Friday, September 28, 2007

Visit a Museum Near You Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the third annual Smithsonian Magazine's National Museum Day. Designed to promote awareness of historical and cultural institutions nationwide and to encourage people to be tourists in their own backyard, the day has several hundred participating institutions nationwide. If you're American, there's bound to be one near you! On this day, Smithsonian members get in free to participating museums. And if you're bitterly regretting not returning that subscription card, you can go online and print out an admission card (clicking on the post title will take you there) that will get you and a friend in for free.

My own august institution is participating. I can speak only for it, of course, but we've definitely ramped it up a little. We're having a book signing with a local author who writes about topics relevant to our museum, a talk about everyday preservation with a curator from another museum (who is a friend and mentor of mine), a storybook character in the morning for the kids, and chips, pop and hot dogs for sale all day long (what can I say, it's an excellent money spinner!). So if any of you will be sitting around bored tomorrow, don't be. Get out there and visit a museum!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sigh....Maybe it's me

Maybe all the varied stresses of the past three months have finally caught up with me, sapping my brain of the ability to make sense of fiction. Or maybe I really have just been reading some pointless stuff lately. I'm a little sad to report that I finished another collection of Alice Munro's short fiction, The Love of a Good Woman, and didn't find it up to her usual standard.

I love Alice Munro. I love how she manages to make each of her stories so distinct, whereas many other writers just seem to be writing about themselves over and over. I love how some of her stories smell like the inside of a country general store, like barrels of grain and wood smoke from the stove and old penny candy and the wood of the floorboards and the dirt of the road outside, a scent and feeling so far in the past it doesn't even conjure up nostalgia anymore. Others are about thoroughly modern types, artists and writers and communists. Some are set in the present, some in the past, some it doesn't even matter. She writes about childhood friendships, adult sexual relationships, the bond between parents and children, first person, third person, she can do it all. Sometimes she twists the story at the end, most notably in one of her larger anthologies in which the narrator rambles on about the aunts on her mother's side and her father's side, neither set of which ever married, but one set was educated, independent and fun-loving, while the other was timid and never left the ancestral home. She goes on and on about what she knew of both halves of her family history, her memories of visits from both and how they affected her. Then at the end of the story, she says something like: "Everyone is dead now, and the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting." And it just took your breath away.

So, I tend to go into one of her books with high expectations, which may have been the problem here. The title story hung together for me only on retrospect: the manner of telling it was so confused and roundabout, and thoroughly buried the lead. "Jakarta" is the next story in the book, and this one totally escaped me. It only hinted at the point, never stated it outright.

"Cortes Island" was more what I think of as a real Alice Munro story, probably my favorite in the book. Its plot is so simple as to barely qualify as "plot": it's about a newlywed woman who takes a job watching her landlady's husband, who's suffered a stroke, and how the landlady kind of goes nuts after the woman quits to take a more permanent job. But in this simple tale, the narrator's hopes, dreams, and fears are blatant and vivid. To me, that's what Munro does best.

"The Children Stay" didn't gel for me until the concluding few pages. Munro takes a look from the inside at a woman who has left her husband and children to be with another man, and attempts to answer the question "How could she do that?" by showing how little choice the woman felt she had, how once she made the first decision, the rest fell as inevitable as dominoes. It was very poignant and sad.

I also liked "Before the Change", but I'm afraid to say too much about it without giving away the major plot points. Like many of Munro's stories, you have to be a bit patient with this one, but it will pay off. The most I feel I can really say is that it's told by a woman who's returned to her father's home to regroup after her life fell apart, and the secret her father's been hiding.

"My Mother's Dream" is something different for Munro. She's written from the perspective of both genders at all ages, but I'd wager that this is the first she's written from the point of view of a baby. The baby's mother was a violinist and a young war widow, whose sisters-in-law brought her to the family home to have her child. The story is about the mother struggling to accept the burden of motherhood, and about the sisters' (both unmarried) varied and revealing reactions to having a baby in their midst. This one, too, is very good.

I have glossed over "Rich as Stink" and "Save the Reaper" until now. These are two that I really didn't understand. I'm hard-pressed to even talk about them. "Rich as Stink" is one of those that does a full reverse on you, but I was never sure what it was reversing from. It's told from the point of view of a child, who doesn't live with her mother full-time. Her mother is an editor who lives in a trailer in the woods, and almost seems to be part of a triad with a married couple who lives up the road. She's editing the husband's book. When the child arrives for the summer, the threesome (if that's what it even is) has broken up, and the girl keeps having these oddly emotional reactions to seemingly ordinary conversations. It was as if there was some subtext there that I just didn't get.

"Save the Reaper" was a little along the same lines. I don't really even know how to describe this one and don't have the energy to try, so I'll stop here. Ultimately, this wasn't a bad book, just very uneven. And I am open to the possibility that it is me, that I'm just too tired and distracted to properly understand and enjoy anything more complex than a shoelace. So, for my next project, I will read something that is fairly straightforward. I have already started The Lady and the Panda, about the first American to capture a panda alive. They made a limited-release IMAX movie out of it, and I liked that, and my sister says the book is much better, so I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Green with Envy! (His Dark Materials spoilers within)

Breaking news: my sister, who is getting a PhD in children's literature, has been invited by one of her professional connections to an upcoming exclusive cocktail party, and the guest of honor will be the one, the only...

Phillip Pullman!

I am incredibly jealous, also proud of her to be able to garner such an invitation whilst still in school. It raised an interesting question: if it was me, what would I want to ask him? I want to know whether you turn into Dust when you die (as is my hypothesis, based on the ending of The Amber Spyglass) and would want him to explain to me the connection between amber/electrum and anbaric power/electricity, and how it relates (if it does) to the Amber Spyglass used by Mary Malone in the final book. My sister wants to know if Will and Lyra ever do get back together.

He posts regularly to a listserv my sister participates in and once explained the deal with the daemons, that who you are and what you want drives the shape your daemon ultimately assumes, not the other way around. In other words, no one is forced into being a servant against their will even though their daemon takes the shape of a dog, and if you hate the sea, odds are your daemon won't settle as a dolphin. I was pleased to hear that, since that's how I'd always interpreted it.

You can go to to take a 20-question quiz which will give you your daemon. Mine was a male jackal named Zotius, one of 16,782 jackals of 265,634 people who've sought out their daemons with the quiz. Because I am spontaneous, modest, outgoing, humble and flexible. That sounds good to me, although I don't know how true it is. The site is fun, actually. It reminds me of the official Lord of the Rings site (which makes sense, as the trilogy will also be produced by New Line Cinema) in that it's not just a glorified commercial for the movie, but that there's all kinds of fun stuff to do on there. You can take the daemon quiz, ask the alethiometer shit, and explore Lyra's world. It's a very nice site, I think.

My sister says that Mr. Pullman is pleased with the film, so it should be worth looking forward to. At her request, I can't post more details about the party or about how she got the invitation, but I will post a report after it's all over, maybe even get her to be a Guest Blogger (if you're reading this, sis, consider this your invitation, if you have time!)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Will Tom Perrotta make my favorite authors list?

I'm still not sure. While I really loved Little Children, I'm still not sure how I felt about Joe College, which I finished last night.

I remember seeing this book around a lot several years ago. It was one of those that I'd always look at and think "maybe". Our library doesn't have Election, though, so I settled for this. It tells the tale of Jersey boy and Yale junior Danny, who spends his spring break driving his father's lunch truck ("The Roach Coach") and sorting out his complex love life. He has been working on this artsy Yale girl named Polly all semester long, when his summer girlfriend Cindy shows up at the most inopportune moment with a bombshell (you can probably guess of what nature). Most of the story is told in flashbacks, and a cast of other characters swirl around him, like they swirl around everyone at that age: his suitemates at Yale, his friends from the lit magazine, his friends from his dining hall job, his old friends from high school, his parents, the two girls. Perhaps because of this, the characters aren't quite as vivid as in Little Children. I had a hard time keeping his suitemates straight and clocking the various cautionary tales and reminiscences Danny shares with us (this book is written in first person).

Part of the problem is maybe that I didn't like Danny very much, nor did I really dislike him. Danny seems often to be surprised at his own behavior and motivations. He was shocked by the fact that he was just using Cindy, surprised to find himself happy in his dining hall job, amazed when he accidentally stood up to the Mob-backed lunch truck rivals The Lunch Monsters. He confesses his selfishness often when things work out his way to the detriment of others, which didn't make me like him any more. Yet things don't really turn out well for Danny, although all of his immediate problems resolve themselves. I don't want to get too specific and wreck the book for anyone, but he does wind up essentially alone, and seemingly repeating his earlier mistake with Cindy.

Most of the time when I finish a book, I know how I feel about it right away, and look forward to blogging my reaction. I spent much of my downtime during my Florida vacation thinking about how to express how much Citizen Girl sucked, and I couldn't wait to tell you all about the delights of some of the better ones I've read since January, including Feeling Sorry For Celia just last week. But I still don't know about Joe College. I did enjoy it, I guess, but it wasn't quite what I hoped. I can't even decide whether I recommend it or not. I'd be interested (as always) in hearing from anyone who's read this, and their opinions as to how they felt about it, and maybe what it was all supposed to be about.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

This Sucks

A couple of nights ago, I was talking on the phone with a good friend and we were talking about books. I was trying to tell her about some series I'd seen, that was chick lit but was also about vampires. Each one had a punny title like "Undead or Alive" or "Love Sucks" or whatever. I haven't actually read them, but they always looked like they'd be good fun. M had never even heard of them. Is there anyone out there who can supply either a title, an author or the generic name of this series?

For A Good Time

I picked up Feeling Sorry For Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty right after I got done with the very heavy Dahlia's Gone and fell in love with the book immediately. It opened with a letter expressing admiration for the winter holiday of the protagonist, Elizabeth, and inviting her to join their society, The Society of People Who Are Definitely Going To Fail High School (and Most Probably Life as Well) ("It's so impressive, Elizabeth! You had four assignments, an English essay, and a chapter of math to do. And you didn't do one single piece of homework!"). This pretty much set the tone for the book.

The story itself is a fairly pedestrian plotline, basically The Transition To Young Adulthood. But it's the way it's told that makes it so delightful. Moriarty uses a series of letters to tell the story. In addition to The Society of People Who Are Definitely Going to Fail High School, Elizabeth regularly receives letters from The Cold Hard Truth Society, The Association of Teenagers, The Best Friends Club, The Young Romance Association, The Secret and Mysterious Association of All that Is Secret and Mysterious, and The Society of Amateur Detectives, among many others. She also gets notes from her mom, an ad executive, on the fridge, asking her to take care of the laundry and also think of some good things about purple lipstick. The centerpiece is the correspondence between Elizabeth and a Complete and Total Stranger, her pen pal Christina, from a different high school. They were matched up by Elizabeth's English teacher and turn out to be a great pair.

Like I said before, the plot line is nothing special. The Celia of the title has been Elizabeth's best friend since early childhood. Celia is kind of crazy, and as they enter high school, the friendship starts to change. Elizabeth also falls in love with a boy and works out some complicated home life stuff regarding her parents, who divorced when she was little, and the stepbrother she's never met. But I didn't care, and I'm betting you won't either, for Moriarty manages to make it all fresh and fun. Even the sad parts have a sort of sparkle to them. The dust jacket says that Moriarty is an entertainment lawyer, and that this was her first novel. It was published in 2000, though, so I hope she's tried again. I bet Moriarty has more stories in her.

Farewell to Luciano Pavarotti

2007 has been a rough year. First, we said goodbye to Molly Ivins, then to Kurt Vonnegut. Tonight I'm commemorating the life of one who wasn't a literary icon, but still a favorite artist of mine: Luciano Pavarotti. I love his voice, but I also loved the way he made accessible an art form that modern audiences often find boring and elitist. I will leave you with a clip of his final public performance, at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Torino last year, where he performed his signature "Nessun Dorma", from Puccini's Turandot opera. Please feel free to come back and visit it often, if you like it as much as I do.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Great Big "Huh?"

I'm not really sure what Katie Estill was trying to do with Dahlia's Gone. It is a most unmysterious murder mystery, and seems as though it's trying to say something about connections and relationships without ever doing so.

Dahlia is an 18-year-old girl who is found murdered in her own bed during a late-afternoon storm in the Ozarks. The finder is a woman in her 30s or 40s, who I would dearly like to meet, named Sand Williams. Sand was born and raised in the small town, but grew up to travel the world as a photographer and have all kinds of wonderful adventures with her husband and fellow adventurer, Frank. Sand has been suckered into keeping an eye on Dahlia and her mentally retarded half-brother Timothy by her neighbor and mother of the household, Norah. Norah is much more traditional than Sand, to the point where she's rechristened Sand "Sandra Mason", disapproving of both Sand's unusual first name and her choice not to take her husband's last name. The crime is investigated by Deputy Patti (whose last name I can't remember, and I returned the book, sorry). Patti is the first and only woman on the police force, leaving her to deal with both all of the sex-related crimes (including everything from rape to drug-smuggling in a vagina) and sexist remarks right out of the 1950s.

Those are the key players, but Estill doesn't give them enough to do. From the very beginning, the murderer of Dahlia is pretty obvious. I won't name her killer, just in case anyone decides they want to read this book after all, but I will just say that I found her killer as creepy as any of the Children of the Corn or the Bad Seed herself. I'm not sure if Estill intended that or not, but for me, it further blurred the focus of the novel. The point of it seems to be the way the the murder draws together Sand and Norah, who dislike each other at the start. But what purpose does the character of Patti serve? Patti is a strong, intelligent, successful woman who has a failed marriage behind her and hungers for a baby and husband (sigh). The ending to her story feels so tacked-on, though, and her desire for a typical home life so stereotypical, as to render her character somewhat pointless.

Yet the book doesn't quite disappoint, for all of the bad stuff I've said about it. Estill's characters are great. Even Dahlia, who has just a cameo in her own tale (she's dead for about 75% of the book) feels vivid and real. They were all people I was into spending time with. I think it's hard to build suspense when the audience knows what will happen. One of the few novels I've read that does this successfully is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Perhaps the book would've been better if she'd taken a different tack with the murder, maybe even stated the murderer's identity from the beginning, and then let the tale unfold from there. I don't know. It was an ambitious book that didn't quite hit the mark, but I do have high hopes for Katie Estill.

Monday, September 3, 2007

What are Little Girls Made Of?

Sugar and spice and everything nice? Or, in the case of Bone, the young heroine and narrator of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out Of Carolina, rusty hooks, dirty looks, forbidden books, anger and fear.

The plot of the novel is simple enough. It tells the tale of Ruth Anne Boatwright's (commonly known as Bone) first 13 years, with her half-sister Reese, her mama who was a widow before her 20th birthday, and her abusive, twisted stepfather Daddy Glen. The extended Boatwright clan is a real treat, one of the delights of the novel. There's the long-suffering Aunt Ruth, who loves gospel music and teaches Bone to love it too. A gang of uncles who blur in the reader's mind, whose kindly attitude around Bone serve as a sharp contrast to their known hobbies of getting drunk, shooting at one another, messing around with women, and winding up in jail. There's Aunt Raylene, a tough, independent-minded lesbian who's as fearsome as any of the uncles, and who scavenges stuff from the river to sell.

The character of Bone is noteworthy too. Bone suffers a lot of beatings at the hands of Daddy Glen, all with a bizarre sexual undercurrent. These, combined with the family's reputation as purebred white trash, have a strong effect on her. She describes herself often as boiling over with rage, simmering inside, all kinds of other fiery metaphors and similes, and when she does, the reader can feel it, and the futility of trying to express that kind of blind rage in words. She masturbates a lot, and has strange fantasies.

One character that I found equally captivating in terms of a statement about childhood is Bone's friend Shannon Pearl. Shannon is the only child of a couple deeply involved in the gospel music world (her father is a concert promoter and owns a Christian bookstore; her mother sews stage costumes for gospel singers). Shannon is also a sickly, scary-looking albino. You can see the veins in her scalp, you can see her skull through her skin, she has pink eyes and wears thick glasses. Even adults are afraid of her and shun her, and the other children are merciless. Yet, as Bone herself says, although you may expect Shannon to have a saintly personality, she doesn't. She is as angry, hateful and vengeful as Bone, and determined to get back at everyone who hurt her. There's little goodness in her, and there's a wonderful climactic scene in a graveyard where both Bone and Shannon's anger finally erupt at one another, destroying the fragile friendship.

I enjoyed reading this book. It reminded me a lot of the Tawni O'Dell that I was reading earlier in the summer, in that it doesn't depict total misery or total happiness. Allison draws a world of vivid characters around Bone, but she doesn't go too far in idealizing their difficult and complicated lives. She does an excellent job of getting at the complexity in people: one of Bone's favorite uncles, who is nothing but kindness and gentleness to Bone and to the ailing Aunt Ruth also is a polygamist who went to jail and then proceeded to get his stay extended by fighting. It works the other way, too: Bone's Mama, who is largely a sympathetic and kind person, fails to protect her from the beatings she suffers at Daddy Glen's hands, and can't even walk away from him for good. And although Daddy Glen's behavior is that of a monster, we also see the side of him that has never stopped striving for his father's approval and who tries so hard to succeed at any kind of job but just can't make it happen.

I read this book because I remember the title scribbled in the margins of some notes from college. I don't know which professor told me about it (I'm guessing Dr. Daphne Kutzer) but I'd like to thank whoever it was. Dorothy Allison has three other books:Cavedweller,Two or Three Things I Know For Sure and Trash. I will definitely be putting them on my list.