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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Hallowe'en Party" by Agatha Christie

This is your average Agatha Christie book. That’s a good thing, of course. In my mind, Christie is the ultimate mystery writer. I weigh all mystery novels against hers, and most suffer by comparison.

I have read this one enough times that I can actually remember who done it. (Most of Christie’s books surprise me every time I read them. You know. That literary amnesia thing again.) Of course there were a lot of details that I did not remember, so I still enjoyed the read.

In this book, Hercules Poirot is called in by his author friend Ariadne Oliver, who has been visiting in the town of Woodleigh Common. Just the night before, Ms. Oliver had attended a children’s Halloween party during which one of the young guests, a girl by the name of Joyce Reynolds, was drowned in an apple-bobbing bucket. The thing that stuck in Ms. Oliver’s mind was the fact that, earlier during the evening of the party, Joyce--a girl given to telling tall tales and generally known as a liar--had been trying to convince the others present that she had once witnessed a murder. Unfortunately for Joyce, the wrong person overheard her claims.

This isn't my absolute favorite Agatha Christie book (I'd say that slot is claimed by And Then There Were None), but I don't think I've ever read a mystery of hers that I didn't like, and this one was no exception.

Here is what I love about Agatha Christie. Her stories are always so logical. Even if the murderer is slightly insane, it's in such a neat, restrained, British way. There's very little gore, and hardly anyone ever gets hacked to pieces. Many of the deaths occur by a nice, civilized poisoning, or at worst an efficient coshing or a single, well-thought-out gunshot. Poirot and Miss Marple are my heroes, with their amazingly astute observations and keen understanding of human nature. And somehow Christie manages to get me suspecting almost every single character in the story at one point or another. See? Perfection.

Happy Halloween! Don't keep your head in the apple-bobbing bucket overlong. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Words of the Day: Special Edition

Today's words are some of those which sound nothing like they should. Mandy will just have to live with the fact that I am not giving myself points for these, mainly because I already knew the definitions for most of them.

1. Pulchritude. Might as well mean ugliness instead of beauty. Or at least something like a bad attitude.

2. Bucolic. Sounds like some sort of disease that causes gassy indigestion rather than relating to a rural countryside.

3. Flummery. Should be an adjective used to describe a woman who wears flowing, ankle-length skirts, grows her hair really long, and flings her arms around a lot when she talks. Or maybe it should just describe Stevie Nicks. She seems very flummery. But flummery is actually a noun, and it is a soft jelly or porridge made with flour or meal. Ew. I like my version better.

4. Lacunae. Ought to be a synonym for chrysalis. Don't ask me why. It seems I am coming across it everywhere, and I still don't know what it means. It's the plural of lacuna, which is the title of Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel (I haven't read it). Grushin used it in The Dream Life of Sukhanov. "She had never been easy to understand, and he had long since learned to allow her small pockets of privacy by not dwelling on her manifold silences and not pursuing to its hidden origin her every expression or gesture or even absence, habitually interpreting these mysterious lacunae as evidence of her unique brand of feminine mystique." I am also re-reading The Amnesiac, and in it the main character, James, is trying to recall a song. He can only think of two of its lines, which are followed by, "Ellipsis. Lacuna. And then . . . the chorus." My guess would be something like "empty space." Webster says: Well, would you look at that. Of course it doesn't mean chrysalis, but it does mean a blank space or missing part; gap; a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure. 

5. Gred. My first college roommate and I wondered how people began using words like "cool" and "rad" to mean, well, "cool" and "rad." We figured it had to start somewhere, so we decided to make up our own word: Gred. It didn't catch on.

What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Call a Man Cold" by Tom Wright

Copyright © Celine Chamberlin
Remember how I said Tom Wright could easily use Blue Falling and its strong cast of characters as the beginning of a series of books, and that even a prequel would work well? Evidently Dr. Wright already knew that. Because I have just finished reading the prequel to Blue Falling.

Call a Man Cold is another excellent book, though of course by this point I am not surprised. Dr. Wright takes us back to the fictional town of Traverton, Texas, where we witness the chaotic events that culminate in Lieutenant James Bonham's willingness to finally retire from the police force. Sure, that's how this book ends, but I promise that's not a spoiler; if Blue Falling is to be published first, the reader goes into the prequel knowing that Bonham ends up retired somehow. It's finding out how that's all the fun. And when I say fun, I mean fun in the way that only a gruesome and adrenaline-filled murder mystery can be.

It will be interesting to see how these books are marketed. Of the four books, Call a Man Cold and Blue Falling are a matched pair of Texas murder mysteries. Not to disparage them, because they are excellent, but I would label them as genre fiction. Keep the Devil Dancing and What Dies in Summer, while retaining the air of mystery, suspense, and secrets, add a coming-of-age element and would be classified as literary fiction.

I will let you know as soon as any announcements are made!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick

As any true fan knows, this book was the basis for the 1982 movie Blade Runner. I am probably not a true fan, though I have seen the movie, but my husband falls in that category (as do lots of other boys, from what I gather). I've been meaning to read this book ever since Hud told me about it.

This is one of those situations where the movie adaptation is just barely related to the book.  Here's what is the same: in a dystopian future, bounty hunter Rick Deckard "retires" androids. (Actually, they're not even called androids in the movie; they're "replicants.") Here's what is different: everything claims that neither director Ridley Scott nor screenwriter David Webb Peoples actually read this novel. Judging by the resulting film, I am not surprised.

The title of the book doesn't even make sense if you're only familiar with the movie. In fact, for a long time Hud thought the book was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? which would seem much more logical based on Blade Runner. However, there's a very good reason that the book's title refers to "sheep" rather than "sleep," due to one of two huge and inter-related themes that (to my recollection) are not even hinted at in the movie.

First, most animal populations in the world have been decimated and many species are extinct. The remaining animals are highly prized and very expensive, but owning at least one animal is a necessity due to the second main theme: an empathy-based religion called Mercerism, in which the apathetic androids can't participate. These aspects add a whole new dimension to the story laid out in the movie.

Don't buy this version!
I first got this copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and was kind of disappointed in the meager, shallow writing. It was so simple and lacking in detail that it was almost like a children's story. After about three chapters I took a good look at the book and realized it was indeed a re-write for kids. *headdesk* Take this as another public service announcement: don't order that copy of this book.

When I got the real version of the book I was blown away by how much better it was. I mean, I knew it would be an improvement, but I hadn't guessed how amazing the difference would be. What I had at first mistaken for a flat and featureless story was suddenly so enriched. Not to the extent of Olga Grushin's vivid descriptions in my previous read, but the story's world was so much more fully realized. And, like Grushin and Kafka before her, this book gives a good and welcome dose of weird.

I read this book on my Kindle (a fun toy that I've enjoyed so far, except that I can only manage to get my hands on it when my middle child is either at school or asleep; she tends to commandeer it the rest of the time). However, this book did give me one complaint about the Kindle. I understand why there are no page numbers (since you can change the font size, which would alter the pagination), but the end of this book jumped out at me before I was ready for it. The gauge at the bottom of the "page" showed that 2% of the book remained to be read, and then BAM, the end. In a conventional book, I would have been more aware of how close I was to the last page.

I found the following paragraph on imdb and thought it was interesting:
Philip K. Dick first came up with the idea for his novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' in 1962, when researching 'The Man in the High Castle' which deals with the Nazis conquering the planet in the 1940s. Dick had been granted access to archived World War II Gestapo documents in the University of California at Berkley, and had come across diaries written by S.S. men stationed in Poland, which he found almost unreadable in their casual cruelty and lack of human empathy. One sentence in particular troubled him: "We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children." Dick was so horrified by this sentence that he reasoned there was obviously something wrong with the man who wrote it. This led him to hypothesize that Nazism in general was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally flawed that the word human could not be applied to them; their lack of empathy was so pronounced that Dick reasoned they couldn't be referred to as human beings, even though their outward appearance seemed to indicate that they were human. The novel sprang from this.
In my ridiculous stack of TBR is another novel by Dick that I'd never heard of before entitled Voices from the Street, which I am looking forward to reading. Which other books of his do you recommend?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Words of the Day

Here I am squeezing just a few more words out of The Age of Innocence. I've had plenty of fiber today, so I'm ready to go!

1. Adipose. "She gave an adipose chuckle and patted his knee with her puff-ball hand." Doesn't "adipose" mean "fat"? As in, "adipose tissue"? Sure, Mrs. Manson Mingott (the owner of the "puff-ball hand") is impressively obese, but who knew even her chuckles could be chunky? Webster says: FAT. One portly point! 

2. Fulminated. "When he fulminated against fashionable society he always spoke of its 'trend'; and to Mrs. Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community that was trending." My guess is that "fulminate" means "preach" or "rail" (the verb, not the noun). Webster says: Uttered or sent out with denunciation; caused to explode (I'm guessing Wharton wasn't going for this denotation); sent forth censures or invectives; hurled denunciations or menaces. One point for "rail," minus a quarter because "preach" wasn't potent enough and because I didn't think to use "vituperate."

3. Vaticinations. "Archer had been wont to smile at these annual vaticinations of his mother's; but this year even he was obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an enumeration of the changes, that the 'trend' was visible." Maybe a synonym could be pronouncements? At least I'm pretty sure this doesn't have anything to do with the Vatican, or vaccinations. Webster says: Prophecies or predictions. That's probably worth 85% of a point, even though I didn't grasp the idea that the future was involved.

4. Unwonted. "She looked paler than usual, but sparkling with an unwonted animation." I've often read the phrase "as s/he was wont to do" (see number three!), meaning something a character does regularly or is accustomed to, so I would assume "unwonted" would be the opposite. In other words, going against tendency or acting out of character. Webster says: Being out of the ordinary; rare, unusual; not accustomed by experience. How nice! Another full point. One might even say that was unwonted.

5. Impecunious. "Archer looked with a sort of vicarious envy at this eager impecunious young man who had fared so richly in his poverty." This might mean "poor," but somehow I don't think that's right. Webster says: Having very little or no money; penniless. Ha! Another point. Just ignore the part where I said I didn't think my guess was right. And I believe that makes about 4.6 points out of 5! That's a good Dictionary Day.

Hey Tracy, guess what? Wharton used "valetudinarian" in The Age of Innocence! "His eminence as a valetudinarian now made him an object of engrossing interest, and Mrs. Mingott issued an imperial summons to him to come and compare diets as soon as his temperature permitted." One point for Edith. (If you want, you can have another one too, Tracy.) Plus, Wharton used "sedulously" and "importunate" not once, but twice each in this book! I'm not giving her any more points, though. She should have gone for a little more variety.

Would you believe there are still a few more Age of Innocence Words of the Day words to come? I'm going to make you wait for them, though.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Dream Life of Sukhanov" by Olga Grushin

Following on the heels of last week's sampling of Kafka, here's a novel whose moorings to reality have been jolted askew. It accompanies a privileged Russian art critic, sometime darling of the government, as he recalls odd memories and experiences strange dreams which begin a bizarre intrusion upon his life until what is real, what is recollection, and what is nightmare are inseparably tangled.

Beyond the enticing strangeness of the story, I was quite impressed by Grushin's unusually descriptive writing. It was beautifully expressive but never trite. Whereas someone might see it as unnecessarily flashy, I reveled in the unique choices of words which resulted in passages that might be favorably compared to a vivid painting.

It seemed to me that Grushin knew just where to draw the line in relating her rich images. If she'd written the entire book with that same intensity, the result would have seemed overblown, diluting the impact of each scene and sapping much of the strength from the novel. Instead, Grushin's adept depictions heightened the dream-like quality of the story, causing time to slow as the reader was drawn in to peer at a minute detail; at the next moment, with a step back and a broader focus, time snaps back into shape.

I was a little bit disappointed that, other than its surreal and illusive nature, the cover art was not more directly related to the story. I'd been looking forward to hearing about the specific dream it depicts, and discovering the significance of the missing rung on the ladder. However, much weirdness in the book is left unexplained, so even if an incomplete ladder had been mentioned, I still might not know the meaning behind it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence and I got off to a most inauspicious beginning. After several light and easy reads, I thought I was fully recovered from Anna Karenina and ready to tackle some more Real Literature (though I must admit I rejoiced when Wharton's book arrived and I saw it was not even 300 pages).

Well, I'll tell you, I have this odd disease that renders me incapable of leaving any part of a book unread, and my copy of this book has a 21-page introduction that is so very, very dull. I thought I would never get to the book itself.

At least the introduction was not completely horrible. I actually learned a few things from it. Without it I would never have known about Edith Wharton's involvement in the Great War, providing "help and support for civilians and soldiers alike," mainly in Paris. I likewise would have had no idea that the setting for The Age of Innocence (New York just after America's Civil War, though that conflict is never mentioned in the book that I recall) mirrored the era which Wharton lived through after World War I.

Once I got through the introduction, the story itself was like a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed it. I'd never read anything by Edith Wharton before, but I found her writing very similar to that of Henry James, which I've always loved (well, except for The Ambassadors, although I can't remember why). Both writers deal with the Victorian era and delve into what lies beneath its superficial propriety.

I loved reading what might well be called the subtext of these characters' lives. One good example was an entire unspoken monologue from May Archer to her husband Newland. With a seemingly innocuous statement and a significant look, she conveyed a much deeper meaning which was grasped by Archer with perfect clarity. This tendency was recognized years later by their son Dallas, who said, "You never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath . . . I back your generation for knowing more about each other's private thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own."

Several times the reader is privy to the thoughts that Archer might have spoken aloud had he not been such a product of his environment and its mores. I think my favorite was when May asked him to close the window so he didn't "catch his death," and he thinks, "But I've caught it already. I am dead--I've been dead for months and months." What was left unsaid spoke volumes. I wonder if May was as astute in deciphering Archer's thoughts as he was with hers? She certainly knew more than she ever let on.

The entire book was rife with Victorian repression, which particularly resonates with me as it reminds me of precisely what it was like growing up with parents like mine. (I'm not really kidding very much when I say that.) Almost every character is rigidly constrained by the approval of society, keeping up appearances even if it meant withering and dying inside. Right up until the very end! Which, interestingly enough, stirred in me such a strange sense of déjà vu. I know I haven't read the book before, but I'm almost certain that somewhere, somehow, I'd already read the last two or three pages.

We'll be discussing this book tonight at Book Club. Even more fun, I got a copy of the 1993 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska. I've never seen the movie before, but I could picture Olenska looking and acting just like Pfeiffer throughout the entire book. 

One final thought: I learned from this book that you should never slice cucumbers with a steel knife, but what I can't figure out is why. And, does this rule apply to stainless steel (which, in the form as we know it today, wasn't produced until the 20th century)?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Some Short Stories by Franz Kafka

I'd never read anything by Kafka before, although I've always intended to at some point. I spent the past week in a frenzy of downloading free Kindle books and then realized that my glut of new e-books didn't include any of Kafka's works. (A quick search revealed the reason why: none of them were free, which makes a big difference to a cheapskate like me.)

I decided I could spare some change and ordered a collection of Kafka's works (not complete, but it looked like a good sampler). It included five very short stories.

Before the Law. Apparently this is part of Kafka's novel The Trial (which I haven't read yet, though it's a part of the collection I ordered). It is a parable about a "man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law." He spends his entire life pleading with the gatekeeper, but to no avail.

I can recognize the themes of frustration and futility in this story, but beyond that I only have questions. First of all, I have no idea what it might mean to "gain entry into the law." Does he want a job as a judge? Is he seeking forgiveness? Does he want to make a deal with the feds so they'll look the other way while he sells moonshine at the speakeasy? Second of all, why the heck did he have his very own gate assigned to him if there was no possible way for him to go through it? Or is the whole point that he should not have waited for permission? It seems that was the only thing he didn't try.

The Hunter Gracchus. A dead hunter (who is also alive "to a certain extent") travels through all the countries of the earth in his death ship which has lost its way. I guess the moral of the story is that there's a big difference between only mostly dead and all dead, and it may be best if you don't go through this hunter's clothes to look for loose change. (OK, that last bit has nothing to do with the story, but I couldn't resist.) Anyway, once again it's a story of endless frustration.

Up in the Gallery. A very brief (two paragraph) story about a frail consumptive circus rider, and the absurd way things might be in contrast with the not much less absurd way things are. What stood out most to me about this story was that each paragraph was one very, very long sentence, so that the entire story is made up of two sentences.

An Imperial Message. This is an introductory parable to the short story entitled "The Great Wall of China" (which is not included in the collection I purchased). A peasant dreams of a message sent to him by a dying emperor which, even if its very existence weren't improbable, is undeliverable due to logistics. Another exercise in futility.

Jackals and Arabs. I'm not trying to insult anyone here, but I wondered if the talking jackals in this story represented the Jewish people. "It seems to be a very old conflict--it's probably in the blood and so perhaps will only end with blood . . . you should end the quarrel which divides the world in two."

Time Transfixed, 1938
by René Magritte
Judging by this brief foray, Kafka's writing reminds me of paintings like this one. It's technically superior, but it leaves me with the feeling that there is something about it that I don't understand. The individual elements may make perfect sense, but their juxtaposition causes me to question why. Though the superficial view is deceptively simple, I am just sure there are hidden layers of underlying meaning that I am not grasping.

If you are suffering from Kafkaphobia, try a few of his short stories. They may not make any more sense to you than they did to me, but they are not difficult to read and you will get a taste of his style without investing much time. They may be enough to dispel your fear and lead you to read one of his novels. And if you do understand them, you can explain them to me!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Words of the Day

I've only read a third of The Age of Innocence, and our book club meeting is Friday night. I'm not too worried (yet), but in the meantime I've found a wealth of words to look up.

1. Dilettante. "He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation." Maybe a "dilettante" is something like a minor hedonist. Webster says: An admirer or lover of the arts; a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge; a dabbler; an amateur. Word Nazi says: No points for you!

2. Vicegerent. "Few things seemed to Newland Archer more awful than an offense against 'Taste,' that far-off divinity of whom 'Form' was the mere visible representative and vicegerent." Vicegerent? I can't help but wonder if that's a misspelling for "vice-regent." Webster says: Vicegerent actually is a real word. It's an administrative deputy of a king or magistrate, whereas a "vice-regent" is a regent's deputy. So close . . . and yet so far away.

3. Fatuities. "The stockings were one of Beaufort's few fatuities" (referring to the silk stockings his footmen wore). I'm sure this is related to the word "fatuous," but I'm not sure what that means either. Though I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with the word "fat." Webster says: something foolish or stupid. (Fatuous means complacently or inanely foolish; silly; simple.) Zero for three.

4. Apotheosis. "She disappeared in a kind of sulphurous apotheosis, and when a few years later Medora again came back to New York, subdued, impoverished, mourning a third husband, and in quest of a still smaller house, people wondered that her rich niece had not been able to do something for her." Maybe an "apotheosis" is a mystery. Or a cloud. Webster says: elevation to divine status; deification; the perfect example; quintessence. I should have guessed from the root "theos" that it might have something to do with God. Oh well.

5. Sedulously. "In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief that when 'such things happened' it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman." I can't decide if it means "firmly" or "secretively." Webster says: accomplishing with careful perseverance; diligent in application or pursuit; busily. SO if I had guessed "assiduously" I might have earned one measly little point. But alas, it was not to be.

I have reached a new low, with zero points for this edition of Words of the Day. I hope you did better than I did! I would make myself feel better with the idea that at least I'm learning the words, but I have a confession to make. I came across one of my previous Words of the Day in this book. "He had been somewhat languidly drifting with events for the last fortnight, and letting May's fair looks and radiant nature obliterate the rather importunate pressure of the Mingott claims." The depressing thing? I had to look it up again. In case you need a refresher too, "importunate" means troublesomely urgent.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Dragon Rider" by Cornelia Funke

My sister first introduced me to Cornelia Funke's books a number of years ago. Meine Schwester wohnt in Deutschland, and Funke is like a German J.K. Rowling, if perhaps the junior version. I think Sis first told me about The Thief Lord, which I devoured with relish before quickly working my way through several of Funke's other books.

It's been several years since I read Dragon Rider, but luckily I marked down a few notes about it at the time. The story took me a little while to get into, although I’m not sure why, because it turned out to be a very enjoyable book. Perhaps not quite as good as Inkheart (which is by far my favorite Funke book), but every bit as good as The Thief Lord--and maybe just a little bit better because, rather than beginning realistically but suddenly and strangely becoming an obvious fantasy halfway through, Dragon Rider was fantastic in its entirety.

This is the story of Firedrake, a silver dragon, and his furry Brownie companion named Sorrel. Firedrake and Sorrel have embarked on a journey to find the Rim of Heaven, a protected valley of legend where any number of dragons could live undisturbed. Their reason for this quest, and for leaving their happy and comfortable home among other dragons (in Scotland?), is that humans are encroaching on their caves, and discovery--with the inevitable destruction that would follow--is imminent. Once Firedrake has found the Rim of Heaven, he plans to return for the other dragons and lead them to it.

Not far into their journey, Firedrake and Sorrel acquire a small orphaned human named Ben when they stop to purchase a map from Gilbert Graytail, the white rat. Unfortunately (cue menacing music), the trio attracts the attention of a wicked golden pseudo-dragon named Nettlebrand, a creature created by an alchemist for the purpose of destroying dragons.

Not surprisingly, my two older kids have taken to Funke's stories just as much as I have. My son read Dragon Rider for a school project last spring once his interest was spurred by the movie How to Train Your Dragon. Not long afterwards, my daughter also read it when she was on her Cornelia Funke kick.

Dragon Rider is a good fun kids’ book. Have you read anything by Cornelia Funke? Which is your favorite?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Words of the Day

It's as if Anna Karenina is reaching out from beyond the grave. I still have two more words from that book on my List of Words to Look Up.

1. Pellicle. Of course I wrote down that this word was on page 563, and of course I have already swapped my copy of Anna Karenina, so now I can't tell you what sentence it was used in. With no context, I can't even venture a good guess. But I can venture a bad one: a small pelican. Webster says: a thin skin or film. Zero points. Of course.

2. Nihilist. How did I make it out of college without a firm understanding of nihilism? Apparently Levin considers Oblonsky a nihilist, which causes Oblonsky to say that's like the pot calling the kettle black (though not in those words) since Levin has let nine years pass without "taking the sacrament." So I'm guessing a nihilist isn't overly religious. Webster says: a nihilist views traditional values and beliefs as unfounded, and existence as senseless and useless. Nihilism is a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth, especially moral truth. In 19th century Russia (ding!) nihilism was the program of a political party advocating revolutionary reform and using terrorism and assassination. Half a point for heading in the right direction but not quite grasping the scope.

3. Tenebrous. Oh, how I wish I knew where I found this word. All I know is that it referred to the way Pete's head creaked before it cracked (aren't you curious now too?) and I assumed it meant ominous. Webster says: Shut off from the light; dark, murky; hard to understand; obscure; causing gloom. Yeah, I can see how it might cause some gloom for Pete if his skull creaked until it cracked. But my guess was wrong. Which has caused me some gloom. No points.

4. Implacable. Orphan word. My old guess was that it meant "hard," but wouldn't it mean "unable to be placated," or "unsatisfied?" Webster says: not placable; not capable of being appeased, significantly changed, or mitigated. Finally I get a whole point!

5. Fulsome. Another orphan word. My guess was curvaceous. Webster says a lot: characterized by abundance; copious; offensive to the senses or to moral or aesthetic sensibility; disgusting; excessively complimentary or flattering; lavish; obsequious; exceeding the bounds of good taste; overdone; being completely developed; full, well-rounded. I'd started to worry, but there it is in the end. Another point!

Two and a half out of five. It's a little bit ridiculous how much fun this is for me, especially considering the fact that I'm not very good at it.

Once again I have a bonus phrase for you. I didn't note the entire sentence, but early in What I Was there was a reference to a "mackerel sky." This seemed a unique juxtaposition of words, although I wasn't quite sure what it could mean (pale and silvery, like a fish belly? Mottled greenish grey, like a mackerel's back?) so I looked it up. I was surprised to find that it refers to an actual meteorological phenomenon: a sky covered with rows of altocumulus or cirrocumulus clouds resembling the patterns on a mackerel's back.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton

Here's a book from my "I can't believe I've never read this before" list. (Well, I don't really have such a list, but I ought to. I have lists for everything else. Why not one more?)

I'm sure I'm the only one who's been living under a rock for the past few decades, but just in case I've had some company, this is the story of fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, the youngest of a gang of "greasers" living in Oklahoma in the 1960s. Their central conflict is with the "Socs," a group of rich kids with too much time and money on their hands.

The greasers have some pretty serious issues to deal with in their lives, but none of those issuses were added for shock value (I'm thinking of the movie Thirteen when I say this). Instead, we're given an honest and realistic portrayal of life as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Granted, that portrayal may be slanted to get the reader to sympathize with the greasers, but it works.

What most impresses me about this book is that the author was fifteen years old when she started writing it. When I was that age, I couldn't see much farther than my plans for the coming weekend. And not only was Hinton young, but she managed a believable male voice. Writing from the opposite gender's point of view is something I've found even fully mature authors can have trouble with.

I watched the movie just a few months ago, and I've gotta say (beyond the horribly dated music) they did an excellent job with it. The book adds very little to the experience, although it does add some.

One of the main things I found in the book which I didn't glean from the movie (maybe it was there, but either I didn't notice, or I've forgotten since I didn't write it down) was the explanation for Johnny's line, "Stay gold, Ponyboy." I guess I always thought Johnny was basically just saying "stay cool," but there's more to it than that. Johnny is asking Ponyboy to retain the beauty of his innocence--to avoid being hardened by the harshness of reality, to hold on to the childlike tenderness in his heart. The wording came from this Robert Frost poem:
"Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Now I finally understand why that guy from high school told me to "stay gold, Ponyboy."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Mirror, Mirror" by Gregory Maguire

This was the second book I read by Gregory Maguire. It's definitely different. The story is based on that of Snow White, but I would call it more of an alternate history than a retelling of the fairy tale. In fact, when I read the "teaser" for Mirror Mirror which I found at the end of my copy of Wicked, I'm not sure I even realized it was supposed to be the Snow White story.

After reading Wicked and seeing how Maguire’s treatment of the Wicked Witch of the West portrayed Elfaba as more kindhearted than wicked, merely masquerading as a witch, and not even really from the west, I assumed that in Mirror Mirror the allegedly wicked queen would really be a tragically maligned figure while Snow White would be the truly wicked one. (And, in fact, until finishing Mirror Mirror I assumed that the ugly stepsisters of Maguire's Cinderella retelling would really be beautiful, sweet and kind, and Cinderella would be a mean and thoughtless harpy, but Mirror Mirror caused me to revise my expectations.) Maguire may have explored the theme of fairy tale retellings through several books, but his methods are by no means formulaic.

In Maguire's version of Snow White, displaced Spaniard Vicente de Nevada and his motherless daughter Bianca (get it? that's White) have a small but comfortable Italian holding in Montefiore. Bianca’s mother and the love of Vicente’s life, Maria Ines, had died in childbirth in approximately 1494. Seven years later, although the residents of Montefiore have managed to avoid the civil unrest that swirls around them, destruction is visiting them in the form of the Borgias, Cesare and his sister (and sometime lover) Lucrezia.

Cesare forces Vicente to depart from Montefiore on a quest to obtain the one remaining branch of the Tree of Knowledge, leaving Montefiore (and thus, Bianca) under Cesare’s control. Vicente is compelled to obey this demand as he owes the holding of Montefiore to the Borgias. Over the next five years, Lucrezia is overcome with jealousy as she realizes that Bianca has unwittingly and unwillingly caught the eye of Cesare, so Lucrezia pays a young hunter to take Bianca into the woods and kill her.

Of course the hunter cannot complete the evil deed, and instead releases Bianca into the forest, where she is found by a group of strange stone creatures that are slowly evolving into dwarves. (That's one of the more bizarre aspects of this story, of which I’m not absolutely sure I grasped the point.) Another odd part of the story is the way time seems to slow down for Bianca while she is with the dwarves. She lies in a sort of a coma for perhaps 6 years. There is really no explanation for this passage of time (no poison, no illness) other than the fact that the stony beings she is with have a different concept of time from humans; nor is there any good explanation for why she finally wakes up.

This book is definitely a departure from the Disney version. I am sure that in this case I prefer the original story. Some of Grimm’s fairy tales can be grisly (in the case of the original Snow White story, Disney doesn't tell us that the wicked queen salts, cooks, and eats what she believes to be Snow White's heart, or that while Snow White and her prince were living happily ever after, the queen was punished with dancing in red-hot shoes until she fell down dead), but Maguire's retelling went beyond grisly. It was corrupt and perverted (though I understand that for some of you that may be a draw rather than a deterrent).

One great thing about the way Maguire told the Snow White story was how he stirred in actual historical figures. The Borgias fascinate me in the mesmerizing way of a poisonous snake. I'm not sure I can think of a more conniving and infamous family in all of history. Though their presence in a fairy tale can't be historically accurate, I'm convinced the portrayal of their tendencies and personalities was.

My biggest complaint about the book is that odd dreamlike quality I was frequently frustrated by in my own creative writing assignments when I was in grade school. So often when I was required to write a story I had trouble making it sound concrete and realistic, as when something you think you understand inexplicably morphs into another thing, or perhaps even disappears entirely. Much of this book was plagued by a similar problem. It may sound intriguing, but I saw this as a weakness in my own writing, and when I recognize it in a book I can't help but view it as a flaw.