Friday, September 28, 2007

Book Giveaway

I just received my book club selection from my local public radio station (KPCC in Pasadena, a great station by the way), where I get their book picks for sponsoring them. This time they chose to read The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

Unfortunately for me, but perhaps fortunately for you, my husband already has this book--just finished reading it, in fact. So I'm giving it away, to anyone who leaves me a comment saying they'd like me to put their name into the hat for a little drawing.

Here's the blurb they sent with the book:

"Using a combination of science and history, speculation and fact, Weisman explores the possibilities of a human-free world. Within days, the New York subways would be flooded and just a short 20 years later, the streets above would turn to rivers. Citing examples of current human-free areas such as Chernobyl and Korea's Demilitarized Zone, Weisman exposes the earth's inherent power to heal itself. No matter how large the imprint we leave, Weisman argues, the earth, in time, will recover. I'm certain you will enjoy this enthralling read."

I used to be really hooked on this kind of book when I was a kid, but of course I only read fictionalized versions, like George Stewart's Earth Abides. So now that I'm a grown-up, I think I'll read this and see if the subject still holds any fascination...

So I'l send the lucky winner my extra copy--just leave me a comment to let me know if you want to be entered in my little drawing. Let's see, I guess I need a deadline--let's say Tuesday, October 2 at midnight pacific time.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard, a review

I ended my summer reading Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees: A Novel on a beach in Cape Cod, which happens to be where the novel is set. I love that experience—reading about the place you’re visiting, while you’re there. That kind of reading experience can really open my eyes to a new place, making me seek out details about the place that the writer mentions, and generally enhancing my visit. This, of course, is only if the book is good.

Fortunately, The Maytrees is good.

The Maytrees is the story of the relationship between Toby Maytree and the woman he marries, Lou Bigelow. Toby is a poet whose output is small but serious, and who works in construction when he isn’t writing. Lou paints, and reads, and leads a simple, ascetic, nearly silent, life.

They are part of a bohemian group of artists and intellectuals who live in a strange place, the tip of Cape Cod, a spit of land thrusting into the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by sand, sea and sky in a way that few other places are.

I love that Dillard has set the book in this place. Some might call it godforsaken--it is certainly off the beaten track--the parabolic dunes she writes of, which have been sculpted by powerful winds, look like a lunar, not an earthly, landscape. This spare yet beautiful setting perfectly match Dillard’s simple story and spare yet beautiful prose.

Before The Maytrees, the work of Annie Dillard’s that I had read, and was enchanted by, was non-fiction, but it had the same lyrical language, and the same fascination with the physical world. In An American Childhood and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it is clear that she is inseparable from her interaction with the physical world—it makes her who she is. In The Maytrees, she writes poetically and profoundly about the setting, the dunes of Provincetown, the vast ocean, the creatures who live in or near it, the night sky above it.

It did not surprise me when I found out that Dillard wrote her masters thesis on Thoreau’s Walden, focusing on the use of Walden Pond as “the central image and focal point for Thoreau's narrative movement between heaven and earth." In this book she seamlessly integrates the natural world with the characters’ emotional worlds—they are inextricable.

Together Toby and Lou have a son, Pete, who grows into more of a local than his parents, becoming a fisherman. Accidents, betrayals, and other loves intrude on Toby and Lou’s marriage. Without being a spoiler, I’ll say that in the end, Lou makes an inspired and saintly yet unsentimental choice out of love, which serves as proof of her personal growth throughout the story.

To my mind, Lou Maytree is really the main character of the book. I didn’t realize it while I was reading, but later thought that she reminded me of a nun or a monk, with her simple life, her silence, her singlemindedness. Then I realized that she was on a spiritual path, though a non-religious one. One of the novel’s main themes is maturation—in both the physical sense, as in the aging (and eventual death) of the body, and in the emotional, psychological and spiritual sense, as in the growth of a human being. At a certain point in the story, when she feels she needs to “let go”, Lou practices detachment, she learns self-mastery. But:
It took her months to learn that she could get clean for more than a minute at a time. Consciously she looked out for resentment, self-cherishing, and envy. Over years she formed the habit of deflecting them before they dug in.
Later Lou muses:
Could a person hold all people past and present in awareness? She further wondered if doing so was, by some errant chance, the point—toward what end she had no clue. Not that life required a point. But she found herself starting to sway toward eventually considering that there might be one. A point. Any point.
I love Lou’s journey, her mode of thinking, her ruminations.

Here is Lou on what living on Cape Cod does to people, making them eccentric:
Lou asked herself, yet again, What happens to people out here on the lower Cape, a mid-ocean sandspit, what happens even to intelligent and educated people, that they take to plying skies like cows in Chagall? From solid citizens they sublimed to limbless metaphysicians. Their minds grew lucent as gels. Or they slipped from supersaturation to superstition without passing through crystal. Lou decided that the lower Cape’s ratio of gases and fluids to solids must be out of whack.
The other characters are eccentric, mostly privileged, arty people, not always easy to relate to, but Dillard makes them entertaining. They have names like Reevadare Weaver, Cornelius Blue, Jane Cairo, Deary Hightoe. Dillard shows Reevadare getting more eccentric as she gets older:
--You look wonderful, Jane told Reevadare. Reevadare’s humpback, which she named Surtsey, was now almost higher than her head.
--Honey, I got enough troubles without looking good. Reevadare never used to call people honey. She was playing old age like a bass.
There are so many clever bits, so many gorgeous passages, so many beautifully crafted sentences, that I’d almost have to quote the whole book to do it justice. The writing has been described as spare, but it’s not just spare, it’s compact—it packs meaning into few words. You cannot read it quickly—but you don’t want to, either.

If you are someone who needs a really strong plot, this might not be the novel for you. Though the story heats up a little near the end, it is not a plot-driven book. But if you are in love with language, and want to see what a real stylist can do, you should give this a read.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Parenting is Exhausting

Obvious, I know. But I'm too old for this. My daughter has been "transitioning" into preschool over the last week and a half, which means I sit there in the room while she refuses to separate from me. I had forgotten how exhausting this process is. Every day I bring a book, hoping today will be the day I get to go to the "mommy cafe" (the teachers' lounge down the hall) and read, but every day she isn't quite ready for me to go more than five feet away. Good thing stubborn toddler girl eventually translates into strong woman, right?

In the meantime, I'm starting a few books, even though I'm only able to read bits and pieces here and there. I'm starting The Woman Who Waited: A Novel, by Andrei Makine, for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion, which will be on September 31, and is open to anyone. The discussions are great, so I encourage you to read along, and discuss with us.

I'm also reading an ARC of Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect, by Alan Lapidus, a memoir about his life as an architect, designing huge hotels and casinos for equally huge personalities.

I'll try to read tonight after the kids go to bed, if I'm not falling asleep myself...zzz...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Booking Through Thursday--Comfort Food

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question. I always love these questions, and I felt compelled to answer today's. Go and check out the site and read everyone else's comments--they're really great.

Okay . . . picture this (really) worst-case scenario: It’s cold and raining, your boyfriend/girlfriend has just dumped you, you’ve just been fired, the pile of unpaid bills is sky-high, your beloved pet has recently died, and you think you’re coming down with a cold. All you want to do (other than hiding under the covers) is to curl up with a good book, something warm and comforting that will make you feel better.

What do you read?

That's so easy for me to answer. I pick up Persuasion, by Jane Austen. My really ratty copy that I've read about a thousand times. And I curl up in my bed and get lost in it. And if for some reason I can't find Persuasion, I grab Pride and Prejudice. I love Jane Austen's wit, and her keen observation of the society around her. Any Jane Austen is my comfort read.

When I was a kid it would have been The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables. What's your comfort read?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Challenges, Challenges

It's almost autumn, the new school year has started, and it feels like change is in the air.

My first forays into the world of book challenges have not ended all that well. I tanked on the Non-Fiction Five Challenge, finishing three out of five I challenged myself to read. And I did even worse on the Southern Reading Challenge, only reading one of the three books I planned to read.

Strangely, it felt like something was working against me in both cases. For example, I lost one of the books I chose (and bought!). Yes, lost. Apparently it has disappeared in my horrendously huge pile of unshelved books. I still can't find it. That's never happened to me before. And I ordered another book from Amazon, but they delayed and finally cancelled my order. Another book disappeared from my's like the Twilight Zone around here.

But I did read some interesting books for both challenges (Rafe Esquith's Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire--review here, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle--review here, and Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies--review here). So I'm ready to try again.

Now that it's almost a new season, I'm starting over. This time I'm only signing up for one challenge, the Outmoded Author's Challenge hosted by Imani. It's a challenge to read three books by three authors who have gone out of fashion, which is an intriguing premise to me. As the introduction to the challenge says: "A reading challenge for all interested in exploring authors who were kicked out of the 'in' crowd." It really made me think about what makes authors remain popular... And I have until February 29, 2008, which ought to be enough time (fingers crossed). Check out the challenge, and the amazing list of "outmoded" authors here.

I haven't finalized my list of books for this challenge yet. I'd read something by Elizabeth Bowen, but I kind of consider that to be cheating, since she's one of my favorite authors, outmoded or not.

So I've chosen to read Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian (Penguin Classics), since it was already on my list.

I think I'll also read Of Human Bondage (Bantam Classics), by W. Somerset Maugham, since Maugham is someone I feel I should read, and several friends have read and recommended him lately.

Then I have to pick another author, and I'm torn between May Sarton, Janet Frame, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Oh, the choices we face...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Blog power

My friend Julie sent me an article from the New York Times about how publishers, lacking the budget to send authors on conventional book tours, are sending them on virtual book tours instead--now authors are doing the rounds of the book blogs.

It's a fairly positive article about the power of blogs, and has some interesting details about how authors and publishers can benefit from blog publicity.

But there was also an interesting quote about how the authors have to learn how to interact with bloggers and their audiences:
Although blogging is another form of writing, not all authors seem equally suited. Joshua Ferris, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Then We Came to the End,” guest-blogged for a week at the Elegant Variation, a literary blog, where he declared his fondness for the band the Hold Steady, rounded up literary news and promoted graduate writing programs. Still, at the end of the week, he apologized to readers: “I only posted late at night, and only once a day, whereas other bloggers keep you returning throughout the day. I didn’t respond to many of your comments, which seems an important part of the blogger-commenter contract.”
Interesting. I have that Joshua Ferris novel. I'll have to check out his blogging appearances before I read it...

Goodbye, Ms. L'Engle

I was saddened to hear that Madeleine L'Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, has died. She was 88. The New York Times has a really good article about her life and work.

A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books from childhood, and I have been meaning to reread it forever. Maybe now I will.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

On Chesil Beach, a review

I realized recently that my summer was bookended (excuse the pun) by two books about marriage. At the beginning of the summer I read On Chesil Beach: A Novel, by Ian McEwan, and at the end of the summer I read Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees: A Novel. One of the stories is about a marriage aborted, the other about a marriage defined and then redefined.

In this post, I’ll ramble a little about Ian McEwan’s slim book, On Chesil Beach, and I'll tackle The Maytrees later.

In what is almost certainly for most an irrelevant aside, I first want to comment on the size of this book. It’s only 203 pages long, so it’s not only slim but physically small, about 4 3/4 inches by 7 1/2 inches, but it is hardbound. There is something about a hardbound book of this size, something about how it fits in your hand and weighs so little, and it could almost fit in your pocket, that makes it elegant. I liked it for this reason even before I read it, because it reminded me of descriptions of the size of books from long ago, octavo, duodecimo, sextodecimo, which have always intrigued me.

On Chesil Beach is the story of two very young people, Edward, a student of history, and Florence, a classical musician, who were married earlier that day, and who have come to honeymoon in a hotel on the English coast. Soon they have also come to an impasse over their sexual life, but I won’t say more, so as not to be a spoiler. The novel takes place over the course of that one day in July of 1962, but of course McEwan expands on this, and we also learn about Florence and Edward’s pasts, and what brought them to this place.

McEwan’s earlier novel Saturday, which also takes place over the course of one day, and in which McEwan also skillfully interweaves past and present, is a richer novel, but On Chesil Beach, while less weighty, has some gem-like pieces of writing.

McEwan writes gorgeously about music, and appropriately, it is through her music that we get to know Florence. She is from a more sophisticated background than Edward, but she is less emotionally sophisticated than he is, perhaps because he has been tempered by personal family tragedy. But both characters are crippled by the times in which they live. They don’t have the emotional vocabulary to discuss their feelings, and they simply cannot bridge the sexual gap between them.

I don’t know why it was hard for me to put myself into that place, when intellectually I knew McEwan was taking us there. The first sentences of the novel are: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” I understand that it was a different time, and a different place, but it was hard for me not to solve Florence and Edward’s problems with communication by communicating for them as I read the novel—I made up the conversations they might have had, if they could only talk about their issues.

It was easier for me to wrap my mind around the class differences that caused problems between Edward and Florence than it was to understand their problems with sexual intimacy. But ultimately I did understand, and surrendered to McEwan’s intended experience--I guess I just found it frustrating at first.

McEwan evokes the pre-sexual revolution world of 1962, and the embarrassment and fears about sex, with painful detail. He has also crafted an overwhelmingly sad story. The lost opportunities, the things left unsaid, resonated with me for a long time.

For me, the most satisfying part of the novel was its ending, in which McEwan talks about how the couple had been married that day in a world on the cusp of change, and he then describes that change. The end of the novel is a kind of meditation on what might have been, and it helped me through the sadness of the story.