Friday, February 27, 2009

On The Road With Books

While listening to the audio rendition of Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison in the car, it occurred to me that reading a mystery while driving may not be a very safe thing to do. After all, we armchair sleuths must pay very close attention to the small, and oftentimes seemingly unimportant, clues we are thrown. I am very puffed up and proud of myself that the moment I heard one of these teensy, throw-away clues, I absolutely knew how the fatal dose of arsenic was administered to the hapless victim. However, as I was driving along in rapt attention to the book, I realized I had missed my exit on the Interstate by many miles and ended up in a town I'd never heard of. I can see how books on tape can lead to higher gas consumption.

The only other experience I had with an audio book was listening to The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom. I think I was able to pay closer attention to my driving because I really didn't like the book very much. I thought it tried too hard to deliver its message and ended up being maudlin. Soon after, I saw a hardbound copy of it on my daughter's desk. Thankfully, before I could voice my opinion, she not only told me how much she loved the book, but said it was one of her "favorites." Discretion being the better part of valor, I kept my mouth shut.

This, of course, brings up another dilema. I love to hear what other readers think about the books they encounter; however, how does one criticize a book that is loved by someone else without insulting the other person's taste? Is it rude and bodacious, like pointing out the thickness of dust that has settled on your friend's sidetable, or counting out loud the number of empty wine bottles your next door neighbor carts out to the curb on garbage pick-up day? I recently read a book that was almost universally hailed as a masterwork - compared to Shakespeare even (which was by far the silliest review I have ever someone who writes reviews for a living, no less.) Someone who read my blog e-mailed me to say I was "very brave" to go against the prevailing wind. Brave?? Oh dear. Very brave! Double, oh dear. I always pick up a book with the hope and expectation that I will enjoy it. I hate it when I am disappointed, mostly because I know the author suffered through every word and then had to battle to get it published. It's a tricky thing to criticize someone else's work, isn't it.

Well, I am off to the library to return my audio book and get another...perhaps another Lord Peter Wimsey. I'll make sure I have a full tank of gas and a road atlas with me, just in case.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies is the first in an expected trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. Set in the late 1830's, in the time leading up to the Opium Wars, this highly researched novel centers around a former slaveship, the Ibis, (retro-fitted into a vessel used for the transport of indentured servants and opium) and a divergent cast of characters whose individual fates weave them together, bound for the Mauritius Islands, across the "Black Water" (the Indian Ocean). Ghosh introduces us to a world populated by lascars, gomustas, rajas, girmitiyas, English traders, displaced American sailors - and more. He develops the storyline of each principal character with detail and precision, and yet the prose is never heavy handed or plodding. One caution, however. I was a bit apprehensive when I realized that the book is liberally sprinkled with vernacular. An example:

He breathed a sigh of relief when Serang Ali turned away from him to report to the mate: 'Launder say father-blongi-she go hebbin. That bugger do too muchi tree-pijjin. Allo time pickin plant. Inside pocket hab no cash. After he go hebbin cow-chilo catchi number-twofather, Mr. Burnham...."

Nevertheless, I found myself getting so accustomed to the unique "voice" of this book that I eventually had very little need to reference the glossary at the back. (The Ibis Chrestomathy written by one of the main characters, the former Raja of Rashkali.)

The time period in which Ghosh plots his story is no less intriguing than the characters. It was a time when the East India Company shipped tons of opium into China, enriching the former and leaving the latter with a population of drug addicts. China, on the other hand, was an important supplier of spices and tea for consumption in England. Therefore, when China attempted to stem the flow of the drug into its country by cutting off all trade with England, war was inevitable. (The two had other grievances as well, but the stunting of opium trade is the most colorful, and certainly makes for a better story than treaty disagreements.)

As rich and intricate as a good curry, this novel is an absolute delight. When I last left the Ibis, we were off course and caught in a storm at sea. Oh, how I long to hoist sail on the second volume!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Scenic Route

It was a wonderful, long weekend. I stretched three days into four by taking Friday the 13th off. I'm not particularly superstitious; but, why take the chance? Besides, my sister was coming into town (she of Gettysburg fame) and I wanted to spend some quality sibling time. One of the things she likes to do when she is in town is to go through my library shelves to see if I am hording any of her old Nancy Drew Mystery Books. We have this seemingly endless conversation, and we can usually prove to the other's satisfaction which book belongs to which sister. She was able to convince me that The Ivory Charm was, in fact hers. However, The Sign of the Twisted Candles definitely belonged to me. I remember this clearly since the very day our mother and I went shopping for it, Mr. Magoo (my dog) got hold of it and ate three of its pages. To prove my point, I pulled the book off the shelf and showed her the evidence, complete with Magoo's teeth marks in the cover. With that sorted out, we were able to sit down for dinner and talk and laugh - which, if you believe the men of the family, we do very loudly. Eventually, the conversation turned to trains. Back in the 50s and 60s, my mother would bundle the three of her children up for summer trips from Chicago to Spokane, Washington to visit her family and we would always travel by rail. She was actually born and raised on a farm in a town called Jump Off Joe, Washington not far from Spokane. The little Jump Off Catholic Church still stands. Inside the vestibule hangs old photographs taken of the first wedding ever performed in the church circa 1902. The bride and groom were my maternal grandmother and grandfather. I regret that my children will probably never experience the excitement of traveling long distances by train. We traveled on the North Coast Limited which was operated by the Northern Pacific Railroad, and Mom always got tickets for a compartment that slept four and came equipped with its own bathroom. The trip began at Union Station in Chicago, and traveled a route through Illinois and then along the Mississippi River, through Wisconsin and Minnesota and onward west. The best scenery, by far, was found in North Dakota and Montana. My sister, brother and I spent a lot of time peering out the windows of our compartment as the cars crossed over main streets. We would catch brief glimpses of some small town or another and play a game, "What would it be like to live here?" We would take turns adding and embellishing - what was the drug store like, who was the mayor, what was there to do after school? At night, we would race past homes with lights shining through their windows and think about families sitting down to dinner, or listening to the radio, or playing Parcheesi. One leg of the journey required the train to cross a very deep ravine over a wooden trestle. Although the train took the bridge very slowly, it was nevertheless quite unnerving. In the fearlessness of childhood, on one trip we had all three noses and all six hands pressed hard against the window to savor how frighteningly high up we were. Mom suddenly yanked us away and ordered us to stand by the far wall (as though three small children might be all that was needed to tip the balance of the train and plunge us to certain death down the rocky chasm.) We laughed about that incident this weekend; but, Mom insisted she was only afraid the window would fall out of the train (also not very likely). My sister and I exchanged a look; we know better.

Oh, dinner on the train was an event in itself. We had to wait for the three gentle bells (bong, then a pitch higher - bong - and pitch lower, bong) which signaled to the ridership that dinner was now being served in the dining car. One dressed as if going to church if headed for the dining car. Tables were set with damask linens, flowers, and heavy silverware. The porters all wore spotless white, starched coats and set the menu down before you encased in a leather wallet. My mother would mark the menus with a pencil indicating what we were to eat, and would hand it back to our waiter. As I recall, we always had trout with almonds (at least on the first night). The smell of the train - especially the dining car - was exotic as well. It was the fragrance of the sweet-ish smelling oil used to lubricate the train's axles, mixed with freshly brewed coffee, and polish, and starch, and lamb chops or tournados. During the day, we children would climb up to the observation car and watch the world go by from that vantage point. I recall on one of these trips, we ran into a man up in the observation deck who knew all kinds of card tricks and taught us a few (or tried to). It was the first time I saw a man wear a ring anywhere but on his wedding band finger. This gent had one on his pinky and it looked amazing to me. "A card shark," sniffed Mom, as she removed us to a more wholesome environment. But I thought he was elegant. I also met a little girl who became my "best friend" for the two days it took to make the trip to Washington. She told me her name was easy to remember, "Just think of Venus like the planet and Rath like the bacon," she said. It worked, and all these many years later, I still remember her name and often wonder how her life unfolded. Arriving in Spokane and spending weeks with aunts and uncles and cousins out in the country brought its own special sweetness and adventure, especially for city-slickers such as ourselves. There were eggs to be gathered, and cow pats to step into, and streams to fall into. All new, all enlightening. But, the journey to get there was almost splendid enough. And a delicious thought soothed the sadness of leaving - the trip home lay ahead!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Four Score And Seven

I don't know about you, but the world is my oyster when I come across a bargain. On a mission to find bottled water for the office, I was wandering around one of those big warehouse-type stores that sell groceries, appliances, cheap clothes, office supplies and the like and discovered the book section! I was able to get the paperback version of A Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin for less than half-price! Having a degree in history, I usually like to get books of this ilk in the hardbound version as I tend to refer to them more often than I do a piece of fiction. But, this book has been on my Must Be Read List for quite some time now, and I've never gotten around to ordering it from the library or purchasing at the bookstore. (I also indulged a bit and purchased Ina Garten's new cookbook, Back to Basics at a fairly substantial savings. That made me feel a little guilty, but I'll make it up by cutting back on something else - perhaps the red wine drinking over the next couple of weeks. That should make me feel sufficiently saint-like, as well as restore myself to my own good graces). I was born and grew up in Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln was the hero of every school girl or boy of my generation. I'm not sure how things work now, but back then, it was almost impossible to get through elementary school without a class trip to Springfield to visit Lincoln's tomb. Abraham Lincoln was especially appealing to me, because my sister shared a birthday with him (the month and day - not the year) and she was a huge fan. For the first 8 years of my life, my family lived on the southwest side of Chicago in a two-story brownstone in front of which stood a huge and seemingly ancient tree. One afternoon, my sister placed her hand reverently on its craggy trunk and told me that Abraham Lincoln stood underneath the canopy of that very tree when he delivered the Gettysburg Address! I was 4 at the time and looked up to her as the repository of everything worth knowing in this, or any other, life. She was 7, and as if to confirm her expertise on the subject, actually owned the original copy of that famous speech. Owned, mind you. Written in Honest Abe's lovely script - by his very hand. It was printed on paper that was yellow and crackly, with a sheen that resembled very old parchment. Further, it came with it's own cardboard tube, decorated with gold flourishes and a silk tassel, for storage when it wasn't being displayed to awestruck siblings and playmates. Any doubts about its authenticity were, of course, out of the question. Eventually, there came a time when I realized my sister was, shall we say, mistaken, about our front yard tree's historical connection to Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, I find that when she speaks, I still listen. Today, Abraham Lincoln turns 200 years old, and my sister turns somewhat less. Happy Birthday to both my heros.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Strong Poison

It was a foreshadowing of how the day was going to unravel itself when I stumbled down the stairs yesterday morning to discover I had forgotten to buy coffee. When I finally arrived at the office and checked my e-mail a long, droning missive from my son's ex-girlfriend berating him as a scrofulous cad and calling into question my parenting skills awaited me. (Why do young people string together words of continuous capital letters? The visual shouting is unbearable so early in the morning.) A glance at the clock - only 9 a.m. Not a good sign. As it turned out the e-mail might have been the highlight of the morning. The day slowly disintegrated like a soap bubble as I failed to accomplish one thing after another, and I finally left work early. My sad, abandoned desk was by that time piled to the ceiling with fruitless efforts. I am within just a few pages of finishing Sea of Poppies by Amatov Ghosh; Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is next on my TBR list. But my enthusiasm for reading has been off-kilter and haphazard over the last few days. The result of an overloaded brain, tired and on the verge of rebellion, perhaps. Maybe it has simply been pre-occupied with other more pressing matters. I suppose we all have days when we should have simply stayed in bed. Rather than go straight home, I stopped at the library. And there it was! Such an apt moniker for my day. Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers - in audio book format! All I had to do was listen to it. No effort needed on my part, no fumbling with reading glasses that keep sliding sideways (which I swear is due to one ear being slightly lower than the other. I hold to this theory even though the deviation is not apparent in the mirror.) I took the long way around the island and by the time I got home, I felt much better. Apparently, a little Lord Peter Wimsey and a juicy murder was all I needed to be right as rain again.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bright Light

I had planned to finish Sea of Poppies by Friday night. It was a long and difficult weekend, with not much time for reading, however. I spent most of Friday and Saturday at the hospital with my Mom. She slept most of the day on Friday. I tried to read, hoping to pass the time aboard the the Ibis and forget where I was and why I was there. I found myself reading the same page over and over again, not able to focus. Instead, I sat quietly next to her watching her sleep, trying to imagine her as a young woman pregnant with me. Or as a young girl racing her horse, Billy, bareback and barefooted across her father's fields. She would not approve of me telling her age - nevertheless - she is gliding serenely toward her 89th Spring. My mother is a small woman who looks much younger than she is. Most 12 year olds are taller and weigh more. Notwithstanding, she has always been a human dynamo - climbing trees to saw down limbs, digging up plants and moving them around in the garden, doing things she ought not do. She can coax life out of all species of flora and fauna. Abandoned and abused animals seem to instantly blossom under her gentle and loving care. My mother is a gifted artist and she has mastered several mediums; but, her real love is watercolor. That seems fitting. Watercolors are dreamy and soft, with a lightness of being. When her doctor spoke to us on Saturday, he said things in the blunt, matter of fact way that doctors must. Afterall, people's lives depend upon hearing the truth - or rather the facts. We will have to look to priests and poets for the niceties - the courageous words that help us sort things out. She sat on the edge of the bed as he spoke, her feet not touching the floor, her back toward me. He said some things she would not hear. Things that threatened her independence. True to her feisty nature, she mustered a defense. But I could see and hear the blows his words delivered. She was like a little sparrow you find on the ground with a broken wing. You want to bundle her up and make it all right. You want her to fly again - up to the top of the trees - farther even. To the sky, to the sun. I do not know what the outcome will be, but I do know my mother. She will take the advice of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.