the Day

1. Alacrity. I think it's kind of funny that this word is on my list twice. The first time I wrote it down, it was in FM-266 (don't ask me what book that was), and my guess was that it meant "quickly." The second time I similarly assumed it meant "with haste," and I didn't make any note of the book where I found it. It seems that I most often hear this word associated with the way a character speaks. Webster says: Promptness in response; cheerful readiness. Here's a great synonym that could have been one of my Words of the Day: celerity. We're off to a good start! One point.

2. Punctilious. From Anna Karenina. Yes, I am still creeping through that book with all the alacrity of a hemorrhoidal gastropod. (See what I did there, with that brand new Word of the Day? Can I get extra points for that?) "Like all fathers, the old prince was particularly punctilious where his daughters' unsullied reputation and honor were concerned." From the context, it sounds like it means persnickety or particular. I'm guessing it is not related to punctuality. Webster says: Marked by or concerned with the details of codes or conventions; careful. I may not have gotten the precise connotation, but don't you think my guess is close enough to be worth a point anyway? Especially since I used alacrity correctly in a sentence.

3. Guipure. Also from Anna Karenina. Anna's black velvet ball dress was "trimmed all over with Venetian guipure." Glass beads? Webster says: A heavy large-patterned decorative lace. Dang it! I should have known that! In the very next paragraph the dress is described as "her black dress with its rich lace." Besides, it's not like Anna was a flapper. Zero points!

4. Elegiac. This was in one of Anita Shreve's books--apparently one with a character named Linda, whose writing style is described this way. A quick google search shows that it must have been in The Last Time They Met, which is my favorite out of the three of hers that I've read. I assume "elegiac" has something to do with the word elegy, but I don't (though I feel I should) know that definition either. All I know is it's different from a eulogy. Webster says: An elegy is a poem in elegiac couplets; it is also a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation, especially for one who is dead. So an "elegy" is more like a "eulogy" than I thought. A poem that is "elegiac" consists of two dactylic hexameter lines, the second of which lacks the arses in the third and sixth feet.

Wait a minute. Arses? I am hearing Inigo Montoya whisper, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." And, I have to do it: "arses" . . . is not in my dictionary. "Arse" is, and Inigo Montoya was wrong. But wait: here is "arsis," which is the singular of "arses." It is the lighter or shorter part of a poetic foot in quantitative verse, or the accented or longer part of a poetic foot in accentual verse. I ought to take a point just for all that hard work. But I won't, because I know I'm only going to remember that "elegiac" has something to do with arses.

5. Sable. I thought this was reddish, similar to the color of a red fox. I thought there was an animal called a sable that was kind of like a red weasel. No clue what book it was in, but I did mark down that, from the context, I would have guessed "sable" meant black. Webster says: Your ignorance is showing. Yes, a sable is an animal related to the weasel, in the same genus as the marten, but it is dark brown. Sable can mean "a grayish yellowish brown" . . . not foxy red. It also means black or dark. I will take a half a point since my contextual guess of "black" was correct. And because I need it.

So, after a promising start, I only ended up with 2.5 points out of five. I guess it could have been worse (and it has been worse in the past). I will take this to mean I need to continue in my quest.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked . . . "

Some time in the past month or two I read a blog post about novelists being unable to resist including a line about a dog barking in the distance. I searched high and low for that post but at first all I could find was this article, which must have been where the idea originated.

Right now my son is reading one of the "Stink" books. He stopped reading for a minute and caught my attention. "Hey, mommy, listen to this. It says, 'All ears were listening. Not even a dog barked.' Isn't that funny? 'Cuz you know how whenever it gets real quiet in a book they always say a dog barked in the distance." Too funny that a ten-year-old has already picked up on that same thing . . . he just didn't understand why I laughed so hard when he told me.

Thanks to Lisa at bibliophiliac, I can now share with you that I originally read this when Pete Karnas wrote about it on What You Read. A literary amnesiac is always thankful to be surrounded by people with good memories.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

I can't quite recall how this book first seeped into my consciousness, but I do know that it's probably been more than a year since my friend Linda recommended it to me. And since then I have heard about it from just about every source you can imagine (and some you can't).

It's no surprise that everyone was right about this book. It's an excellent story, and it dragged me in from the very beginning. There's an uneasy tension throughout the entire thing; in case you've been living under a rock and haven't heard, it's about black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. With such subject matter, it's no surprise that it's fraught with hostility. But what is surprising is that this hostility is accompanied by love and respect. There is only one character in the book who doesn't have a good side to go along with the bad.

One thing that caught my attention in this book is that not one of the characters is happy (although this does not make for anywhere near as depressing a book as you might think). Everyone is dealing with their lot in life and no one is whining or in a deep funk over it, but no one is content. Which is only right. They shouldn't be. But the most impressive characters are working to change what they don't like, and there is a beautiful thread of hope throughout the book.

While reading this book I was reminded of my great aunt and uncle who hosted a huge Christmas Eve party at their house in Virginia every December. Each year they hired the same black family to do all of the cooking and serving for the evening. That always kind of made me squirm. No one really talked about it--not that I recall, anyway--but I was uncomfortable with that strange sense of separation that belonged in another century. Now, after reading this book, I can't help but wonder what stories that black family would have told Skeeter.

Soon after Linda suggested I read this book, I saw what had to have been a group of ladies in a book club discussing it at a local restaurant. I still miss my book club that disintegrated four years ago, and I almost walked right up to their table and asked if I could join them, but then I noticed these were all old ladies. Not that there's anything wrong with old ladies, and I'm sure they would have been very polite and welcoming, but this wasn't like my old book club that had such an interesting variety of ages, all the way from me to a couple of septuagenarians (until we got our token college student, and stretched our age range even further). These women were obviously friends first and a book club second. Maybe if I keep my fingers crossed for long enough my friends will be interested in reading something other than James Patterson books by the time our hair is blue, and we'll be having our own book club at the local restaurant.