Thursday, January 29, 2009

Farewell, John Updike

Writer John Updike died on January 27th, of lung cancer.  I was a fan of his Rabbit books, and loved The Witches of Eastwick.  Here is a recent poem of his that is due to be released in a collection called "Endpoint and Other Poems":


It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
'Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise - depths unplumbable!

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
'I thought he died a while ago.'

For life's a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The End of Magical Thinking

I was listening to the radio this morning and I heard a story about the trial of someone who caused a big commuter train wreck by parking his SUV on the railroad tracks in a purported suicide attempt.  The reporter mentioned that one of the survivors of that crash went on to die in an even larger commuter train wreck about a year later.  

It struck me that here was proof that the "logic" that if you survive something like that train crash once, you are safe from train wrecks in the future--a little piece of magical thinking I live my life by--is completely flawed.  

It reminded me of a scene in the movie version of John Irving's novel The World According to Garp, where a small plane hits the house that Garp and his wife are looking to buy, and Garp  says they should take the house, because it's "pre-disastered"--now nothing bad can possibly happen here!

Calling things "pre-disastered" has become a family joke, and I can still relate to Garp's attitude. 

The World According to Garp, John Irving's third novel, was a cultural phenomenon.  I was maybe 12 or 13 when the book was published, and I still remember the red, blue, and green foil covers of the mass-market paperback edition all over the book racks at my local drugstore.  It was one of the first grown-up novels I ever read, part of my introduction to serious fiction.  I was struck by the character of Garp, related to his fear of death, and loved the weirdness of the novel.  And even though John Irving and I have grown apart a little, stylistically, over the years, I still feel I owe him for shaping my reading life.

Do you remember the first books that bridged children's books and grown-up books for you?  What was your introduction to grown-up fiction?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I won!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Thank you so much, Jessica, for this lovely book!

I won one of the Bluestocking Society's holiday extravaganza giveaway books: a copy of Monique and the Mango Rains, a memoir I've wanted to read since I saw several interesting reviews on the book blogs.

I'm looking forward to starting this one...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oh Happy Day!

A morning spent smiling through tears...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mini I can move on

The husband is back from the frozen north, and we're having our annual winter heat wave here in southern California. The kids are settled back in a school routine, though the youngest has a particularly nasty cold. It's time for me to get back into a blogging routine. I've realized I haven't written reviews for a bunch of books I finished late last year and early this year. So I'm going to do some mini reviews, so that I don't get further bogged down. Here goes:

The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham. Shallow socialite Kitty marries doctor Walter Fane because she fears she will not find anyone else. She moves to Hong Kong, where Walter works, and there she has a passionate affair with Charles Townsend, the equally shallow but glamorous assistant colonial secretary. When Walter discovers the affair, he gives Kitty a choice--marry Townsend or come with him to the cholera-ridden interior of China. Townsend won't marry her, so she goes with Walter, to what she believes is certain death. Kitty gains respect and liking for her husband as she watches him work to save the Chinese cholera victims, and she finds some fulfillment working at a convent orphanage. Walter succumbs to the disease, and pregnant Kitty leaves Hong Kong for England. There she seeks to remake a relationship with her father, who she had mostly ignored earlier in life. Probably more shocking when it was published in 1925, the novel barely registers as feminist now. However, it is still an interesting examination of a woman's spiritual journey. Kitty doesn't change and grow as much as I'd like (with my modern sensibility), but she does become more self-aware, and Maugham's characters never make radical changes (especially for the better)--though they often come to see what they are. Maugham is a master of portraying human weakness and failing, and he does it very well here. I also enjoyed his comparison of how people search--through religion, work, opium, sexual infatuation--to find meaning, and to both lose and find themselves. The ending is a little disappointing--without giving it away, it's almost as if Maugham needed to find some sort of redemption for Kitty, but wasn't willing to go the whole way.

The Dearly Departed, by Elinor Lipman. Amateur actress Margaret Batten and her long-time lover Miles Finn are discovered dead in Margaret's house, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning from a broken furnace. Margaret's daughter Sunny comes home to the little town of King George, New Hampshire to deal with her mother's death, and she meets Miles's prickly son Fletcher. Fletcher is her age, and has the same type of hair she does--flyaway and prematurely gray--which makes Sunny, Fletcher and all the townspeople realize Fletcher and Sunny are siblings. Most of the story is taken up with Sunny coming to terms with her own past, and surprises from her mother's past, in the small town where she grew up. I love Lipman's quirky characters and amazingly witty dialogue. I had trouble with the lack of plot, and some inconsistencies in character, especially in the character of Fletcher, who starts off as a seemingly uptight and difficult fellow, and ends up basically pursuing Sunny as a new sibling. I found Sunny's journey more involving, and her interactions with the town's chief of police, who had been a schoolmate of hers, worth reading. I like Lipman's style, so though I don't recommend this book wholeheartedly, I do look forward to reading more of her stuff.

Purple Hibiscus: A Novel, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved Adichie's later book, Half of a Yellow Sun, so I really wanted to read her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. It was wonderful, too, but different in scope. Through one family's travails, Half of a Yellow Sun really tells the story of the Nigerian nation's travails. Purple Hibiscus is more of a personal story, the story of a girl's coming of age. It tells the story of 15-year-old Kambili and her brother Jaja, who are the children of a financially successful factory owner who is also fanatically religious, and who abuses his children and their mother in the name of that religion. Kambili finds freedom from the repression and abuse of her father's home in the warm and lively home of her Auntie Ifeoma, a college professor, whom Kambili is allowed to visit. As Kambili wakes to the world around her and the possibility of a different life than she's previously known, the political situation in Nigeria begins to fall apart, and the political crisis brings all the characters to personal turning points. I enjoyed Adichie's very readable writing style, and found Kambili's journey to be a very engrossing one.

Let me know if any of you have reviewed these, so I can link to your reviews!

Here is Booksplease's review of The Painted Veil, and also her review of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was a wonderful read!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Life: Weekend Checklist

Friday surprise:  At planning meeting for "farewell event" for head of children's school, reach into coat pocket to silence ringing cell phone, and pull out...Barbie shoes.

During Friday trip to the orthodontist:  try to convince eldest child of the merits of wearing his million-dollar headgear, while keeping him from punching his younger brother while they fight over the use of my cellphone.

Weekend events scheduled:  Two birthday parties, one sleepover, one bar mitzvah, two haircut appointments.

Event cancelled:  Long-awaited Sunday "girls' night" cozy dinner and screening of movie organized by my best friend.  

New event scheduled instead:  Help hubby pack and see him off on week-long business trip to Vancouver that has been moved up.  Take care of three children without hubby instead of attending girls' night.

Second new event scheduled:  sleepless night contemplating week ahead without hubby.

Foreseeable reading time:  0

Foreseeable blogging time:  0

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A New Year of reading

I'm off to a limping start this year, trying to get through my book club's selection for this month, Edward Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. It's not that I don't like the writing--I do--but I just can't get into the subject matter. It's about a family and the dogs they breed, and I can feel an unhappy ending brewing, and I just can't bring myself to face it. Not that I mind unhappy endings, but there's a tension building around a malevolent character that I'm not sure I can live with for the next hundred or so pages.

If I don't finish the book, I have to put five bucks into the pot, for an eventual evening out with the book groupers. Not a bad price to pay, considering the pleasure it will bring me later, and it will assuage my guilt about not finishing!

My poor new Kindle is not getting much use yet, as I have so many physical books on the pile, I can't bring myself to buy any virtual ones. I've downloaded a few classics, and have started reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, something that's been on my list of "to-reads" forever.

I'm enjoying the Kindle experience so far, and I'm sold on how wonderful it will be to travel with. My only criticism at the moment is that without the physical cues of bookmarks and page numbers, I have no idea how far into the book I am, and how far I have to go. It's a very strange experience for me, to have no bearings in the book. I can't keep track of what chapter I'm in--that would require using too much of my beleaguered memory. It's odd--and I feel I must be missing something here--there must be some other way of figuring out where you are. Do any of you Kindle users out there have any comments or advice on how to mark reading progress?

As I mentioned in my last post, my New Year's resolution is to try to get through more of my to-read pile before I buy any more books. I feel like that could be a reading challenge in itself: The Off The Shelf challenge, or something like that. In designing that challenge for myself, I'm going to set no time limits or book quotas, but just see how long I can read without going outside my own shelves...