Monday, July 28, 2014

Mailbox Monday - Unaccustomed Earth

I haven't done Mailbox Monday in a while because I have been trying to read from my shelves and resist acquiring more than I can handle.

However, I met my sister for lunch yesterday and we did some book trading over mimosas and omelettes.

She gave me a copy of Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and said it was fantastic.  So that's my new book for this month!  I'm excited to read it because it is eight interconnected short stories set in Cambridge, Seattle, India, and Thailand.  I don't get to India and Thailand much in my reading and I've been wanting to, so this will be perfect.

Here's what Amazon had to say:
These eight stories by beloved and bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand, as they explore the secrets at the heart of family life. Here they enter the worlds of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. Rich with the signature gifts that have established Jhumpa Lahiri as one of our most essential writers,Unaccustomed Earth exquisitely renders the most intricate workings of the heart and mind.
Anyone read this book or anything by Lahiri.  The cover of this book said she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Namesake.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

I had been hearing a lot about Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, on fellow readers' blogs--it kept cropping up on "Best of" lists so I put my name down for the audio book at the library and finished it last week.

Here's the Amazon blurb:
In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt has made a singular portrait of the late-‘80s AIDS epidemic’s transformation of a girl and her family. But beyond that, she tells a universal story of how love chooses us, and how flashes of our beloved live through us even after they’re gone. Before her Uncle Finn died of an illness people don’t want to talk about, 14-year-old June Elbus thought she was the center of his world. A famous and reclusive painter, Finn made her feel uniquely understood, privy to secret knowledge like how to really hear Mozart’s Requiem or see the shape of negative space. When he’s gone, she discovers he had a bigger secret: his longtime partner Toby, the only other person who misses him as much as she does. Her clandestine friendship with Toby—who her parents blame for Finn’s illness—sharpens tensions with her sister, Greta, until their bond seems to exist only in the portrait Finn painted of them. With wry compassion, Brunt portrays the bitter lengths to which we will go to hide our soft underbellies, and how summoning the courage to be vulnerable is the only way to see through to each other’s hungry, golden souls.
I have to say, I agree with just about all of the lavish praise for this book.  The narrator is honest with a strong but sensitive voice.  It's a wonderful coming-of-age story, and I really appreciated how June, the 14-year-old first person narrator, grew in the course of the book as she faced not only the incredible loss of her beloved uncle to AIDS, but also came to understand her sister and parents in a way that was realistic and very moving.  Brunt did a great job in getting inside the head of a self-conscious 14-year old girl and telling her story with the right amount of tension.

There was a lot to like about this book...

  • June's sister Greta has the lead in their high school's production of South Pacific--June grapples with the prejudices that surface within her own family against the backdrop of the prejudices exhibited by Nelly Flatbush and Lieutenant Joe Cable in the musical.
  • June and her family live a short train ride from Manhattan, while Uncle Finn  and Toby live in the city; June visits both in the course of the novel, and I loved hearing about where they go...The Cloisters, Serendipity 3, Horn & Hardart automat, Grand Central Station, etc.
  • The 1980's - the story takes place in 1987 so it was nostalgic for me to hear about the music, the clothes, the issues of the day.  Even Dungeons and Dragons surfaced as a thing!  Brunt did a good job in recreating the social climate of the time, creating a detailed, recognizable world.
  • Wolves--they show up only in the shadows: the title, the negative space in the portrait Finn paints of his nieces, howling in the woods--they represent the dark side of the human psyche.  They're seen obliquely but are never really out of the picture.
My thanks go out to all those bloggers who featured this book on the sites--it's not a book I might've found on my own but it is definitely worth the reading.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

First Chapter First Paragraph ~ Tuesday Intros - The Secret History

Every Tuesday, Bibliophile By the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph- Tuesday Intros and invites readers to post the beginning of books they are reading or about to read or would like to read.

I'm currently more than half way through The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.  It's one of those books with a cultish following, and I can see why.  It takes place in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the first-person narrator is a 20-year old student from California who enrolls in a classics program that has only five other students.  They take the study of Greek, history, language, culture and ethics very seriously.

Here's the opening of the Prologue:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.  He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.  It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history--state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
It is difficult to believe that Henry's modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events.  We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found.  In fact, we hadn't hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing.

I'm hard pressed to think of another novel that starts by giving away the plot so completely at the outset, but then this story is not about whether the college kids kill their irksome friend, but whether they get away with it.  And that I don't know.

I'm enjoying the book though thankfully I'm having a hard time relating to either the main character or his fellow students.  Tartt, however, is a marvelous writer and Richard, her first-person narrator reminds me a lot of Nick Carraway from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Anybody else read this?  Does this opening intrigue you?  Can you think of any other novels that seemingly give away the story before it even begins as this one does?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Bell Jar

I came of age in the 1970s.  I never questioned whether I would have a career or children.  I always knew that I could and would have both.  I've always said that, much as I love history and historical fiction, I would have gone crazy had I actually been born earlier than when I was born.

Now, after reading Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, I'm starting to see things a little less black and white.  The Bell Jar was published in January 1963, less than a month before Plath committed suicide, and the novel is a fictionalized account of her life ten years earlier, when she was in college, worked as a summer editor at Mademoiselle magazine, and ended up in a hospital where she received electroshock treatments and psychotherapy after several suicide attempts.

What makes me question my long-held truths after reading this sad book is that Plath's mental illness was not a result of her being out of step with her time and place.  She was mentally ill, despite her manifold gifts as a writer.  The treatment she received relieved the pressure of the bell jar, for a time, but in reading this book, I felt that her final act was inevitable.  That made me sad, of course, but also it made me realize that Plath would have suffered from mental illness even if she hadn't been reared in a world where not many women successfully did "have it all."  In a way, her indecision about which path she wanted her life to take was a manifestation of her mental state not necessarily a condemnation of the world in which she lived. I'm not defending the world that Betty Frieden railed against in The Feminine Mystique--it needed to be changed--but Plath wasn't really a victim of that world as much as she was a chronicler of it.

Reading The Bell Jar made me wonder if I really would have been "crazy" had I lived in a different time.  Much of what I believe is a result of the world in which I grew up.  Had I lived in a different time, nurture would have been different, but not nature.  Maybe that's what I'm getting to--Plath's nature (her inherent mental instability) became the defining feature of her life, overwhelming her incredible poetic talent and the nurturing home she tried so hard to disconnect herself from.

Speaking of her poetic talent, I found The Bell Jar to be okay--I read it primarily because of its place in American literature.  There's an immaturity in the voice that I found irritating.  Much as I admire Plath as a poet, I did not like or even really sympathize with Esther Greenwood, her 1st person narrator in The Bell Jar.  I liked the metaphor of the bell jar, but overall I found her prose riddled with cliches and more drab than not.

I'm glad I read it--it was an interesting experience--and I'm ready to move on.

Sylvia Plath

Yeah, The Bell Jar is the fifth book read in 2014 from my TBR Pile Challenge, and my "Author who is New to Me" category in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Musketeers

I've been enjoying The Musketeers on BBC America this summer.  I used to love the movie from 1973 with Michael York as D'Artagnon, Oliver Reed as Athos, and Faye Dunaway as Milady.  For me, that movie was the definitive Three Musketeers.  Now, though, I have to give the nod to the mini-series.  I just love the format--multiple episodes means the writers can draw out the characters over time, tell their stories more leisurely, and build a connection between viewer and character that is more lasting.

Here's what Wikipedia had to say...

The Musketeers is a BBC historical-action drama programme based on the characters from Alexandre Dumas's novel The Three Musketeers and co-produced by BBC America and BBC Worldwide. The first episode was shown on BBC One on 19 January 2014. It stars Luke Pasqualino (D'Artagnan), Tom Burke (Athos), Santiago Cabrera (Aramis), Howard Charles (Porthos) and Peter Capaldi (Cardinal Richelieu). Ten episodes have been produced in series one which aired from January to March 2014.
Jessica Pope and Adrian Hodges produced the show for the BBC. The programme is largely filmed in Prague. All the major actors, except Capaldi, have been "contracted for the long run". The show was commissioned for a second series on 9 February 2014.

It's great swashbuckling fun, a nice escape from the usual fare, the costumes and sets are great (except everyone has great teeth!), and the stories are interesting.  Much better than Robin Hood, which I got tired of after they killed off Maid Marion, and Merlin, which I never could get into.

Take a look...


Cardinal Richelieu



Queen Anne and King Louis


Aramis and Porthos

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

City Lights Bookstore - Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I just got back from a quick trip to San Francisco to help my daughter check out housing for her internship, which starts in mid-August.  I haven't been to SF in quite a number of years, and loved exploring again...and walking, walking, walking.

My brother came down from Sonoma and treated us to dinner at North Beach Restaurant, which was absolutely wonderful.  After dinner we walked a block or two to his favorite bookstore, City Lights.

Here's the blurb from their website:
City Lights is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher that specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics.  Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights is one of the truly great independent bookstores in the United States, a place where booklovers from across the country and around the world come to browse, read, and just soak in the ambiance of alternative culture's only "Literary Landmark."

It was a great visit--my brother bought a map of Tudor London (1580), but my favorite part was the poetry room upstairs where Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, et al gave readings.  It was fun to go on an impromptu literary pilgrimage.

In the poetry room, there were a number of framed poems by poet and bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

In particular, I liked this one--now I want to read all of his poems.  I think I'll start with the collection, A Coney Island of the Mind.

Flying book lights near City Lights bookstore, San Francisco

Are There Not Still Fireflies, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still four-leaf clovers
Is not our land still beautiful
Our fields not full of armed enemies
Our cities never bombed to oblivion
Never occupied by iron armies
speaking iron tongues
Are not our warriors still valiant
ready to defend us
Are not our senators still wearing fine togas
Are we not still a great people
Is this not still a free country
Are not our fields still ours
our gardens still full of flowers
our ships with full cargoes

When then do some still fear
the barbarians are coming
coming coming
in their huddled masses
(What is that sound that fills the ear
drumming drumming?)

Is not Rome still Rome
Is not Los Angeles still Los Angeles
Are these really the last days of the Roman Empire

Is not beauty still beauty
And truth still truth
Are there not still poets
Are there not still lovers
Are there not still mothers
sisters and brothers
Is there not still a full moon
once a month

Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still stars at night
Can we not still see them
in a bowl of night
signaling to us
our so-called manifest destinies?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

First Chapter First Paragraph ~ Tuesday Intros: A Hundred Summers

Every Tuesday Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where readers share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book. Drop by to see what other bloggers are reading.
I desperately needed a break from heavy (albeit great) reading--I'm in the middle of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and just finished Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.  So I was thrilled when the library emailed me to say that I got to have a turn with Beatriz Williams' new book, A Hundred Summers.  I live in landlocked Colorado and rarely go to any beach, but there isn't a doubt in my mind that this is a classic beach book.
1. Route 5, Ten Miles South of Hanover, New Hampshire October 1931
One hundred and twelve miles of curving pavement lie between the entrance gates of Smith College and the Dartmouth football stadium, and Budgie drives them as she does everything else: hell-for-leather.
 The leaves shimmer gold and orange and crimson against a brilliant blue sky, and the sun burns unobstructed overheard, teasing us with a false sense of warmth. Budgie has decreed we drive with the top down, though I am shivering in the draft, huddled inside my wool cardigan, clutching my hat.
 I'm liking it so far, about a third of the way through, and I smugly think I know what's going on...but I bet that just means I'm falling for red herrings left and right!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The House of Mirth

I'm somewhat of a late-comer to Edith Wharton--sure, I read Ethan Frome in high school and watched The Buccaneers when it aired in 1995, but I only read The Age of Innocence a few years ago.  However, after finishing The House of Mirth this week, I can count myself as a Wharton fan.  I was so impressed with The House of Mirth--the writing is brilliant, the structure flawless, and the dialogue convincing.

As with any tragedy, I repeatedly wanted to step into the story and take Lily Bart in hand and shake some sense into her.  The copy of the novel that I read, a Modern Library Classic, contained a number of contemporary reviews of the work and I found myself disagreeing with most of them.  They talked about Lily's descent, her love of material things, her mistakes, but I saw the novel much differently.

In a way, I saw the story as her transcendence, her ascent above material goods and the superficiality of her society.  The House of Mirth chronicles a two-year period in the life of Lily Bart, circa 1890, society girl in New York City in which she goes from having the pick of America's most eligible bachelors to living in poverty, an insomniac, friendless and futureless.  Yet in the end, she is the "noblest Roman of them all."

If I look at the various scenarios in which she "makes mistakes," I can't say she should've done anything differently.  She was a babe in a shark tank but she never gave in to the desire to live a lie.

Having been an Austen fan for four decades, I thought it interesting to think about Lily's inability to actually seal the deal with the many men who pursued her and become someone's wife.  The story begins when she is 29, already well past her coming out, and although she was raised to marry well, she ends up sabotaging every relationship before it actually results in marriage.

I admired Lily immensely for her inability to treat marriage as a financial contract.  Without marriage, she cannot retain her identity in society, but to the end, she retains possession of her soul.

I am so looking forward to watching the movie version.

This is my American classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - Classics..I still haven't read

Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is all about Top Ten Favorite Classic Books this week.  The guidelines are loose (my favorite kind!) so I'm looking at Top Classics I Haven't Yet Read but Fully Intend To.

Madame Bovary - I know the plot, have read about it, feel I know it, but have never actually read it.

A Farewell to Arms - I know, I know--if you like Hemingway, this is novel is why.

Paradise Lost - How did I never read this in high school or college?  Maybe I'll listen to it--that's how I "read" Dante's Inferno.

Robinson Crusoe - I think I'll like it.  A must-read for anyone interested in the early development of the novel as I am.

War and Peace - I finally tackled Anna Karenina a couple of years ago, so I just have to make time to read this one.

The Mayor of Casterbridge - I actually really like Hardy and have owned a copy for years.

Crime and Punishment - Again, I think I'll like it, but have been avoiding it.  

The Color Purple - I really need to get a copy so I can actually put it on a reading list.

Tristram Shandy - see note regarding Robinson Crusoe.

Les Miserables - knowing all the songs from the musical by heart doesn't count.  Must read, if only for the connection to the American Civil War.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Today's Post is Brought to you by the Letter "D"

Simon of Stuck in a Book blog is hosting a really fun meme that I just had to play along with.  You comment on Simon's post and he assigns you a letter of the alphabet and your job is to list a favorite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with that letter.

I was given the letter D to play with, and so here are my picks:

Book - D is for the Diary of Anne Frank.  I spent a bit of time browsing my D titles on GoodReads Books Read list, and kept coming back to this one as a favorite.  I've read it numerous times and as a teen and an adult.  It has had a profound affect on our world, and Anne Frank's legacy is felt everywhere.  Visiting the attic in Amsterdam where the family lived in hiding was incredibly moving.

Author - D is for Dickens. Duh?  I admit that Dickens and I have our issues, but when it comes to authors, he is the letter D.  I love many of his books--Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Tale of Two Cities, to name a few--and really only disliked one, Hard Times.  But his impact on Victorian society, the reform movement, literature, and popular culture set him apart.

Song - D is for Devil Baby, by Mark Knopfler.  I really love this song and listen to it a lot.  This is the kind of folk-rock stuff that I groove on.

Film - D is for .... hmmm, I had a hard time with this one.  Damn Yankees (I love the Bob Fosse choreography), Dances with Wolves (good movie, but I didn't love it enough to watch it more than twice), Dr. Zhivago (my Mom's favorite, but not really mine), Duck Soup (I was absolutely nuts about the Marx Bros when I was a teen).  I have to go with Diner--it came out in 1982 when my husband and I started dating.  We went to see it twice and it was one of the first VHS tapes we bought after we got married and bought a VCR.  I really want to watch it's been years!

Object - D is for dirt.  It's that foundation thing.  Without dirt, we have no flowers, trees, or mud pies.  No places to bury pirate treasure.  No way to preserve ancient villages.  No place for rabbits, prairie dogs, and snakes to live.  Without dirt, we got nothing.