Friday, January 30, 2009

Love Of The Sea Endures

Reading time has been at a premium this week; but, I look forward to some time over the weekend. The principal character in the book I'm currently reading is, interestingly, a ship...a tall masted sailing ship of dubious character. Books about sailing and the sea always make me a little dreamy. The date is lost to me now, but there was an exact moment in my life when I knew I would always want to live near the sea. Many years ago, when I was a young bride, my husband and I lived on the windward side of Oahu. We bought a sailboat - a 16 foot Hobie cat - and christened her the Arabesque. She had red hulls and striped sails of yellow and white. With lessons and experience we eventually became fairly adept sailors (especially my husband, who raced her in regattas), but we began as clumsy, and probably dangerous, landlubbers - venturing out in squally weather, loosing our bearings, and beaching the boat on the rocky parts of the shore. In time we got the hang of it. The best days I can remember are out on the ocean with the hulls of the Arabesque slapping at the water, her sails puffed and trimmed. My husband loved to ride the boat up onto one hull, which always terrified me - never a strong swimmer. One very gusty morning we were out on Kanehoe Bay a good distance from shore. My husband worked the mainsheet and tiller as we sat side by side on the trampoline, the wind to our backs, leaning further and further outboard as the boat strained to heel over with the wind. True to her name, the Arabesque suddenly lifted her upwind-sided hull out of the water; I lost my balance and went overboard. (Although he denied it, I always believed this was a "husband prank".) Seconds later, from my dog-paddling vantage point, I saw the boat come back down onto both hulls. It turned into the wind, and calmly bobbed up and down, sails gently luffing, still at last. I don't know how far I was from the craft; it seemed like miles. In reality, it was probably only 40 feet or so. I found it odd that my husband did not jump over board to save me, and the thought crossed my mind that he was simply going to let me wear myself out, and then sink. I was calling out "help;" he was shouting something back at me through his cupped hands. I could not understand what he was saying, but I knew it had two syllables. Was he saying, "Good-bye," "good luck," "so long?" Who knew? In one last attempt to save myself, I kicked my legs behind me and attempted a breast stroke. Within a few yards, I finally realized my husband was shouting - and laughing - "Stand up!" The water was only deep enough to come to just below my shoulders. In those really green sailing days, I didn't know there were shelves and a sand bar that extended far from shore, and the deepness of the ocean was only an illusion at that point. The eye sees the land far in the distance, and it tricks the mind to believe otherwise. I slogged my way back to the boat on foot in wet-felty sand - a little humiliated at my panic, with revenge on my mind. The closer I got to the Arabesque, the hotter my anger gurgled. By the time I was five feet away I was prepared to wage war. I stopped and looked up at my husband. He was sitting on the trampoline with his left leg curled underneath him and his right foot resting on one red hull. His left hand held the slackened mainsheet, the right one was extended out towards me. I will always remember how he looked: his smile showed his straight white teeth, made whiter still by the warm tan he was always able to maintain. And all that blue...his blue-blue eyes, and the blue sky, and the blue-green sea, all blended together. He was smiling down at me - a smile that radiated all the beauty and promise of his youth, and of mine. It was a smile one could hang a lifetime on. Not a smile that said, "The joke is on you." Rather, it spoke, "I'd rather go sailing with you, than anyone else in the world." I reached up for his hand, he reached down for mine. "Welcome aboard, sailor," he said softly. That was the day I fell in love with the sea.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Finally Finished

I was able to get through The Story of Edgar Sawtelle over the weekend. I made no secret that I was not enjoying this book at the half-way point. I'm sorry to say things did not improve. Nevertheless, people who write literary critisism for a living seem to universally love it, even likening it to - it's hard for me to say this without gulping very hard - Hamlet. Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, gushed, "One of the great pleasures of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is its free-roaming, unhurried progress, enlivened by the author's inability to write anything but guilelessly captivating prose..." which accomplishes to "exert a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull." I didn't feel anything remotely similar to a gravitational pull; but, I will agree with her that it was "unhurried." (I might use a different descriptive word, but "unhurried" will do.) Notwithstanding my lack of enthusiasm for this book, I would never suggest that it should not be read. Quite the contrary: I do encourage everyone to read it. This novel is heralded as a very important first work for Wrobewski; we can expect that it will be discussed and its merits debated for many years. Now that I have read it, and formed my own opinion, I will be able to participate in those discussions and articulate the reasons why I was not enamoured by it. In that respect, at the very least it certainly was not a waste of time; at best, you may love it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Where's The Blue Pencil?

I did manage to put some mileage between front and back cover of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I am a little under half-way through; I'm not having much fun. There are so many good - no, glowing even - reviews out there about this novel by David Wroblewski (his first) that I'm thinking perhaps it's just must be me. I analogize my feelings about this book - at least up to now - this way: I'm traveling down an unpaved country road. Some of the road is smooth and easy, with pretty pastures and trees and flowers. Some of it is a little bumpy, but I can get by fairly well. However, the road often becomes swampy and I have to slog through it...maybe get out of the car and push. At that point, I don't care how good the scenery is, I just want to get to the end of the road. The premise of the story is inventive and quite unique, and when the writer sticks with it, the book flows fairly well. But, Wroblewski is always going off on some tangent about raising dogs, and training dogs, housing dogs and whelping dogs. He explains and explains to such a degree that at one point, I actually shouted out loud, "All right already, we get it!" For example, he did an entire chapter on Edgar's attempts to lure a stray dog into his confidence. I have a feeling Wroblewski may use the stray as a nexus for what happens to Edgar further on; but, he takes forever to "get to the point." For me, the overarching question is, what was the editor thinking? This book, over 550 pages long, could have been whittled down substantially. Nevertheless, I'm going to break my cardinal rule and continue to read to the end. I'd like to keep and open mind, and maybe I'm missing something. I'm just a little afraid, however, that I might fling it against the wall occasionally, thereby scaring the cat!

Thursday, January 15, 2009


by Ros Asquith
(Permission has been given by the artists to reproduce any bookplate posted on this blog, as long as it is not for commercial use.)

To Read Or Not To Read - That Is The Question

Once again, I find myself reading, what is for me anyway, a "slow starter". Based on hoopla alone, I have faith that things will improve. Nevertheless, I am only on page 75 of my present read - and I started it on Monday. I debated whether I should put it down and pick up something else on my self-inflicted TBR list. As it does so often in my life, coincidence intervened. When I was leaving my subdivision this morning, I noted on our "board" that the neighborhood book club was reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I took it as a sign and made the decision to persevere. In my wavering, however, I ran my hand across the spines of some of the books in my library last night. It settled on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and I remembered what a sheer pleasure it was to read. There was no plodding along with that one! I am always amazed how Christie can tell a riveting story with such an economy of words, notwithstanding all the twists and turns and puzzles. Not high literature, to be sure, but Roger Ackroyd is absolute joy (which is why I read). As for the ending, I never saw it coming; it smacked me right between the eyes. Delicious.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Today's Bookplate (Jez Alborough - artist)

Not ready to write about The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle, so enjoy the bookplate. I will return.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Book Thief

I finished The Book Thief over the weekend. All annoyances I had with the page number typeface melted. This book is quite simply both stunningly beautiful and terrible. Marcus Zusak is a word master - so fitting since much of the book centers on Liesel Meminger's (the book thief's)love of words. The story takes place in Nazi Germany in the early 1940's, so, obviously we are introduced to the very worst in human nature. Nevertheless, Zusak does not allow us to despair. The beauty in the human spirit is revealed as counterpoint. For the first time that I can remember, I cried because of a book. The kind of crying that makes it hard to breathe. Anyone who picks up The Book Thief should know that it starts off slowly; but, within 50 pages I was captured. My additional advice would be to have something very light and funny to read afterwards, if you can conentrate on anything else for awhile. I picked up The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson (a very witty, slim volume about a fascinating subject.) Even so, I could not remain engaged in it. Instead, I went outside for a walk, trying to clear my thoughts and ease my sadness. Still haunted by The Book Thief, I returned home and involved myself in a form of therapy that usually works for me. I made three batches of soup: Cheddar Corn Chowder, 15 Bean, and Beef Vegetable. As much as I loved the book, I wanted to keep any thought of it out of my dreams on Saturday night. I pretty much succeeded...but not entirely. I dreamt that a line of people arrived at my front door; the line continued down my curvy walkway, onto the road, and (although I could no longer see the people) I instinctively knew they continued all the way to the bridge over the Wilmington River. Each of them carried a bowl; I stood at my front door ladling soup.

Masterpiece is sometimes a term flung about without too much thought. This book might qualify, however. Although it is designated as a novel for Young Adults, it is really ageless and should not be missed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Fonts

Last night Georgia Public Television aired a film from an Emmy Award winning series, Independent Lens, on typography in general and the Helvetica font in particular. I have never given much thought to typography until recently, and found the subject fascinating. Helvetica, it seems, was developed in the late 1950's by Max Meidinger and Eduard Hoffman for the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland. Now, a relatively short time later, we come across it every day in highway signs, corporate logos (J C Penney, for one), and advertisement signage. On the way to work this morning, I caught myself pondering a STOP sign...Helvetica, the interstate exit signs...Helvetica, the EnMark Station...Helvetica. This ubiquitous type is all around us; but, who in the general public has ever heard of it? This film was particularly coincidental for me because, for the first time in my reading life, I was having a "font problem." I am reading The Book Thief (more about that when I finish). I don't know anything about publishing and have never spent much time considering the typeface used in a book. Nevertheless, I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by the font used in the chapter headings and page numbers in The Book Thief.

In the 1960s and 70s my dad had his real estate offices in our house. His office smelled of leather, and oak, and ink and typwriter ribbon. Sometimes, he let me help him type out offers and contracts on his old, black Royal - multiple carbons on onion skin. The typewriter had round black buttons with white letters; each button was attached to an arm which had small die-cast letters (a capital and a lower case) perched on the end like a small hammer. When the button was pounded, the arm would fly up, strike the die against an inked spool of ribbon, and the image would appear on the page. (Typing was fun back then.) Every now and then, the letters became clogged with ink and dust so that the "o's" and the "b's" and the "p's" became fuzzy black spotches on the page rather than open, clean type. That's when my dad would pull out an old, dry brush - much like a toothbrush - and ask me to de-clog the typeface. Back to my annoyance, however. The page numbers in The Book Thief are printed with a font that resembles an old, clogged, Royal typewriter. I don't know whether to fault the publisher or the editor or someone else who made the decision about type face usage. The story unfolds in Germany in the early 1940s, so perhaps it was felt that the type face for the page numbers added an "atmospheric" quality to the overall look of the book. In reality, the numbers are nearly impossible to read, the use of the type makes no sense, and is actually a distraction. Perhaps, when I finish the book, I will see how the page numbers are somehow tied into the overall story, although I rather doubt it. I wish I didn't dwell so much on the small annoyances of life. My nature makes it difficult for me to just "let it go." I might write to the publisher and ask "Why?" Oh dear. At this point, however, I am truly appreciating Helvetica.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Water For Elephants

Thanks in large part to a cold that kept me quiet over this past long weekend, I was able to read Water For Elephants. I remember going to the circus only once. It was Ringling Bros. and I was probably 7 or 8 years old; I didn't like it very much. Besides being frightened by the clowns, I remember a general rankness which I attribute to a mixure of animal smells combined with those of frying food and "red hots." Although my mother would not take us into the "freak show," we nevertheless had to walk past the tent that displayed the carney art depicting "Shrimp Boy." Ever since that day, when she talks about the circus at all, my mother will say she "hates" it. With my background, I approached Water For Elephants somewhat tentatively. However, my son's girlfriend gave me a copy for Christmas, and assured me it was a wonderful book. It was. The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, tells his story from the perspective of a 93 year old man (at least he's quite certain he's 93) who resides in a nursing home. It weaves in and out of the past and the present, as he relives for the reader his life in a third rate circus during the Great Depression. Sara Gruen introduces us to the strange (sometimes wonderful, sometimes twisted) characters that ride the circus train from town to town, telling their story - and Jacob's - in such a lovely way that even I enjoyed being a part of their world for a short while. The best part...just when you think you know how it's all going to doesn't. This is a super read.