Sunday, April 30, 2006

I planned on writing a post on Gilead tonight, but I ended up going out again. For those of you counting at home, that's three nights out in a row. For normal people I know that's nothing big, but for a homebody like myself, it's a big deal. Tomorrow will come my first real post on Robinson's novel.

"But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. 'The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.' There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That's a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it's also the Lord's truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience."

Thursday, April 27, 2006

As far as non-fiction goes, The Professor and the Madman was quick and easy, and thus, a highly accessible read. I haven't read anything else by Winchester, but it's easy to see why he's become such a prominent figure in the non-fiction genre. The Professor... is the story about the prodigious task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary. There were dictionaries before the OED, but none encompassed every word in the English language. Prior to the OED, dictionaries were specifically written for parts of speech. Not the OED. Even this day in age I can't imagine trying to track down a quotation of every word, citing that definition, finding the origin of the word and the first time the word was used. It's unfathomable. Yet, Doctor James Murray, a member of the British Philogical Society undertakes the assignment with great energy. He will work on the project for forty years, the rest of his life, and still fail to see it to completion.

And that's only half the story. The other protagonist is an American Army surgeon. Well, actually, he's more famous because he was a murderer. In the 1870s, the American doctor, W.C. Minor, is living an unknowingly tortured life in England when he murders a man. Deemed insane, Minor spends the next forty years or so, in a hospital (a loose term here) where he corresponds with Murray and the rest of the OED team. For twenty odd years, Minor sends in thousands of words to Murray from his two room cell just outside of London.

It's an extraordinary story that I kept thinking would make a great movie. At least if you're a geek like me, you'd enjoy a movie about the making of dictionary, but I feel most sane people would opt for another way to spend two hours of their life. Not me. Murder, books, intrigue, words, long white beards...OSCAR!

Now reading:
Marilynne Robinson Gilead

On deck:
Umberto Eco The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I smiled tonight. It's not unusual that I smiled. Nothing out of the ordinary. But walking down Newbury at night, among the students, artists, tourists and the like, with newly purchased books tucked away in my bag, just hits me. I used to get the same feeling playing baseball. Or rather, I used to get the feeling during practice or right before the game began. Whether it was the smell of the cut grass, feeling the stitches on the ball or re-curving my hat, I would be giddy with anticipation, fear and shear joy. I don't play ball anymore, so my adrenaline has to come in other forms: literature. Do I go overboard in purchasing books? Of course. But it is what it is. Tonight, with my books hidden in my bag, I held a secret that no one else knew. In each book I am able to imagine my greatest dreams, see places I may never travel to and meet people I only wish I knew. Knowing this, feeling this, I smiled.

Books I lugged home tonight were all on sale: Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Jose Saramago's Double. They may have to wait a bit, but I've got them at last!
Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith and Carrie Tiffany have made the shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Great group, tough competition, but I'm pulling for Krauss. Though I should probably read Waters, Mantel and Tiffany to make a better judgement.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In a three day rush, I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, savoring every word, every passage, every character. Ruiz Zafon seamlessly molded a mystery novel with a work of high literary easy feat. The book reads easily and is inundated with passages that smell of the shadowy streets and characters Ruiz Zafron so meticulously describes.

"This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, thought. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody's best friend. Now they have only us, Daniel. Do you think you'll be able to keep such a secret?"

As a reader, that's what I consider myself, a custodian of books. And I especially wish there was some place like this Cemetery of Forgotten Books that Daniel's father takes him to. Where books don't die or lose readers, they simply lie in wait for their next reader to dust of their cover and take over another imagination. Where books are held to the highest standards and require protection from the elements of society that would rather they were gone. Where books are pathways to greater adventures and mysteries.

Ruiz Zafron intricately plotted a story surrounding the disappearance of a writer's, Julian Carax, novels all being bought or stolen, only so they can be burned. A stranger with no face lurks in shadows, behind closed doors and in foreign cities, searching for each Carax novel to banish them forever. Ashes to ashes. When Daniel Sempre takes Carax's novel The Shadow of the Wind from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, his life, and those of his loved ones, are put on a path of danger and adventure reminiscent of a Dumas novel.

I admit that I became interested in Ruiz Zafon's novel because of it's fairly soap opera-esque title and the book's cover design, but I swallowed the book whole...every last word was cooked perfectly.

Now reading:
Simon Winchester The Professor and the Madman

On deck:
Steven Heighton The Shadow Boxer

Listening to:
George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
Kerouac's cottage for sale - sold to the highest bidder for only $300,000?

Monday, April 24, 2006

I'm not usually drawn to family dramas or medical ethics, but if they're all as breathlessly written as Michael Byers's Long for This World, then I'd have to be more inclined to read them. I love good last pages or paragraphs of novels almost as much as the opening stanzas. I began writing about Byers by quoting his opening paragraph. And now I'm obligated by the literary gods (or demons) in my head, to quote his closing. It's from the point of view of Darren, the teenage son of the Moss family.

"But there were other things on his mind too. He too was getting ready for college, and now he felt more acutely than ever that the world was full of a sort of marvelous, overwhelming, distracting possibility; so sometimes he found himself coming into a room with a purpose, only to forget what it was, and as he stood there, suddenly adrift in the middle of a familiar room, each object around him, though mute and motionless, seemed to hold a kind of coded message for him, a vibrating potential that remained unrealized - Was this what he had wanted? Was this? - and only by retracing his steps, squinting deeply into his own mind, and then coming into the room again would he at last remember what it was he had been looking for."

The poetic prose of this novel stands out from the crowd of today's short sentence structure. I've always been attracted to long sentences when a writer can get a cadence going. When their voice can be heard and their mind, though still hidden, is unveiled, if only momentarily for us to glimpse. It is in such passages that Byers shines. In a novel that is largely based on finding a cure for Hickman's disease, a disease in which young children age at rapid rates and die of old age by the age of fourteen,Long for This World makes the reader, young or old, come to terms with mortality. Byers challenges us to imagine the lives we live, to imagine the lives we can live, to imagine the lives we will live and to imagine the lives we'll never live.

I know the difference of great literature is in the shades, but in reading Byers, I couldn't help but feel I was reading something special, by someone special...and it was a good feeling.

Now reading:
Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind

On deck:
Simon Winchester Professor and the Madman

Listening to:
Diana Krall The Look of Love
The weekend is over and I have reclaimed part of my sanity. Well, I've recaptured enough to post about Michael Byers's Long for this World a little later tonight. And if the post doesn't run too long, I'll throw in a few words about my newest read...Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. And now, time for some good ole cafetaria lunch.


Thursday, April 20, 2006 to post anything tonight of any value. Will try to recover and post a lil something about Byers's Long for This World. I will say that I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I'm not a fan of science writing in literature, but in this novel, there's only so much to keep the story going. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I lent a friend of mine Case Histories, thinking she'd enjoy it. I wanted someone else I know to read it so we could talk about it. Like a mini-mini-book group. What happens? She hates it of course. The writing was bad. The stories were overly sentimental. The characters, awful. Except for Jackson she says. I know we're not all supposed to all like the same books. I'm sure there would be countless books she loves that I would discard without hesitation. It's just an odd, unsettling feeling to like a novel so much and to think someone else would get caught up in the crazy, sad stories, only to have them struggle through 100 pages before closing the cover for good. Two weeks ago I gave her the book. Now, I have it back. Unread. It looks lonesome on my record player, atop Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogoy. At least it's in good company now, surrounded by books loved by their reader. Snuggled amongst Ozick, Agee and Foote. You're home now.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"It was a big old pleasant high school gym, built in the twenties and not much disturbed by renovation. The iron rafters met at a shallow angle at the roofline, and the tall windows were made up of a dozen big panes, each reinforced with chicken wire, and the two ancient clocks sat on opposing brick walls, ratcheting their works forward with an audible whir, his clunk. The gym smelled nostalgically of varnish, sweat, and paint, but it was not an obsolete shabby place."

Michael Byers Long for this World

The minute I read that opening paragraph, I had to buy the book and it hasn't been a let down. Talk about lyrical, Byers exudes it.

Now reading:
Michael Byers Long for this World

On deck:
Steven Heighton The Shadow Boxer

Listening to:
Baseball Tonight on ESPN

Sunday, April 16, 2006

I don't know about anyone else, but I turn to poets for answers. Love? Ask the poets. Death? Ask the poets. Life? Poets. It seems that though they may not have the answers, their thoughts on the matter are highly attuned to humananity. David Huddle is a poet. At least that's what the blurb on the back of his novel says. David Huddle may be one of the best poets I've never read, but his novel The Story of a Million Years is nothing more than a pedestrian look at married couples. I feel I've read or seen all this before. A middle aged man having an affair with a seemingly mature teen girl who's the daughter of his wife's friend. (Mrs. Robinson in reverse?) Or how about two couples in fairly monotonous relationships and their struggles to remain faithful. Huddle puts no new spin on the age old stories and leaves them nothing more than common narratives through common terrain. I expect better language from poets. I expect more from poets. I expected more from Huddle.

Friday, April 14, 2006

My first meme (which I stole from Pages Turned)

Name books you liked, one for as many letters of the alphabet as you can come up with.

All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Mari Remarque
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Sijie Dai
Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
Death in the Family, A - James Agee
Elements of Style, The - Strunk and White
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk
Go! - John Clellon Holmes
Human Comedy, The - William Saroyan
Idiot, The - Dostoevski
Journey to the End of the Night - Louis Ferdinand Celine
Killer Angels, The - Michael Shaara
Long Winded Lady, The -Maeve Brennan
Moveable Feast, A - Hemingway
Namesake, The - Jhumpa Lahiri
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Pierre, or the Ambiguities - Herman Melville
Representative Men - Emerson
Sentimental Education - Balzac
This Side of Paradise - F. Scott Fitzgerald
U.S.A. Trilogy - John Dos Passos
Velveteen Rabbit - Margery Williams Bianco
Within a Budding Grove - Proust
You Can't Go Home Again - Thomas Wolfe
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Such high hopes. Then, like a popped balloon, my hopes come back to earth in little pieces. I wasn't disappointed in Heidi Julavits's The Effect of Living Backwards because it was bad book, but because my expectations were so high. If I went in to this without a bias, I may have thought otherwise. But I didn't. I had a bias, a good bias. I wanted to read The Mineral Palace years ago when it first came out and I've been following Julavits around since then. I wanted to like Effect more than I initially did, so I gave myself sometime to think about it. An hour later, nothing, nada.

It was a confusing book. She, the protagonist, Alice, was on a plane with her sister Edith that got hijacked, but this was no ordinary hijacking. Instead of the normal demands for the release of prisoners or some sort, these hijackers play mind games. Not only do the play mind games, we learn they were trained in these methods at International Institute for Terrorist Studies in Lucerne. Alice, meanwhile, is telling the story present day and from the Institute nonetheless where she may or may not be trainging to become a terrorist. There are counselors making her role play and act as her sister, while they role play as the leader of the terrorists, the blind Bruno. Yes, a blind terrorist. What is Alice doing? What am I doing reading this? Are these terrorists or anti-terrorists? Are they killers or just mad? Has Alice and Edith gone insane? Have they developed the Stockholm Syndrome in record time? I don't know, but Chuck Palahniuk thanks you Heidi Julavits for publishing this novel. Now some of his earlier novels, like Fight Club, Survivor and Invisible Monsters are perfect portraits of the underbelly of society. In a way, Palahniuk's characters have seemingly lost their cartoonish and amateurish grit and have become the standard bearer for marginalized people that come to understanding of themselves under the most absurd circumstances. Maybe I didn't respect Palahniuk enough for his grasp of the outlandish, but times may have changed. I used to read him for shock value, but maybe there's more to it. Julavits seems to think so. We live in absurd world, I get that. We sometimes discover ourselves, who we really are, in unlikely places, I get that. I'd just rather find it out with Chuck leading the way.

(on a side the novel, Alice lives in Revere and so do I. Alice worked at the Tip Top Steakhouse on Route 1 and my mother works at the Hilltop Steakhouse on Route 1. I know it's not much, but hell, I thought it was strange and oddly interesting.)

Now reading:
David Huddle The Story of a Million Years

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"He tried to remember when he had last walked in the open night at such an hour. He wasn't sure he even...God, years. Seven-about sixteen, when he still thought he was Shelley, watching the river. Leaning on the bridge rail and literally praying with gratitude for being alive."

Taking a fairly common place feeling, like one being thankful for being alive, Agee transforms this basic emotion into raw poetry. The image of Andrew thinking 'he was Shelley' is so unlike the Andrew we know from the rest of the novel that it is almost a hyper reality. A reality that flies by and that we all to often miss. Or a truth that remains hidden beneath, when what we say may be the right thing to say, but isn't the truth. When the only truth is in our thoughts. I can only liken Agee's mastery of the ordinary, death, or rather coping with death and the affects of death, to Proust in the way genius storytellers articulate feelings and express everyday life with more than just a turn of a phrase. They don't merely gloss over our sadness, they say what we can't. Whether it be a child not knowing how to feel about his father's death or a mother's grief, Agee doesn't dictate their emotions, he shows us their grief. It could be as simple as a child hating the strange man for sitting in their "father's" chair or the way an aunt cooks breakfast differently than a mother. The balance of family life has shifted and Agee broaches the "now what?" question. How do we go on? How can we go on? Agee may not have had the answer, but he knew that we do. We go on.

Though it's strange for a blogger (and amateur writer) to admit that they can't actually articulate the affect a book has on them, I just can't find the words. This novel was more intense than just calling it sad, but that's maybe all it was and for now that's what it is. Sad and beautiful.

Now reading:
Heidi Julavits The Effect of Living Backwards

On deck:
Steven Heighton The Shadow Boxer
David Huddle The Story of a Million Years

Listening to:
Jazz on 89.7 FM WGBH with Eric Jackson

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Thank you hour Mr. Hour Lunch. Finished A Death in the Family and faintly began Amitav Ghosh's Circle of Reason.

I'll post more on Death but I'm still reeling from it. Maybe tonight or tomorrow, I'll be able to touch upon its affect on me. Wow, is about all I can say about it now.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What have I been doing with myself? It took me 27 years to finally read James Agee's A Death in the Family and that's 27 years too long.

"He felt that although his father loved their home and loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of this family love could help; that it even increased his loneliness or made it hard for him not to be lonely. He felt that sitting out there, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well. He knew that a very important part of his well-being came of staying a few minutes away from home, very quietly, in the dark, listening to the leaves if they moved, and looking at the stars; and that his own, Rufus' own presence, was fully as indispensable to this well-being."

I'm born and bred in the Northeast and can't envision leaving here. My family is here, my home is here, my roots are here. But there is a longing I have for the South. I've never lived there and barely know anyone from there. Yet, whenever I read a Southern writer like Agee, I feel like I'm reading a part of myself. It's something in the flow of the language; in the way a Southern writer can examine their life and articulate it in haunting tones. It's moving. Northern writers seem to be able to write generally about the world and social issues with great aplomb, but it's the South that turns literature inward. By writing about the people they know, they are able to encapsulate the entire spectrum of humanity. All those years of sitting on the front porch telling stories have generated generations of writers like Wolfe, McCullers, Agee, Faulkner and Welty and even Rick Bragg.

(I feel like I write the same posts over and over again.)

Now reading:
James Agee A Death in the Family
Gogol Dead Souls

On deck:
Amitav Ghosh Circle of Reason
Heidi Julavits The Effect of Living Backwards

Listening to:
Sitting near the open window in my living room, listening to the birds of spring and cars whizzing by.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Just got back from the book store and realized I had bought a book, luckily it was used, that I had just purchased recently. Have to admit, it's the first time I've flaked on something like this. I've forgotten birthdays, how many outs there were in an inning once while playing baseball; I've forgotten Mother's Day and Father's Day; I've forgotten how old I am. But never have I mistakenly purchased a book I already owned. To think, I could have bought another book or two instead of the same book for the second time!

Anyway, I ended up getting Michael Byers Long for this World, Cynthia Ozick The Puttermesser Papers, Heidi Julavits The Effect of Living Backwards and James Agee A Death in the Family

Don't know which I'm going to start first, but probably between Julavits and Agee.
Funny, but a little too real?

By the by, I finished Tobias Wolff's Old School during lunch. Makes 18, this year.
It has struck again. That 'let down' feeling has invaded me and it's all because of Dead Souls. Yes, I blame you Mr. Gogol. You started out great, leading me on, making me laugh, something I thought no Russian writer could do. You made me fall for you and your tale of Chichikov wandering Russia like a ronin. Then somewhere around page 200, Bam! A brick wall was erected in front of me, obstructing my vision. In place of a likeable confidence man buying up dead souls for some unknown reason, you installed a common Russian novel that lacked Tolstoy's humanity and Dostoevsky's ability. Your deft abilities to characterize all facets of people and your uncanny eye for landscape has evaporated, leaving me, well, leaving me wanting. Instead of reading you on the train, during lunch and at night, I've abandoned you, but I don't blame myself. I didn't want to turn to Tobias Wolff. I didn't want to leave you behind on my table. I had no choice. I will return to you this weekend and try to finish you off. I'm too far involved to leave you for dead. No, I will power on, I will "tear down this wall." If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then...oh hell.
"And I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
My bones
My bones"

- The Decemberists

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The only style rules you need.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"Young men sometimes believe in the existence of heroic figures stronger and wiser than themselves, to whom they can turn for an answer to all their vexation and grief...You are for me such a figure. You are one of the rock to which my life is achored."

Thomas Wolfe to Max Perkins on Christmas Eve 1929

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"In August of 1914, on the eve of World War I, Jim Moon, then sixty-eight years old, stepped off the stern of a ferry in New York harbor just as the boat passed under the Brooklyn Bridge." And so Moon's Crossing begins. Croft's novel doesn't necessarily track why Moon ended his own life and it only examines his suicide's effect on the young woman that he lived with. Croft's narrative is punctuated by her change of narrator from paragraph to paragraph, jumping from Moon writing in his journal as a young man in the Civil War to his estranged son Winslow, Win, in present time (1914,) to the mysterious young woman that Moon lived with in New York as she's investigated by a policeman.

The story follows Moon as he serves in the Civil War, leaves home and makes his way cross country taking on odd jobs, searching for that elusive 'something' that he never seems to find. When Moon leaves his wife for Chicago's Columbian World Fair in 1893, he never returns. Instead, he teams up in an unusual friendship with an awful confidence man that runs amok through the streets of the "White City," Chicago.

I enjoyed Croft's novel mostly because of her sweeping language. Though it mostly takes place in Chicago, Croft wrote like a Southerner tells a story, sitting on the porch. While telling a story in which we know what happens, but the event took place a long time ago, our minds tend to forget certain aspects only to remember them later on. Croft's novel is too finely woven to imply that she left anything out or that it was incohesive. Rather, it's her ability to quickly and gently nudge the audience on, telling an all too real story of a person trying to find themselves in the vast American landscape. We may not like what we find along the way, but at least it's real.

Now reading:
Gogol Dead Souls

Just bought:
Amitav Ghosh The Circle of Reason

Listening to:
The Red Sox on NESN...losing 10 -2 in the 8th...ouch
Since I took a half day yesterday to watch the Sox open the season in Texas, I was able to finish Moon's Crossing while Schilling painted corners looking a lot like his old self. I'm going to try to write a review (or synopsis) of Moon's Crossing after work tonight or at least first thing tomorrow.

Is it weird if I cut and paste all my postings into a word format to keep on file? I haven't done this yet, but was thinking about making such a move later this week. I guess my biggest concern is whether or not to continue the blog. Since I started the blog, I don't write in my journal anymore and feel that it may be more worthwhile to do so and quit the blog world. To be determined.

"By character he inclined more to the taciturn than to the loquacious; he even had a noble aspiration towards enlightenment-that is, towards the reading of books, the content of which bothered him not in the slightest: it was quite immaterial to him whether he read the adventures of an amorous hero, or a simple reading primer, or a prayer book-he read them all with equal attention; hand him a manual of chemistry and he would not demur. He enjoyed not so much what he read as the act of reading, or to be more precise, the very process of reading, the remarkable way those letters combined to produce some word or other, a word which sometimes meant the devil knows what. This reading usually accomplished in a supine position in the hallway, on the bed, and on the palliasse, which had been worn by this exercise to the thinness and flatness of a pancake."

Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls

Saturday, April 01, 2006

I feel like I'm writing this for obscurity.
No worries. Moon's Crossing is proving to be the perfect 200 page book after the Robert Stone fiasco. (If you can call reading only 50 pages a fiasco, which I'm pretty sure, a normal human wouldn't.) Anyway, I may not finish it this weekend, I seldom get around to reading on Sundays and with it being opening day of the baseball season, tomorrow night I'll be a log on the couch, but I should get around to wrapping it up Monday or Tuesday.