Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Wilder Life (by Wendy McClure)

This is a book that we own in both hardcover and paperback, a book written by a friend that I adore, a book that I kept dipping into but kept procrastinating the actual cover-to-cover reading of. You see, I wasn't a Little House girl. I was a Little Women girl* and an Anne of Green Gables girl** and to a lesser extent a Betsy-Tacy girl and for sure a Babysitters Club girl. But I never read any of the Little House books. None! How is this possible!

(*I toured the Alcott house in Concord, and it was super awesome. We saw the real-life "Meg's" wedding dress and "Amy's" art and learned so many things about Louisa May Alcott. **On my life list or bucket list or whatever dumb name you want to call it is "do an Anne of Green Gables tour of Prince Edward Island." I want to go so bad.)

So my idea was that I was going to read the Little House books before I read all of Wendy's book. And then Wendy came to town and I bought yet another copy of her book (supporting my friend! supporting local bookstores!) and then I opened it and got sucked into the narrative and realized that it really didn't matter that I hadn't read the Little House books, because Wendy is such an awesome writer and her prose just sucked me in and it's funny and smart and a terrific little glimpse into this Little House world.

I mean, I still want to read the Little House books (even more now, since I've been pre-sold on them now). But I can assure you that even if you haven't, you will still love The Wilder Life. Because Wendy McClure is an awesome writer. The end.


Friday, May 18, 2012

The Big Year (by Mark Obmascik)

I enjoyed the movie The Big Year so much that I felt compelled to read the book! And it is definitely a fun book, with lots of detail that enhances the movie experience. (The movie actually takes some smart creative license, giving it a more satisfying if less factual ending. But they are each fun in their own way.)

Obmascik did a ton of interviews for the book, but presents it more as a story--that is, he describes the inner emotional experiences of the characters, even if it seems like some of these emotional scenes are basically speculative. He also throws in wisecracks here and there. (Some moments are a weird combination of the two, like, "Komito joined the circle around the bird and put his camera in. He took his camera out. He put his camera in and clicked it all about. He got his yellow rail and he turned himself around. That, he thought, is what it's all about.") 

It's also not always clear where the competitors are in relation to each other geographically, or what their count is at any given time. I would probably have preferred a slightly different, more "objective" tone. But I did really get invested in the characters and enjoy reading about their adventures. Definitely whetted my appetite for books and blogs about big years.* And I'm glad they made a movie out of it!

(*I can also highly recommend John Vanderpoel's blog of his 2011 Big Year. Pretty amazing.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Loving (by Henry Green)

This book is the shortest one on my list but it took me a while to read. Green has a modernist style--part of it is that he omits commas often, and switches point of view abruptly--which means that this short book, though it's filled with dialogue, feels dense somehow.

This is the story of an English family living in an Irish castle during World War II, and most of the story is concerned with the servants of that family, although there are some sections focusing on the spoiled Mrs. Tennant and her daughter-in-law Violet. None of the characters are exactly sympathetic (though I did feel for Kate, who seems to be in love with Edith, towards the end of the book). The main character is probably Charley Raunce, the butler, who isn't wholly evil or anything, but isn't exactly sympathetic either. I wasn't really invested in any of the characters, except maybe Albert, who is also in love with Edith.

I've read some reviews of the book, and though a lot of people mention the naturalistic, rich dialogue and the offbeat modernist sensibility, I haven't seen anyone mention the running joke about the house itself. Every time the house is described it gets more and more ridiculous. Here are just a few offhand examples (the "trumpet" refers to part of the daffodil, by the way, not an actual musical instrument):

"She moved over to another table. She pushed the ashtray with one long lacquered oyster nail across the black slab of polished marble supported by a dolphin layered in gold."

"In one of the malachite vases, filled with daffodils, which stood on tall pedestals of naked male children without wings, he had seen a withered trumpet."

"As she rubbed the shoulder of her husband's mother she was surrounded by milking stools, pails, clogs, the cow byre furniture all in gilded wood... the white marble mantelpiece was a triumph of scuptured reliefs depicting on small plaques various unlikely animals, even in one instance a snake, sucking milk out of full udders."

There is a flock of peacocks on the grounds for Mrs. Tennant to "look at," and a "complete copy of a Greek temple." Every detail adds to the ridiculousness! The absolute best part is this one:

"Now coal was so short it was only a small peat fire she could lay each morning in the butler's room... this no doubt could be her excuse to get him to take his cup along with her to one of the living rooms where huge fires were kept stoked all day to condition the old masters."

It took me a second, but then the contrast cracked me up. The butler gets only a small fire due to the coal shortage and then we immediately find out that Mrs. Tennant is burning huge fires--in multiple living rooms--ALL DAY LONG--just for the paintings that are hung there.

I think this book is fairly subtle in general, actually. It might be one to re-read eventually.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Hearing Secret Harmonies: Book Twelve of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

I did it! I reached the end of the 3000-or-so-pages Dance to the Music of Time series. And I have to say I will miss always having the latest volume in the Kindle app on my phone.  (After all, I've been reading the series since last August.)

My feelings are pretty much in line with those of Christopher Culver, the one guy on Amazon who has read and reviewed the whole series. I don't know if I would call this the weakest book in the series--it does at least have pagan sex orgies to liven it up--and I definitely don't think the homosexuality is a problem, or that it's overdone. (The book seems to take place in the 70s, so it's certainly not out of place culturally.) But I do think that introducing a cult and the character of Scorpio is far from the most interesting direction Powell could have gone. I want to read more about why he made that choice, as opposed to keeping the final novel more on the level of more quiet interpersonal drama.

(Oh, speaking of which, we learn absolutely nothing about the narrator's kids, even though by now they are adults. The whole family goes to a big wedding at the end, and the kids don't show up, even though some of their cousins play major roles in the plot. We don't learn their names, what they do, how many of them there are, anything.)

Anyway, sorry, just kind of getting my initial thoughts out here in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. What I was saying was, if I had to pick a "weakest volume" it would probably be book nine, which bored me. This book definitely didn't bore me. (See above re: pagan sex orgies.) I think Powell was trying to offer his views of the 60s counterculture. The narrator tolerates a lot (he doesn't even recoil from the NECROPHILIAC who marries HIS NIECE in this book) but he doesn't quite understand it, it seems like. This volume is a convincing portrait of an aging man, watching people drop in and out of his life, watching the next generation take his place.

I guess my biggest frustration is that the fate of Widmerpool, the series's antagonist, is pretty cartoonish and not quite convincing.  But overall, I really did enjoy reading this entire series. There is some lovely writing, there are compelling characters, interesting ideas, an epic flavor to the whole thing. I don't know if I would say this is a must-read--read War and Peace first for the epic-ness, and read Brideshead Revisited first to get a feeling for this milieu--but I'm definitely happy I had the experience.

Here are two quotes--one fun one about the role of the novelist, and one thematic one. Thanks for reading all my ramblings about this series!

"You mention Molly Bloom. She offers an example of what I am saying. Obviously her sexual musings—and her husband's—derive from the author, to the extent that he invented them. Such descriptions would have been a thousand times less convincing, if attributed to Stephen Dedalus—let alone to Joyce himself. Their strength lies in existence within the imaginary personalities of the Blooms. That such traits are much diminished, when given to a hero, is even to some extent exemplified in Ulysses. It may be acceptable to read of Bloom tossing off.  A blow by blow account of the author doing so is hardly conceivable as interesting."

"In any case it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtails members of the cast, items of the scenery, airs played by the orchestra, in the performance that has included one’s own walk-on part for more than a few decades, simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed. Mummers return, who might have been supposed to have made their final exit, even if – like Dr Trelawney and Mrs Erdleigh – somewhat in the rôle of Hamlet’s father. The touching up of time-expired sets, reshaping of derelict props, updating of old refrains, are none of them uncommon."

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Sunday, May 06, 2012

Unsinkable (by Daniel Allen Butler)

I picked up this book on the Titanic sinking last month, and was reading it on the anniversary of the sinking. Well written, very vivid, lots of detail I hadn't known before. A little stingy on pictures. (Especially since the author talked about pictures that then weren't included in the book.)

I noticed two things while reading: one, this guy really loves Walter Lord (and has no use for James Cameron; in the updated afterword, he makes a comment to the effect that A Night to Remember is still the one true Titanic movie). Secondly, there's a little bit of a weird attitude--for instance, he makes this remark about interest in the wreck:

Once the centennial of the Titanic disaster passes in April 2012, the transient, superficial interest of those who habitually ride the cresting wave of whatever is most fashionable at any given moment will inevitably vanish into oblivion, though little if anything of consequence will be lost when that happens.

This is a little disingenuous coming from a guy who just released a special 2012 edition of his book. Are people who are interested in the Titanic around the centennial really all "superficial" and mindless? (I don't include myself, regardless. I've been fascinated with the Titanic for years.)

Anyway in reading the reviews on Amazon, I found out a bunch of rumors about this guy--that he based his book on Walter Lord's without correcting some of Lords errors, that he's belligerent to other historians, that he makes unfounded assumptions. So basically, there are probably better Titanic books out there. I still found a lot to enjoy, though.