5.30.2011

Reading life review: May

Books read this month: 18
Books read in 2011: 44

Daughters-in-Law (Joanna Trollope)
Fiction. Has it really been a year since I settled into a Trollope novel? Really? How does that happen? Well, in any event, Daughters-in-Law was a companion earlier this month, and I was reminded all over again that what in another writer's hands might read like banal chick lit becomes in Trollope's able hands something considerably more substantial. In this recent novel, she explores familiar emotional territory (i.e., couples, families, and the web of relationships between them), examining the marriages of three brothers and the effect their relationship with their parents has on those marriages.

Sempre Susan (Sigrid Nunez)
Memoir. After reading an excerpt in the NYT, I put Nunez's memoir on my list, and, in search of "a little something" to read while waiting for the Misses one afternoon, I stuffed it in my bag. While I admired the intimacy of Nunez's observations, the clarity of her recollections, and the sureness of her writing, I was unable to overlook the fact that scene followed remembrance followed anecdote with an alarming lack of transition.

Still, there were moments:

p. 49
She was a feminist who found most women wanting. There was a certain friend she saw regularly, a brilliant man she loved to hear talk and whom, though he was married, she usually saw alone. Those times when his wife did come along, though, were inevitably disappointing. With his wife there, Susan complained, the conversation of this brilliant and intellectually stimulating man somehow became boring.

She was exasperated to find that the company of even very intelligent women was usually not as interesting as that of intelligent men.
p. 138
"But that's what happens," she said. "You have to be prepared for that." It had happened to her a lot, she said. Once she started meeting writers and artists, it happened over and over. "I'd be so thrilled about meeting these people -- my heroes! my idols!"

And over and over she would feel let down, or even betrayed. And she was so disillusioned that she'd end up regretting having met them, because now she couldn't worship them or their work anymore, at least not in the same pure way.
Having read this earlier in the month, I've had the benefit of a few weeks' reflection, and it wasn't simply the perceived herky-jerkiness of the text that troubled me: It was the lack of epiphany. In his review for The Washington Times (April 29), Martin Rubin writes:
Even after all she recounts in these pages and with the benefit of more than three decades of hindsight, Ms. Nunez still doesn’t realize that the drama of which she was both bystander and participant was yet another of those demonstrations that the emperor in fact has no new clothes. This is of course in some ways a strength of her narrative, yet one cannot help regretting that, for her own sake, she could bring herself to realize it.
Yes! From Nunez's memoir, one gets the sense that Sontag was, for all the drama and hype to the contrary, a disappointment of sorts, but Nunez does not allow that she may have felt -- as Sontag did on meeting her own idols -- let down, betrayed, and unable to worship the writer or the work any longer.

(By the way, Sontag would have dubbed Trollope's Daughters-in-Law "passé suburban realism," I'm sure. Heh, heh, heh.)

Gardening Step by Step (Phil Clayton, et al.)
John Brookes' Natural Landscapes (John Brookes)
Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois (James A. Fizzell)
The New Gardener (Pippa Greenwood)
Glorious Gardens (Jacqueline Heriteau)
Midwest Top 10 Garden Guide (Bonnie Monte, ed.)
Midwest Gardens (Pamela Wolfe)
Low Maintenance Garden (Jenny Hendy)
Non-fiction. Maybe you detect a pattern -- perhaps even a project -- here. Well, two weeks spent poring over these tomes, taking copious notes, sketching, erasing, and sketching again convinced me of one thing: I am most decidedly not a gardener. I am an appreciator of gardens and a lover of nature, but a gardener? No. Emphatically, no. As it turns out, the yard makeover will be confined to the installation of a split rail fence, some serious hedge and bush trimming, and the planting of some arborvitae, hosta, and lavender. And all but the last (which I actually purchased) of these lovely books have been returned to the library (with a huge sigh of relief).

The Complete Beginner's Guide to Archery (Bernhard A. Roth)
Know the Sport: Archery (John Adams)
Non-fiction. Related entry here.

Sherlock Holmes: More Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Fiction. With the Misses. I still intend to post a chapbook entry. Until then, the stories this month included "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," (from Adventures of Sherlock Holmes); "The Crooked Man," "The Resident Patient," "The Greek Interpreter," and "The Naval Treaty" (from Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes); "The Adventure of the Empty House," "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder," "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (from Return of Sherlock Holmes); and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" (from His Last Bow).

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
Fiction. With the Misses. I contributed "Nothing Gold Can Stay" to a Poetry Friday gathering earlier this month, which led to a conversation about the first time I had read it, which led, of course, to The Outsiders. This is not a terribly sophisticated piece of writing, but it's an enduring one, isn't it? The Misses both loved it, though they lost no time pointing out how convenient it was that the church (!) burned following so many foreshadows about the boys' smoking and that the fire led to Johnny's public redemption. "Perrine would not be impressed!" Heh, heh, heh. And, yes, we have every intention of devoting an upcoming movie night to the 1983 film.

The Raising (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. I picked this up after reading Julia Keller's review in The Chicago Tribune (March 26), and it's the best sort of summer reading -- exceptionally well written, compelling, and honestly? Just not too hard.

The Life before Her Eyes (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. So pleased was I with The Raising that I picked up a few other Kaischke titles. Life was both thought-provoking and well written.

No Time for Goodbye (Linwood Barclay)
Too Close to Home (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. And I picked these up after reading Stephen King's summer reading list in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (June 3). They are the second-best sort of summer reading: capably written, entertaining, and not too easy to piece together halfway through.

5.10.2011

On the nightstand

Miss M-mv(ii)'s pile

Miss M-mv(i)'s pile

Mrs. M-mv's pile

5.01.2011

Reading life review: April

Books read this month: 14
Books read in 2011: 26

Things a Brother Knows (Dana Reinhart)
Fiction. A YA novel about one Marine's journey home. Excellent. Just excellent. More, it was the book that reminded me that I am, in fact, a reader. Thank you, Dana Reinhart.

Illyria (Elizabeth Hand)
Fiction. Blend one part Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews) with a half-measure of Damage (Josephine Hart). Season generously with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. There. Now you have Illyria, a slender bit of a YA novel I picked up after reading Jeanne's emphatic review. While I didn't hate Illyria, I did set it down sorely disappointed, although I'm still trying to decide whether I'm disappointed with the book or with my inability to piece together the mystery of the toy theater in the attic and the point of Rogan and Maddie's interaction at the conclusion of the novel. (Are they together or not? she pouts, stamping her foot like one of those high school girls who read her best friend's chemistry partner's older sister's dogeared copy of Flowers in the Attic because she hadn't resources (or imagination?) enough to secure her own copy of the forbidden book.)

The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)
Play, classic. With the Misses M-mv. Related entry here.

Indulge me in a related aside?

As it happens, this time out I read from a 1985 Barron's "Shakespeare Made Easy" edition of The Merchant of Venice, which runs a modern English version alongside the full original text. It was the only single-play edition of Merchant in the house, much to my surprise, and I needed something I could slip in my bag. In other words, the hardcover Pelican simply wouldn't do.

When they saw me reading it, the Misses became deeply interested in the idea of a "translation" of Shakespeare. Did people really need that? (Oh, to have been immersed in bardolatry so young that no help is needed, eh?) It would have helped me when I was your age, I conceded. To illustrate the difference, I read the following passage from Act I, Scene 2:

From the original text:
If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions. I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. Such a hare is madness the youth—to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word “choose!” I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike—so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
From Barron's "Shakespeare Made Easy":
If practicing were as easy as preaching, chapels would be churches and poor men's cottages would would be princes' palaces. It's a good cleric who follows his own advice. I'd rather instruct twenty people how best to behave, than be one of the twenty obliged to follow my teaching. Reason tries to control behavior. Madcap youth rejects good advice, because it's a handicap. But all this philosophizing won't help me choose a husband. [She sighs again.] That word "choose." I can neither make my own choice nor turn down those I dislike. So the will of a living daughter is thwarted by the will of a dead father. Isn't it unfair, Nerissa, that I can't either choose or refuse?
As I read aloud, it struck me that the "Shakespeare Made Easy" was not as -- for lack of a better phrase -- "dumbed down" as I had thought it might be. Later, I decided to check out Sparknotes "No Fear Shakespeare":
You think it’s that easy? If doing good deeds were as easy as knowing how to do them, then everyone would be better off. Small chapels would be big churches, and poor men’s cottages would be princes' palaces. It takes a good priest to practice what he preaches. For me, it’s easier to lecture twenty people on how to be good than to be the one person out of twenty who actually does good things. The brain can tell the heart what to do, but what does it matter? Cold rules don’t matter when you’ve got a hot temper. Young people are like frisky young rabbits, and good advice is like a crippled old man trying to catch them. But thinking like this won’t help me choose a husband. Oh, the word “choose” is strange! I can’t choose who I like, or refuse who I dislike. I’m a living daughter still controlled by the wishes of her dead father. Isn’t it a pain that I can’t choose or refuse anyone, Nerissa?
The opening and concluding sentences are painfully colloquial, which makes this passage (copyright 2003, eighteen years after the Barron's) seem, yes, dumbed down, but the rest isn't too terrible, is it?

All right. Yes, it is. It's terrible. Too terrible to contemplate further.

Model Home (Eric Puchner)
Fiction. This served as a wonderful (albeit, unintentional) companion piece to Gabrielle Zevin's The Hole We're In, which I read last March. Both titles -- explorations of consumerism, debt, and family dysfunction -- are highly recommended.

Mouse Guard, Volume 1: Fall 1152 (David Petersen)
Mouse Guard, Volume 2: Winter 1152 (David Petersen)
Graphic novel. When I visited the local comic store for #83 of "The Walking Dead," I was stopped in my tracks by the exquisite art and unusual size of an altogether different publication. The clerk who usually seems sort of disengaged (or terribly, terribly shy) when we stop in all but leapt o'er the counter to lead me to the section featuring this series about mice (which owes no small debt to Redwall and Tolkien but really is quite fantastic on its own merits). I was so delighted by his animated presentation that I bought the first volume from him (i.e., I paid full price). Excellent stuff.

A note on the next four books
What is surprising, perhaps, is that this reader-thinker-autodidact didn't turn to books on the subject sooner. For a while there, though, as I have already shared, I handled books a lot -- purging, moving, dusting, reorganizing, purchasing; I just couldn't read them.

So I didn't place the order until mid-March, and I finally read the books -- in the order in which they are presented here, in fact -- in mid-April. (Again, I credit Reinhart's novel with reminding me that I am, in fact, a reader.)

The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child (Barbara D. Rosof)
Psychology. With its recovery-oriented approach, The Worst Loss reads like a handbook prepared by bereavement counselors. As many researchers and psychologists have begun to acknowledge, however, the idea of a recovery rubric for bereaved parents is more than inadequate. The death of a child violates the order of the world. How can one define "recovery" from the inexplicable? Despite the limitation of its viewpoint, however, The Worst Loss is a suitable resource for those seeking some understanding of what bereaved families may be experiencing.

Beyond Tears: Living after Losing a Child (Ellen Mitchell)
Psychology. The voices of nine mothers, most of whom lost adult children, form this braided narrative -- a style that simply failed this reader. The "We felt --," "We found --," "We discovered --" voice reminded me less of a Greek chorus than of the "majestic plural." It distracted and ultimately grated, which was unfortunate because I was deeply moved by the nine narratives of loss -- written in the singular first-person, thank goodness -- that separated the book's chapters. The decision to italicize the individual remarks of the nine contributors was also ill-conceived. A paragraph or two of "We-this" and "We-that" might be followed by a series of individual quotes, which sometimes resulted in italicized 'graph upon italicized 'graph. That's just too much work for any reader, let alone one who might be reading through tears.

Love Never Dies: A Mother's Journey from Loss to Love (Sandy Goodman)
Memoir. I should have read the description of this book more carefully. Had I done so, Mr. M-mv would not have had to repair and repaint the wall that took the direct hit when I hurled Love Never Dies across the room after reading the first chapter-concluding remark written from the author's dead son's perspective! Are you KIDDING me?!? ARGH!

After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years (Ann K. Finkbeiner)
Psychology. Still reading this one with great interest and appreciation.

Trapped (Michael Northrop)
Fiction. Predictable? You bet. But I think I had something of a soft spot for this YA novel before I had even inhaled its new-book scent. You see, when I was in sixth grade, I wrote a story about how one family survived being SNOWED IN! That was the title: SNOWED IN! It was nearly as implausible as Trapped is, but my English teacher loved it, scrawled an A+ on top, and stapled it to the main bulletin board in our hall (where someone promptly doodled a, ahem, member in one of the margins). From that moment (the A+ and the placement on the bulletin board, obviously; not the doodle) on, my dream of becoming an interpreter at the United Nations was dead because I was a writer.

Heh, heh, heh.

Kids are funny, aren't they? Me, the kid who doodled on my story, even the kids in Trapped. How self-absorbed we all are.

Anyway.

Speaking of implausible, why didn't the characters in Trapped rip down the curtains from the auditorium for more warmth? And, really, why were they so bent out of shape? So, the roof is collapsing. Move to a sturdier part of the building (e.g., the basement). Bring food, of which there is an abundance. Stay together wrapped in the heavy curtains, eat peanut butter and jelly, and settle down, kids.

These characters -- and to some extent their creator -- exhibited an alarming lack of imagination and intellect, as well as an overabundance of hormones and attention to stereotypes.

Sherlock Holmes: Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Fiction. With the Misses. Chapbook entry to follow. Until then, the stories included "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Red-Headed League," "The Man with the Twisted Lip," "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes); "Silver Blaze," "The Musgrave Ritual," and "The Final Problem" (from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes); and "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist" (from The Return of Sherlock Holmes).

The Colony (Jillian Marie Weise)
Fiction. Girl Detective, who is a reliable source of neat recommendations and cool links, sent me over to the Biblioracle earlier this month. I was too late to participate, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading his recommendations (here, here, here). The Colony turned up in a couple of responses, so I decided to check it out. One reviewer wrote, "Part Wellsian dystopia, part medical mystery, part Hawthornian allegory, and part reality show, The Colony is a potent exploration of ethics in the Age of the Genome." I could not have described it better. I'll just add that it stays with you, rather like Feed (M.T. Anderson), Unwind (Neal Shusterman), and The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist). In fact, since I'm so fond of companion pieces (see above), I'd say that for me The Colony read like a companion piece to that latter book.

The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country (Neil Gaiman)
Graphic novel. I have Girl Detective to thank for this one, too.