Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Seventeen - Dune - Part One

I think I knew this was a science fiction book before I began reading it. The movie seems to have fleetingly entered my consciousness at some point. While I’m not opposed to science fiction, it isn’t my favorite genre. I was a bit concerned when I saw several appendices in the back of this book since appendices tend to herald an author who has created his own world and his own language. While becoming absorbed in a new world can be fascinating it can also be difficult to keep up with unless I am completely engrossed in the story, so I’m trying to find chunks of time to read it. The thing I’m missing is a map. I really like maps in a book like this as I enjoy charting the various locations. (Perhaps this relates to my nerdy side. Um, yeah, I’m fairly sure that’s what it is even though I am not, in general, a huge fan of cartography.) 

I am intrigued by Paul and enjoy getting mere suggestions as to his future and his purpose. Dune appears to be a classic struggle of good versus evil and those are always fun. Plus I know that there are more books in the series so I’m pretty sure old Paul survives. There are also excerpts of a future history book that appear throughout the text and these excerpts provide foreshadowing. It’s an interesting technique.

There are some great quotes in this book and I am a fan of the pithy saying. I love an old adage, though I suppose adages are old by definition so that may be redundant. In any case, there are some lovely sayings here. “Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.” (Not sure I agree with that one but it sounds important.)

“The proximity of a desirable thing tempts one to overindulgence.” (Hence the reason you don’t buy the large Hersey bar.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Sixteen - Holes

Louis Sachar
Holes is a cute little book that I wish I’d read all at one sitting. Since I read it in bits and pieces, I missed some of the interweaving of the characters and it took a moment for the “Aha!” to set in. The main character’s name is Stanley Yelnats, and I always like anyone whose surname is his first name spelled backward. Well, Stanley may be the only example I can recall, but the rule still applies.

This novel is probably classified YA. The story is actually the story of Stanley’s family, his extended family and the various characters that they’ve interacted with at crucial moments in their lives. It’s also the history of the place called Green Lake, which in the present is not at a lake at all. There are the usual YA villains, easy to tell from the good guys, but the teenagers are more lifelike with some good and some bad qualities. The story is sweet.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bleak House - The Movie

The 2005 adaptation by Andrew Davies is available instantly on Netflix! I'm in movie heaven. I adore Andrew Davies' work, particularly the 1995 Pride and Prejudice and the 2008 Sense and Sensiblity. I get lost when I watch those. You know, lost in a lovely sort of way.

This adaptation is eight 54 minute segments, so with the holidays it will take some time to get through them. I've seen the first episode and loved it. I like Esther so much better than when I read her! Perhaps it's because her kindnesses are condensed, and she doesn't seem like such a wuss in person. Lady Dedlock is so... vacant yet intense. She's perfect. Mr. Tulkinghorn is duplicitous and deliciously sinister, and Nemo is sufficiently haunted. (I didn’t know “Nemo” is Latin for no one! So Finding Nemo was about finding no one? I’m so disappointed. I mean, I know they probably took the name from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, but still.)

I got to see the Growlery! Oh, and Mr. Guppy is skeevier than I’d imagined.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book Fifteen - Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Part Three

Louis de Bernieres
From Literary Norfolk

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has moments of clarity and perspective, much history about the island of Cellaphonia, and an incredibly unsatisfying ending. It isn’t even an ending as much as a cessation of writing. There is no resolution of conflict; in this case I expected the denouement to be sad yet sensible. But it wasn’t truly there at all. It is as though the author taught all he set out to teach about Cellaphonia, its history and its place in the world during the 20th century and he was through. What happened to the history being written by Dr. Iannis and later by Pelagia? I kept waiting for it to reappear but it did not. Apparently it was simply a tool for de Bernieres to provide his own history of the island. By the way, according to this site it’s pronounced keff-a-lonia.  

I enjoyed the book and I liked Pelagia well enough, loved Dr. Iannis, and didn’t trust Corelli from the start. I also love Carlo and Drosoula, Mandras’ mom, and could have done with more Alekos the goat herder. I love historical fiction but – is it just me or aren’t the characters the most important thing? I know the story needs to make sense in terms of plot and setting and that action is what page-turners are made of, but if I’m not invested in the characters why do I care what happens to them? I never felt that I understood either Pelagia or Corelli. Pelagia, young and immature at the beginning of the novel, never seems to mature. She accepts inevitabilities but there is not enough evidence of her thought process. We get her choices with none of the decision making process, only the end result. How can I understand her? It feels unfinished. The love story, especially, is fragmented. 

One thing de Bernieres masters is nice monologues. Here is one by Dr. Iannis –

Love is a kind of dementia with very precise and oft-repeated clinical symptoms. You blush in each other’s presence, you both hover in places where you expect the other to pass, you are both a little tongue-tied, you both laugh inexplicably and too long, you become quite nauseatingly girlish, and he becomes quite ridiculously gallant. You have also grown a little stupid.

If you’re a romantic and you’re not so much liking Dr. Iannis, wait! There is more.

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part…

Do you see why I love Dr. Iannis? He’s mature enough to understand both the nature of love and its consequences. In this same narration he goes on to explain that he experienced this love with his wife.

There are other moments of brilliance, particularly in the description of the music. De Bernieres must play the mandolin because he’s so familiar with it, and he does a good job describing things like tremolo to someone who knows little about it. For example, “He heard the melody rise and swell, breaking into a torrent of bright tremolo more limpid than the song of thrushes, more pellucid than the sky.” Ah, I see from this site that he does play the mandolin, and “He works from a shed in his garden.” I rather like that about him.

The despair of a WWII novel is there, but the years after the war are touched upon so briefly that the changes in Pelagia do not make sense to me. Is it because I’m female and Pelagia, a female, is written by a male? Is the reverse also true? Is it possible for a male to write a female protagonist who women love and can relate to completely, and vice versa? Help me out here, people. I’m not talking romance novels or even Jane Austen. Her purpose was to write women who, after a bit of trouble, get happy endings. Her heroes are meant to appeal to women and behave bigger than life. (Actually her purpose was to make a living, hence the reason she wrote what she did. But I digress.) Are all male protagonists written by women better than life? Are all female protagonists written by men the same? I love Dr. Iannis, the father figure, but not Captain Corelli, the “romantic” lead. Dude, I’m not looking for a father figure, but maybe the charm of Iannis as a person is that he’s both loving and sensible. I suppose that’s why I like Drosoula, as well. I suppose the characters that appeal to us have more to do with us than with the characters, and I suppose there was a time in my life when I may have been on Team Corelli. (It’s difficult to imagine, though. I believe I was at least partially sensible even in my youth, but I may be employing selective memory.)

Enough of my personal angst. The book includes a quote from Goethe’s Faust that is quite stirring. Here it is in German and in English –
Meine Ruh' ist hin,
Mein Herz ist schwer,
Ich finde sie nimmer
Und nimmermehr.

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never more.

Schubert set Faust to music and here’s a video of this song on You Tube. The music is magical and the refrain especially haunting. It is truly beautiful even though I don’t understand German. Here are the German and English lyrics to the entire song if you’re interested.

Finally, an image of Cephallonian goats, just for fun.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I'm off on a business trip tomorrow and anticipate finishing Captain Corelli's Mandolin while there. I'm afraid I see where the book is going, and if I'm right I won't like it. I'd love to be surprised.

I'm also taking with me Behind The Scenes At The Museum, the first novel by Kate Atkinson. I adore her Jackson Brodie novels. She manages to take several disparate stories and flawlessly tie them together at the end. I did have a problem with the first one I read as she presented brand new information at the end of the book, but I gave her another chance and she hasn't done it since. When is information a clue and when is it a red herring? That is the question.

P.S. You know how when you don't know how to pronounce something you sort of figure out a way to say it in your head? And then you "say" it that way each time? For the first couple of hundred pages whenever I read "Cephallonia"I vacillated between cell-a-phonia and cell-phone-onia.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Fifteen - Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Part Two

I’m enjoying this book very much. It’s told from different points of view and each voice is unique. I’ve often heard and read of the comradeship among soldiers, and at the beginning of the novel one of the characters expresses this in a lovely way --
You come to know every nuance of each others’ moods; you know exactly what the other is going to say; you know exactly who will laugh and for how long over which particular type of joke; you acquaint yourself intimately with the smell of each man’s feet and perspiration; you can put your hand on someone’s face in the dark, and know who it is; you recognize someone’s equipment hanging on the back of a chair, even though his is the same as everyone else’s…
Two of the voices in this novel are soldiers; one is Italian and one is Greek. I especially appreciate these dual perspectives, but as you can imagine the bottom line is the same - war is hell. As one of them says, "The world looked the same, but beneath the surface it had broken out with boils."

Most of the novel thus far is set on the Greek Island of Cephallonia in 1940-41. The Greeks fight the Italians relentlessly and to great effect and it is not until the Germans march in with their large numbers and superior equipment that the Greeks are defeated. After neighboring Corfu falls, the Cephallonians wait for the Italians to occupy their island –
Families embraced more than had been the habit; fathers who expected to be beaten to death stroked the hair of pretty daughters who expected to be raped. Sons sat with their mothers on doorsteps and talked gently of their memories… Many people visited their favourite places as if for the last time, and found that stones and dust, pellucid sea and ancient rock, had taken on an air of sadness such as one finds in a room where a beautiful child is lying at the door of death.
Imagine the hopelessness. All of the able-bodied men were off fighting and the remaining inhabitants could only wait for abuse from the invading army. How many times has this happened throughout history? In how many languages have people expressed the same despair?

Books like this make me wonder why I was so fortunate to be born in this time and place. I don’t understand my good fortune, but I suppose the sentiment is as old as war itself.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Book Fifteen - Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Part One

I suspect I shall enjoy this book despite its somewhat flowery narrative. Here are a few quotes from the first paragraph of chapter 3. (Chapter 2 was about Mussolini. Seriously.)

The inscrutable goats of Mt Aenos turned windward, imbibing the damp exhalation of the sea at dawn that served the place of water in that arid, truculent, and indomitable land.
Why, if I’ve heard goats described as inscrutable once, I’ve heard it a dozen times.
Their herder, Alekos, so unaccustomed to human company that he was short of words even in his inner speech…
Now this I like. Brilliant description.
… his goats too would do as Cephallonian goats had always done; they would sleep at noon, concealed from the sun on the vertiginous northern slopes of cliffs, and in the evening their plangent bells might be heard even in Ithaca, carrying across the silent air and causing distant villagers to look up, wondering which herd was passing close.
Basically what we have in this scene is mysterious goats living in a desert next to the sea whose goat herder enjoys his work even though he has to climb steep cliffs but at least his goats are real easy to keep up with what with their loud bells and all.

So we went from chapter one - a fascinating story of a man who cured deafness with the removal of a decades-old pea - to Il Duce to goats. I like quirky and I like a book that keeps me on my toes, so overall I’d say I’m good to go on this one.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Fourteen - Cold Comfort Farm - Part Two

Stella Gibbons
From Open Library
So, yeah I was wrong when I thought this book was the inspiration for that Nicole Kidman movie about the Civil War. Must remember this list was compiled by the BBC and most of the authors are British. I don’t suppose there are too terribly many Britons interested in our Civil War. (Nor, for that matter, many Americans.)

However, Cold Comfort Farm does involve a war of sorts. A young woman sets about imposing her will upon others, much to their chagrin, of course. She is the puppet master, attempting to change everyone into what she thinks they should be. I can hear you object, but remember this book is a parody. It is meant to make fun of itself, and it does so very well. The farm’s cows are named Aimless, Feckless, Graceless, and Pointless. The name of a wealthy family’s home is Hautcouture Hall. From page 137 of my Penguin Classics edition –

‘I thought poetry was enough,’ said Elfine, wistfully. ‘I mean, I thought poetry was so beautiful that if you met someone you loved, and you told them you wrote poetry, that would be enough to make them love you, too.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Flora, firmly, ‘most young men are alarmed on hearing that a young woman writes poetry. Combined with an ill-groomed head of hair and an eccentric style of dress, such an admission is almost fatal.’
I was disappointed in a couple of things but I won’t specify because that would be a spoiler. It was a fun book though it didn’t have the humor or the depth of Brideshead Revisited or even of Bleak House.

I’m currently reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for my book club, and I’m not sure what will come after that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Fourteen - Cold Comfort Farm - Part One

I'm enjoying the book but reading is going very slowly. (It's that irons in the fire thing.) A sample -
So that was it. Aunt Ada Doom was mad. You would expect, by all the laws of probability, to find a mad grandmother at Cold Comfort Farm, and for once the laws of probability had not done you down and a mad grandmother there was.
The whole thing is like that! It reminds me of Northanger Abbey in that it's a send-up of typical novels of the time. This one is a parody of books about rural life. I've always thought I should read a few gothic novels to better appreciate Northanger Abbey, and my enjoyment of this book would be greater if I had read any of the books Gibbons parodies. Nonetheless, I am enjoying it very much as it is laden with descriptions of people, and people don't really change from one era to the next.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Book Thirteen - Vicky Angel

Jacqueline Wilson
Strange book, weird book, book I might have enjoyed if I first read it when I was thirteen or fourteen and recently lost someone I loved.

Not wanting to get into anything requiring much thought in November, I picked up this book. The print is big and glancing at the cover I thought it would be about someone called Vicky Angel and her BFF. Nice, sweet Young Adult book.

I didn't look closely at the cover until after the first chapter. By looking at it you can probably guess a few things about the book. It's one part "Ghost Town," one part the girl who doesn't fit in and one part this chick is whack. (I know that word is so fifteen years ago but I don't know what the new word might be.) Besides, who does feel like they fit in at fourteen?

It was, however, a quick book to read. Next up is Cold Comfort Farm which also has large print and I think might be the book that movie was based upon. You know the one with Renee Zellweiger doing a southern accent? And Jude Law and what's her name... Phoebe something, maybe. No, it's oh - what's her name, the Australian one that was married to Tom Cruise? Anyway, I never saw the movie.

Sorry, I'm saving all my best words for my NaNo novel right now. It's going well, thank you for asking, due in large part to my friend Georgie. She helped me finally understand one of my main characters. Thanks, G!

I'll think of that woman's name eventually. I could Google it but my brain  is tired. (This is when I should probably save a post and edit it later, but it's November. All bets are off in November.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Twelve - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Part Two

This is a delightful book. The story is equal parts sweetness and vengeance which I suppose is what children like. I don’t remember being all that into revenge when I was a child, but I may have been. I definitely remember hearing that you reap what you sow and there is lots of that in this book.

Near the end of the book, Willie Wonka rants that television is ruining the lives of children. He proposes that parents not allow a television in the home and recommends filling the empty spot in the living room with overflowing bookshelves. He asserts that if there were no television, children would read more. I disagree with his basic premise.

First, should we really trust the welfare of children to a man who makes candy for a living? Putting that aside, this is a theoretical argument which involves, in my opinion, faulty logic. Some people do not enjoy reading just as some people do not enjoy football, some dancing, and some dislike red meat. It follows that without television, some children would read more but others would not; the children who don’t like to read would find other ways to occupy their time. This is not a new phenomenon. There were people who didn’t enjoy reading before television or computer games or the internet or even radio. In fact, we have literary confirmation of this. There is no evidence that Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice ever picked up a book. She spends her time on “visiting and news.” Emma Woodhouse is always meaning to read more, but it remains an intention. In Bleak House, Esther doesn’t read. Granted, she describes herself as not very bright, but rather than try to improve her dim little mind by reading she spends her time jangling keys, seeing to others, and embroidering endless ornaments for the home. For that matter, Ada in Bleak House doesn’t read, nor does Richard. Of course, Richard is an irresponsible dunderhead, but these are examples which spring to mind immediately. Actually, I don’t recall Charlie, the hero of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, picking up a book.

I realize this notion of mine would open a can of worms in some quarters (or as Chandler Bing would say, “Can open – worms everywhere”) but that’s my opinion. Yes, some television is crap. Some books are crap, too. My policy with pretty much everything is to avoid the crap. (I wish I could come up with a pithier way of saying that, but there you are.)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Twelve - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Part One

Roald Dahl
From Children's Classics
Somehow I missed out on this book when I was young, so here's The Book Report That Never Was.  

Book report on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
by Peggy

I like this book. It is a good book. It is funny and has chocolate and TV.

There is a boy who is so poor he doesn't have enough for dinner. That is very sad. And his grandparents can't get out of bed. That is sad, too.

Willie Wonka is funny. I don't like the Oompa-Loompas, they're shifty. 

The End 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Eleven - Brideshead Revisited - Part Two

Evelyn Waugh
From Leeds University

Filled with emotional highs and lows, Brideshead Revisited is wistful yet contains laugh out loud moments. Its characters are happy, sad, confused, dedicated, obedient, defiant, kind, cruel, pious, manipulative, weird, out of touch with reality by varying degrees, and pursued by assorted phantoms. The book’s subtitle is The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, and while this provides a hint as to the book’s contents, don’t trust it too much. Waugh is a crafty one.

This is the first book I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh and I immediately noticed something he has in common with Jane Austen – the ability to accurately depict types. Mr. Samgrass is one of these. During a crisis partly of his own making, he drones on about matters of absolutely no relevance to anyone but himself. The world revolves around him. Don’t you know people like this? They cannot endure silence and must speak incessantly, and they must speak about themselves. Rex Mottram is another type. Determined toward upward mobility, he eats and drinks only what the proper social circle dictates. When his proposal to dine at an officially sanctioned Paris restaurant is declined and he is taken instead to a restaurant he considers of lesser quality, he “gave up his hat and coat with the air of not expecting to see them again.” I love these amusing descriptions Waugh includes; they’re lovely little treats throughout the course of the book.

The matriarch and patriarch of the family are shrouded in mystery. I never felt as though I knew or understood them, but that may have to do with my social status as compared to theirs. They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Now that's a metaphor I've never quite understood. We don't need spoons when we're in utereo, after all. And if a wealthy person was born with a silver spoon, does it follow that I was born with a brass spoon in my mouth? Was someone poor born with a plastic spoon in his mouth? In any case, the family name and family money create vast family pressures. There is a lovely symmetry between the Marchmain family and the stately English homes of the time.

Lady Marchmain collects the writings of the eldest of her three brothers to make into a book for family members. Her brothers were all killed in World War I. She enlists the help of Mr. Samgrass essentially to edit out the yucky stuff, thus rewriting history. And this I understand. Why tell future generations of your family the scandals of the past? Would it change anything? Would knowing that your great-grandfather was an alcoholic make you less likely to drink to excess? Surely not. If we truly learned from history, we would never make a mistake, as every possible mistake has been made. Indeed, if we truly knew the history of our families we would know that every mistake has been made by someone to whom we’re related. Would that prevent us from repeating those mistakes?

I am confused by the layers of English gentry. Sebastian’s surname is Flyte but his parents are Lord and Lady Marchmain. Maybe the family surname is Flyte while Marchmain is the title like Prince Charles is the Duke of Wales even though he doesn’t live in Wales. He probably has a castle in Wales, but I do not believe he has any special responsibility like guarding Wales from intruders. Or maybe he’s supposed to guard Wales for the English to ensure there is not a Welsh uprising! Sebastian Flyte (of the Marchmain family) has a brother called Bridey, short for Brideshead which is the name of their – manor, I suppose. The (relatively) new house, Brideshead, was built from stones removed from the old house which is described as a castle. When is a house a house and when is it a manor house? What is the definition of a castle? What does one keep in a keep? What are the responsibilities of a baroness? What’s the difference between a duke and an earl? How does one get to be the Duke of Earl? (Be honest, you saw that coming a mile away, didn’t you?)

As do all great books, Brideshead Revisited contains moments of universal truth. Here’s an example from page 169 –

But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
There are certain scenes of our lives which haunt us, aren’t there? Why is that? Are these the things left undone or unsaid? Something we missed? Something we regret? Are the haunting scenes the ones in which we behaved badly? Which scenes belonging to others are we a part of? This brings up the next passage, from page 225, “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past…” Do we possess the past? Surely not. As we age the past grows dim. Through the filter of time, we remember people and events differently. How can we possess it? When something has been lost, is the thing itself always to be mourned? Don’t we change as we age? Brideshead Revisited indicates that we do, if not in temperament then in understanding. Things which are important in one decade of our lives lose their significance in the next decade, and things which were unimportant gain significance.

There is much religion in Brideshead Revisited, but if you’re not a religious person don’t let that turn you away. What we take from a book depends upon who we are when we read it. It’s sort of like the Muppets – children see the fun and adults see the puns. There are layers, just as there are layers in Brideshead Revisited.

Waugh includes many classical references, most of which flew past me. I know just enough to recognize when there is something I could know if I spent more time studying the classics. It’s like, I sort of want to read Homer and I sort of don’t. Brideshead includes a room with “a Hogarthian aspect.” I know who Hogarth is, basically. I mean, I’ve heard of him and stuff. He painted, right? But I don’t think there is any way to truly appreciate “a Hogarthian aspect” unless I know much, much more about Hogarth, and he’s just not high on my list. So even though I don’t know what “a Hogarthian aspect” means, I know I would like to see such a room. And if I did, I would understand more about Hogarth! See, that could work. Now, where might one find such a room?

Waugh’s vocabulary is immense and I am sure he used precisely the right word in each context. I found myself looking up many of them. (Waugh probably never ended a sentence with a preposition even when he spoke.) I have friends with immense vocabularies and they tend to remember a word after hearing it only once. Sadly, I do not possess this ability. Since their vocabularies are so large, these people understand gentle nuances between similar words and probably have a greater appreciation for language than do I. Nonetheless, I learned a magnificent new word from Brideshead Revisited, “crapulous.” It is my new favorite word though I probably shan’t use it properly. (My language has become particularly formal, has it not? This happens when I read a book set in the past.)

Here’s a quick quiz. Which of the following sentences uses the word “crapulous” correctly?

a) This bitterly cold weather is simply crapulous!

b) His home is so filled with knickknacks and ephemera that it may only be described as crapulous.

c) I say, after six or seven sherries that chap looks quite crapulous.

The correct answer is c, though I shall probably use it in each of the above contexts. (This will drive my massive-vocabulary friends mad.)

I shall be scarce during November as I participate in NaNo (National Novel Writing Month), rewriting the tale of a WWII vet which began as a short story while I was in graduate school. Wish me luck - I truly love this character and must do him justice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Eleven - Brideshead Revisted - Part One

Picture it: a lovely evening, gentle breeze blowing, your window open. You hear drunken strangers on the path outside when suddenly one of the strangers approaches your window, leans in, vomits on your floor and walks away. And you don’t clean it up.

Seriously? This happens to Ryder and he leaves it there until his “scout” (which I’m thinking is code for manservant) arrives the next day. And then the scout says that Sebastian (the former stranger) is, “A most amusing gentleman, I’m sure it’s quite a pleasure to clean up after him.”

Seriously? Is cleaning up vomit ever a pleasure? Wouldn't delay make it more unpleasant? How could Ryder go to sleep with puke on the floor? And not even his own puke, but someone else’s? I don’t believe I could leave the vomit until the next day, servant or no servant. (But I suppose this is why I could never be an aristocrat.)

The day after vomiting on the floor, Sebastian fills Ryder’s room with flowers. Apology, air freshener, or come-on?

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Mini-Break

I'm rereading We The Living by Ayn Rand for my book club. More Russian angst, 'tis true, but I selected this book. A couple of years ago I nominated Great Expectations as a monthly selection, but Mr. Dickens was declined. A majority of our members believed it would resemble a school assignment. I wanted to read Great Expectations because I kept hearing references to Miss Havisham and wanted to understand who she is, though obviously not badly enough to read it by myself. Now, thanks to this list, I shall finally learn about Miss Havisham. I believe her to be scary.

The other day a friend took issue with something I wrote about Bleak House. He disagreed that all people want the same things, citing those in Third World countries and their lack of clean drinking water. In my mind as I wrote that entry was the thought, "Taking into account Maslow's hierarchy of needs, when people have met the basic requirements of existence my opinion is that we have similar desires. Our journeys, though they include different languages, geography, culture, and creature comforts, are quite similar." It didn’t occur to me that it was necessary to actually write that part since one of my basic assumptions is that anyone reading this blog has clean drinking water and would naturally credit me with knowing that there are people in this world who do not. I didn’t see the need to add a disclaimer of that sort.

I turn now to Jung and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Disclaimer: psycho-babble ensues, but just as generalizations are generally based upon a kernel of general truth, I believe the Myers-Briggs to have some merit. My disagreeing (though not disagreeable) friend perceives the world based upon data and concrete evidence. He is detached and logical – me, not so much. It’s not that I don’t appreciate logic but that I tend to perceive the world through a different filter. This basic difference requires a set of communication skills to bridge the gap. Many of the people in my life are these logical and "detached" people. We tend to complement each other and get along well. They teach me about things like science and math and I get to learn only the interesting parts. I’m not terribly interested in the composition of a star, for instance, but prefer to focus upon the fact that when we see a star we are actually seeing the past. It’s like, all poetic and stuff to me and like, all hydrogen and helium to them.

In the case of the clean drinking water, my logically minded friends would argue that one should always add a disclaimer simply to be precise. So you see the issue here. I believe I am prolix enough without adding stuff that doesn’t further my argument, and I don’t want to insult fellow book lovers by insinuating that they don’t know that there are people in this world without the basic necessities of life. I know, they know, we all know, and hopefully we are all doing our small part to change that.

I could promise to modify future remarks so as not to make blanket statements without adding a disclaimer, but that will never happen. Oops, I mean that is unlikely to happen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Ten - Bleak House - Part Five

Charles Dickens
From The Classic Literature Library
When presented with both a pleasant and an unpleasant task, I prefer to complete the unpleasant task first so that I might completely enjoy the pleasant one. Since I made the somewhat rash declaration that I wouldn’t read another word of Guernsey until I’d finished Bleak House, I spent much of Saturday doing just that. In the end, I enjoyed the book. It was one of those books that I had to sit and read for a while before I became truly absorbed, but once I was in full Victorian mode I flew through it. I had to find out what happened and how all of the loose ends were resolved.

Since Dickens wrote most of his novels as periodicals, at times I thought chapters seemed like they could stand alone and were written primarily for the periodical rather than as part of a larger story. The next thing I knew, he connected those very stories in an unexpected way! That was lovely.

Dickens appears to like the too-good-to-be-true character; Tiny Tim is a good example. He has a handicap yet is good and kind and always happy. Esther is that person in Bleak House. Esther has the handicap of her birth yet she is good and kind and industrious. She sorta makes me sick, not because she’s good but because she’s a bit of a doormat. She is so happy to be rescued from the prospect of poverty that she has few thoughts of her own and is willing to submit her entire being to the person who saved her from that fate. I realize poverty was a very real possibility for her and how terrible that poverty would have been, but I believe it is possible to be grateful yet aware of your own mind at the same time. Most of the book is written in third person while Esther’s narrative is written in first, highlighting the fact that Esther sees life only from her perspective while a reader of Bleak House has the advantage of witnessing the unraveling of her mystery from all points of view. Still, I wanted her to show a little gumption.

To Dickens, industrious = good, indolent = bad. Perhaps he saw people who were one or the other, but aren’t most of us both at different times? I suppose Dickens’ moral is that it’s okay to be indolent in the evenings after being industrious all day. Well, for men anyway. They can retire to the growlery while the women must continue their needlework until it is time for bed. A woman may never relax her industry. And the thing is, there are only so many things to needlepoint. I’ve done needlepoint, cross stitch and all that stuff and there are only so many pillows to make or samplers to stitch. Being busy for the sake of being busy seemed the order of the day in Victorian times, but then that was before they had radio or television. (Though I try to leave my 21st century mindset behind when I read a novel set in the past, clearly I don’t always manage it.)

The “Growlery,” by the way, is a place in Bleak House reserved for Esther’s guardian, the master of the house. When an “ill wind” blows, Esther’s guardian retires to his growlery and everyone knows to leave him alone so he can get his mood right. I love this idea!

Dickens is brilliant in the use of names. You can probably tell whether the following characters are sensible or foolish -- Mr. Skimpole, Mr. Turveydrop, Mr. Guppy, Mrs. Jellyby, and Mrs. Pardiggle (whose name reminds me of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle). Yeah, it’s pretty easy to tell. And Mr. Vholes, unsurprisingly, is a rodent. Dickens also manages to interweave description and humor seamlessly. One of my favorites, from Chapter 20, “In the matter of gravy he is adamant.” How many things can you tell about this man from that one simple statement? Eight words and you pretty much have the measure of him, don’t you?

In the Some Things Never Change Department, from Chapter 46 in which “Tom” is a collective name for the poor --

Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning Tom, and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right… In the midst of which dust and noise there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice.
A sweet and somewhat surprising part of the novel has to do with something I daresay affects us all – the desire to be loved for who we are and not for any external factor. Dickens led me on for several hundred pages wondering what would happen. As I inwardly cheered for true love, I realized this is a Victorian novel and the Victorians were all about duty, were they not? He masterfully resolved this and other questions in a completely unexpected manner. He pretty much knew what he was doing, did Dickens. I don't recall being as impressed with him when I read A Tale Of Two Cities, but that may have more to do with me than with Dickens' writing.

A very sweet passage from the last chapter-
We are not rich in the bank, but we have always prospered, and we have quite enough. I never walk out with my husband but I hear the people bless him. I never go into a house of any degree but I hear his praises or see them in grateful eyes. I never lie down at night but I know that in the course of that day he has alleviated pain and soothed some fellow-creature in the time of need. I know that from the beds of those who were past recovery, thanks have often, often gone up, in the last hour, for his patient ministration. Is not this to be rich?
Yes, I believe it is, Mr. Dickens.

Thank you for reminding me that people don’t change, not really, not in any considerable way. No matter who we are or where we are or when we live, we want basically the same things and each generation has basically the same problems as each preceding generation.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Book Ten - Bleak House - Part Four + The Infidelity

I am a serial reader. When I read a book I am faithful to that book until it is over. Others like to read two or three books simultaneously, but I find that I can't fully appreciate any book unless I give it my full attention. Imagine my chagrin as I confess that I cheated on Bleak House. My copy of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society arrived and I wanted to read it more than I wanted to read Dickens.

Before judging me too harshly, imagine this scenario: you've already read a book, loved it, and this book has returned to you. It's a great book. There were many things you loved about this book when it first entered your life. This book has wit, compassion, history, and the setting is just the right age for you. When you meet a book like that you just naturally want to reread it to learn everything you can about it. It says so right on page 11 --

Lamb also taught Hunt's youngest daughter to say the Lord's Prayer backward. You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.

I couldn't help it. It just happened. I didn't plan it. Any of those believable? I thought not. Fine then, I cheated because I wanted to! However, I have repented of my betrayal and vow that I will not read another word of Guernsey until I finish Bleak House. I would apologize to Mr. Dickens but as a famous author, he's probably accustomed to this sort of thing. Plus he's like, dead and stuff.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Ten - Bleak House - Part Three

I haven’t finished Bleak House yet. It's not terribly bleak, but I lack the impetus to read it when I get a chance. At the same time, whenever I finish a few chapters I’m pleased with what I’ve read.

Charles Dickens: I believe you are experiencing ambivalence. A good Victorian woman is never ambivalent.

Me: Mr. Dickens, sir, I doubt that every person of one gender who lived in a certain place during a certain era shared anything other than gender.

Charles Dickens: Ah, but you did not listen carefully. I said ‘A good Victorian woman.’

Me: I caught that, actually, but chose not to respond as it’s what people in my era consider subjective. Good to you may not be good to me, Mr. D. In any case, I have no desire to fit in with the mores of your Victorian world. I will admit that the women wore some really pretty dresses and stuff, and I have oft yearned to carry a parasol. But the big picture is that I rather like making my own decisions.

Charles Dickens: You must abide by your conscience, of course.

Me: Dude, I know. And I am enjoying the book... I just don't have an overwhelming desire to dive into it every chance I get. But I will finish it.

Charlie D: I have read your list, Miss Tryton, and I believe we shall meet again.

Me: Don't I know it. Er, indeed, sir. I shall also read David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

Charliekins: Until we meet again, Miss.

Me: Before you go, could you tip your hat to me again? That's one thing your era had over mine... these days there are few hats other than baseball caps (it's sort of like cricket, don't ask) and those are rarely tipped.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Ten - Bleak House - Part Two

More wonderful quotes from Mr. Comedy, Charles Dickens--
Mrs. Rouncewell holds this opinion because she considers that a family of such antiquity and importance has a right to a ghost.  She regards a ghost as one of the privileges of the upper classes, a genteel distinction to which the common people have no claim.
I believe the Lib Dems are trying to reverse that policy.
"Pray take some refreshment, sir," said I.
I so want to use that line at least once in my lifetime. 

More great descriptions--
Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man to have so inexhaustible a subject.
There is something indefinably keen and wan about her anatomy, and she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head which could be pleasantly dispensed with, especially when she is in an ill humour and near knives.
Finally, we’re getting to the mystery! I do love a mystery. 
But whether each evermore watches and suspects the other, evermore mistrustful of some great reservation; whether each is evermore prepared at all points for the other, and never to be taken unawares; what each would give to know how much the other knows—all this is hidden, for the time, in their own hearts.
*cue suspenseful music*

Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Ten - Bleak House - Part One

I certainly didn't expect to laugh while reading this book! I never knew the Dickensian origin of lawyer jokes. (I find it infrequent that one can legitimately use "Dickensian" in casual conversation.)

A few quick character descriptions --

Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable.
How Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer, everybody knows—or has some reason to know by this time, the matter having been rather frequently mentioned.
He is of what is called the old school—a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young—

Bleak House is funny!

I knew nothing about the Court of Chancery, so here's a picture--

Court of Chancery
Absolute Astronomy

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Nine - Black Beauty - Part Two

Anna Sewell
From The Tack Room - A City of Horses

Black Beauty: The Autobiography Of A Horse is so much more than the autobiography of a horse. It speaks of social injustice, human kindness and cruelty, political activism, and daily life both in the English countryside and in London during the latter half of the 19th century. Anna Sewell wrote from a religious point of view and believed that every man and all of God’s creatures were worthy of respect. A good person is one who treats all creatures well; a bad person is one who does not. The bad person could simply be ignorant or could be such a slave to fashion that he must unnecessarily restrict the horse’s movement by adding a contraption keeping the horse’s head up rather than letting him move naturally. Sewell is big on the platitudes, but a little platitude never hurt me. (I like mine with lettuce and tomato.)

Black Beauty’s mother taught him be a good horse and never kick or bite. He was always to be a good servant to his master. Throughout his life, Black Beauty gave and gave and gave all he had. (It is so The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.) For his loyalty and effort, all Black Beauty asked in return was to be treated with kindness and a bit of consideration by someone who understands horses and the things they need to keep them well and safe. Sometimes he was not fortunate enough to have such a master.

Black Beauty enlightened me on the proper treatment of horses. I’ve never really liked horses, but I suspect that is because I’ve never really given them a chance. I went horseback riding at stables when I was young, and we even owned a horse once when we lived in the country. I was 14-15 and the horse didn’t like me any more than I liked him. I suspect now that one of the problems was that I didn’t know how to properly ride or guide a horse. If I were to try again I would like to learn to do it correctly.

I'm not sure I want to try again, though. As a dog/cat person, my basic problem with horses is that I've never understood how you could have a close relationship with a creature that could kill you. But what do I know? I have friends who are in love with their horses; one friend says her horses nuzzle her when she approaches them. Black Beauty taught me that horses are caring creatures and long to perform the work for which they were bred. How is that different from a working dog such as an Australian Shepherd? Terriers like to dig because that’s what they were bred to do. This book taught me to let go of my equine prejudice. Not that I’ll ever, like, get into dressage or anything.

From Chapter 6--

I was quite happy in my new place, and if there was one thing that I missed it must not be thought I was discontented; all who had to do with me were good and I had a light airy stable and the best of food. What more could I want? Why, liberty! ... to gallop, to lie down, and roll over on our backs, or to nibble the sweet grass.
I'm with Black Beauty on that one. I love liberty, too. And rolling over on my back in the grass, of course.

Chapter 12--

Master said, God had given men reason, by which they could find out things for themselves; but he had given animals knowledge which did not depend on reason, and which was much more prompt and perfect in its way, and by which they had often saved the lives of men.
The above passage reminds me of everything I've ever read by Jack London.
Chapter 38--

Several times after that the same gentleman took our cab. I think he was very fond of dogs and horses, for whenever we took him to his own door two or three dogs would come bounding out to meet him. Sometimes he came round and patted me, saying in his quiet, pleasant way, "This horse has got a good master, and he deserves it." It was a very rare thing for any one to notice the horse that had been working for him. I have known ladies to do it now and then, and this gentleman, and one or two others have given me a pat and a kind word; but ninety-nine persons out of a hundred would as soon think of patting the steam engine that drew the train.

So you see it’s quotes like that last one that made me realize I had been as unenlightened as most of the people in Black Beauty’s world. Of course, I don’t live in a world in which horses are used for daily work, at least not within my view. But I suspect that even if I did I wouldn’t look on them in the same manner in which I look at a pet. And that is simply my own insulated little worldview. I resolve that the next time I see a horse I shall treat it with kindness.

Of course, I could go for a very long time without seeing one, so it’s a safe promise to make, really.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Nine - Black Beauty - Part One

After finishing this book, I'll have to postpone doing a proper post on it. I'm emotionally drained! I had no idea it would affect me this way. I've been sobbing. And before you laugh, yes, it is the autobiography of a horse, but it is written in such a caring and considerate manner. It's truly lovely.

Great first line --  "The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Six

I awoke early this morning with a burning desire to watch “My Boy Jack,” a movie my friend Matt sent me last year. It’s about Rudyard Kipling’s son who fought in WWI. Obviously, I haven’t been able to get Birdsong off my mind.

John Kipling was missing and “presumed injured.” I know there are “missing” in every war, but I also know from reading Birdsong that many were listed as missing because the shells had blown their bodies to bits. They couldn’t tell the families with any certainty that their sons were dead because there wasn’t enough left of them to identify.

After hearing that his son was missing, Kipling immediately continued working with the War Propaganda Office where they decided how much of the facts to release to the British people. He carried on with his work because he had to. I mentioned in this post that in my experience, men seem less able to face death and dying than women. The women carry on with the work of caring because they have to.

But I was wrong, wasn’t I? Women do it on a one-to-one scale but in this movie Kipling did it for the entire British fighting force. He had to. There must be people to face the facts like that even when their own sons are “presumed injured.” It must be done.

And this is what I love about reading. It transports me to a different time and place and allows me to feel what others have felt. It educates me far beyond the scope of my little speck of existence on this vast planet.

The War Memorial Elizabeth visits near Albert, France is the Thiepval Memorial. The known dead have graves; the arches and columns list the names of those who were never found.

From The Great War 1914-1918: A Guide to WWI Battlefields and History of the First World War

The next two images are from the Thiepval Memorial page of


Final quote (probably) from Birdsong, this from page 227 upon reading the roll call after an horrendous battle--
Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegram would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers’ shattered flesh that lay in stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference.
Thank you, Sebastian.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Five

Sebastian Faulks
From his official site
Wow. This is a powerful book and it profoundly affected me. Rather than A Novel Of Love And War, I would subtitle it A Novel Of Frailty And Resilience. There are so many stories in this book, so many lives affected by both choice and circumstance. But isn’t that what lives are, choice and circumstance? In this book there are tales of great human suffering, great human triumph and the effects of both.

Throughout the book there is birdsong in unforeseen places and at unexpected moments. It is a lovely little thread running through the book – a metaphor for both entrapment and freedom. I stumbled upon this picture--

From the National Library of Scotland’s digital library
“Canaries which have been rescued from amidst the ruins in shelled areas”
The explanation given at the time the photo was published says, “Well known for their fondness of animals, this image shows British soldiers checking up on the health of some canaries who were found in residential areas that had suffered heavy shelling.” Well, yeah, um, they're fond of animals and stuff but there’s also the fact that they used canaries underground to check for the presence of deadly gas. The birds felt the effects much more quickly than humans and served as a warning. Canaries saved lives. But I understand propaganda for the homefront.

I could quote many passages because so many passages touched me. But here are a few which are indicative of the spirit of the book.

From 1917, page 362--
There was no alternative but for men to go blind round each corner. The fate of the first two or three was a good indicator to those who followed. Stephen watched the men go on madly, stepping over the bodies of their friends, clearing one fire-bay at a time, jostling one another to be first to the traverse. They had dead brothers and friends on their minds; they were galvanized beyond fear. They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal.
We do this to them. We send them to war to be killing machines and when they come back we expect them to turn it off. Kill! Don’t kill! Why do we continue to do this when we know what it does to them and to the lives of everyone they touch? Twenty years after the end of WWI, what did we do? We began again. Men who had been turned into animals sent their sons for more of the same. One story near the end of the book included Levi, a German soldier who happened to be a Jewish doctor. Levi volunteered to fight for his homeland and he survived WWI. What do you suppose happened to him and his children during WWII?

From 1978 Elizabeth, pages 247-8--
She felt a little presumptuous. Having lived to the age of thirty-eight without giving more than a glance to the occasional war memorial or dull newsreel, she was not sure what she now expected to find. What did a “battlefield” look like? … Would history be there for her to see, or would it all have been tidied away? Was it fair to expect that sixty years after an event—on the whim of someone who had shown no previous interest—a country would dutifully reveal its past to her amateur inspection?
Elizabeth saw that battlefield and its memorial. And this, I think, is my job: to remember, to visit the battlefields, to be kind to veterans, to do what I can to preserve and honor their sacrifices. When I was on a plane last month there were several young men in telltale camouflage. After giving his standard lecture, the flight attendant said, “And as always, we want to thank our men and women in the military for their service.” We applauded in agreement. It was a small thing, but life is mostly made up of small things. The big things don’t come around very often, do they?

There is a town in England (or maybe it’s a village, I can never keep it straight) called Wootton Bassett. Each time a soldier is “repatriated,” (his dead body brought home) the route passes through this town. When this happens, the people of Wootton Bassett line up to pay their respects. They do this one small thing. One person in this small English town once stood in silence as a coffin passed and others followed. This is what it takes.

I have to believe in the power of good over evil. I have to believe that love can conquer hatred… even though the world offers scant evidence of this. If there is one overpowering lesson of this book it is that the human spirit can triumph where there is hope. I have to believe in this hope.

I must end with this passage. It was near the end of the war, page 403--
We are not contemptuous of gunfire, but we have lost the power to be afraid. Shells will fall on the reserve lines and we will not stop talking. There is still blood, though no one sees. A boy lay without legs where the men took their tea from the cooker. They stepped over him.
I have tried to resist the slide into this unreal world, but I lack the strength. I am tired. Now I am tired in my soul.
Many times I have lain down and I have longed for death. I feel unworthy. I feel guilty because I have survived. Death will not come and I am cast adrift in a perpetual present.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Four

Since I didn’t set out to create a traditional book review blog, I’ve been writing about what I read as I read it. I may want to rethink that, as I fear I did Sebastian Faulks a great disservice in criticizing his narrator in the beginning of this book. Part One was set in 1910, Part Two in 1916, and in Part Three we skip to 1978. I believe I see where we are going. I’m getting great detail about a new character, Elizabeth, her life, her surroundings, her choices and her motivations. I suspect there is a reason Mr. Faulks didn’t provide that at the beginning for those two particular characters. I should have remembered how incredibly difficult it is for a writer to withhold information at the beginning of a novel! The best books always leave the reader with wonderful discoveries to make along the way, and we cannot make those discoveries if the beginning contains huge signposts.

I suspect there is a part of me that sees each novel as its own entity; I seem to forget the lessons past books have taught me. But I kind of like it that way. Each book is a new experience and I can live in a different world while I am in its pages. The experiences I have on a French battlefield in 1916 have little to do with the experiences of a 12 year old in an Irish manor house, or so it seems at the time. Reading is an activity set in the present, wherever the present happens to be.

As proof that Sebastian Faulks does indeed understand a woman’s perspective, I offer the following from page 235 of my Vintage International edition--

Lindsay had also been through a phase of inviting unattached men when Elizabeth went to visit. For two or three years the previously settled threesome would be augmented by a variety of single men, desperate, divorced, drunk, but more often merely content to be as they were.
Can I get an Amen from anyone who has endured serial set-ups from self-proclaimed well meaning friends who "only want to see you happy” as if there could be only one route to happiness and that is marriage and procreation? As Elizabeth says, “I think I need to know why.”

OK, so maybe I went a little Bridget Jones in that last paragraph. The point is that I’m really enjoying the character of Elizabeth. On the 60th anniversary of the 1918 armistice--

There were interviews with veterans and comments from various historians. Elizabeth read it with a feeling of despair: the topic seemed too large, too fraught, and too remote for her to take on at that moment. Yet something in it troubled her.
I get that, Elizabeth, I really do.

One of the book's locations: 

La Grand Place
Circa 1916
From New Cumnock Parish Church in East Ayrshire

The Grand Place
From the National Library of Scotland’s digital library
“The French town of Bethune was considered an important strategic location for its rail and canal links. It was nearly captured by German forces after heavy bombardment in April 1918.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Three

There are my men going mad under shells. We hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to the men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine guns grazing my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.
The above is from page 145 of my Vintage International version. This book is about WWI. I have to admit I've never focused much on WWI. I've spent lots of time reading about WWII. I love the old movies and music and stories. I had to read All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in high school and I remember being shocked by the description of men who kept running after their feet were blown off. That image has remained with me; it's similar to the image from the last scene of A Rose For Emily by Faulkner. (Ick.) But both scenes stayed with me because of the emotion they evoked.

Whenever I read a book about war my reaction is always one of gratitude. It is difficult to read the gory stuff, but war is gory. Reading the reality is a way to remember. It feels insufficient simply to dedicate one day of the year to honor these people who gave their lives so that we – generations of people they would never know – could be free. How did they do that? What possessed them? What kept them going?

This book is doing a good job of answering some of those questions. It provides just enough information about individuals to give a glimpse into why they enlisted and how they continued to fight. It also does a good job of describing the horrors of war, particularly the mustard gas used as a weapon in WWI. One scene set in a medical tent demonstrates how badly the wounded long to die, how difficult it is for the medical personnel to care for them, and how fervently their less seriously wounded comrades hope their wish comes true. Death is merely relief from misery. 

Books about war also remind me that whatever we may think we know about ourselves, our virtue, or our morality, all of that goes out of the window when we’re fighting for our lives. It’s easy to become smug in our nice little suburban or city homes and forget that even now our soldiers are in harm’s way. Why? There is always that lingering question. Yet where is the boundary? Where is it set and when should it move? Should we have let Hitler continue? Of course not. Does that mean anyone less evil than Hitler should be allowed to continue? Where is that line?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Two

I’m trying to keep an open mind about this book. I’m enjoying it, but like Anna Karenina this one includes a woman becoming involved in an extra-marital affair with scant explanation for why she does so. The explanation for why this man pursues the married woman is that he’s obsessed. Oh! That explains everything! Just say he’s obsessed, dude, since we all know exactly what that means. I could have done with more evidence of his internal struggle rather than simply being told he’s obsessed, but that’s just me. The same goes for the woman. She’s a buttoned-up proper French woman one moment and an adventurous lover the next, all ooh-la-la.* Seriously? Oh, there were a couple of “reasons” given but these characters haven’t been fully explained. Perhaps that is coming. At this point, however, I dislike the conclusions made by the narrator.

The subtitle of the book is A Novel Of Love And War and part one was all love; thus far part two is all war. I’m not sure whether it’ll go back and forth like that throughout the novel, but as a long-term strategy love and war don’t generally go together very well. I suspect this one is mostly about war, and war is a man’s world so I’m not sure when Miss Ooh-La-La will return. But I suspect she shall do so.

There are moments that are just right and these are the things I enjoy about this book. For example, here’s evidence that some things don’t change. Does this sound familiar? The beginning of the book is set in 1910--
I can’t bear these folk tunes you hear so much of these days… When I was a young man it was different. Of course, everything was different then… give me a proper melody that’s been written by one of our great composers any day. A song by Schubert or a nocturne by Chopin, something that will make the hairs of your head stand on end!
And here is another description that I particularly like; she happens to be the elderly relative of the man from the above quotation. “Her reputation as a person of patience and sanctity was based on her long widowhood and the large collection of missals, crucifixes, and mementos of pilgrimage she had collected in her bedroom…”

Also, there is a peanut butter stain on page 105 which I inadvertently left for the next owner of this book. Just thought I’d mention it.

*If you are unfamiliar with the ooh-la-la phenomenon you may want to check out Pepe LePew on You Tube. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part One

I knew nothing about this book until I opened it. As I turned to the title page, I noticed that the last owner of this book left a little gift – two tiny leaves pressed into the spine. How lovely! Upon closer examination, I realized the little gift may not be leaves at all but some sort of droppings. I removed them with a Kleenex. Was someone trying to be ironic by leaving bird poop in Birdsong?

The author, Sebastian Faulks, also wrote Charlotte Gray. I haven’t read Charlotte Gray but I tried to watch the movie (gave it my 30 minute rule and didn’t finish it).

Here we go on another literary adventure! I love this time before I start reading a book... it is full of the promise of a great story and characters I love. Don’t disappoint me, Sebastian.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Seven - Artemis Fowl - Part Two

Loved it loved it loved it! It was wonderful! Solid, quick-paced plot full of surprises, multi-dimensional characters and an ending I never would have guessed. I love to be surprised by the plot of a book. I loathe reading an ending in which a brand new character is suddenly introduced to resolve the crisis.

One thing I was probably wrong about was classifying the book as YA. It is actually probably considered a children's book. I don't pay much attention to these categories since I suspect they are used mostly for marketing purposes and tend to have little to do with how much I will enjoy the book. In this case I suspect Colfer wrote it for the 8-12 year old set. He is very careful not to use curse words and that is definitely not indicative of YA lit. There is also a sweet, magical revelation near the end that must be meant for children, but I loved it too. "You're only young once, but you can be immature forever," that's what I say.

There are at least seven books in this series and I will definitely read more. Thanks, Eoin, for a lovely time.