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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Words of the Day

Dictionary Day! It's back by popular demand. (Not really, but I've had some words lying around waiting for me to look them up and I figured now was as good a time as any.) Well, leave it to Edith Wharton to come up with another handful of words I don't know. The first three are all from Madame de Treymes:

1. Escutcheon. "There must be no scandal, no retentissement, nothing which her boy, necessarily brought up in the French tradition of scrupulously preserved appearances, could afterward regard as the faintest blur on his much-quartered escutcheon." It kind of makes me think of "listen" in Spanish, but that doesn't make sense. Maybe it means reputation. Webster says: A defined area on which armorial bearings are displayed and which usually consists of a shield. Um, I was wrong. No points.

2. Propinquity. "Propinquity had not been lacking: he had known Miss Frisbee since his college days." Opportunity? Later, the same word is used again: "Mr. Boykin, at this point, advanced across the wide expanse of Aubusson on which his wife and Durham were islanded in a state of propinquity without privacy." That sounds more like proximity. Webster says: Nearness of blood: kinship; nearness in place or time: proximity. One great big fat shiny point for me!

3. Redoubtable. "Durham identified the slender dark lady loitering negligently in the background, and introduced in a comprehensive murmur to the American group, as the redoubtable sister-in-law to whom he had declared himself ready to throw down his challenge. There was nothing very redoubtable about Madame de Treymes, except perhaps the kindly yet critical observation which she bestowed on her sister-in-law's visitors." Formidable? Webster says: Causing fear or alarm: formidable. Would you look at that. Two in a row!

These last two are from Lucrezia Borgia:

4. Inimical. "'It does not seem to me to be apt to tell him absolutely that we do not wish it: because such a hostile response would make him most inimical towards us . . . '" At first I was thinking "inimitable" (matchless), but this is different. It must mean something similar to hostile. Webster says: Being adverse often by reason of hostility or malevolence. I'm on a roll! That makes three.

5. Tergiversation "But the time for tergiversation was over: by early July, Ercole had lain down his arms and accepted his--and Alfonso's--fate." OK, is it just me or does that word sound totally made up? By context, I think it's like rebellion. Webster says: Evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement; equivocation; desertion of a cause, party, or faith. Hm, more subtle than outright rebellion. I would normally try to sneak a fraction of a point here but I already have three good ones and that's enough for today.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Coraline" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is sick and twisted and I love it.

I've wanted to read this book ever since I watched the flippin' WEIRD Tim Burton-esque movie with my kids. I finally ordered a copy of the book last week. Bookworm Child read it as soon as it arrived, and since it passed her test (and wasn't about rainbows and unicorns) I thought it might be pretty good.

Coraline Jones is the only child of less-than-doting parents. Her mom and dad love her, but they're always so busy that they mostly just ignore her. In fact, no one around Coraline pays her much attention. Her neighbors can't even get her name right, no matter how many times she corrects them.

Left to her own devices, Coraline spends most of the damp and dreary summer exploring in and around the old house they've moved into. Her neighbors are a bit strange, but they're nothing compared to what Coraline finds at the end of a cold and musty hallway: her Other Mother, who wants Coraline to stay with her forever, if only she can sew big shiny black buttons in place of Coraline's eyes.

Just like the other Gaiman book I read, this one is brimful of bizarre atmosphere. I mean, it didn't creep me out or give my seven-year-old nightmares, but some weird stuff goes on, and it's great. The story is very short and simply told--Gaiman could have gone into much more detail and not lost my approval--but the way it's written is perfect for kids. Some kids, anyway. You may want to check it out first, depending on your own child's sensitivity to weirdness.

It's funny--I got the exact same thing from my husband and my son: "Why are you reading that book? We have the movie." Well, you know how it is. Sometimes you're just curious about the source. Or sometimes you'd just prefer to read. Bookworm Child resolutely decided that the book was better than the movie. Either way, it's a fun and unique story. But, having experienced both renderings, I can affirm they've done an excellent job with the movie. They retained the perfect mood, didn't leave out any good bits, and really added to the story with the stunning visuals.

One of these days I'll get around to reading one of Gaiman's books for grown-ups. Which one should I start with?

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Falling Angels" by Tracy Chevalier

Eight months, eight book club meetings, eight books. We finally found one that we all liked! Everything about this one was great--the writing, the story, the characters (even the ones I didn't like very much).

I loved Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring (and, surprisingly, the movie was really good too). Renae started reading Falling Angels before I picked it up, and I was so excited when she said she got hooked really quickly. Although maybe I was just hearing what I wanted to hear, because what Renae had actually said was, "The beginning certainly grabbed my attention--shocking!!" But, you know, shocking can be good too. In books, anyway.

This is the story of two English families making their way into the freshly-hatched Edwardian era in London. At first, the only things the Coleman and Waterhouse families have in common are their adjacent plots in the cemetery (which is never named but was surely modeled after Highgate). Over time, the links between the two families grow more numerous and less tenuous, to the delight of certain family members and the chagrin of others.

About halfway through the story, women's suffrage became a strong theme (which was, oddly, dropped before the end of the book--I thought at least Chevalier might have included a little bit of history in an Afterword to wrap up that part of the plot . . . I guess she figured I ought to know already). Since you won't get it from the book, here's a refresher course for you: In 1918 (eight years after the end of Falling Angels) full voting rights were given to British women aged 30 and above; ten years later, this was extended to women aged 21 and up. This timeline is closely mirrored in the US, as American women were given the vote with the 19th amendment in 1920.

Anyway, I guess I can understand why Chevalier didn't emphasize suffrage more evenly throughout the book. Relating the history of the suffragettes really wasn't the purpose of the story; the cause was merely an outlet for Kitty Coleman's passion and zeal.

Do yourself a favor: if you haven't read anything by Tracy Chevalier yet, pick up something of hers soon. Yeah, I've only read two of her books, but they were two really REALLY good books. Surely that's not just a fluke.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"The Girl in a Swing" by Richard Adams

You think you don't know Richard Adams, but YOU DO. You've read Watership Down, right? And that was by . . . (I'll wait for it) . . . yes! Richard Adams. See, I knew you knew him. If the fact that he was not a one-hit wonder is news to you, don't feel so bad; I didn't know it either, until Ben told me.

Alan Desland lives a perfectly satisfactory life as a mildly successful ceramics dealer in a quiet English town. His passion--if it can be called that--is for his lovely, fragile figurines and tea sets. What he doesn't realize is that what he's always accepted as happiness is actually equivalent to being chained to the wall in Plato's cave.

Alan's eyes are simultaneously opened and blinded on the day he is released from his cave: the day in Copenhagen when he meets a young German woman named Käthe (or maybe Karin, depending on when your copy of the book was published). She's captivating and alluring and is the most beautiful woman Alan has ever seen. And, what do you know? She actually falls for him, too.

But this is not a sweet, happy, fun love story. (And a good thing, too, or I probably would have hated it.) There's a dark, eerie undercurrent of secrets that slowly becomes clear to the reader, who then watches this realization dawn on Alan through a series of creepy psychic manifestations.

I guessed Käthe's secret long before I think I was supposed to--certainly well before Alan figured it out--but that didn't ruin the story for me at all. Even though, as Elvis put it, "the imagery and omens became almost oppressively obvious" as the story went on, the climactic scene where Alan's fears are confirmed was still spine-chilling enough for me even though it wasn't a surprise. This is a book that definitely reached "critical mass", and that's always welcome.

Between Watership Down and The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams is now two for two with me. I'm ready to put another of his books on my bloated TBR list, and Ben recommends The Plague Dogs next. There was also a film adaptation of The Girl in 1988, which I probably won't be watching because it's not available through netflix. Have you seen it, or have you read any other books by Adams?

Monday, March 14, 2011

"What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy" by Gregory Maguire

My experience with Gregory Maguire has been somewhat hit-or-miss, but as it's been more hit than miss, I was happy to give What-the-Dickens a try when Lydia told me the Kindle version was selling for cheap.

I must say this story couldn't have been more different from the other tooth fairy book I read. It's also quite a departure for Maguire (judging by the three of his that I'm familiar with, anyway). It's a fairy tale without any Grimm elements and, really, a very mild story throughout.

It begins with shades of The Island at the End of the World. A small family group is isolated by an apocalyptic storm, and its effects are slowly revealed throughout the book. But the resemblance doesn't go any further than that.

The tooth fairy bit is worked in as a tale told by Gage, the adult in charge, to keep the minds of the children off of the frightening storm. The story he tells is imaginative, and it leaves the reader with a nice little "could it be true?" feeling. But if you know Maguire and you're looking for the weird, the wild, or the nasty, you won't find it here.

For what it is, it's a sweet little story. I bet Bookworm Child would love it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

"I am haunted by humans."

I've been curious about this book for quite some time. I first noticed it in the book section at Target. I remember I picked it up to glance through it after the title caught my eye, but I don't remember why I decided against buying it at that point; probably because the blurb mentioned World War II. (It's a war book! Get out the garlic and the crucifix!) But I heard such good things about it from other bloggers. When I saw a copy in my local library last week, that sealed the deal. It was fate.

Death tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl living with foster parents on Himmel Street in Molching. At the age of ten, Liesel should know how to read, but she doesn't. Even so, books are already a treasure to her. It's as if she knows the role they will play in her future. So she steals books to add to her meager collection any time the opportunity presents itself.

During her years on Himmel Street, so many of Liesel's experiences are tainted by the war going on around her. Not surprisingly, her story has its share of sorrow. It's not a manipulative tearjerker, but even the heartless will find their eyes welling up at least once while reading this book. (I should know.) As Liesel slowly learns to read her cherished books, she reaps the understanding that words are powerful. Words can hurt and words can heal.

Speaking of words, Zusak had Death describing things in intriguing ways. He mixed up his senses. Things he saw had a scent, things he heard had a texture. I always like to come across fresh combinations of words, and these seemed fitting for a character who isn't human but spends quite a bit of time observing us.

This was another book that raised the question: is it YA or not? (It was first published in Australia for adults, but it has been marketed to young adults here in the US.) The format and the tone, to me, say it's YA. Not to mention that the main characters are young teenagers. But labeling this book as YA does not mean it's of lower quality, or that it softens the horrible reality of life in Nazi Germany. Anyway, I'm beginning to suspect some of the best books aren't written with the intention of being either YA or adult. Instead, they blur the line between the two categories, becoming a book that is both appropriate for younger readers and absorbing for adults.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Red and the Black" by Stendhal

So, Stendhal. A one-named personage bears the expectation that he's sufficiently famous to be recognized by that single name, yet I'd never heard of him before. (I promise I'm really not completely uneducated, even though I may give that impression with depressing regularity.) I figured he must fall somewhere between Jesus and Flea.

In case this is the first you've heard of Stendhal also, here's a little bit about him. Stendhal was a Frenchman whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. He was born in 1783, just a few years before the French Revolution began. He did most of his writing, including The Charterhouse of Parma, after the Napoleonic era but before he stroked out and died on a Paris street in 1842.

Stendhal's works were renowned for their psychological insight. In fact, though I didn't even notice this as I read but I recognized it when it was pointed out in the Afterword, Stendhal spent very little time describing his characters' outward appearances, instead focusing on their thoughts and motives. He reminded me of Henry James by seamlessly and believeably allowing me into his characters' minds.

I didn't automatically know what the colors in the title referred to, nor am I sure I would have figured it out from the text, but luckily the blurb on the back of the book spelled it out for me: "the red" is the military and "the black" is the clergy. Unfortunately the same blurb also revealed what I consider a major spoiler, as it referred to something that didn't occur until about 50 pages from the end of the book. (See how nice I am, that I'm not telling you what that spoiler is?) The spoiler was almost forgivable, as it was only mentioned in relation to Stendhal's inspiration for the story, but that part of the plot would have had a much greater impact on me if I hadn't been expecting it. Or . . . maybe not. The copy Elvis read didn't have that spoiler, and to him it seemed as if that part of the book came out of nowhere.

The Red and the Black is the story of cold-hearted, calculating young Julien Sorel and his ambitions. He is pulled in two directions. He idolizes Napoleon but feels he has to hide that admiration, probably because it was frowned upon in Restoration France as disloyal to the king; and, anyway, the time for military glory seems to have passed. He is drawn to the church as a career, even though it is nearly meaningless to him as anything beyond a source of money and social status. But his ambivalence is pretty well derailed when he discovers sex. The book is divided into two parts, each dealing with one of his two all-consuming affairs.

Although Stendhal does provide a clear window into his characters' minds, he leaves it to his readers to decide how we feel about them.  He once wrote that "a novel is like a bow; the violin casing that renders the sound is the reader." Stendhal relates the thoughts and emotions of  his characters, but he does little to influence the way the reader judges them. Indeed, Elvis and I had quite different feelings about Julien: I thought he was despicable, and Elvis thought he was just young and confused. Maybe we were both right.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember" by Fred Rogers

This is one of the books I picked up at Goodwill last month. It's a posthumous collection of quotes by Fred Rogers (who, as any true American no doubt knows, was the Mister Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS) mixed in with a few aphorisms he gathered from other sources. The book is a lovely tribute to a kind and good-hearted man.

Of course, at times some of the quotes tend towards the sappy. Fred's middle name wasn't "McFeely" for nothing. (I'm not kidding. That really was his middle name. At least it was for a good reason--remember Mr. McFeely on the show? He was named after Mister Rogers' grandfather.) But every page, even when overly sentimental, has a thoughtful and admirable truth.

Here's one of my favorites. "Solitude is different from loneliness, and it doesn't have to be a lonely kind of thing." I could have written that myself, if I had a habit of making up pithy sayings. I love to be alone, and it seems not many people understand that. Another good one, which puts into words something I really hope to instill in my kids: "I believe it's a fact of life that what we have is less important than what we make out of what we have."

Though each page was full of simple wisdom, I didn't always completely agree with every quote. When Mister Rogers said, "It always helps to have people we love beside us when we have to do difficult things in life," the first thing that came to my mind was that it helps me more to listen to loud music. But then that mainly applies to my "difficult thing" of cleaning the house. I've come to find that sort of task is made much easier with a soundtrack. Onerous chores are more palatable if I can do them while "wiggling my jiggly old butt." (Courtesy of my youngest. Don't I have great kids?)

Enough about my butt, the jiggliness of which I will neither confirm nor deny. The book gives a good feel for what kind of man Fred Rogers was, especially with the foreword by his wife Joanne and the short bio at the end, but it just scratches the surface. I'm left wanting to read a biography of Fred Rogers. Do you know of a good one?

Won't you be my neighbor?