Monday, March 31, 2008

Another one bites the dust...

I was saddened to hear that Dutton's, one of L.A.'s great independent bookstores, is closing its doors after 23 years.  Dutton's once had a North Hollywood location that my husband and I used to visit occasionally, but that closed a few years back.  Now the Brentwood store is closing, partly due to the fact that the property has changed ownership, and surprise, surprise, the new owner wants to redevelop the property (a familiar story in Los Angeles).  Here is a letter from the store's owner, Doug Dutton, about the closing, and here is a piece about it in the Los Angeles Times

I don't know what it takes to make it as an independent bookstore, but it always sounds like a business that constantly lives on the edge.  I have always had a dream of owning a small bookstore, but I don't know if I'm brave enough to follow that particular dream...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kinds of Love, by May Sarton

I missed the deadline to post this for the Outmoded Authors' Challenge, but had to post about this book anyway: 

When I saw May Sarton’s name on the list of writers for the Outmoded Authors’ Challenge, I realized I had a copy of a May Sarton novel, Kinds of Love, that had been languishing on my shelf for years. So I was thrilled to put it down as one of my choices for the challenge—I wouldn’t even have to buy, borrow or mooch the book. I realized I knew nothing about Sarton, except that she was on the Outmoded Authors’ list.

I did a quick internet reconnaissance, and found that Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912, but was raised in Massachusetts, her family having moved to the U.S. in 1916, ahead of the advancing Germans. She attended Vassar and was inspired by Eva La Galienne to act in the theater. While learning the craft of acting, she also wrote poetry. Eventually she gave up acting for writing, and wrote her first novel at age 26. She traveled often to Europe, and met Elizabeth Bowen (another Outmoded Author), Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Hilda Doolittle, and Dame Edith Sitwell.

Sarton lived with a woman, Judith Matlack, for 15 years, and was devoted to her until her death in 1982. She wrote several novels and poems with lesbian relationships in them, but did not accept the label of “lesbian writer”, because she said she wanted to be seen as a “universal writer”.

This novel chronicles a year in the life of a New Hampshire town—it’s bicentennial year—and in the life of its inhabitants. It mainly concerns the rich “summer people”, Christina and Cornelius Chapman, who have decided to stay for the winter for the first time, and Christina’s childhood friend Ellen, the daughter of a farmer, who grew up in the town and does not have the benefits of wealth like the Chapmans. Sarton writes beautifully about Christina and Ellen’s friendship, about Christina and Cornelius’s marriage, and about the relationships between these older people and various people of younger generations, including Christina’s son, her granddaughter, and Ellen’s troubled son.

Kinds of Love has many themes, but one I felt is particularly eloquently presented is the theme of aging. Kinds of Love was published in 1970, when Sarton was 58, but her main character, Christina Chapman, is a woman in her seventies, married to a man who is struggling along after having a stroke. I found Sarton’s portrait of the aging couple to be very affecting. Christina, who is able to express her thoughts unlike the other characters, as we are privy to passages from her diary, often muses on what it feels like to be aging, yet not to feel your age. She also speaks of the power of her feelings, which have grown as she is getting older, rather than waning, as she imagined they would.
…inside, the person I really am has no relation to this mask age is slowly attaching to my face. I feel so young, so exposed, under it. I simply cannot seem to learn to behave like the very old party I am. The young girl, arrogant, open, full of feelings she cannot analyze, longing to be told she is beautiful—that young girl lives inside this shell. And God knows, age is hard on her.

I used to envy the old; I always imagined old age as a kind of heaven. It never occurred to me that my knee would ache all the time, or that I would fight a daily battle against being slowed down, that memory would begin to fail, and all the rest. The young cannot imagine what it is to be fighting a battle that cannot be won.
Christina—optimistic, candid, sometimes a little na├»ve—is a refreshing character. She works well as counterpoint to her friend Ellen, who has been worn down by life and always takes a more pessimistic view of things. Through her characters, Sarton shows amazing insight into people. One of the few complaints I have about the book, though, is that her characters sometimes seem a little too self-aware. They tend to say too much about what they feel, and reveal more than is realistic. It works for the character of Christina, as we are able to read the innermost thoughts she reveals in her diary, but it seems less natural in the other characters, who are forced to speak their thoughts out loud.

The novel is also a fascinating look at the dynamics of class, in the crucible of a small town. Christina and Cornelius, the rich summer people, find out about the everyday hardships of life in their idyllic vacation spot when they decide to winter over there for the first time. Christina’s relationship with her old friend Ellen is difficult for Christina to navigate partly because Ellen is a prickly person, but partly because the fact of Christina’s money and privilege always stands between them. And Sarton makes much of the pride of Christina’s former suitor Eben, who successfully worked his way up the social, educational and economic ladder, but always resented that the father of his rival, Cornelius, put him through college.

While looking on the internet for biographical details about Sarton, I also came across an article in a journal of “educational gerontology”, entitled "Kinds of Love by May Sarton: A Theoretical Framework for Educating Gerontologists." The beginning of the abstract states: Using Kinds of Love by May Sarton in gerontology classes as a text for studying human development affords an opportunity to explore theory and research on aging. I thought this sounded like a great idea—certainly Sarton’s exploration of old age had struck me as real, and illuminating, and respectful, and now it seems to me that it would be very useful to medical students studying aging, or anyone who wants insight into old age.

Characters and their relationships are the main focus of the novel, but Sarton also makes the setting come alive. The town, the surrounding woods, and the mountain that looms over all, are described in rich detail. Sarton also shows us the amazing transformation the area goes through as the harsh winter comes, and life becomes more difficult for everyone. I felt Sarton’s reverence for nature, and her respect for its power and its effect on the people she wrote about.

I was happy to discover this author whose work had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for some fifteen years or so…and I don’t consider May Sarton to be outmoded at all.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--The End

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is:

The End

You’ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’re going to read? What?

(Obviously, there can be more than one answer, here–a book with a cliff-hanger is going to engender different reactions than a serene, stand-alone, but you get the idea!)

Sometimes reading inspires me to read.  I get on a roll and the minute I finish something I love, I have to dive into something new, sometimes by the same author, sometimes the same genre, sometimes something entirely different that has been sitting on my stack of books.

Other times a book is so emotionally draining that I need a rest, or I need time to digest what I've read, so I don't read at all for awhile.  It all depends on the book.  

But even an emotionally wrenching book often inspires me to read right away--I'll read something calming and comforting, to change my mood.

What about you?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

About flowers, not about books

I remember last year around this time I posted photos of the wisteria in my back yard. This year I'm forcing everyone to look at the night-blooming jasmine that has exploded into bloom over the last couple of weeks.

It smells so beautiful in the late afternoon and evening, I find myself ducking out the back door every once in awhile just to get a nose-full of the sweet scent--it helps me get through my toddler's "witching hour" before bed.

This is how it looks cascading over the--what is that thing that covers your deck called? A pergola? Well, the jasmine covers that structure that covers our deck.

I wonder if "pergola" is a word on Free Rice...

Here's the jasmine from above, from from when the buds appeared until it exploded into bloom:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Off the wagon

I went off the book diet big time. You know how it is, you get a coupon in the mail, a couple of BookMooch books arrive, you spend a gift card you forgot about, and boom, you've got a big new stack of books. Of course, I'm thrilled. To heck with the diet, anyway. It's amazing my resolution lasted this long.

The new books are in front of the beautiful flower arrangement that my husband sent me when I was feeling sick last week. If you click on the picture, it should enlarge it enough so you can see what the books are. But here's a list anyway:

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella, by Alan Bennett. I had heard quite a bit about this book, by one of my favorite playwrights, both from book bloggers and in the press. Then I read Stefanie's review of this novella, and it reinforced my desire to get it.

In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson. I read and enjoyed his Notes from a Small Island a few years back, so I thought I'd mooch this, since I'm interested in the land down under.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell. This has been on many of my blogging friends' lists of favorite books, and it sounds like something I'll like, so here it is.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, by, you guessed it, Amy Hempel. She's one of those writers I've been hearing about for years, but haven't got around to yet. Now I have no excuse.

The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro. Alice Munro has always been a favorite of mine, and I've been looking forward to this for awhile.

Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, by Penelope Lively. This is another author I've discovered through blogging. This is a memoir of her childhood in Egypt, which sounded fascinating.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks. One of my favorite scientists writing on the extreme effects of music on the brain. I got this from my public radio station's "book club", another offering I think I will enjoy.

I'm noticing I have quite a variety of types of book here--a novella, two books of short stories, a novel, a memoir, a travelogue, and a non-fiction work about science. That's unusual for me, it's usually just a pile of novels! I'm really looking forward to reading all of the above, but I've got a few things ahead of them on the pile, so it may take me awhile...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring fever

Life got in the way of blogging for me, for about a week and a half. First it was a fever, followed by a cold, and then it was the rest of the family's fever, followed by their colds. Then, when we recovered, we got spring fever, and had to start planting our vegetable garden for this year. After working in the garden I was too sore to blog!

Then the weather got even better, so we drove out to Pacific Palisades and had a picnic at Will Rogers State Historic Park, on an absolutely gorgeous Sunday, 75 degrees and blue skies. I didn't read, so I didn't really qualify for the Sunday Salon, but I did go on a tour of American humorist and movie star Will Rogers' house, which has been preserved by the park service as it was on the day he died in a plane crash in 1935. The house is chock full of western paraphernalia and quite beautiful in a rustic, ranch-y sort of way. The western paintings, drawings, and sculpture by Charles M. Russell, and the Indian blankets and baskets, and the Monterrey-style furniture were worth the price of parking. I can't believe I've lived here all these years, been to the park and polo fields many times, but had never gone inside the house until now.

On the reading front, I finished May Sarton's Kinds of Love: A Novel for the Outmoded Authors' Challenge, and I really enjoyed it, but I just haven't had time to write about it yet.