This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller - Comments and a Review

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller is the author's reflections on and reminiscences about reading CS Lewis's Narnia books with a lot of history and literary criticism thrown in. A quote from Anne Lamott on the front inside flap praises the book and states "I couldn't put it down."

I had to put it down. But that was just for a while. I was glad when I picked it up again and continued to hear alternate views on the famous children's author. Many people are familiar with the kindly picture of CS Lewis as an Oxford don who would reply to the children who wrote fan letters to him about his Chronicles of Narnia. So often in life, where there's a good side seen by the world there is often a less appealing underside. At least, there are those who like to talk about an underside. And whether you feel their version of the story is accurate is up to you. Perhaps that's why so many biographies are subtitled 'a life.' It's person A's account of another's existence. Person B may write another very different account. Same subject, different lives - life A and life B.

I had heard about CS Lewis's life A: the curmudgeon who converted to Christianity, wrote apologetics for the faith, created a beloved series of kids' books, taught at Cambridge and Oxford and is criticized for his treatment of females in the Chronicles. I hadn't heard of CS Lewis the raunchy incredibly human (ie, flawed) man of life B. Sadomasochistic feelings?

But such a, once more, human depiction of Lewis I was not prepared for. Indeed, more human than one would want it to be. I put the book down; it was too much to absorb at once. Miller does an excellent job painting this layered and complex picture of a real person. This is not a fawning paean to the man, but Miller does give credit when she feels it's due. She goes into Lewis's childhood, a necessity to explain the adult he was, and indepth into the histories of his friend Tolkien and other readers of the Chronicles.

That's perhaps one of the most interesting things about this criticism/memoir/
biography. Hearing about Tiffany's and Pam's experiences as readers of the Chronicles, voices that may have been unheard on this subject if not for their inclusion in this book, is a great part of the pleasure of reading it. Then there are the readers who became famous authors in their own right, like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Franzen. These many personal accounts of how Lewis affected their young lives and had effects on their older lives are quite interesting.

Miller's own experiences make for an absorbing first few chapters. Then, for a Narnia lover, there's the shock of so much criticism of Lewis: he never matured (an assertion by others that Miller references rather than makes herself), he liked risque stories and jokes, he had sadomasochistic feeling (which he, Miller states, fought), he was snobby. And for each of these assertions Miller makes her case by providing ample background information and weaving it into a readable story with some clever and effective turns of phrase.

Lovers of Lewis will be miffed. Haters will be satisfied. General interest readers will be engaged save for a few dry spots which they may be inclined to gloss over, although information will be lost by doing such.

I am now looking forward to one day reading a literary response to this book. I have six pages of notes. Perhaps I'll write it.

Thanks to Hachette for this complementary review copy.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Hey, it's just a story!

After a brief sabbatical during which I read Anelli's Harry, A History, I am back to reading Miller's The Magician's Book. How different they are! Anelli's book is a paean to all Potter things Rowling-approved. Miller's is genuine criticism in the personal and literary senses.

I keep finding things I want to write about as I read the book. So, on the heels of my humble self-correction below, I thought I'd go back to criticizing.

Consider this sentence from page 158 in the chapter entitled Blood Will Out.

"[The Narnia stories] take place in a dream world where talking beavers bake marmalade rolls despite having no surplus goods to trade for oranges and sugar, commodities that can only have been imported from a warmer land."

Miller then goes on to make several points about the illogical logistics of Lewis's "slapdash creation."

We are talking about children's fiction are we not, or did I miss something? Miller seems to be taking apart the world of Narnia - the fictional world of Narnia - the way a Trekkie dissects the United Federation of Planets. Only for a Star Trek fan that makes sense since it's meant to be thoughtfully considered, a safe way to comment on the real life we all live through the safety of fantasy. I doubt that when Lewis called his story a "supposal" of an alternate world he meant for readers to nit-pick about where ingredients for baked goods came from for Mrs Beaver. He was probably talking about more weighty, theological matters. If you're going to critique so far as the most minute aspects of daily fictional life for these characters, perhaps you've lost the Narnia forest for the talking trees.

Miller's readable prose does reveal some things about Lewis that, perhaps, we'd rather not know. Perhaps. So maybe I should be grateful for these silly asides which take the focus away from weightier issues like sado-masochism and prejudice. After all, it did give me material for another post. And the reference to marmalade rolls did provide delicious imagery. But, hey, this truly belongs under the 'it's just a story' heading.

Oops! A correction...

Perhaps it's the congenial spirit of the season or perhaps it's months of linguistic study - probably it's just the desire to set a wrong to right - but I want to amend something I made quite a snobby little point of last year when I reviewed a book called Me and Mr Darcy by Alexandra Potter.

How can Potter write Me and Mr Darcy, I asked? Not only is there vulgarity contained within this novel, the author has the grammar wrong! My, what a snotty-nosed little critic I was! mistake!

After all, why not Me and Mr Darcy? Do you see a verb there? I don't see a verb there. For all I knew or know this phrase has been picked out of a sentence in which it functions as an object, like, That nervy blogger is writing about me and Mr Darcy, again - a sentence in which 'me and Mr Darcy' is the object of the preposition 'about.'

Oh, Ms Smith - fourth grade English teacher - I should have known better! Did you not teach me grammar if not modesty and sense? With hubris I entered adulthood and stayed there for quite a while culminating in a moment of public criticism in which I implied that this author, poor Ms Potter, doesn't have a proper hold on sentence construction! Like it even matters!

Obviously, if the narrator of the book were saying 'Me and Mr Potter got a thrashing from that blogger again,' then the grammar must be amended by changing the objective 'me' to the nominative 'I.' (And maybe you would want to transpose the two subjects for the sake of politeness.) But who cares?

First, this is the stuff children's grammar lessons are made of. Why pick into such a trivial thing when commenting on a novel, especially when point number two is coming right up. That is, why criticize a paperback with the charge of rudeness when all you have is a noun phrase floating around on its cover? Grammarians of the world, you're obviously not reading my blog if you let that go.

So, I hope I've shown proper contrition for my presumptuous assertion of last year.

One last thing: I may have given off the itsy-bitsy teeny-tiny little suggestion that the book's not very fun. - Oops. - It was actually quite entertaining if a bit bawdy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

To add to my Goodreads bookshelf or not - That is the question or, I didn't read the whole book. My bad.

I had big expectations for Harry, A History, The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli. But I 'read' only half of it and skimmed the rest. Now I'm left with a dilemma: Do I add it to my Goodreads bookshelf or not?

While I've only read two of the Harry Potters, I have always been intrigued by the Potter phenomenon. I follow the magazine articles. I watch the news segments on television. I was there at midnight for the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows release. I respect the love readers have for the series even if I don't quite fully understand the fanaticism which at times can seem a bit odd. But let me not sell myself short; I like odd. I prefer to think I am a little odd.

So when I say that the Potter phenomenon intrigues me I do not mean the way a med student specializing in psychiatry is 'intrigued' by his first patient. No, Potterology is fun. But I have found the actual Potter books too dark which helps to explain why I haven't read them all. Imagine a baseball fan who likes all the accoutrements of the game - hotdogs in the stands, the hats, three-quarter length sleeve shirts with a big number on the back, the crack of the bat, the sports column - but for some reason can't make it through an actual game. That's me. At least that's me in reference to Harry Potter. (And baseball, too.)

It's perhaps because of this that I pooped out when reading Anelli's book; it was too detailed for me and better suited to die-hard fans. I had hoped for more of a balance between Anelli's life and Potter stuff, that the book would be about where the two converge. So it was this in-depth reportage, or the knowledge that I had many, many books on my to-be-read-list, or the fact that it was about 2 o'clock in the morning and I still had half the book to go that made me zip throught the last chapters. I also skipped the chapter entitled Rocking at Hogwarts - not literary enough. I'm tough to please.

Technically, I haven't read the entire book. I think it's wise to skip now what I might find very engaging after having read the Potter series. But I feel so familiar with this book that my urge to share my opinion MUST be satisfied. Furthermore, I want to place it on my Goodreads list. I wanna! I wanna! I wanna! I wanna! So I guess I will.

Before I head there to do that, though, here's a few thoughts. I read a comment online that went something like this: 'At least now I know I'm not the only nerd out there!' But it sounded so mean.

I'll acknowledge, the fervor and ardour with which Anelli and her Potter-mates treat the series seems, um, unusual. But Anelli makes a good point on page 209. She states of the fans, her friends, that,

"All of us led other lives...with families who didn't understand how we could love anything as much as we loved Harry Potter, who even, at times, made fun of us...but then would spend six hours shouting themselves hoarse at a football match, and five after that shouting themselves hoarse at each other as they discussed the same game."

It's true, isn't it? People can recite the score of the '56 World Series of baseball and who ran how many home runs in the same game. Culturally, this is okay. But somehow fervent discussion of Harry Potter makes you a nerd. Painting your face the colors of your football team is okay. But dressing like Hermione isn't.

Anelli's account of her own passion for Potter, the detail with which she relates the purchase of the fifth book in the series, the way she felt with the book in her hands, her dedication to the Potter website she devotes so much time to all seem to be unusual things to 'fess up to if, for instance, she were trying out for most popular girl in homeroom. But it's refreshing and lovely to hear someone speak so freely about their love for a 'nerdy' subject; quite obviously, it comes from the heart. Brave. Or naive. Perhaps Anelli has no idea how she might sound to some. It's wonderful to hear someone reveal
in such an unabashed way parts of her personality that others would hide, that people who never grow past their high school snobbery wouldn't understand.

Here is the power of much of the book, the confessional, honest tone it has. More personal moments and fewer dry facts may have kept me reading. (But, then again, so may have more familiarity with the series
on my part.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I wonder as I wander or, I'm pensive as I peruse

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller is a weighty piece of literary criticism, not in the sense of being so scholarly that a casual reader wouldn't want to approach it, but rather because it calls into question a figure from children's literature who is very dear to many. This is, of course, the author of the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis.

To a lot of people, Lewis seems to be a curmudgeonly figure from history, a kindly and nearly lifelong bachelor who wrote stories for children and responded when his young fans penned letters to him, a man who literally wrote the book on Christianity (or at least a really famous one) with his Mere Christianity, a sort of meditation on and explanation of his faith.

Certainly, this image is preferable to the flawed individual who emerges from the pages of the first half of The Magician's Book. There's nothing new in being imperfect. Most of us know we all belong to that club. But a benign and almost purified light is so often thrown on Lewis. The tales of Narnia are moving and lovable and crystallize so much of what we imagine Lewis to have been; it is, therefore, difficult to stomach an ambivalent take on the spinner of these tales.

As a lover of Narnia I think I am not alone in wishing that Miller's book could be a happier criticism of the series. Not being a Lewis scholar I am not qualified to say which view of Clive Staples is the more accurate one. I can only express the heaviness that is causing me to put aside this book for a time while I recoup my fortitude for the rest of it. A fun romp through a reader's imagination would have been more fun.

But it wouldn't necessarily have been more thought-provoking. So I must acknowledge that the issues brought up thus far in my reading of this book (like prejudice, misogyny, crafting a story that spreads religious doctrine) are important to discuss. And they are discussed well; that is, they are thoughtfully represented, appear professionally researched and spiced up with references to works of literature and talks with readers and writers. In addition, the author delivers what she promises in the subtitle; she tells us of her relationship with the Narnia books - her Narnia adventures - as she gives us a memoir of this significant portion of her reading life. Readers like to read about readers, so this is most welcome.

The title of Miller's book does identify her as a skeptic, so it should come as little surprise to anyone that there is criticism here. And this, I have found in scanning reviews from other sites and blogs, has prompted bloggers to caution Narnia lovers that they may not want to read The Magician's Book lest it affect their own further experiences of the Chronicles.

How can anyone dare to say that any particular book is one not to be read or, conversely, must be read? We can just guide a little, give some suggestions. And keep in mind any suggestions I give are based on my thoughts at the midpoint of Miller's book. So let me tell you this way, if I were talking about pastry I'd say don't expect meringue; realize that it's more like fruit cake. Be prepared to eat, taste and digest. And then do it again.

And when I do it again, I'll be back with my final thoughts on The Magician's Book.

Thanks to Hachette for this complimentary review copy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A couple of unimportant thoughts have occurred to me...

and I've decided I'd share them.

On movies...

All right. After reading a post on one of the sites I regularly peruse, I discovered that the 1970s version of Little Women I usually snobbily eschew was actually an entire mini-series. It starred Meredith Baxter (of Bridget Loves Bernie) , Susan Dey (of the Partridge Family) , Eve Plumb (of The Brady Bunch) and William Shatner (of Star Trek), as well as others. Now, when I had first heard that there had been an adaptation with Baxter and Dey I wasn't impressed. As much I had enjoyed The Partridge Family, there was something unexciting about seeing Laurie portraying characters that had such an essence of their own. It's like I thought that somehow these actresses would carry their sitcom roles into Little Women with them and drown the nineteenth century New England characters in 1970s schmaltz.

But here's the thing: It had occurred to me years and years ago that Little Women should be made into a mini-series. Since I'm partial to British productions I thought, the uniquely American nature of Little Women notwithstanding, that they would ideally be the ones to film it. They do it so well and well is how I wanted to see it done.

I'd love to see a new production of Little Women, despite the fact that I have liked all the previous ones I've seen. But as I doubt that any producers are reading my blog and thinking, This Jemima person really wants a new film so, gee whiz, let's go out and make a movie!, I'm thinking I'll have to settle for the new-to-me 70s version. And you know what? I watched a couple of clips online and it looks good! I'm even getting enthusiastic about the era of the production. It will be fun to see these actors in these roles, like seeing good friends in their old home movies, except the production values look quite nice in this production. And, really, schmaltz or not, those 70s shows were good.

Further on movies...

Just in case any producers are out there reading my blog, I'd like to pitch a film idea. Starving writer with baby in tow writes novel amidst the clattering cafe's of Edinburgh, nervily sends her manuscript in to fledlging publisher, and a literary star is born.

No, of course I didn't just make that up. That's the J.K. Rowling story. But reading a new book called
Harry, A History, The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, And Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli, the account of the birth of the Harry books seemed new to me and I thought, What a great story! This is going to be filmed someday when we're all old! So, golly gee, I wanted everyone to know: I THOUGHT OF IT, FIRST! And to the Harry Potter people, two things: (1) You're welcome, and (2) Remember, it's J-E-M-I-M-A at GBBS. (I'm available for screenwriting, as well.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comments on The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

I closed this book with a sigh. It was a heartily sighed sigh. It was a swoony sigh. Well, I had just finished a Georgette Heyer novel, so I suppose it was the appropriate sigh.

This is not a book you tell an Oxford don you're reading. It's not one they'd understand. You wouldn't tell your intellectually snobby friends either. They'd tease you.

But do not make the mistake of thinking this is a badly written book. No, no, dear reader; this is a picture painted with skill and clarity. I recognize these characters. Some might say they're recycled from other works of fiction on screen or even the page. They might be right. They probably are. But it's not easy to reconstruct in print a celluloid character. And even if other writers' pens have created such personalities, the subsequent author can't just say, "You know, this character is a fop. Think Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde." The author has to apply the dyed oils to the canvas with dexterity. And Heyer does this well. Take the character Nicky, an endearing upper-crust university student more interested in fun than scholarship. He's a cousin, of sorts, to the title character and, here, gives her a compliment.

"By Jove, Cousin Elinor, if that gown is not the most bang-up thing I ever saw! You look all the crack!"

Now, c'mon. Don't you know just by this utterance what sort of character, or caricature, we're dealing with? Yeah, it's over the top. And I certainly don't know if anyone ever spoke like that, but it does paint that picture, does it not?

The Reluctant Widow is a Regency mystery with a touch of romance about a woman who becomes entangled with a likeable upperclass family when she gets into the wrong carriage at the inn where her stage-coach has dropped her off. Thus begins a story of humor and intrigue and some ineptitude (Nicky has a big role.)

The book, written in the 1940s, may or may not be accurate when it comes to language, but the author does seem to know a couple of things about the Regency period, dropping phrases like phaeton and nuncheon, and sometimes using the singular form of the verb 'do' in constructions where today we would use 'does.'

There are copious descriptions of meals and one does not mind spending a day with the personages populating the book. They are ensconced in the cozy estate of Highnoons and seem to enjoy each other's company. I did want, however, more chemistry between the two who are meant for each other, and some romance sooner, too. That, in my opinion was desperately wanting.

Why then did I sigh so swooningly at its conclusion? Well, because that's when Heyer unveiled the real romantic parts. Don't get excited; it's just a proposal. But it's lovely. I would have liked more adventure, too, than the brief bit we get, similarly, toward the end of the book. (The widow can drive a phaeton like Danica Patrick drives a race car.) And I have some scruples about the ethics of the main characters after the resolution of the mystery but, remember, they're likeable.

It's not surprising that Heyer has a reputation of being a bodice-ripping writer. The heroine's "bosom" had already "swelled" twice by page 75. But this was to show her indignation and nothing else. An odd way to express it, but whatever. If you like this brand of word play, you might well, indeed, enjoy The Reluctant Widow.

You just might find it's a bang-up thing.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for this complementary review copy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Just a bit off-topic (but just a bit)

Last weekend, I watched the supposedly last in a series of adventure movies starring Noah Wylie, Bob Newhart (yes, Bob Newhart in an adventure series) and Jane Curtin. Called The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice, it intrigued me because of (you guessed it!) the librarian angle. That and adventure are not often paired. Now, I had heard of the first movie when it began, missed it and had forgotten about it. I had no idea that there was now a series, though I fairly bounced with enthusiasm when I found out it was still around.

Well, I'm smitten. Not so very smitten that I don't see flaws, but bitten and smitten by the idea of a librarian with the derring-do of Flynn (Wylie's character) who is a bit nerdy but awfully capable of holding his own quite impressively in brain work and physical encounters. What an idea! And to think it saw the light of day as a television film. I can't imagine that is this day and age of gritty gore, where writers seem to sit around tables in passionate discussion about how they can bring disturbing images into their programs, that such a film could be a feature (i.e. cinema) film. That it was produced on TV, the haven of grit and gore, is unbelievable. As far as cinema is concerned, it doesn't seem to have the modern-day uber-adult quality required for that venue.

So it seems a bit anachronistic in that sense. But it was made. And, it was made three times at that. Somewhere out there someone seems to need some old-fashioned action-adventure-mystery. I can't vouch for the first two films as the Judas Chalice is all I've seen. But this third installment, despite its flaws - some might quibble with the revival of Cold War overtones (after all, why isn't it the Americans who seek the chalice's strength and rejuvenatory qualities?) - it seems so innocent.

Though there's blood and darkness, it's relatively sanitized and it's all done in such a fantastical context - truly it's a fantasy - that it does not have the same effect a crime drama has. It's the kind of film that used to be made and taken semi-seriously, enough that people were willing to suspend their disbelief for a while for the fun of the ride; nowadays, we're just too sophisticated, aren't we? We laugh at such childish things. We've internalized coolness so much, made it such a mainstay of our personalities that we don't even realize it. We don't see when it's rearing its ugly head and preventing us from betraying our other more realistic qualities. Isn't genuineness so much nicer?

Now, the Judas Chalice, at least, was a bit intense for younger viewers, a bit too scary and a bit too sexy at one point. It could use some tweaking to get its target demographic decided. But I like the mixture of the childlike and the grown-up, so I wouldn't want it to be made too slickly and strictly just for one personality type.

And, in smaller ways, making this movie charming was the retro clothing, Wylie's sense of humor, the thoughtful ending, the direction of Jonathan Frakes and simply just the aforementioned concept of a swashbuckling librarian. It's so seldom that a successful Hollywood star makes a throwback of a film like this that kudos go out to Wylie, though I have no idea if making a throwback was, indeed, his intention.

So, there it is, off topic a bit but still within the realm of bookishness. Now why hasn't a series of paperback adventures begun?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rambling post

Here begins the ramble:

I'm reading and reading and reading. And yet, there's so much more to read! Sort of a luxurious problem to have, really. I'm not complaining, just trying to muster up the speedy reading of my youthful days from so many, many years ago. I could wax poetic about the slowing-down that my brain has done in its adulthood, but I'm not in the mood to rhapsodize about minutia, oddly enough.

I just sort of felt like chatting about some of the books I've got going now. I'm feeling pretty solid now, like one of those tennis players steadily winning game after game within a set and pumping fist victoriously in air rallying herself onwards. I mean I just finished The Journal of Helene Berr and, before that, a foreign language book (yea!), and prior to that Giants by John Stauffer; so, I'm on a roll. Game won.

Right now, I'm reading My Lady of Cleves, A Novel of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes and my first ever Georgette Heyer, The Reluctant Widow! I shall soon have the latter finished and ready for comment. Shortly thereafter, My Lady, will be appearing on these "pages" with its own commentary. These two were review copies from Sourcebooks and things are looking pretty good for them. I'm very intrigued by developments in Widow, (is it a ghost story?), and am finding the account of Elinor's settling in to her new home quite pleasingly cozy.

So, what else is there? Dum-di-dum (taps fingers while thinking) - Oh yes! I haven't discussed my like/dislike relationship with used books yet. I tend to love to go into used book fairs, buy a bunch, and then end up giving them away since I love a clean, crisp book rather than dog-eared copies that who knows who has taken into the bathroom with them. Please understand, I think it's wonderful that people recycle their books and that out-of-print copies are available in used bookstores and through ABEbooks, etc. But I'm a bit squeamish and that squeamishness generally ends up getting the better of me. There are exceptions of course like the one dollar Gone With the Wind I got from the year it came out, though it's not worth anything. Believe me, I checked.

Despite, these ambivalent feelings I could not resist buying two used books for one dollar each the other night. One, called Lenten Lands, by Douglas Gresham, is about CS Lewis. The other, is Charles J. Shields Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, which I've been wanting to read. My justification for these purchases was that if I were to take them out of the library I would probably end up owing a fine of more than the dollar I paid for each and, thus, good economics allowed me to freely buy them with good conscience. And, judging by my recent $7.50 library fines, I was right.

About those fines, I feel so ashamed. What a waste. There is, at least, one consolation. And that is that the fines go to that wonderful establishment so important to individuals and societies in so very many different ways, the public library. So, instead of being ashamed, maybe I can consider myself a noble patron of the arts because of my fines? Yeah, I'm going with that.

So, now I've extolled the virtues of the public library system, supported it financially, discussed literature and used an athletic metaphor. Job done tonight.

Here ends the ramble.

It depends!

Thank you so much to all who participated in the latest poll! The unanimous verdict seems to be that music may, or may not, be an enjoyable part of bookstore visits. Everyone picked the 'It depends' choice. I find my readers are a most diplomatic group, indeed!

Monday, December 1, 2008

On translation of texts

The translation of literary works is not an issue I've seen discussed too often in periodicals and sites about books. But reading The Journal of Helene Berr has made me think about it.

Do you translate the exact words that are on the page or do you translate the essence of what is being said? In other words, do you translate the letter of the language or the spirit of the language? Probably, you do both. If so, how do you strike the balance? I imagine you do it gingerly and with great sensitivity.

Translation does not get a lot of attention and translators don't get a lot of press, but when the last English version of War and Peace came out I think translators got a moment in the sun. I heard the translators interviewed on the radio (NPR, probably) and, if I remember correctly, they talked about that delicate process of conveying same nuances in the new language as exist in the original. Sounds like a job requiring a love of the intracies of language and the discussion of such.

I may not have thought too much about this whole issue of translation if I hadn't been struck particulary by one sentence in Helene Berr's book and generally by her impressive skill with language. On page 94 of the edition which was released in the United States this October, a sentence appears which if I am right may contain a misplaced modifier - the placement in a sentence of an adjective or other modifier which creates ambiguous meaning. This is the way the sentence reads in the translation:

"My sense is that the irrevocable is coming to pass; I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people who are leaving me again."

Here, my question is with the word 'again.' Does the sentence mean 'I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people again who are leaving me?' Or does it mean, 'I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people who are leaving me now as they have left me before?' No indications are given in the text to assume the second. The first is highly sensible and it is what I assume was meant. But it makes me ask, why would a skilled translator decide, in a sentence which expresses such a clear idea, to place a modifier in a spot which creates so obviously such ambiguity? My question is not a criticism of the translator, David Bellos, but a sincere example of curiosity. Was there something ambiguous in the original French that prompted this? And, if so, why was there no footnote to acknowledge this for the confused reader?

I think this question could prompt a lovely discussion on the translation of texts. If only one could find a translator with whom to discuss it!

New poll!

I've added a new poll. And this one has to do with bookstore music. It was prompted by a discussion I found on another site's forum which I ran across and which suddenly brought to my attention that not everyone likes music in bookstores. I'd never thought about it. And then recently I heard a complaint in a bookstore, something about "rubbish" and "blaring." So, what side of this contentious issue do you fall on? Feel free to comment, too.

Where I discuss a unique verbal expressiveness (but use a lot of cliches to do it)

I'm reading The Journal of Helene Berr which is, as its name indicates, the diary of a woman named Helene. She is a real person who lived and died and wrote during the second World War and I'm a little over a third of the way through this disturbing personal account of the Holocaust. Helene is very endearing to any lover of words and literature; her life centers around her university community and books, as well as music and, of course, the devastating events of the times in which she lives. It is a quick read, very conversational. Helene has an effective way with language; hard-to-express ideas are conveyed precisely and with deceptive ease. She hits the nail on the head but with a light touch. (I don't know how much of this is due to the fact that the journal has been translated from French - was the writing as expressive in the original? - but the translation factor will be discussed in another post.)

Those times at which we experience an ephemeral feeling or thought, the kind that dissolves in your mind the way a snowflake dissolves on your palm, it can be difficult to find words to express what we have just gone through. It may be harder, though less fanciful, than catching lightning in a bottle. But Helene seems to have the touch for it. I have found at least three instances of phrasing that have the power to make me put my book down, stare off, and think.

Consider these three.

On page 83, Helene talks about the odd way a person's perceptions change from night to day. After describing some of the horrible things that have occurred, Helene writes,

"It grabbed me in the dark, but it never comes to me during the day. In the daytime, life forms a crust on top of thought."

Just a lovely example of the kind of simplicity she employs to convey a complex thought. If it were me writing in my journal I might just say, 'You know how things seems different in the day than in the night? It's like that.' Helene writes abundantly better.

Then there's the example on pages 78-79 in which she describes truly fathoming her current circumstances and then, suddenly, losing the sensation. She writes of realizing what she already knew - that her father was imprisoned - upon reading his correspondence from the internment camp.

"But it hit me when I reread passages from his postcard...I realized how empty his new life was...Yet as I looked at the postcard I still could not grasp the reality....And now I've lost it again. No, I've got it now, suddenly in the dark: between the Papa of home and the one out there who wrote this postcard, a gap is yawning open."

She records her thinking process as it happens and does it in a way that makes you feel you're watching the thoughts in her mind.

Finally, that feeling that you have when things aren't going well and what was friendly and loved by you previously is friendly no longer, she describes in a passage on page 82 about her family's garden.

"...the rest of the garden lived its separate life, as it must do when we are not there. I can no longer manage to commune with it, to feel that it loves me and welcomes me. It has become almost indifferent."

So the garden is unfeeling or, rather, it has only apathy; it grows in bad times as well as good. But also it bears the personality which we imprint onto it, not necessarily one of its own; so what is a lovely and happy thing to us one day, is not lovely or happy the next and what enriches our lives at one moment does nothing for us the following moment.

It can be difficult to read such well-done writing as this. It's hard to get to the end of a book when you put it down every few pages and stop to wonder. But it's worth it in order to have ideas put into words that have always hovered in your thoughts but have not been given shape.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Good book, bright side? What are you talking about? Some thoughts...

To resurrect once more the ideas on which this blog was founded, I'd like to open a discussion on the concept of life-affirming books which are thoughtfully and well written, which are entertaining but do not pander to baser senses, as so many popular novels tend to do. I do not mean to rubber stamp any book as a pure example of such by mentioning it in these pages. (And this blog has morphed into a general one about books, although most are relatively benign in the sense that they are not terribly vulgar or obscene.) But, hopefully, there is an element of worthiness in most of what is presented here.

To seek out books that espouse only worthwhile ideas and to write only about them leaves very little to write about, it seems, sadly. First of all there is the question, whose worthwhile ideas? The disposition of this blog is, generally, to define 'worthwhile' as absent of most vulgarity (although that is, today, a tall order) and exuding a leaning towards brighter standards, rather than darker inclinations, something with less lewdness and more style. But I'll pretty much write about anything that is not overtly offensive. To employ the movie ratings system, even an R-rated book can be included if it is thoughtfully and maturely written.

What prompted this post was a discussion on a couple of other sites about religious fiction. And, so this was born more as a lament to the fact that secular fiction seems so bent on swears and gratuitous displays of violence and sexuality; it does not generally point to any better alternatives, but glamorizes the aforementioned elements, instead. Fiction cannot be sanitized in the way a cloth is rid of grime through the use of chlorinated detergent; it cannot be all high roads and no low ones. It needs conflict. But it would be nice if more fiction reflected a feeling that the high road was the worthy one. A lot of fiction doesn't seem able to do that and, frankly, I'd welcome more proof that I'm wrong.

So the point of this yammering on is to clarify and expand this blog's philosophy and to ask, why can't fiction aspire to more?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book lover solidarity

I was in a bookstore recently and a kid was nagging her mother for a book. Well, it wasn't quite nagging so much as very interestedly and earnestly asking for the book.

"Mommy, look!"

Mother, who was an intense looking woman with an angular face and shredded nerves to match, wasn't that interested.

"Mommy, It's called The Magician's-"

"The Magician's what?" mother snapped.

"Nephew," the girl calmy responded.

"Mommy, this book is so-o-o good!"

"How do you know?" mother barked, adding at one point, "I'm trying to do something here."

The little girl, in a naive attempt to engage her mother's attention and enthusiasm which would tear at any book-lover's heart, started to read from the book.

Mother stops her. "Look, you just don't get it, do you!"

Later, I think I hear the little girl sniffing loudly.

Finally, I'm up at the counter. So's mother. Lo and behold, in their small pile of purchases is CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. Annoyed at the mother and wishing to vindicate the kid, I casually point at the book and remark, "That's a good one."

"Oh great!" was mother's reaction. I'm not sure if it was sincere or if she was wishing the buttinsky would shut up. But how many times as a child would it have been nice to have someone stick up for you? I like to think that kid was gratified. Book lover solidarity and all that. Of course she may just be an annoying brat who always hounds her bedraggled mom for new stuff.

In that case, oops.

Timely reading: Comments on Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer

How I came to read the book

I felt like a kid eating at the grown-up table; I probably wouldn't have gravitated to these choices of nourishment if I were sitting at the little table with spaghettios in front of me.

I had a list of books to choose from and none of them were instantly striking me. Still one did tempt my intellectual side (or what there is of it). Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln seemed interesting but scholarly. But did I dare take on the challenge of reviewing a scholarly book? Would it be the readable kind or the type that requires a magnifying glass, intellectual appetite of an academic with an 800 pound brain, and infinite patience?

It was too tempting, so I took a chance.

My little 3 pound brain needn't have worried. As soon as I received the 432 page work in the mail and gave it a pre-read cursory glance I was heartened. The warm egg nog colored pages were filled with print I could ably read and the writing style was conversational. Preliminary indicators were positive; this was promising.

The reading experience

In Giants, author John Stauffer draws upon similarities in the lives of the abolitionist former slave Federick Douglass and the Civil War-era president Abraham Lincoln to create a framework on which this dual biography can be written. The second paragraph of the preface lists some stunning comparisons between the two individuals' lives. Stauffer writes,

"They learned to read and re-make themselves from the same core set of books: the Bible; Shakespeare; Lord Byron; Robert Burns; Aesop's Fables; and The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of speeches for boys. They avoided tobacco and alcohol at a time when people regularly chewed and drank on the job....And they were strapping men, at least a half foot taller on average than their peers, when physical prowess could determine success or failure, even life or death." (Giants, by John Stauffer, page xi)

Stauffer doesn't bring up these shared traits just to list coincidences. He continues within the book to describe how the physical power of these men did, indeed, help them attain power in the forms of intellect and social influence. And Stauffer describes the strength that an excellent skill at orating was at this time in history, as well as the severe disadvantage that was bad speech-making.

Readers are taken on a birth-to-death journey with both men, whose tales are interwoven throughout. And, boy, is it ever more complicated than we were taught in grammar school. Neither was a saint, neither was an innocent in romance, neither's view on abolition remained static through their lives. In Lincoln's case, he became more radical, seeming to grow more willing to stand for abolition as he neared the end of his life - probably no coincidence. As for Douglass, he lived a long life, became quite wealthy and more conservative in his activist views.

If Giants had been available to read one month ago (it's publication date was November 3 - election eve) and immediately read, it would have been a different reading experience. Back then, one month ago, the question was still being asked if an African-American could be elected president. In the course of one day, the nation passed a milestone that future historians will be writing about. So when on page 285 a scene is described of Frederick Douglass sitting in a room with a white man, a judge, while both awaited their respective meetings with President Lincoln, and the judge, "outraged at having to share the same space with a black man," snidely makes a comment by asking Douglass, "Are you the President?" readers post November 4 know something as fact: that today this question cannot be used in the same demeaning manner the judge meant back in 1863. It kind of makes you wish you could hoist that judge out of his nineteenth and into this twenty-first century.

Giants is an engaging read. It explains the drawn out and painstakingly slow pace of the abolition of slavery and the complex personalities behind the movement - some personalities wholeheartedly behind a fight for equality and some with provisos. It is amply supplemented with endnotes and footnotes, populated with interesting major and minor players, and contains nearly enough photographs to satisfy readers.

I'm glad I didn't choose the spaghettios.

Thanks to Hachette for this complementary review copy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What are your favorite first lines?

We all know memorable first lines from famous novels. There's, of course:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

And there's also:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Children's lit has its classic lines, too. Like:

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug." - Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

But there are very many novels out there. And, while they do not provide modern-day writers with material to manipulate and, in some cases, abuse (I'm thinking, the kick-off to Austen's novel), they do have some pretty good openers. One that I like particularly comes from another kids' book, C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I chuckle whenever I read it and like to fancy that I'll one day have the opportunity to read it aloud at some storytime hour somewhere. It so would make a great spoken sentence. As a matter of fact the whole first paragraph is stellar and with it Lewis paints an enviable character sketch of a main character; you get the feeling you know who you're dealing with when you've read the first page.

"There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

I can just imagine that avuncular Lewis telling this story beginning to the neighborhood kids. And do you ever hear of anyone talking about it? At least the negative answer to that question means that the sentence has survived untainted by the overuse of writers looking for a cutesy, "clever" way to open their own stories. I might mention again poor Jane Austen's first line to end all first lines.

I suppose that my love of this line is unique and explains why no one has pinched it to use it in their own way. Lewis's line is unassuming, it doesn't try too hard. And perhaps it plays to a childlike sense of humor. But how many subtle lines can send a kid into hysterics? Granted I have yet to witness this but I haven't tested the theory yet. And if my inner gauge is correct I am sure that I would have been rolling on the floor as a kid and reading this line out to adults while waiting to see them collapse into fits of laughter. (I used to do this - read from my books, look up after I'd read the good part, and wonder why my family wasn't chortling heartily. But that's a story for another day.)

So this is my nomination for the best first lines list. It's not Austen or Dickens but just think what a great theater-trained actor could do with it, reading the first clause matter-of-factly, raising his head and stating slowly and viciously "and he almost deserved it," with eyes narrowing at the poetic justice implied.

Now, what's your nomination?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Instant shelving!

It's really all about the small things in life, isn't it? A cup of coffee with just the right amount of sugar and cream, a child hysterically giggling, more book space? Sure, much of life is made of small stuff, at least that's what the Salada tea bag told me years ago, so I have been delighted recently by the addition of two small shelves , baby shelves if you will, to the big grown-up shelves which hold my books.

It's quite appropos really. I pulled out a bunch of old books that were packed away a while back and wanted somewhere to put them. Perhaps I'm a bit of an ageist when it comes to books; I didn't want my old books mixing with my new. So what to do? Enter refurbished book shelves - your big break has come at last.

I found stacked amid old shoes and sundry items a wooden wine rack which was just begging to be made into a bookshelf. I believe it actually belonged to someone close to me once but, baby, you are my bookshelf now! Hopefully, said person won't mind that I absconded with their holder of libations and took a saw to it in order to remove those pesky rungs that would have held the bottles in place. I washed off the sawdust and put on some lemon oil treatment (mmmm, lovely scent!) and now the former unhappy wine rack has the proud job of holding an old copy of Northanger Abbey and some Lord Peter Wimsey's.

Additionally, this is not nearly as exciting but worth mentioning, I found an old VHS cassette holder. VHS cassette holder? How passe'! So I gleefully ripped out the plastic innards of that thing and, lo and behold, a lovely bookshelf was longing to get out the whole time of its existence. Now, it can live happily.

So you see, now the old but loved books have old but upgraded digs. The old wine rack and VHS cassette holder have seen the light of day again, and have done it in style.

(You think maybe I'm a bit of a book nut?)

Is there such a thing as a free book?

A lively debate was ignited at the Guardian site a few days ago by Edward Champion's article, There's no such thing as a free book, on the practice of publishers giving bloggers advanced reading copies of books that are soon to be published in exchange for a review on their blogs. This interested me as I had just recently received my first review copies from Hachette and Sourcebooks.

It was very exciting to open the front door and see that the postman had brought a lovely hardcover absolutely free to me for reading and reviewing and adding to my library. As it was followed up by a special delivery a few days later of two really stunning paperbacks I can say, as a booklover, it was a good week. But this article got me anxious. Would I feel pressure to write glowing reviews for all such books that I read?

There are lots of book blogs out there. If you're looking at mine right now, let me say (first, what good taste you have!) and, of course, how much I appreciate my readership. On my internet travels, I found a site called Becky's Book Reviews wherein the blogger makes no bones about the fact that while review copies are welcome, she will give an honest review so if you do not wish an honest review please do not send the book. Furthermore, she gets so many review copies she can't guarantee that she'll get around to all of them. Wise girl, Becky, I thought! I'd like to state that I have similar policies; I will endeavor to be as honest as possible with any review copy I have been sent. But I don't foresee a problem of becoming flooded with such books, so I should be able to give each some attention, true and honest attention.

Meanwhile, I am pleased so far to be enjoying my first review copy, the aforementioned hardcover, which is entitled Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and is written by John Stauffer. There's a big whew! factor in reading this book since it's genuinely a good, entertaining comparison of the lives of these two famous men. I'll soon be posting a review. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Q&A with author of Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, Jerramy Fine

Jerramy Fine's whimsical walk on the regal side is described in her absorbing book, Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess. This memoir recounts Fine's quest to become a princess and her lifelong attachment to the English royal family as she grows up with Hippie parents in rural Colorado. Sound a little too fanciful to be true? I was a little cynical, if you remember from my review in April. But I am assured by the author that the story is absolutely the real thing and am very pleased to post here the second of GBBS's writer Q&A's. Many thank you's to Jerramy Fine for taking time out and answering a few questions which I hope have some whimsy of their own!

GBBS: If you could, which fictional literary character would you date?
JF: I know that I'd definitely (and stupidly) fall for Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones's Diary - I just know it. But if I could go back in time, I think the playfully witty aristocratic gentlemen (Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing) in The Importance of Being Earnest would also make my heartflutter to end.

GBBS: What is the one book you'd take to a deserted island?

JF: It's toss up between The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundee, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and Return to Love by Marianne Williamson.

GBBS: What's your preferred method of book-buying -- internet or old-fashioned bookstores?

JF: I like both. I prefer browsing in cozy, independent bookstores compared to getting lost in one of the huge, sprawling chains. But I also really like Amazon because it has such a sense of community. I love reading readers reviews and I always get drawn in by listmania. But Amazon can be dangerous because it makes buying books almost too easy - it's good thing they're so heavily discounted because I always end up buying more books than I possibly have to read.
GBBS: Which writer is so great that it's hard to tear yourself away from his/her writing so you can get stuff done?

JF: Phillipa Gregory

GBBS: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

JF: A princess - obviously. Or first lady. :)
GBBS: Reading Someday My Prince Will Come was as addictive as eating potato chips. Are you working on anything new we can look forward to? Any little sneak-peaky tidbit you're able to share?
JF: I'm working on another novel set in London. I can't give away much more than that but stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Q&A with author of the Pink Carnation series, Lauren Willig

Here is the very first of GBBS's Q&As with some very fun and talented writers! First up is Lauren Willig, the author of the Pink Carnation series. For much more on Lauren and her novels follow this link. And for a GBBS review of the first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, click here. Many thanks to Lauren for responses that are super thoughtful and as entertaining to read as her books!

GBBS: What is the one book you'd take to a deserted island?

LW: The idea of only having one book… agh. I’m usually a five book a week girl. Fortunately, I am a re-reader and the book I’ve probably re-read most over the course of a lifetime would have to be Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Even after five different copies and roughly fifty readings, I still find something new every time I open those covers. Her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue, the subtleties of characterization, and the sheer appeal of Rhett Butler just can’t be matched.

GBBS: If you could, which fictional literary character would you date?

LW: It’s so hard to narrow it down! The heartthrob of my teen years was Ian Thornton from Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven. By the time I got over him, there was Jamie from Outlander to be drooled over, Lovelace from Clarissa (I know he’s an evil rake, but, oh, the challenge!), Orlando Rock from Love: A User’s Guide, and, of course, those traditional swoon-worthy souls: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Rhett Butler.

If I had to choose now, I might go for Rory Frost, from M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind. Rory is the classic black sheep hero, an unrepentant rogue running guns in mid-nineteenth century Zanzibar, always ready with a quick quip, cynical to the core—but with his own sense of honor. Think Errol Flynn crossed with Rhett Butler (which mixes genres a bit, but you get the idea).

GBBS: What's your preferred method of book-buying -- internet or old-fashioned bookstores?

LW: Bookstores are my mothership. Whenever I’m bored or cranky, nothing cheers me up like taking a long stroll through the new book tables. There’s something infinitely soothing about it. I’ve found some of my favorite books that way, just randomly roaming along with my head angled awkwardly sideways, never knowing quite what I might find. If I can’t find a particular book in the store (or three or four stores, since I’m lucky enough to live near a Borders, two Barnes & Noble, Bookberries, and Shakespeare & Co, all in a thirty block radius), then I do resort to ordering online. But nothing can possibly replace the sheer joy of being entirely surrounded by books. Books, books, books, and more books, all waiting to be read.

GBBS: Which writer is so great that it's hard to tear yourself away from his/her writing so you can get stuff done?

LW: Actually, there are a lot of those. (As you might have guessed, I’m very susceptible to distraction!). Even though they’re all very different, Susan Elizabeth Philips, Tracy Grant, Robin McKinley, and Georgette Heyer all have that effect on me. Once I start reading any of their books, I fall prey to Just One More Chapter syndrome and have to keep going until I’m done, even if it’s three in the morning and I know I’m going to be useless the next day because of it.

GBBS: Your books are so detailed (I'm thinking of Amy's sneaking around the passages of her brother's huge house in Paris), how are you able to imagine so much so vividly?

LW: Thank you!! Part of it comes from having spent most of my youth being steeped in other centuries. When I was little, one of my favorite treats was being taken to the period rooms at the Met. Other little kids might clamor to go to the park; I just wanted eighteenth century interiors. Family vacations generally involved roaming around old castles. And let’s not even discuss the sheer number of costume dramas I’ve watched over the years. I managed to put my college years to good use by taking classes on seventeenth and eighteenth century art and architecture (Amy’s brother’s house had its inception in a junior year art history class, for which I had to design a seventeenth century French house) as well as literature and history. By the time I sat down to write Pink Carnation, the vistas of the past were often more vivid to me than the workaday world around me; looking out my window in London, I could picture carriages rather than cars, street vendors hawking their wares, dandies tooling their phaetons to Hyde Park. The hard bit is dragging myself back to the present day.

GBBS: I suppose that, unfortunately, the Pink Carnation must end at some point. Do you have any ideas on the backburner for other series?

LW: So many ideas! I don’t want to jinx any of them by saying too much (I get superstitious about these things), but I’m a little obsessed with a pirate project I’m working on right now. I also have vague plans for an eighteenth century series, involving a husband and wife team immersed in international intrigue in the 1770s. Of course, nothing is set in stone—or paper—until I actually sit down to write it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Juggling books when you don't know how to juggle

I have so many books going in my life that it would be embarrassing to write about them all. But I'll write about the most recent. I seem to be doing a good job lately of starting books and then placing my bookmark in them long enough to permanently disturb the binding. The Rebecca Notebook by Daphne Du Maurier is currently experiencing that kind of spine damage from the 'men of Jane Austen' bookmark (the idea came from the PBS site) I personally made. Then I dove into Possession by AS Byatt for which the word 'brilliant' seems an appropriate adjective, if generally overused. I have finally gotten around to Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, the Booker Prize winner of 2007, which is a quick read and charming and delightful so far. I began Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx but guess I wasn't in the mood for something so seriously serious so, though it's just a short story of fifty or so pages, it hasn't been finished yet. (Oh my, this is getting embarrassing.) Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding is good, but not so cheery to say the least, so that's on the backburner right now. And, finally, I'm fortunate to have an advance reading copy of a novel coming out in February called Addition by Toni Jordan. It's always fun to get to read something early. Did I mention my re-read of Pride and Prejudice?

So I should have loads of commentary in the weeks to come. (One would hope I'd be finished in that time.) Meanwhile, I'll have to carve out a little time for figuring out why I'm such a freewheeling reader.

Small joys

Recently one rainy afternoon I was able to walk into one of those cavernous warehouse stores where everything is at dramatically reduced prices and the smell is a bit musty.

It was wonderful.

Actually, not everybody finds it that way; I read a review (you can Google reviews on anything it seems) that stated pretty much the same description as the one above but which put in the caveat of its not being a place for "the faint-hearted." Perhaps. But I love it because it is quite the place for low-cost book lovers. Situated on several tables and shelves are books, the majority for anywhere from one dollar to four dollars. I found Katarina Witt's book for 99 cents which caused a little excitement even though I've dipped into Katarina Witt's book and I didn't care for it. There were hardcovers and paperbacks, obscure and popular. And there was not a bad children's section, which is heartening in tough economic times when one hopes that kids can still be furnished with needed imagination- and knowledge-boosting materials. My big purchase came in at just under two dollars. What did I get for less than the price of a Starbucks coffee? Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and a neat matching bookmark. Who needs Borders bargain section?

Lookie here!

Here's a post in the Guardian's book blog about literary crushes. So similar to my literary lonelyhearts post earlier this month one wonders if the writer is a GBBS reader....Well, maybe not. But what fun it is to read the many responses. It seems people are wild for their protagonists. And there are some good ideas from the commenters. Lord Peter Wimsey? Good taste, Joana!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Am I missing something?

I found this interesting tidbit in a small story about the high quality of libraries in Wyoming that ran in the September 13 issue of The Economist magazine. The article was entitled Why Cowboys Read.

"Libraries are especially thriving in the conservative rural heartlands. The average Wyoming resident checked out nine books in 2005-06, compared with an average of five in California and two in Washington, DC."

I was struck by the statistics given here. Is it just me or does the amount of books annually borrowed from libraries seem awfully small in each of the three geographical areas the article mentions? Two books on average in DC? Nine in Wyoming?

I always see the library bustling. Where are these library-goers reflected in these statistics? I suspect that they're hidden - the numbers would probably be zero if it was not for a small, dedicated group who all but raid their libraries and utilize them for all their taxes are worth. It's likely these few borrow so very many books that it makes it appear as though the hundreds of thousands of residents in these places each take out a few books a year. That's quite a feat for this bit of the population.

But what about the others? Do they read? Do they actually have the cash to buy every book they want to enjoy or need to consult? Please tell me they realize there's a life beyond Barnes and Noble. Where else than a library can a person get just about any book they're looking for - either on the spot or through interlibrary loan - in any language and have it handed to them free of charge, entrusted to their caretaking for a period of weeks? This is an experience that ranks up there with the shopping high or even day-tripping fun.

If others do not wish to avail themselves of the resource and pleasure that is the library, dear fellow booklovers, all I can say is, well...more for us.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Another site about upbeat books!

Fun book seekers! I was trolling the web and found that GBBS is not the only site dedicated to uplifting reads. Positively Good Reads features a Chicago Sun-Times article by its creator addressing the way so many fine, truly literary works can induce a state of depression in their readers. It also lists many reading recommendations. Here's a place with oodles of reviews to mine and titles to discover or remark on, "Hey! I didn't know that one was upbeat!"

Sometimes it's just nice to read good writing that buoys you, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Literary lonelyhearts club post (Well, not exactly...)

I was perusing another lit site today and ran across a great question I decided to pose here. Anyone out there ever have a crush on a literary character?

I'll 'fess up. When I was little and read Little Women I had a crush on Laurie, as I'm sure many girls had had before me and have had since. What's funny to me is that I pictured him so differently from the description Jo provides in the book. "Curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet, taller than I am, very polite for a boy, and altogether jolly." Although I have no doubt my Laurie was polite (for a boy) and jolly, in my imagination he was a fair-skinned, auburn-haired, lanky young man. At least I had the height thing right. I'm not how sure my imagination strayed so far from the author's intention - Alcott gave such a detailed description! - but I quite liked my Laurie and he fit very well into his role in the book. Why didn't Jo want him to love her, I wondered? Silly girl! Prof Bhaer wasn't alluring to me at all.

Is there a literary love of your life? Or just a wee bit of a crush? Feel free to reveal which characters you fancy. (Don't be shy - I'm pretty sure none of them are blog readers.)

Emma, are you ready for your close-up?

As you can see to the left the results are in and in the first poll inspiration, uplift and sensitive handling of themes seem to be key points looked for in good books. Emma Woodhouse was the favorite by far for cover girl in the second poll. Thank you to everyone who voted in the polls!

Monday, October 6, 2008

First Term at Malory Towers is dated but delightful

Now, you see, this is what I wish kids were still reading. Good old fun stuff with no mention of wetbars anywhere to be seen. Kids just being kids, getting into mischief, making friends, unabashedly loving their schools, having fun. Apparently, at some point in history kids enjoyed this sort of thing.

Some kids, the kind who like old-fashioned stories, still will. There are plenty of old-style or at least very Englishy, terms here like 'jolly,' 'hark,' 'hols' for 'holidays, and 'dormie' for dormitory. Characters feel swells of love in their hearts for their boarding school, Malory Towers, and the author's not writing it out of sarcasm. No worrying about being nerdy (or dorky or whatever the kids call it these days). The book is as unashamed of its own feelings and statements as tiny children are. When was the last time you saw a child of three worry about being cool? You don't because they don't. And neither does this book.

This story of a girl's first term at a boarding school is not the tightest writing. It's just fun. No big storyline is really carried through the novel; it's just a string of engaging events linked by the theme of a student's first year. The point of view is sometimes from one character, sometimes from another in a way that is just simple rather than confusing. This is not great literature in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice but it's great anyway and is, in its own way, a classic.

Thoughts on reading Enid Blyton's First Term at Malory Towers

I might have read Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series when I was a child. I might have thoroughly loved it and it might have led me to other Blyton books which would probably have led, as reading books does tend to do, to discovering other authors who, as it stands now, have gone unread.

I might have, but I didn't and I find it sad. This is not because I didn't read as a child, but because I can see both my reading life and the rest of life being made richer in the process. There's a world of authors out there for children but when you're nine years old you don't scour libraries worldwide to make sure you're not missing out on anybody's good books. So, this British writer, whom I know that the little Jemima would have adored, has only been discovered and enjoyed in later life, when things are much different for the reader.

Taking in a book, experiencing and processing it, is quite different from childhood to adulthood. I'm not quite as absorbed in boarding school tales today as I would have been as a ten year old. But, then? Boy, would I ever have been! Still, I'm able to appreciate (with a slightly saddened heart) what I would have loved at that age.

My reading life as a child seems to have run like a parallel universe to my actual life. It wasn't exactly me driving that yellow convertible in River Heights and solving mysteries with Bess and George, or me frustrated with my older sister Beezus and being babysat and fed graham crackers and apple juice with annoying Willa Jean. Nonetheless, Nancy Drew and Ramona Quimby hung around me, affected my views on the world, and helped inform my fantasy life. That was my reading life. But there was room for more. So, I know Enid Blyton's Darrell Rivers, student at the idyllic Malory Towers, would have had a place there, as well. When I find books like the Malory Towers series, then, I think to myself, there's my lost reading life. There are all the books that went unread and could have filled up a second childhood of sitting on the porch or the couch at the bay windows on a sunny afternoon with my small nose pointed toward the page.

Linguists talk about a critical age at which language must be learned by children or it will not be learned properly or at all. From my experience I'd dare to suggest that there's a critical age for experiencing the transporting nature of stories. If you don't take the trip that books offer at that moment in life, you've declined ever taking quite the same journey.

But, alas, that's over and what can be done, really? To find that there are so many good books in the world that no child could possibly ever read them all is an embarrassment of wealth. So I only scraped the surface of what was out there? So what? There's a reward in itself to being a grown-up who lingers on the thought of lost reading lives, understands what she did have and wonders about what she could have had.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Comments on Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day, A Memoir

Daniel Tammet's lovely book is called Born on a Blue Day, A Memoir. Tammet is an Englishman who was born with autism and synesthesia. It is a crisply written autobiographical work, a window into the brain of an individual with mental abilities that are unfathomable save for some bits of insight he provides. The descriptions of the workings of his mind are invaluable to those who do not have his conditions. One reads Born on a Blue Day and breathes a sigh of thankfulness that a member of a population which can have such a challenging time expressing itself is able to benefit the rest of the world with such an account. It is written in a clear and relatively understandable manner and, at times, the synesthesia can actually sound somewhat relatable, begging the reader to wonder if the claims that we are all to some degree synesthetic must not be true.

To get a taste right away for what synesthesia is Tammet entitled his book with a reference to his condition. He was born on a Wednesday which, to him, is a day that is the color blue. This type of association is what synesthesia is about; two unrelated things, a number and a color or a texture, perhaps, are connected. Some of the descriptions by Tammet are made up of wonderful images. He writes, for instance, that, "Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow." Tammet describes his method of calculation which incorporates these synesthetic qualities. He supplements his explanations with drawn diagrams showing the calculative process. Chapters are headed not only by chapter titles, but also by sketches which I suspect are visual representations of the numbers. Such a nice touch to see what 3 looks like in Tammet's mind by glancing at the beginning of chapter three.

Particularly touching is his description of falling in love and, indeed, love is a theme that arises time and again in this book. It seems to be a theme in Tammet's life. This is capped off by Tammet's recitation of 1 Corinthians's famous lines of what love is and what love is not. The quote is a fitting end to a book which seems to have love as its refrain - the love of a son for his parents, parents for their son, sibling's for each other, friend for friend, man for man. It also underscores the irony of how the feelings of the autistic are so easily misunderstood by the rest of society.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

For Regency ladies who want to be in the know...

New poll!

After toying with my open office software and with Microsoft, too, I finally was able to make a mock magazine cover, only to find blogger didn't accept it. Thus, I had to search the internet for a way to convert to a jpeg image and, la, you see the product below. Note to all: I found this image of Lizzie Bennet on google images. No copyright infringement is intended.

Why did I even do this? Well, I thought it would be fun. Imagine a fashion and personality magazine dedicated to the women of Jane Austen's novels. Who should be the first cover girl? For the prototype I chose Lizzie. But who do you feel would best be featured in a Regency edition of Vanity Fair or Vogue? Who would you most like to have do a fashion shoot and interview?

Sort of an enjoyable 'what if' kind of question and, so, I pose it to you. For GBBS's second poll, I ask you to be the editor and decide....(The poll is at the sidebar.) Feel free to add comments here about your selection.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Can you keep a 'Secret'? A review of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

There is no character named Victoria in this novel.

Too bad.

If there was a character named Victoria here, I'd have the opportunity to make one of those "Vickie's Secrets" plays on the title. I don't know, maybe I could say, 'Victoria's secret is out and her favorite color really is pink.' Or, 'Vickie might peddle satin and lace at America's popular purveyor of tacky lingerie but her heart belongs to espionage.' Perhaps, 'Victoria, dear, some advice just in case a Pink Carnation movie is ever made: DO NOT do your own costuming!'

All this allusion to VS would not be completely out of left field, for Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation has some, ahem, provocative moments. Beware, there are some such lingering scenes. So you're happily plowing through the novel and then - Whoa, baby!- there's a truly intimate interlude. A few times.

Parents, teachers, readers inclined to blush easily - just wanted to let you know.

With all that said allow me to continue about this contagiously entertaining novel. It begins all innocence and fun scene-setting in England and France, a sweet little tale apparently written on the side by a Harvard law student, very girlie. And it pretty much stays that way throughout the book save for those handful of pages previously discussed. There are few, if any, swears in this novel, or any other sort of verbal vulgarity. This is not a scary book - suspenseful at times, as befits a novel of espionage - but none of the grotesque elements so often found in pop culture today. And, now that I've mentioned the spy business, I should clarify that this is the cartoon version, not at all to be taken seriously, fun for it's ridiculousness. This playful novel could not, after all, be the book it is if it took itself seriously.

It is light on true espionage, heavy on romance, highly imaginative - how did Willig come up with such a detailed floor plan for Edouard's house? - and populated with characters which are familiar and original at the same time. Reading it you feel you've met them before, in a '40s film or somewhere, but haven't had the pleasure of their company for a few years as most writers seem to take a more prurient and/or darker slant with their stars and supporting players. It's refreshing.

Basically, the main character, Amy, decides in Regency England that she wants to join an espionage ring in France. In another plotline, we have Eloise, a modern-day scholar who is studying Amy's diaries which form the entree into Amy's world.

The writing is of the effervescent ginger ale variety in its sweetness and levity, risque sections notwithstanding. The book doesn't masquerade as more literary than it is, but it is intelligent fluff.

So, decide if you're more a G, PG or R rated reader, and proceed from there. If you read it, enjoy, if not, there's always many more books on the shelf.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Polling is fun!

I've added a poll, so please feel free to share your opinion on what qualifies as a good book with a bright side. The poll closes at noon on September 22. So much more enjoyable than the general election! Don't you think so?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How the book joined her library....

Jemmie, tired of classes and scholarly work, lingered at the bargain bin at the college B&N after standing in the book buy-back line for a solid hour and a half. After a few slow yawns she shook her head and determinedly set her jaw into a no-yawn position; but she simply found her nostrils expanding when her body experienced the next sleepy impulse and she was finally forced to admit that, yes, she needed rest.

Right, Jemmie, you need to lie down, be unconscious for about 8 hours, snore deeply and unabashedly til you sound like a foghorn in the night, and -

Then she spied it. She knew her reluctance to leaving the store without spending a bit of that textbook money on a nice novel or two existed for some reason. Could this book be as promising as it looks? The lady living on the cover of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation carried such a flower in her delicate alabaster hands and the folds of her equally pink gown cascaded over her slippered feet. The book was branded with a blushing wax seal. How perfect could a cover be? But could the words inside match the promise of the outside?

She'd seen the book before but assumed it was just more of the same silly chick-lit and bad writing she'd seen so much of before in stores. That money was really wriggling around in her wallet impatient to be spent. She was yearning for a bookish cash transaction - my money, your book then your money, my book - resulting in a purchase carried home in a nice green bag after a few witty words with the cashier about the state of popular literature these days.

Certainly, she'd earned it after all her hard work, hadn't she? Yes, the book would be hers...and,the novel lived happily ever after on Jemmie's shelves....

But did Jemmie live happily with that book or did she regret the indulgence of that buy? NO REGRETS! This bears repeating. The book purchase was not a bad idea.

So keen on her novel find was Jemmie that she consented to have her experience romanticized by her book-blogging alter ego, Jemima. But surely you're wondering now how a review would go. Jemima is going to transcribes Jemmie's feelings right here on GBBS.

Stay tuned.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How d'ya like them apples an' oranges?

It seems some screenwriter has taken the lovely Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and based a fantasy called Lost in Austen on it. Now, I'm straying a bit, just a bit, from the topic of books because Lost in Austen is a television program; but, with its literary roots it seems an appropriate tangent to explore.

After thinking so much about the unfortunate-but-oddly-fun-at-the-same-time Lost in Austen, I thought back on the book Austenland by Shannon Hale. They're really quite similar (a romance in a regency-esque environment) as so many JA knock-offs tend to be, but I recently blogged about its relatively good taste.This stands in such dire contradiction to some aspects of the new Lost in Austen that I selfishly thought I'd ask JA lovers and readers a question or two: How do you compare or contrast the arguably more innocent Austenland (which has had its own criticisms of being too tame) and the arguably racier Lost in Austen?

Granted, I realize this is an apples and oranges situation, with one being a television production and one a novel, but as they are both related works of writing I thought, why not?

Is Austenland too innocent to be believable? Is Lost in Austen a bit vulgar at times?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Letter to a young high school English student, letter to my former teacher

To: Mrs C
CC: any high schooler who thinks assigned reading is loathsome

Jemima here. I have a confession. Remember the time sophomore year when you assigned The Scarlett Letter to us. I read the first chapter, ie pages 1 and 2, was stricken by the image of the rose but felt much like I would normally feel in high school - like I'd rather be watching Mystery on PBS. So I did.

And remember when you assigned Bernard Malamud's The Fixer? I read it in between points at a tennis match.

And remember when you assigned To Kill a Mockingbird? I read it! This is big because most of what you assigned went unread by this particular student. You see, for a lover of books - even then a lover - I went through stages, and this stage was the Black Hole, the Bermuda Triangle, the Star Trekkian force field stage which ate up any hope of literary growth. Ah, the books I could have read and enjoyed, the progress my brain's right hemisphere might have made, the influences I missed that could have molded me at that possibly critical period of writerly development - all gone.

It is with regret that I look back on the reading non-experiences of my high school English career. All right, I wrote that great short story. All right, I learned some valuable grammar. But the books! The discussions I might have taken part in! The quizzes I would have aced!

Yes. I have regrets.

Some of the works I missed out on in virtually whole or in part: Romeo and Juliet, Hard Times, Wuthering Heights

Granted, these are not exactly what I might now call 'Good Books with a Bright Side,' but they are classics and necessary to some degree in a healthy literary diet to produce a robust, well-balanced body of reading. A reader should probably know something about these books. To speak intelligently about them, reading helps.

So, dear high schoolers of today, there are good reasons you are being asked to read certain books. And you have an opportunity now to engage in vigorous debate and interesting discussion that we adults salivate over the thought of and which we form book groups to attain. This, during hectic lives when reading is a luxury. And you get to do it for your work! How many forty-year olds would love that? Many, I can assure you.

Now, if you're reading this blog, I might just be preaching to the choir, but at least I put my unfortunate reading past into words. Whew, what a load off!

Good reading,

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