Saturday, June 21, 2008

Moving to "Shards"

This black bear at the Oregon Zoo can't roam too far, but in cyberspace we can move to another place in the blink of an eye. I'm moving these booknotes to "Shards." See you there!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Werewolves and Vampires, Oh Yeah!

I once read an Anne Rice novel, just to see what all the fuss was about. I didn't like it -- too steamy and suffocating. I know some teens like them, but i have only one in my school library. Teens may read anything they can get their hands on, but I'm selective in what I offer and encourage. And so I resisted the lure of
Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, though I did buy them for the school, since they were so popular and had gotten some acclaim in the press. But because we're a boys' school, I didn't know whether anyone would read them. But then this spring one voracious reader in the ninth grade checked out the first one, then the second.... and two more boys followed, and so I decided to jump in for a taste. And boy, was I hooked! Or should I say "bitten"? (Nah.)

Because of the Pacific Northwest setting of dark conifers, fog and mist and the coast, I found the atmosphere much more to my liking than that of the steamy Rice world. Since I've been to the Oregon coast and fallen in love with it, I also loved traveling mentally up to the Olympic Peninsula and living in the tiny (but now very famous) logging town of Forks, Washington, and the ocean-bounded Quileute reservation just down the road.

The long-ago teen age girl inside of me can still relate to a teen romance, if it's gripping and decently written. i found Bella Swan, the heroine, a sympathetic character and have now enjoyed the three existing books and, like many teens, am eagerly awaiting the August 2 release of the fourth, Breaking Dawn.
Meyers writes very easily and well and certainly remembers HER inner teen (and is still close enough in age to them to remember well.) The writing and the back stories occasionally get a bit loose and shaggy, but on the whole I love the books. They're a fast read, all 400 - 600 pages of each one. She's not Henry James, or even Edith Wharton but is convincing and readable, if you can enjoy a story that's half realistic and half-supernatural. I still don't see the allure of vampires and am much more attracted to the Quileute teen boys who burst from their skins into hairy dogs, which I always picture as over-sized German Shepherds, like my wonderful granddogs. After finishing Eclipse, which had a surprisingly nuanced resolution, I dreamed of large dogs.

When you read Stephenie's website you learn that Jacob, the werewolf who's been Bella's best friend for years, was originally intended to be a minor character. His part grew and he became part of a love triangle. I'm sure Edward (the vampire) will win in the end, but I do root for Jacob.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen

It's been a long time since I've read any Elizabeth Bowen, but it may be time to revisit the old favorites. I've just read, and partly reread, her Friends and Relations, published in 1931 by the Dial Press. Apparently it's not in print, but I have a $2.75 Avon paperback (1980), a used bookstore find. It was a good break from McEwan and is an absorbing and subtle story of two sisters in England, and their marriages and lives in upper middle class England between the wars. Bowen is great at creating a setting that's very alive and real, with emotional overtones. Although the book is not at all a tragedy -- the sisters manage very well in their respective marriages, despite the fact that the real lovers do not marry each other -- the opening scene is ominously portentous of ruin.
We start on the morning of a wedding, with rain, which is to clear off in time: "The morning of the Tilney-Studdart wedding rain fell steadily from before daylight, veiling trees and garden and darkening the canvas of the marquee that should have caught the earliest sun in happy augury." But despite the gloomy weather, the bride is unconcerned, and the reader is assured as she proceeds through her morning. But -- by the third paragraph the rain has stopped, and all should be well, except that the author seems to hint at darker tones than should prevail. "The rain stopped before lunch. Later, during the ceremony, the sun came out, parting the clouds widely; so that Laurel's married way down the aisle was gold from successive windows." So far, so good. But then the next sentence hits: "When she uncertainly smiled in the porch, against strong blasts from the organ rolling out from behind, the umbrellas were finally down; the graves glittered." What is this mention of glittering graves doing in an evocation of a wedding? What are we to expect?
The novel is in three parts: the first treats of the two weddings and introduces us to the families involved. The second comes ten or so years later, when both sisters have children. and the last centers on one day some time later. Secrets are revealed and lived with, one child has made an interesting partnership with another girl, and deep waves of feeling simmer under the surface. But middle class propriety and domesticity hold all together, and the novel ends on a note of peacefulness, but not without its undertones.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

For I will consider my cat, Tater...

Man oh man, here's a good one. I have a small (4 x 4) paper pamplet version of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," with red woodcuts by Ben Shahn and published by Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard in 1957. it's a wonderful poem if you don't mind a little nature mysticism and some religious obsession and extreme wordplay and passion for nature -- a bit eccentric, in other words, but fun to read. (You can read it to your cat, and he will purr.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ah, sentences! Discovering Ian McEwen

It's always a joy to discover a "new" writer, especially one who was always just below the radar. I avoided McEwen for years, though he was praised as literate, smart, a good psychological plotter, etc. But I was afraid to read a book about an abducted child outside of the mystery genre. It didn't help that another of his books was titled The Cement Garden. But the extensive publicity about the new movie of Atonement sent me back to the book, which is as captivating as anything by Forster. And with prose as clean as Lively's, prose that the author reads aloud to himself to hear how it works. Here are a couple of passages that draw the reader into a spell:
The rains came at last in late September, delivered by gales that stripped most trees bare in leas than a week. Leaves clogged the drains certain streets became navigable rivers, old couples were helped out of basement flats by policemen in waders, and there was a general feeling of crisis and excitement, at least on television.
By a frozen brook they passed the slab of rock under whose covering of snow, deep in the fissures, were the ingredients of a miniature tropical forest. Even by moonlight it was possible to see fat and sticky buds and unassuming ground plants raising tiny spears through the snow. One season was piercing another. In the smoothed-out spaces between trees, profusion waited its turn. The track turned toward the center of the wood. They descended into the hollow towards the rotten oak, an unchanged feature from the summer before.
We can endure terrible events if -- if we are presented with sympathetic characters, some hope of love, and absorbing creations of specific places. I'm hooked.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"I can't like Ian McEwen!"

When my second son was a toddler he once said, on being asked to try some food, let's say spinach, "I can't like spinach!'

I wanted to like Ian McEwen, and I couldn’t. I thought I tried. But not really. I read the N.Y. Times review of The Child in Time and The Cement Garden, and I thought “Never!” No matter that he was said to be articulate, a fine writer even, and that he looked smart, well-aged, and handsome – when I read what he wrote about, I thought, Never. Too depressing. Then along came a novel that sounded amenable and interesting, so I read Atonement, and it wasn’t horrifying, but I never quite got it, though it buzzed about me.

So now that the movie is upon us, I thought it was time to read the book again, and to do it justice – listen to its prose, its voice, what’s going on and how it’s told, and see who among the characters might be engaging. And now I see – it’s Briony, and I’m sucked in and open to all the book’s charms.

And here’s a clue as to how to read it:

[Of Briony, years later, as a writer:] "She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive."
Atonement, p.38 (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese hc)

Well, isn’t this what fiction is all about? Yes, but I for one have to be able to identify with one or more characters, to sympathize. I guess after this it’ll be time to take a look at The Child in Time. Of which, more later.

Monday, December 10, 2007

With forty bottles of ring-bo-ree

SPOILER WARNING!!! for Sunday NY Times Acrostic
"Edward Lear's nonsense is not vacuity of sense: it is parody oi sense, "The Jumblies" is a poem of adventure and nostalgia. The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo and the Dong with a luminous nose are of unrequited passion -- blues, in fact."
from The Music of Poetry, Acrostic puzzle in N.Y. Times Magazine, 12/9/07
Punctuation uncertain, as is attribution.
My grandchildren are lucky that I read "The Jumblies" and "The Owl and the Pussycat" to them, and that I enjoy it so. It's in a British book with colorful illustrations rather than Lear's drawings.