Thursday, February 18, 2010

"To Date"

It may be just a sign of age...but I've been spending a lot of time worrying about all the books I will never read. I've gone so far as to calculate the number of books I could read in a month - using moderately reasonable expectations - to arrive at a yearly presumption of books I can finish. Then, using a life expectancy test, I calculated the number of years I have left to live (barring unforeseen events) and arrived at the grand total of 1,536 - books not years.

This latest obsession was triggered by my printing off a copy of Listology's "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die"(reprinted from the book of the same name by Peter Boxall). With yellow highlighter in hand, I was equipped to cross off the ones I'd read. Plentitude! "What a cinch," I told myself. I have been an avid reader all my life. And being a woman of a certain age, a rather long life. My eyes scanned down the first page. I drew a blank. "Well, no bother. I've certainly read a lot from the second page." My palms began to sweat. "None? Not one?" I was a woman on the desert with a parched throat..."Water...," cried a small, squeaky voice. I turned the page over to see if some of the titles ran around to the other side in a game of hide-and-seek. "Don't play tricks on me."

Ever so carefully, I slowly turned down one corner of page 2 to sneak a peek at the top half of page 3. "Enough is enough! Do you hear me?" More resolutely (and by this time seething with outrage) I grabbed my yellow marker poised to pounce on...something. "Stupid list." "You.. stupid...shitty...list!" I was now at the top of page four. I spoke out loud, "173. Wise Children - Angela Carter". "What the..." Not only did I not read it, I had never heard of it.

I turned page four over and slapped in down on the table, thinking to myself, "I should have read Bonfire of the Vanities. I had it in my hand, for God sake." I tried to wonder what I picked up instead. Whatever it was, it was not on page four of the list, nor, as it turned out, was it on page five. To my credit, some of the titles were on my To Be Read List. I mused that the kind of stress I was now placing upon myself was counter-productive to living to 93 (which, by the way, is the number I have to reach to read 1,536 books.) I hoped that my mind would hold out that long. What, after all, was the use of a list if I forgot what it was for? Another fearful thought crossed my now feverish brain - there would always be more books. New books. Great books. In a never-ending stream, like "The Sorcerers Apprentice"...on...and...on...and...I roused myself from my stupor and resumed the task at hand. "The task at hand, Grad," I said out loud, "is to see how many of these titles you have date." I have always loved the term "to date." It resounds with hope. It reminds me of Shorty. Whenever I said, "I can't," she would tell me, "I'll let you say, 'I can't' as long as you add one more word." "What's that?" "The word 'yet'." "Okay, so 'to date'...that's better. Keep that in mind. To date."

Page six. "Maybe it's time to cheat. Just a bit." Ragtime was on page 6, and I tried to read Ragtime. It was my recollection that I hated every minute of reading Ragtime. I stopped reading it after a couple of chapters. But...does it count? "No, Grad, it doesn't count. And neither does The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch just because you checked it out of the library once." Damn and double damn.

Resignedly, I flipped to page seven. "No one will know unless you tell them" I reasoned. But I cursed my inadequate education. Where did all that tuition go? Were all my literature professors asleep at the switch? Did they never anticipate their students being confronted with such a list? Did it ever occur to them they had the power to spare those young, eager minds the humiliation of not reading a single one of the first 365 books on the 1001 books list? To feel - in a word - stoooopid? "A pox upon them", I shouted.

And then...there it was. Like a shiny coin. Like a drop of water in the desert. Like a sudden sweet note in an otherwise discordant cacophony. Right near the top of page seven. Number 367. Isn't that a lovely number? 367. Kind of rounded and angular at the same time. If I played the lottery, I might play 367. I was saved from the shame of illiteracy. And for the first time, I proudly swished my marker through I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. "My, what a lovely yellow." Victory! No longer feeling constipated, I proceeded.

My spirits and self-esteem were restored as I got farther down the list. I was brutally honest with myself (otherwise, what was the point?) Although I knew I must have read some of the titles in school - Catcher In The Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Stranger In A Strange Land, Lord Jim - I didn't count a book unless I actually remembered reading it. I gave myself a pass on remembering what the book was about, however. Things were bleak enough without having to recall the plot. Likewise, if I was confused over whether I'd read it or simply saw a film version of it (Breakfast At Tiffany's, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Third Man) it wasn't counted. In every instance, I tried to err on the side of not having read the book.

I came up with only 60 read! SIXTY! So there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that I've read only sixty. The good news is that if I don't get hit by a bus and eat all my veggies, I'll probably have time to get to all 1001.

The question is, do I really want to? There were several on the list that I really did try to read but since I didn't finish them, I didn't count them (Herzog, Ragtime, The Magus). I attempted to read Herzog and The Magus when they came out as book club editions when I was in my late teens. I might not have been mature enough to appreciate them, but I'll give myself a few bonus points for actually selecting books at that tender age which would one day make it to "the list". The only time they have been off the shelf since then has been to either move my place of residence, or to dust.

So with drooping spirits I sat with my pitiful "list of the unread." My "list of shame!" My list of the "great unwashed brain." I began to wonder what I've been doing all my reading life. Where had I been? I stared at the bookshelves. Unnerved and disappointed, I wandered over to them. I ran my hand along the spines of books gathered during the course of decades. Some of them almost 50 years old. The shelves were filled to capacity. Certainly not all the books have been read; but I would say most of them have. A good number of the titles are non-fiction - mostly history. A bit heartened, I remembered "the list" was of novels only, so that accounted for some of my "reading gap." Looking more closely at my collection and the list, I realized the list had some swiss cheese-like holes in it. There was no Wizard Of Oz, no Red Badge Of Courage, no L. Frank Baum or Stephen Crane period. There was nothing by Washington Irving. Amitov Ghosh wasn't there, neither was Nectar In A Sieve by Karmala Markandaya. No Barbara Pym. And, although John Steinbeck was there The Pearl was not. It dawned on me that there was no way to compile a list of all the books that "must" be read, and, in any event, to read blindly from a list did not make one a well-rounded reader. It brightened my spirits to realize that any list such as this is simply a tool. Like a road map (or to be a bit more current a GPS), it says "go this way, take that turn, stay on this path."

Nevertheless, the best surprises are in the side trips...up and down the hilly road which is not on the map, and which is covered with golden autumn leaves that go whoosh when you drive past and then rise up and swirl around like a cloud of stardust... and which make a picture in the rear-view mirror that you will never forget.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


What a labyrinth you have built for us, Wilkie Collins; and, how deftly you grab the imagination and lead us through it. When we finally reach the end, we are a little rattled by where we've been and blink at how bright the sun is. Armadale is an experience.

For a Wilkie Collins book Armadale is hefty. His longest novel, it is also one of the most intricately woven and complex. For all that, it was not well received when first published. Most critics hated it, and it was not enthusiastically accepted by the reading public. Certainly, it shocked the morality of the day dabbling as it did in murder, revenge, drug addiction, lust (for both love and money), and wives who tend to poison their husbands. But old taboos give way, and what was once considered mere melodrama - at its worse - is now viewed with a more favorable eye.

The book begins in Switzerland, where a dying Allan Armadale lays in a hotel room desiring to bare his soul. The only other person in the small town who speaks English is another guest in the hotel...a stranger who agrees to pen the confession. After extracting a promise that the document would be sealed and put in the hands of his lawyer, who would in turn reveal the contents only to Armadale's son when he became of age, he anxiously began to reveal his terrible secret.

How can I explain the background of this novel? First, you must understand there are really four Allan Armadales. Their history, and keeping it straight, was one of the pitfalls I encountered in the early part of the novel, and is why I had to keep going back to re-read sections of the book. Well, hang goes.

The first Armadale we meet, i.e. the dying Armadale, had a godfather who possessed a vast fortune. Godfather Armadale had a son named Allan, who he disinherited for being a veritible lout. When godfather Armadale died, he left his considerable fortune to his godson, with the stipulation that he change his name to Allan Armadale. The disinherited Allan Armadale disappears, godson changes his name, and confusion beings.

After taking possession of his inheritance, Allan Armadale falls in love with the portrait of Jane Blancard, the daughter of family friends living in Madeira, and is determined to marry her. They exchange letters and promises. However, just before he is to board a ship to Madeira, Allan becomes mysteriously and deathly ill, having had been poisoned by his clerk, known to Allan as Fergus Ingleby. Ingleby takes Armadale's place on board the ship bound for Madeira. Of course, I am certain you can figure out who Fergus Ingleby really is, and you are right. He is none other than the disinherited Allan Armadale, who was determined to seek revenge for the loss of his inheritance.

Once the wealthy Allan Armadale is well enough to travel, he wastes no time sailing for Madeira to collect his bride, only to find upon his arrival that Jane had married Ingleby, under his true name of Allan Armadale, and was fleeing on a timber ship called - a bit ironically - Le Grace de Dieu. Ingleby has informed Jane of his true identity, but she is in love, so it doesn't matter. However, knowing her father would disinherit her if he learned the true identity of Ingleby-Armadale, Jane seeks the assistance of her young maid, Lydia Gwilt, to forge a letter in the handwriting of the wealthy Armadale, thereby keeping her father ignorant of the facts.

Learning the young couple was preparing to set sail from Madeira, wealthy Armadale signs on for the journey disguised as a crew member. He goes unnoticed by Jane and her husband. He has every intention of doing harm to the impostor who robbed him of his bride. And so, he plots. Fate intervenes (as it does continually throughout the novel) and a hurricane scuttles the ship. Allan saves Jane, but follows Ingleby-Armadale below deck. And as Le Grace de Dieu takes on water, Armadale confronts his rival and locks the door of the cabin where Ingleby is standing, leaving him to drown in panic.

Although she cannot prove Allan is responsible for her husband's death, her heart is lost to him forever in any event. Allan travels to Trinidad, guilt his all-consuming and constant companion. There he marries a half-cast woman, who endeavors (unsuccessfully) to provide him with love, and does (successfully) provide him with a son, which she named Allan Armadale. But Armadale lives with a haunted conscience that depletes his life of any happiness.

Flash forward to Allan Armadale now dying in Switzerland. He had only recently discovered that Jane Blanchard was pregnant when her husband drowned, and had given birth to a son who was one year older than his own son, and who she named, obviously, Allan Armadale. (By the way, that Allan Armadale inherits a vast fortune from the Blancard side of his family tree, whereas the dying Armadale's son will grow up poor and orphaned). Superstitious, and afraid that the inevitable conclusion to his crime was evil stalking his son, he dictates his shocking confession and includes the proviso that the young man never cross paths with anyone involved with the events disclosed in the document. The novel is unrelenting in its fatalistic approach, so it is inevitable that the young Armadale will cross paths with everyone involved.

So far, my narrative has covered only the background story which populates the first one-fourth of the novel. If you can believe it, the plot only thickens.

Fatally intertwined with all four Allan Armadales stands Lydia Gwilt - a beautiful femme-fatale with long, flame-colored hair and porcelain complexion. Gwilt is a forger, an addict, a bigamist and has a bad habit of poisoning her husbands. Despite these flaws in her moral compass - or more likely because of them - she is the most complex and intriguing of all the characters in the book. One contemporary critic called Gwilt "one of the most hardened villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction." Well, perhaps that was true in 1866. Female villains have come a long way since then. She remains, nevertheless, a female character who is the antithesis of a heroine. Her plotting, scheming, murderously cold-heart makes her all the more interesting. Certainly more interesting than the sweet, gentle, almost simple-minded Ms. Milroy who vies with Gwilt for the love and affection of Jane Blanchard's son, Allan Armadale. In fact, there were moments when I felt a sympathetic affection for the unrepentant gold digger. She possessed a lovely wickedness which was the product of a hard life. But if Collins was trying to craft a completely debased and utterly unlikeable personage in Lydia, I think he overplayed his hand. A little too much grief, suffered at too young an age, files down her rough edges just enough to make her redeemable.

And then, of course, there's the other young Allan Armadale...the son of the Allan Armadale who died in Switzerland. Disavowing his real name, he calls himself Ozias Midwinter. If I tell you he and Allan Armadale not only meet but become as close as brothers, or that he also falls in love with Lydia Gwilt, would you be at all surprised?

There are a number of fascinating supporting characters which Collins has drawn with a very fine brush: Gwilt's conniving accomplice in crime Mrs. Oldershaw; the old and pitifully love-starved Mr. Bashwood; the smarmy abortionist-turned-sanatorium director Dr. Downward; the precise and stringently ethical lawyer Mr. Pedgrift. They add depth and flavor to a well-boiled pot.

Armadale was not an easy least not the first 250 pages. The intricate plot requires the reader to stay fully engaged, or be resigned to go back and re-read sections. But, just as going up an incline takes more muscle than going down the other side, the last third of Armadale picks up pace enormously and the reader has to hold on to his (or her) hat as it spirals to a suspense-filled conclusion.

I admit, the plot in Armadale relies on frank melodrama and unbelievable coincidence. It requires the reader to place some faith in a supernatural engine that drives the train of the story. But the ride is splendid, the passengers are fascinating, and the journey, though a bit long, is never tedious.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Land Of Good Intentions

It is the New Year (after all). Perhaps you don't make resolutions - which is a very prudent way to live. I seldom do. But years ago, in one of those New Year's resolutions moments, I bought a Total Gym. I purchased it from a TV presentation on (should I be ashamed to admit)...QVC? No. Actually I am not ashamed, although I should also make a confession that I have an addiction to Lock-And-Lock storage containers, which are a big seller, I understand.

For years the Total Gym sat in a room I almost never stepped foot in, gathering dust and cobwebs. The room is called a "bonus room" which, for those who do not know, is a room that is crafted over a built-in garage. When I had the house constructed, I made certain that the bonus room was accessible from the upstairs, so it could function as a fifth bedroom, rather than just a room over the garage. It is a big room. Probably 21' x 21'. It was also a way to keep an eye on the children, since, when they were young, it functioned as an upstairs "family room" which housed the kids' books and toys and games and TV and everything else that shrieked "play time". The bonus room was their domain. They could be kids there, and play, and paint, and maintain a general state of disrepair - as most children are wont to do. When the children were no longer children, and moved away, the bonus room became a catch all of things I no longer needed or wanted - i.e. things in limbo. Is it any wonder that the Total Gym would be relegated to this vast wasteland of geography? A veritable Land Of Good Intentions left unexplored,.

Oh,but no longer, my friends! No! This very evening I have moved the Total Gym into my very own room - into the walk-in closet. After re-installation, I even spent 15 minutes working out on it according to the video that came with the machine. Yeah. Only...15...minutes. I am here to state...I feel out of breath think...this...(puff...puff) of a..ah...beautiful..gasp...friendship...and...ah...I...will certainly be in...gasp...much better shape...any...time...real...soon...(oh lord) eat...your hearts out. Tomorrow, I advance to 18 minutes! There's no stopping me now. (She said before...kerplunk)...and as I'm laying here, trying to catch my breath, please note I posted two postings today...which....(try to breathe, Grad)...wasn't easy.


Folks, I have bitten off way more than I should have. Although I think staying busy and engaged is what keeps us healthy and alive, we can all overdo. I really want to tell you about my new automobile. I don't get excited about cars, but this is LOVE. But no time now. So, I am going to cheat and reprise a post I made on The Curious Reader Cooks (which I just started and which will have a very short life-span). And if I can get through my work schedule, I'll be back to tell you what I'm reading now and about Armadale (Burp) and my lovely new friend, "Rex the Wonder Car."


Why oh why do I start things? Like midnight grouting, and wallpaper stripping, and making Glace de Viande from scratch (redundant since it is the ONLY way to make it , i.e. from scratch) on the same day company is coming to dinner...and starting another blog. I mean, really, I hardly have time to keep The Curious Reader going, and now TCR is cooking and blogging about it as well. I will go, or perhaps already have gone, completely mad.

So, the Hannukah dinner went well. I used a cookbook snatched at the Big Book Sale for guidance, not being Jewish myself. But Joan Nathan is, and in her lovely book, The Jewish Holiday Table, she gives instructions on how to do a brisket. It was not so much a recipe as a method. With her at my elbow, I placed the brisket in one of those lovely enamel cast iron cooking vessels (not the French-made one, but a perfectly fine American substitute), and shoved it into the oven at 200 degrees for 9 hours. Yes! You heard me correctly. What could be easier? The latke recipe I borrowed from my friend Tinky (you can visit her at In Our Grandmother's Kitchen via the link at The Curious Reader) as well as the Harvest Salad. Tink told me that anything with oil in it was appropriate. Celebrating a holiday or festival not mine own has become yet another interest of late. In preparing for Hannukah, I re-read the story of Judith and Holofernes. Now there was a fellow who lost his head over a pretty girl if ever there was one.

For Winter Solstice (in honor of Stefanie and Bookman of So Many Books - also linked at TCR) I made a fabulous vegan dish I found on the internet. A Red Lentil Curry Soup with Sweet Potatoes and Greens, accompanied with freshly made bruschetta topped with tomatoes, olive oil and basil (an odd ingredient for winter, but delish nevertheless), followed by a dessert of figs. I had always known that at winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. But I did not realize that birth, death, and re-birth are also associated with the holiday, and that the slow lengthening of the days following the solstice gave ancient people hope that the sun was returning to warm the earth. That thought is very comforting to me.

Next up? Why, Robert Burns birthday, of course! The icon of Scotland will celebrate another birthday on January 25; I will be drinking a little Scotch. There will be no Haggis, but perhaps Chicken with Apples and Whisky sauce, accompanied with homemade Oatmeal Bread? Any twirling tartans who happen to be in the neighborhood are welcome.