Friday, June 26, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

About ten years ago I belonged to one of those big "book clubs." You know the ones. They send you a brochure every month. You can choose the selection for that month, or order something else from the catalog by sending in the little card that accompanies the brochure.  If you don't send in the little card advising you do NOT want the selection of the month, it is automatically sent to you (and charged to your credit card.)  It is a very successful marketing model since it taps into the fact that so many of us are (a) procrastinators, (b) forgetful, or (c) so disorganized we will lose the little card and never find it before the deadline runs out.  That is how I originally came to own the hardbound version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  I had never heard of it, wasn’t interested in it, and lifted it up to a bookshelf where its substantial girth took up considerable real estate.  I looked upon it as another unnecessary financial outlay and resolved to mend my disorganized, forgetful and procrastinating ways.  But then my eldest child came to visit.

He was an early reader, having taught himself (apparently, because I didn’t teach him) at the age of 3.  I used to joke I bought him books by the pound rather than by storyline.  The bigger and heftier the book, the happier my boy.  He saw Jonathan Strange on the shelf, had heard the buzz, and with my blessing took it with him when he left.  I never thought of it again.  Fast forward 9 years. 

There are times when I am absolutely driven to find and read a book.  I usually can’t remember what triggers the obsession.  In the case of Jonathan Strange I may have heard that BBC America was about to unleash a TV series based upon it.  But I’m a little vague on that as well.  In any event, I placed myself in the library queue.  I was first in line and I could have waited.  But when it wasn’t ready by the second day I simply couldn’t stand the suspense any longer.  I ordered the paperback version from Barnes & Noble, which promised to have it delivered within 3 business days – free shipping.  When a book weighs in at over 1000 pages, free shipping clinches the deal to my way of thinking.

I’ve been dragging this doorstop of a book around with me for 11 days.  To the car wash, to the car dealership, to the hair salon, to the bank, to the office.  Wherever and whenever I think I’ll have the slightest minute of downtime.  I’ve left it (reluctantly) behind when I know it would be inexcusably rude to pull it out to read (like at lunch with a friend), or just plain wrong (like church).  But I have to admit, it’s painful. 

I’ve been trying to take it slow; that’s not easy.  It is so completely absorbing I really have to force myself to put it down and step away from it.  I am a little over half-way finished and I’m already feeling a little panicked.  At this rate, it will all be over in another week.  And then what shall I read?  “Will anything ever be this good again?” I ask myself.  When I've read the last page and closed the back cover, I expect it will take a long time to find another book that I can live in.  Oh yes,yes, I know.  I hear you thinking, “Isn’t she being a bit dramatic.”  No.  I am not.  In fact, I will go further.  There are words that have been invented to describe a book like this.  They include “magnificent,” “inventive,” “unique,” “mesmerizing,” intelligent,” “eloquent,” “enchanting,” “meticulous.”  Dear me.  I am slobbering, aren’t I. 

I’ve been having a lot less luck with the TV series.  It airs on Saturday at 10:00 p.m.  I am an early riser who finds it difficult to stay up past 9:00 p.m.  A hopeless wimp to whom New Year’s Eve is the day when people call me at midnight, waking me from peaceful slumber wishing me to be happy and creating the opposite effect.  I made it through about 15 minutes of Episode 1, was completely zonked out before Episode 2 even started, but am determined to put up a fight when Episode 3 rolls around tomorrow.  Hot coffee, sharp objects, an ice bath.  Figuring out whether I get “BBC America On Demand” is another option.  Although the remote scares me.  Or there is always the option of ordering the first season on DVD when made available

How is it that a book of this length seems too short?  The fact that the writing style remains consistent and sharp throughout is in itself a marvel, but it is the imaginative building of the story line –episode by episode - that is truly remarkable.  The novel is peppered with footnotes – some several pages long – which one would think would be terribly distracting when, in fact, they add immeasurably to the back story.  One can say it is a literary alchemy of sorts which, since the book is about magic, is just as it should be.  

I must remember to ask my son if he ever read the book.  The one I wish I’d have hidden under the sofa rather than leave it exposed on the bookshelf to be purloined by a book usurper.  The one I should have grabbed back while growling, “Get your own copy.”  After all, there are limits to the sacrifices a mother must or should make for her children. 

This, my friends, is the book I wish I could have written and I can’t give it higher praise that that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787

I will be the first to admit that when it comes to television I tend to live under a rock.  But books…now that’s another story altogether.  So where have I been since 1945 when Winston Graham penned Ross Poldark:  A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787?  Not yet born for some of those years, granted.  But what is my excuse for the decades that followed?  And even though I have never been a big fan of TV, the exception has always been the fabulous offerings of PBS, especially via BBC productions.  I learned that the books had been produced for television back in the 1970s, like Upstairs Downstairs.  It was a big hit.  And yet…crickets chirping.

So when I heard, in a very casual way, that there was a new series coming to PBS in a few weeks called Poldark based on a series of books that have been around for quite some time, I did a little internet surfing.  What I read did not particularly grab me:  Ross Poldark, a British Army officer returns to Cornwall after having fought for the Crown in the Revolutionary War only to find his fiancĂ© betrothed to his cousin and his family estate in ruins.  “Oh.  A romance novel,” I yawned deflated.  Not exactly my cup of gin.  Like a cherry on the top, the cover of the newly released book was even less appealing.  I would not have been surprised to find Fabio on the cover.  But I have great faith in the BBC and PBS.  “So, where’s the trust?” I asked myself.  The old adage is true:  one really can’t judge a book by its cover.  Or its blurbs.

I found a site that offered a sampling.  I just love samples, don’t you?  Yes, I do find them hard to pass up.  Be it cheese cubes, tortilla chips, warm pralines, shrimp on a toothpick, it doesn’t seem to matter.  Thinking “just a nibble,” I began with the prologue (yum) and read through the first chapter of the first volume (of which there are apparently 12).  It was over all too soon.  And as is the purpose of all good samples, when the “taste” was over I wanted more.  I was hooked and thrown into the boat.

My plan was to run over to my favorite bookstore at lunch and grab a copy today. (oh joy)  But a quick phone call confirmed they did not have it in stock.  (oh groan)  But since the order for today had not gone out (I called as soon as they opened), I could possibly have it in my mitts by Friday. (oh joy).  Having thus assuaged my “bookie” conscience by buying from my independent bookstore first (because if they disappear I'll blame myself), I ordered the second volume, Demelza:  A Novel of Cornwall 1788-1790 from Barnes & Noble, which I should receive by Monday at a fairly nice savings and free shipping. 

If all goes as planned, when the series starts on Sunday, June 21, I’ll have consumed both volumes and be fully satiated, smugly able to sit back and judge the quality of the production, and fully anticipating the banquet of 10 more volumes to go!!  I’ll try not to burp.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Buried Giant

So, you get a gift.  The giver is someone who can always surprise you with his unique style.  As you turn the object over in your hands you can clearly tell it is something that was finely crafted and is somehow both sturdy and delicately wrought.  But…”What is it?  What does it do?” you ask.  “Well, see, you turn this lever and twist it here and pop that open and hold it like this.”  “Oh.  Yes.  It’s lovely, beautiful even.  But…which is it…is it a can opener or is it a flashlight?”  There is a small pause before he replies, “Exactly!!”
So how shall I describe The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro?  Notwithstanding that it is populated with ogres, pixies and a dragon, I wouldn’t call it a fantasy like The Hobbit.  And although it is set in sixth or seventh century England, a time following the collapse of the Roman Empire when medieval Europe was experiencing economic and cultural decline – and there is talk of lingering hostility between the Britons and the Saxons following the bloody war years - it certainly is not historical fiction.  You may think that because Sir Gawain, the nephew of the now-dead but legendary King Arthur, enters the picture as an old and tottering knight on a mission of his own that the novel should be classified as a myth…or perhaps an allegory.  The only thing I can say about its genre with any certainty is this:  The Buried Giant is odd.
The main characters are Britons Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple who live in a warren cut into a hillside.  Their neighbors have taken away their only candle for fear they are too old to be trusted not to start a fire by some careless act of neglect.  Beatrice resents this and refuses to resign herself to living in the dark.  It is a time when the land is covered in a dense and unyielding mist that clouds everything, including memory and all thoughts of the past.  In a momentary break in her own fog, Beatrice suddenly remembers that Axl and she have a grown son living in another village which might be reached within a few days walk.  She convinces her husband that they should leave the place of darkness and go to find their son.  Despite their age and infirmity, and although they realize the journey will be dangerous, they set out to do just that.   But danger can come in many shapes and forms; it can come from without as well as from within.  Sometimes it comes with remembering the past.
The landscape of this novel is more than figuratively desolate and at times it is overwhelmingly atmospheric and as weighty as a Delta summer.  But there are also moments of comic relief, kindness, and devotion.  That Axl and Beatrice love each other is reinforced for the reader with astonishingly simple grace:  "Are you still there, Axl?"  "I'm still here, Princess."  
If, as I did, you loved The Remains Of The Day or Never Let Me Go and you expect this newest novel to be similar in some way to either, you should prepare yourself to be disappointed.  To approach this book with any such expectation is to do it an injustice; it is maddeningly unique.  To be honest, at times I asked myself, “What am I reading here…and why?”  If  Don Quixote married The Wizard of Oz and begot Morte d’Arthur, would The Buried Giant be a second cousin once removed?   The answer came back,  Ishiguro is, after all, Ishiguro.  .  Masterful writing rests within the hands of the masterful writer.  No surprise there.  Truthfully, I am currently unable to grab hold of what makes this book so mesmerizing.  Perhaps I lack the mental muscle to properly dissect it.  Not on the first go-round in any event.

I would be hard-pressed to rate this book with “stars.”  It is so multi-layered it demands re-reading to get to the core…the sweet nutmeat…the “aha” kernel.  Did I love it?  Did I like it?  My opinion should not matter.  My advice to those of you who are determined to press onward through the labyrinth (and I do recommend as much):  relinquish your preconceptions, open your imagination, and stay buckled in.  The roads are rough, bumpy and will chill a person.  You may get bitten by a memory - which can fester or leave a scar.  Or overcome by the past as it rushes towards you and makes you wobbly, dazed and uncertain.  You may get lost in the mist that clings to every branch and bog.  But if you make it through, you will know what I've been trying to tell you...and further explanation will not be required.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Shadow Of The Wind

Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day – The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Luis Zafon

            When was the last time you were completely and utterly lost in a book?  A time when you came to the end, closed the cover, and emerged glassy-eyed and waiting to regain your bearings, reluctant to return to the real world.  I think, perhaps, it happens more often in childhood than adulthood.  You remember those summer afternoons being transported to Oz or falling down the rabbit hole or being yanked back to earth from the Land of Mordor only because your mother is calling you to supper, don’t you.  You do if you loved to read as a child.  Every now and again, however, it can happen when you’re old enough to know that magic isn’t real, that it’s all in the flick of the wrist.  But every once in a while you’ll pick up a book, begin to read, and realize – notwithstanding all your years of living - that there are all kinds of magic in which to believe.

            It is the summer of 1945.  Daniel Sempere’s father, the owner of a shop that specializes in antiquarian books, wakes him just before dawn and tells him to get dressed.  “I want to show you something,” he says.  Daniel follows his father through the narrow, hazy lanes of Barcelona until they stop in front of a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity – the entrance to what resembles a crumbling palace.  “Daniel,” his father cautions, “you mustn’t tell anyone what you’re about to see today.” The door is opened by a man whom his father greets with familiarity.  “Good morning, Isaac.  This is my son, Daniel.”   Inside Daniel is stunned by what he sees:  labyrinths of passageways and corridors and halls, crammed from floor to soaring ceiling with bookshelves full of books.  “Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel,” his father winks.

            His father explains that they have entered a place of mystery.  That every book within the walls has a soul.  The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read and lived with it and dreamed with it.  “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”   A book that is forgotten – whether it be from the closing of a bookstore, the disappearance of a library, or simply consigned to oblivion – those who know of and guard this sanctuary make certain it comes here to live, waiting for the day when it will reach a new reader’s hands.

 Daniel’s father explains that according to tradition, the first time someone visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he (or she) must choose a book and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear and that it will always stay alive.  “It is a very important promise.  For life.”  On this day it was to be Daniel’s turn.

            As he roamed through the galleries of that seemingly boundless universe, his eyes spotted the book that he knew he would chose – or which, more precisely, had chosen him.  The gold letters of the title gleamed from the light peeking in from the glass domed ceiling. 

The Shadow Of The Wind
Julian Carax

            Taking it home with him, Daniel not only gets lost in the book, he becomes curious about its author – whose works, he learns, are being systematically hunted down and destroyed by someone unknown.  In his passion to discover who and why, he begins to unravel an amazing story of mystery, murder, and near madness, with shadowy plots and subplots and with enough ghostly gothic film noir essence, nail biting thrills, dangers lurking with every creaking floorboard, and both the nobility of the human spirit and its evil twin to keep the pages turning furiously.  I promise you, it’s pure literary seduction to which you will gladly succumb.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bel Canto

I do a fair amount of work-related driving.  This week even more so as I anticipated spending over two hours a day traveling to and from South Carolina.  Normally, the idea of getting into the car and driving around town without an audio book does not make me break out in a cold sweat.  But long-distance driving is quite another matter, so I figured it would be a very good time to "read" Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is something I've been meaning to do ever since I finished State of Wonder.

I am currently on disc 5 of 9, which brings me a little more than half-way through, and I like the story line quite a bit.  World famous opera soprano, Roxane Coss, is engaged to sing at the palatial home of the vice-president of an unnamed South American country following a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the chairman of a large Japanese electronics company.  The party is attended by rollers and shakers of industry and politically powerful personages.  The president of the unidentified country is supposed to be in attendance as well; however, the party falls on the evening his favorite soap opera is scheduled to reach its denouement.  He sends his regrets at the last minute.  Meanwhile, a terrorist organization has composed a plot to break into the house at the height of the festivities and kidnap the president.  The break-in is successful, but for obvious reasons the kidnapping is a bust. The terrorists take everyone who is in attendance hostage instead.

That is about all of the plot line I'm going to reveal, except to say a lot of the book is character study and is very well written - at least as far as I have come in the book.  Let's tally this up so far:  Plot line:  Very good; Writing:  Excellent; Character development:  Insightful.  So why am I not loving this book?  Narration.  Narration, dear readers, can kill a good book quite dead.

Because the aforementioned gala event is attended by multi-national glitterati, there are a lot of foreign accents to be heard among the crowd.  That's okay when the reader is reading inside the reader's head.  The mind sort of fills in the blanks without much notice.  But in narration?  Well, let's say in this particular instance it goes something like this:

Russian guest (predicable low voice):  "OH-prra eez wary eemporrtahnt een my cowntry."
Spanish guest:  (higher voice) "Eees eet polithicul or-r-r museeecul? Joo cahn nevahrrrr thell."
Japanese guest (halting sotto voce):  Well, there's just no way to type it, but it reminds me of Ming the Merciless in the old Flash Gordon television series.

It's a shame, really, to subject an otherwise very worthwhile book to linguistic torture.  And it is only because it is very worthwhile that I will soldier on until the end.  My advice to actors who wish to pursue a career in the book-reading biz is to ditch the phony accents.  Because unless you're David Suchet or Meryl Streep, it seldom works and you will only accomplish ruining the experience for the poor reader who, like me, is trapped inside their car contending with foul weather, traffic jams and road construction.  Is it too much to ask that you simply read the words?

As the Russian said, shaking his head, "Eees so wary froostrrating."  I hear you, pal.  I feel the same way.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In my earliest memory of...well, anything, I am 3-1/2 years old and standing next to my mother in the dining room one early, gray winter morning.  We lived in a brownstone two-flat on Lawndale Avenue in Chicago which my parents bought after the war.  It was 1951 and the dining room was cozily heated by a wood-burning stove.  She was holding a brightly colored book-order form that my sister had carried home from school.  My sister made her selections, then my mother turned to me and said I could chose one book as well.  I still remember the thrill of excitement, looking at the pictures of the book covers.  I chose The Tall Book of Make-Believe illustrated by Garth Williams.  Over fifty years later, when I was forced to evacuate my home outside Savannah, a hurricane bearing down on us, the only possession I took with me was that book. That battered, bent, raggedy-paged book.  That book which traveled with me to college, and to Europe, and to Hawaii, and eventually to an island along Georgia's coast.  In a world of possessions, it was what I could not lose.  On that cold winter morning in 1951 I was not yet a reader; but it was the moment I became a book lover.  Over the intervening years I have read many fine books, great ones, masterpieces written by gifted authors.  And yet, The Tall Book of Make-Believe remains the most important and influential book I have ever held in my hands.  For those of you who have seen Citizen Kane, it is my "Rosebud."

When I was roughly 8 years old, my parents moved us from the city to the suburbs.  The library was 7 blocks away, an easy bike ride over what were still very urban streets.  It was housed in a corner store front building; the librarian sat at a heavy oak desk to the right of the front door.  I would head directly to "my section" which was located in the back, right-hand side of the room - second row from the end.  It was from this library that I borrowed my first chapter book, The Wizard of Oz.  It was bound in an appropriately green cover, sprinkled with small yellow fleur de lis.  I wish I could find one just like it.  And then, after carrying my stack of books quietly to the desk, the librarian would hand me a pencil so I could print my name on the little pocket card.  She would pound the date stamp on the pad and "plunk" it onto the return slip glued to the inside cover.  I would pedal home, books in the basket of my bike.

As Lewis Buzbee writes in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, his very readable book about books, printing them, selling them, lusting over them,  "[t]ake someone who likes to read; give her a comfy place to do so and ample time for doing it; add one good book, and then more; stand back."  As all book-lusters know to be true, we are "drawn to the bookstore by the books that moved us, and stopping for just a moment, we stayed for a long time."
A book, as Buzbee points out, "is a uniquely durable object, one that can be fully enjoyed without being damaged.  A book doesn't require fuel, food, or service; it isn't very messy and rarely makes noise.  A book can be read over and over, then passed on to friends, or resold at a garage sale.  A book will not crash or freeze and will still work when filled with sand.  Even if it falls into the bath, it can be dried out, ironed if necessary and then finished.  Should the spine of a book crack so badly the pages fall out, one simply has to gather them before the wind blows them away and wrap with a rubber band."

It is clear that Lewis Buzbee loves the physical book, the printed version, the real McCoy.  When first published in 2006, this little volume expressed his concern that ebooks and Internet booksellers might signal the end of the bookstore and the book-book.  However, as proof of the resiliency of the printed book he asks us to take a simple test:  "Look around on the streetcar or bus or airplane and count how many e-readers you see.  None.  We still prefer that quiet rustle of the pages, and besides, how do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?"  Fast-forward to 2015, however, and it's easy to see things have changed.  Not everyone among the general readership desires the "quiet sensuality" of the printed book.  In his 2008 Afterword, he admits there's no doubt about it - it's a bad time to be a bookseller.

Yes, I loved this little volume.  What book-luster would not?  Who among us hasn't, on occasion, become a "book snoop," straining to make out what that person sitting across from you on the train is reading?  Loving how the unique smell of the bookstore wafts over you as soon as you enter.  Being alone among others?  Who hasn't stopped in a bookstore for "just a moment" and stayed a long time? I have no idea whether the bookstore or the printed book will survive as technology presses on.  Or whether a young reader in the next millennium will find the same satisfaction in flipping electronic pages as I did reading under the covers with a flashlight, or peddling home, basket heavy with Nancy Drew or Heidi or that silly Mrs. Goose And Her Friends.  Or printing my name on the flyleaf.  This book belongs to ME.

But one thing will always be true:  When one opens the covers of a book, the universe unfurls itself.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rhapsody In Blue(s)

My latest book order came!  I had not realized I color coded my choices.  Was it a trend?  Had I been doing this subconsciously for a while?  Impossible!  Preposterous!  So, I checked.  The month before I walked out of the bookstore with The Crystal Cave and The Sun Also Rises tucked under an arm.

The Sun Also Rises
The Crystal Cave (Arthurian Saga, #1)

and then there was the book order comprised of:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

The proof, as they say, is in the cover art.  I have no idea how long this has been going on.  Is it a sign of something deeper, more psychological, than the lure of a color wheel?  Wouldn't it be fun to take all the books one owns and line them up by hue?  Just to see how it looked?  Discover your primary palette for prose!  Define your literary pigment.  Achieve the ultimate crayolafication of your reading life!  Are you a tranquil blue, a dignified gray, a tender pink?  Or perhaps you are:

The Camerons