Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Dreamed A Dream

Beauty. What is it, really? Can we quantify it...or qualify it? Is it possible to break it down into an outline, catalogue it, or measure its breadth or depth as if it were the ocean? Or is it something than can be charted and tracked? The stars have beauty. We can calculate their distance from the earth, their age, their luminosity. So, what of people? How do we measure the beauty of the person? Do we look into that sparkling spot that is in each of us to find it hidden there?

A stodgy, middle-aged spinster stepped upon the stage. Her dress was of a slightly dated style; it covered a body - not fat - but simply shapeless. Her graying hair bobbled in disarray. Although her eyes had a certain sparkle, one could see why they were easily overlooked, being upstaged as they were by the thicket of her impossibly heavy brows. She is the invisible woman you pass on the street, or who sits across from you on the train. No one important. No one special. Once you part, you would not be able to describe her. No one so plain, so nondescript, could carry within her anything of truly enormous beauty...correct? So assumed the audience. So assumed her judges. So would we all have assumed, if we had been present. But then, she began to sing and, suddenly, beauty burst from her like a super nova magnifying in brilliance with each luminous note.

The song she sang was from Les Miserables, a story of beauty and of courage. A story about redemption. "I dreamed a dream in times gone by, When hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die, I dreamed that God would be forgiving..." Susan Boyle: spinster, singer, and beauty of great proportion. Please watch it unfold.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Literary Meme

A meme from Litlove is just the ticket for today.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

Non-Fiction: Will and Ariel Durant
Fiction: Charles Dickens, followed by Dick Francis (I have no idea why - I've only read Reflex by him), J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth George and Jane Austen. I have tons of books, but really not more than 8 by any single author.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

Sadly now out of print, The Tall Book of Make-Believe (the over-loved, well worn original from early childhood, and a replacement given to me by my brother to make up for the missing pages in the original.)

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Never use a preposition to end a sentence up with. But I really didn't notice.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Atticus Finch and Severus Snape -- the good and the dangerous.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?

Les Miserables - so often I can repeat some of it by heart. I love the story of Jean Valjean and never tire of it.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?

The Wonderful Wizard of OZ by L. Frank Baum. I didn't read any of the other thirteen OZ books. However, when he was a boy, my son John asked for the full set one Christmas. He's read them all.

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

The Story of Edward Sawtelle. Since I don't follow Oprah, I didn't know it was an "Oprah" book until long after I read it. I hated it; everyone else loved it apparently. I did not see the analogy to Shakespearean tragedy. I thought it was boring, rambling, and sorely in need of some editing. I probably have no taste.

8 ) What is the best book you've read in the past year?

Very difficult, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen would be among the best, for different reasons. Water For Elephants was certainly a more enjoyable read, but I thought The Book Thief was masterful.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?

I would never force, but only suggest. Water for Elephants is a wonderful tale, colorful, and very uplifting. I think most readers would find it time well-spent and they would not curse my name during or after.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

As George Bernard Shaw, himself a laureate, once said of the prize: "Only a dynamiter or a fiend could have invented it." I have heard other critics state that it has more to do with political zeal than critical judgment. I don't know enough about the process used in arriving at a selection, or the criteria involved, to form a personal opinion. I never follow who is on the short list. That said, it certainly does wonders for the winner's book sales.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

Sea of Poppies, by Amitov Ghosh. It has it all: love, sex, reversals of fortune, falls from grace, adventure (on the high seas and otherwise), and pirate jargon. If it did well at the box office, there would also be grist for sequels since it is the first of a proposed trilogy.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Part of its beguiling magic is the blending of the written word and the hand drawings. A movie would destroy that balance entirely.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

I've never dreamt about any of those. Pathetically, my dreams usually revolve around work, doing the same task over and over. However, if I could choose to dream about a book or literary character, I would dream about Severus Snape snatching me up on his broomstick for a moonlight ride over Hogwarts.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

I'm not sure what is considered, "low brow," but I guess it would be Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann - in a genre of books most commonly referred to as a "pot boiler," I believe. It was a terrible book made into an even more terrible movie - a movie so bad you just have to sit there and watch it - for the sake of its sheer awfulness. I wish I could remember some of the hideous lines. It's certainly a "must see."

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

Without a doubt, The Freedom of the Will by Austen Farrer. (A volume of Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University 1956-1957). It is complex, subtle, and can take a lifetime to fully study. I was introduced to it by a philosophy professor of mine in college and pull it off the shelf once every few years to read a few paragraphs. (Yes, paragraphs.) It's really too much to sit and read through, although I did that once just to see if I could.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

Not sure how obscure they are. I guess all of them are obscure to someone. Maybe As You Like It or Cymbeline? They don't get as much attention, for instance, as Hamlet or Othello or Merchant of Venice. Shorty (my Mom) gave me a two volume set of The Complete Shakespeare, all his plays and sonnets, for Christmas when I was in college. I've read almost all of them. My favorite of his plays are A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew - obviously, I like his comedies better than the tragedies.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

When it comes to 19th century literature, I love them both. I've already professed my love for Victor Hugo. But Tolstoy (Anna Karenina) is way up there as well.

18 ) Roth or Updike?

Uh, oh. One of those embarrassing gaps mentioned in 22. However, I do have The Plot Against America by Philip Roth that I'm meaning to read.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Gap? What gap?

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

That's very difficult. My daughter loves The Canterbury Tales, my eldest son loves Paradise Lost. Both discussed them with me when they were in high school, and they brought their enthusiasm with them. So, I have a fondness for each. Personally, I guess I'll go with Shakespeare.

21) Austen or Eliot?

That's really too difficult. I love Jane Austen, but Silas Marner was one of my favorite books. So I think it has to be a draw.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I'm never embarrassed not to have read a particular author or genre. No one can ever be so well-read as to have covered it all. Also, since I've been out of school for many moons now, I read literature for pure pleasure, not to fill in gaps. I am an eager learner, however, and usually follow up on a recommendation if one is given to me. I am less likely to have read the more contemporary authors. My reading taste has always been more classical, especially 19th century. But I've got big gaps there as well. Since finding book bloggers, I've been lead to some wonderful authors, many contemporary, that I would otherwise have never considered reading.

23) What is your favorite novel?

I seldom have a favorite anything, but Les Miserables wins this, hands down.

24) Play?

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, for many reasons. First, Williams was expert at writing about human frailties and emotions. However, when I was a junior in college, Julie Haydon came to live on our campus as "Actress In Residence." She played Laura, the central figure of the play, in the original Broadway production and had been married to the highly acclaimed and world famous (but by then dead) drama critic, George Jean Nathan. While she was in residence, our drama group performed The Glass Menagerie in her honor. Then too old to reprise her role as Laura, she instead played Laura's mother, Amanda Wingfield - the faded, tragic Southern belle reduced to a life of despair and longing, whose husband went out on an errand one day, and failed to return home. She recites one of my favorite lines from the play as she is conversing with "the gentleman caller" explaining her abandonment. Although I can't remember it with exactness, it went something like, "My husband went to work for the phone company...and fell in love with long distance." (You've got to say it with a Southern drawl to get the full effect.) Anyway, Julie Haydon was a mysterious, beautiful figure on campus that year - always dressed in royal blue, from her hat to her shoes. One day, I ran into her on the street and asked for her autograph. Instead, out of her purse, she pulled a small card with a picture of the Blessed Virgin on one side, and a prayer on the other. "Write your name down for me, my dear." I did. She took the card from me, looked at my name, pressed it to her chest and closed her eyes. She opened them at last and said, "I shall always remember you in my prayers." She put the card in her purse, turned and walked down the street, leaving me in stunned silence.

25) Poem?

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, Robert Frost.

26) Essay?

That Damn Gap Thing!

27) Short story?

Any number of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories, and anything by Edgar Allan Poe, especially The Purloined Letter.

28) Work of nonfiction?

I don't have one favorite. I love biographies and history (seeing as I have my undergrad degree in history). I am currently reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and am enjoying it very much. Last year, I read Manhunt by James L. Swanson, and Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever (A memoir about her father John Cheever). I enjoyed them a great deal as well.

29) Who is your favourite writer?

Again, I'm not one for favorites. But I love many, including Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Wilkie Collins, Rumer Godden, Daphne DuMaurier, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe...just too many.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

I really can't answer that one. I am not familiar enough with contemporary writers. In my extremely humble and inexpert opinion, though, I would say The Story of Edward Sawtelle was the most overrated book. I hasten to add it is an opinion almost no one shares.

31) What is your desert island book?

If I'm going to be on the island for any length of time at all, I'll need more than one: I'll take Les Miserables by Victor Hugo; The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy; and the entire History of Civilization series by Will and Ariel Durant. If there's enough room on the raft, I'd throw in all the Harry Potter books - for fun.

32) And… what are you reading right now?

I'm several chapters into Team of Rivals by Goodwin. But I just started The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, and as it's a library book, I want to get it finished as soon as possible.

I am feeling a little nostalgic right now, after remembering Julie Haydon. I leave you with these lines spoken by Laura's brother in The Glass Menagerie - after he leaves home, never to return:

"I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. . . . I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. . . . I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!"

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Read-A-Thon

I had not heard of a Read-A-Thon until Debi's post about one coming up this last Saturday, from 8:00 a.m. EST, to 8:00 a.m. the next day. Since I had only Friday to plan for it, I admit I was not fully prepared for 24 hours of pure reading, but I tried my best. Friday evening, I did as much housework as I could, and then got a good night's sleep. My plan of action was to read all mysteries and/or thrillers. Unfortunately, my library branch did not have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is usually on "scariest books I've ever read" lists. I thought it would be just the ticket to keep me up during the wee hours - the "witching hours." Anyway, I had a good stack to work on. Because I get up early anyway, I admit I cheated. I started earlier than I was supposed to - at around 6:00 a.m. beginning with Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. I hadn't read anything by Winspear, and enjoyed the book enormously. However, I 'm not sure I would categorize it as a mystery. I found that I could take the dog out and continue to read at the same time; but, I could not take him for a walk for fear we'd both wander into the path of a moving vehicle. We got our exercise by circumnavigating the house endlessly. Except for one close call with a large oak tree, we safely ended our "journey 'round the sun" after 20 minutes. If my neighbors thought my behavior odd, they did not comment. They stopped waving - I couldn't wave back. At around 11:00 a.m., I ran the vacuum - still reading. I discovered that I could load laundry into the wash, and then into the dryer, while having my nose stuck in a book as long as I didn't try to do anything fancy, like sort colors or use bleach. I'd finished Maisie Dobbs by dinner - which consisted of a piece of Cheddar, a glass of Cabernet, and some chicken tarragon salad left over from the night before - all one-handed pursuits. I probably shouldn't have had the wine, however, because one glass always leads to the next. I started A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie, and at 8:00 p.m. I took a break to watch my favorite Brit Coms on TV. As it turned out, our local PBS station was having a fund raising event and was only showing Keeping Up Appearances and the reunion segment of As Time Goes By. Usually, tinkering with my Saturday Brit Coms drives me crazy. On this occasion, I was actually grateful that I could get back to the Read-A-Thon. I resumed reading at about 11:00 p.m. Somewhere around 4:00 a.m. I woke up on the sofa, with a big wine headache; the marks of the book cover pressed into my face. I have no idea when I fell asleep. I figured it would be best if I just went to bed, and extend my read-a-thon hours over Sunday. Up again at 6:00 a.m., I blazed my way through Christie, and began Heat of the Moon by Sandra Parschall at roughly noon. Even though the read-a-thon had officially ended, I felt I had to make up for the time I spent sleeping, and read until 4:00 p.m., when it was time to get on with the rest of my life.

I gather the Read-A-Thon idea was the brain child of a blogger named Dewey who is sadly no longer with us. I did not know her; from what I have read I would have been richer for the experience. To the organizers of this event: What a fitting way to keep her memory!

After Read-A-Thon survey:

1. Which hour was most daunting for you? Obviously the ones that found me passed out on the couch.

2.Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? Something really scary for the wee hours - to stave off sleep.

3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? Only on a personal time I'll have Internet service. On every other level, this was wonderfully organized.

4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? I know what does not work, too much red wine!

5. How many books did you read? 2 and approximately one-third of another.

6. What were the names of the books you read? Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie, and started The Heat of the Moon by Sandra Parshall.

7. Which book did you enjoy most? A Murder Is Announced. Can't go wrong with Agatha Christie.

8. Which did you enjoy least? The last one, The Heat of the Moon, has not grabbed me, although it won The Agatha. Will probably get better.

9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? Not applicable.

10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? I will definitely participate if I can. Next time, I'm going to try to stay up and read for 24 hours.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I stayed at the office a little later than I had planned yesterday and made it to the library 15 minutes before closing time. Thankfully, I came armed with a list and was able to quickly maneuver through the stacks. Our library is quite small, and I knew I would not be completely successful. Nevertheless, I quickly grabbed three books: The Gathering by Ann Enright, The Heat of the Moon by Sandra Parshall, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. The last one is a chunky book - as thick as the Bible. Being very short on time in the library, I did not have time to page through any of my selections until I got home. I picked up Hugo Cabret first, opened to the first page, and began. It was a little after 9:00 p.m.; I had no intention of reading more than a chapter or two. As the clock chimed 1:00 a.m., I was closing the back cover. The book is a unique blend of written word and almost cinematic drawings - all the work of the author. The artwork is more than mere illustrations. Through them the reader is actually drawn into the story, much like watching a movie, creating a communion with Hugo in a way that words alone could not deliver. Large portions of the tale are carried by Selznick's drawings, and he swings effortlessly between the visual and the spoken word to move the storyline forward.

Hugo is an orphan, who goes to live with his alcoholic uncle in the hidden recesses of a Paris train station. His uncle, the clock keeper for the station, announces that the boy would not be attending school any longer, and he brings Hugo instead on his daily rounds of oiling and winding the many clocks. Hugo is good with machines. This proficiency serves him well when his uncle disappears and Hugo is left to keep the clocks running. Knowing that he would be forced to leave the only shelter he had if it was discovered his uncle was gone, Hugo quietly assumed the job of clock keeper for the station. But, he had another reason for wanting to remain - more important than a place to live. Hugo was working on a special project. The most important project of his life.

Before his death, Hugo's father owned a clockshop and worked part-time in an old museum taking care of the clocks there. One day, he came home and told his son that up in the attic of the museum he had found a remarkable object. The most beautiful and complicated machine he had ever seen. But the machine had been allowed to sit neglected and was rusted and broken. It was an automaton. A windup figure of a man, sitting at a desk, with pen in hand. His father believed that, if the automaton could be fixed, it would write a message. An important one.

Certain that the message buried in the windup man's broken cogs and rusted gears would save his life, repairing the automaton and bringing it to life (while trying to maintain his hiding place), became Hugo Cabret's quest. In the end, he would not only save his own life, but someone else's as well.

Hugo Cabret is a story of wonder. A story of magic. It is part fairy tale, part mystery, part history of the early days of cinema. It is a story of mending broken machines and broken dreams. A story of repairing broken lives. At the end, under the heading, "Winding It Up," Selznick brings all the parts together in one magnificent denouement. This was one of the most profound reading experiences I have had in quite some time. Tonight, I will go home and start reading something new. But, I am certain that in quiet moments my thoughts will often shift to the message of Hugo Cabret.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Joys Of Tax Day

Whew! What a week and then some. Between working late nights, going out of town, and preparing tax returns in time for the dreaded Tax Day, I feel as though I've been hit over the head several times with a ball peen hammer. Like most years, I prepared not only my own tax returns, but also Shorty's and my children's. They had to be mailed by midnight tonight, so this morning I drove into the city to take the returns to the main post office (always an exercise that puts me in a foul temper) and decided that - rather than trust the bundle to the letter box - I would actually wait in line and hand the returns to a human being - removing all doubt that I made the deadline. Three windows at the post office were open. Two of the postal workers worked in a lively, happy and efficient way. The third looked about as cheerful as someone who had been weaned on a pickle, and her manner suggested an annoyance that postal customers had the effrontery to show up on her shift. I silently prayed, "Please don't let me get her...please don't let me get her..." I watched as the line moved up, trying to calculate how long each person might take by what they were carrying..."please don't let me get her...please..." I'm now first in line. I wait - eyes darting in a panic from window to window. "Next!" shouted old pickle puss. "Hi!" I said brightly. No response. "Um...I have my tax returns here, and ..." She whipped them up and tossed them somewhere underneath the counter. "Next!" I nervously stepped aside...the line moved up. I hovered around the lobby for a moment or two, debating whether I should get back in line and ask her to give my returns back so I could drop them in the letter box. I knew, of course, that once the envelopes are in the hands of the United States Postal Service, they belong to the government and not to me. I could have kicked myself for going through the extra effort of going downtown. The island branch would have been fine. Damn, damn, damn. I drove back to the office with a furrowed brow. Where had she thrown them? Would she remember throwing them there? Were they thrown in the right place? Would they get postmarked by midnight?

After fretting awhile, I decided to just let it go. I've convinced myself that pickle puss is the most efficient and highly sought after postal clerk at that branch. Maybe even Employee-Of-The-Month. If anyone will make certain my tax returns get to Uncle Sam on time, she will. Oh, sure. Her co-workers can afford to smile and laugh and engage in friendly banter with the customers. Life is all beer and skittles for them. But pickle puss has a heavier burden. After all, you can't play the clown when you're the one running the circus!

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Sanctum Sanctorum

Years ago - maybe six - my daughter Katharine (Kit) came up with an idea called "Mother-Daughter Date Night." Once a week, she and I were to get together for a sit down dinner and a movie at home - just us. She lived at home at the time so this was an easy thing to do. After a few weeks, it dawned on us both that I had a mother too, and she lived just a few blocks away. We started holding our weekly "date nights" at Shorty's house(my Mom)...with Shorty in charge of dinner, and the movie being my responsibility. The name changed to "Movie Night," we added other women in the family to our enclave, and every Wednesday Shorty's house becomes "The Sanctum Sanctorum." It is a place where we can sit down to dinner and catch up with each other's lives, argue about politics, complain about men (that's a popular topic), drink wine, gossip, and then we watch a movie while drinking more wine and eating snacks that are not good for us. This week Shorty had a bowl of peanut M&Ms out, the week before was Bar-B-Q Fritos. One can never tell what Shorty's apt to put before us. She comes up with some interesting food combinations at dinner as well, like a menu consisting of polish sausages, tuna salad and brussel sprouts - or beef stew, shrimp and a baked potato. But, that's really part of the fun. This Christmas, Kit gave each member of the Sanctum Sanctorum a sterling silver wishbone on a neck chain. Thus, we dubbed ourselves the Royal Order of the Silver Wishbone. I've been trying to come up with a hat for each member to wear at Movie Night - something silly and gaudy and reflective of that person's personality. Certainly, Shorty's would have an artist theme because she's a gifted painter. Kit's would probably have a very trendy, girly shoe nestled in somewhere. When friends or relatives come into town, they become honorary members, if they so desire. This includes men. The rule, however, is this: we are probably going to watch a chick flick, ergo, men must sit there and behave...that means no sighs, no grunts, no chuckle-headed jokes, no burping and no passing gas. (This can often be too much to ask of my two sons.)

At some point early on, we began to keep track of the movies we watched, noting them in a stenographic notebook Shorty keeps by her telephone - two columns to each page. I'll have to count them one day - there are hundreds of them. When we think of it, we'll put little stars next to the movie (4 being the best). So far, there was only one movie that was so painfully awful, we had to stop in the middle. It was a gift from a friend, so I can't say what it was. But I do hope you can avoid renting it anyway. This week we watched "Marley and Me." Lots of sobbing going on among the Wishbones with that one. (As a matter of fact, I wanted to race home and kiss my black lab on the lips - I didn't, however.)

Kit no longer lives at home, but a few weeks ago, out of the blue, she said with a sigh, "I love Movie Night." Out of college now, she's applying for jobs in the big city far from home. Far from the Sanctum Sanctorum. Far from Shorty's gentle acceptance of us - faults and all. I think I feel a little twitching in my chest, and a sort of lumpy thing in my throat - like trying to swallow a hot sock. To us Movie Night is sacred. In the absence of hurricanes, floods or pestilence, the Wishbones make it to the appointed place at the appointed hour. I suppose one day Movie Night will cease to exist, and the Sanctum Sanctorum will close its doors...the Wishbones all gone away. But for right here and for right now, life is good every Wednesday.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Slaves of Golconda

I am a newly inducted Slave of Golconda - I'm having a marvelous time. For those of you who do not already know, this is a book group - reading group - well, call it what you will. It is very much an on-line book club and is inspiring. The book we are discussing now is The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, a German writer I had never heard of...inexplicably. Becoming familiar with an author for the first time when one is "of a certain age" is one of the advantages of an inadequate education. I think I enjoy the discovery more at this stage of life. Zweig writes poignantly and beautifully, although I'm sure he was tortured by his own demons (he took his own life, you see.) Like any good book club, the other "Slaves" provide a thought provoking point-counterpoint in their discussions, adding a certain seasoning and nuance to the work itself. I foresee that becoming a "Slave" is the beginning of a beautiful friendship (stealing a line from ole' Bogie). Anyone looking for a good place to perch while fluttering around on-line book clubs, er...readng groups - oh, hell -- you might want to check out this blog.