Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Death

I said that I'd thoroughly enjoyed People of the Book, and was looking forward to reading more of Geraldine Brooks, so I picked up Year of Wonders the last time I was downtown.

The first thing I noticed about it was that it had been beaten to hell. That's usually a good sign in library books. Crinkled cover, limp spine, coffee and tea stains throughout, it usually means that it's been well-loved. I could see why.

The book is set in England in 1666 and based on the true story of a small English village that saw an outbreak of the plague. After it became clear that the epidemic had visited their doorstep, the villagers made the striking and courageous decision to barricade themselves in. A local earl left provisions for them at the town's Boundary Stone so they wouldn't starve. Anyone with a special need would leave a note (or in the case of the illiterate, a small sample of what they had run out of)and money.

The effects of an epidemic on society continue to fascinate people. In this story, told through the eyes of the minister's servant Anna, you see acts of heroism, acts of greed, of violence and fear, of kindness and courage. To be sure, there's lots of nasty stuff in this book. There's a hanging, a death from exposure after an individual was fixed to a post with a knife through his hands, a near-drowning of an infant, a near-death in childbirth, and I left out some of the more disgusting things that turn out to be central elements to the plot.

Speaking of which...that's one of the best parts of this book. The basic outcome is pretty much a forgone conclusion. The plague wiped out around 20% of London's population that year, and in the historic Eyam, the death toll was more like 75%. Yet, it has a forward momentum of its own. You keep turning the pages to see what's going to happen, even though you already sort of know. The characters are strong and intriguing, even if the narrator is a bit cliched. Just once, I'd love to read a book set in the Middle Ages or Colonial America narrated by a woman who does NOT have a keen mind and love for learning uncharacteristic of women of her time.

But if Anna gets on your nerves at all, there are lots of other people in this book. The ancient herbalist woman and her niece, who live at the edge of town and are called on whenever there's an illness or a childbirth. Anna's drunken, no-good father and stepmother. The strong, determined minister and his equally compassionate, determined wife. Anna's lodger, the sexy and clever tailor who brought the doom to the village. The orphaned Quaker girl with nothing to her name except a lead mine, which is in danger of being poached and claimed until Anna and the minister's wife heroically intervene.

One aspect of the books I read that I rarely mention is the language itself. I guess it's because language is a bit like sound design for a movie: when it's well-done, you generally don't even notice it's there at all. This is sort of a different case, though. It's hard for modern writers to get the linguistic feel for the way people talked long ago. Some writers choose to avoid the issue and just write it "straight." Others make it sound too stiff and flowery, so that you have a small-town servant talking like Shakespeare. Brooks found a good balance. The villagers' voices are down to earth, yet they use words in their old sense. Brooks even employs some no-longer-heard slang (it took me most of the book to realize that "choused" is a word sort of similar to "cheated" or "tricked.")

All in all, I reccomend Year of Wonders. I even forgive its rather off-the-wall ending. The book raises still-pertinent questions of what it means to live in a society and how far one's duty to one's neighbors extends. Each villager, in the Year of Wonders, finds his or her own answer, but none are without consequences.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hook Brings You Back

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: “What words/phrases in a blurb make a book irresistible? What words/phrases will make you put the book back down immediately?”

It's hard to think of too many that make a book immediately irresistible, but I can think of a few that make books very resistable. "Confronting the past," for example. Or "confronting demons," or confronting pretty much anything while in the process of doing something else. Anything that looks overly dolorous, or as if it was inspired by an episode of Oprah, I avoid. For example, books on the effect of a child's death on a couple's marriage.

It's changed a bit as I've gotten older, too. For instance, I used to eat up books about young women making their way in the world with a big spoon. Devil Wears Prada, The Second Assistant, Citizen Girl, I read them all. I started to sour on them after that last one, which is still my ultimate example of a bad book aimed at women. After a while, they started to depress me, and make me feel old and curmudgeonly. Is no one teaching these kids that they have to start at the bottom? Why are these kids so entitled and self-centered? And why won't they get off my lawn?

What can always intrigue me is a book about something outside the ordinary realm of most people's experiences. I'm not talking about books about other cultures. They're just living their lives, too. Books like Sarah Bird's The Flamenco School, or the odd upbringing of the twins in The Thirteenth Tale. I like books where it's clear that the author has really used his or her imagination.

But I guess I also don't take blurbs too seriously. I skim them to get a general sense of what the book's going to be about, and then I go from there.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Life in Obscurity

Sometimes, the most interesting biographical subjects are those that are relatively obscure. Such is the case with the strange and amazing life of piano prodigy Ervin Nyiregyhazi (pronounced Neer-edge-hah-zee), chronicled in Lost Genius: The Curious and True Story of an Extraordinary Musical Talent by Kevin Bazzana.

Nyiregyhazi was born in 1903, in Hungary. He was an extraordinary piano talent, and his social-climbing parents were quick to cash in. Like Mozart before him and Micahel Jackson after, he was paraded around, held to a grueling performance schedule and forced to be the primary support of the family. And like both men, it messed him up, too. It wasn't just all the attention at an early age, but the weird dichotomy of his expected behavior: in some respects, he had to be absolutely adult. If he was scared before a performance, he wasn't supposed to hide or cry; if he didn't want to perform, he wasn't allowed to back out. But his marketability lay in the very fact of him being a child. His mother made him wear long hair and short pants years after social norms dictated that he dress in a more adult fashion. She forbade him from doing much of anything other than practicing, and the forbidden activities ran the gamut from chess to sex. Astonishingly, he was fifteen when he learned the most basic facts about where babies came from and the differences between male and female bodies.

With this odd upbringing, which combined overprotection with exploitation, it's no wonder he grew up screwed up. From his parents, he learned that he was special, a genius, an aristocrat, and entitled to the best. Yet he was so sheltered that he had almost no resources to guarantee his own future. He was taken advantage of by various women, and by unscrupulous and incompetent managers. He crumbled under the slightest criticism, developed terribly anxiety and paranoia, but never lost his taste for finer things or his huge sexual appetite. He married ten times, had numerous long-term affairs, and frequented brothels the way most people frequent grocery stores.

But always, there was the music. Often, he didn't want to perform, and often, the public didn't want him, but it was always a part of his life. He was a prolific composer as well as performer, and wrote pieces based on the most mundane experiences ("The Installation of the Telephone," for example). Nyiregyhazi came of age when the worth of Liszt and Grieg was still being hotly debated, when it was possible to shock audiences with performaces of classical music, and these chapters particularly intrigued me. His brief renaissance, in the late 1970s, was not so much an effort at recognition as at preservation of a "last voice from a bygone era." In hearing his playing, people believed they were listening to the last of the Romantic-era pianists.

As interesting as his life was, the book could be dull at times. I'm not sure whether it's the fault of the biographer or not, but Nyiregyhazi's personality never fully jumps off the page. He ultimately passes the Maxwell Perkins test -- by the end of the book, you would indeed know him if you met him on the street, and know how to respond -- but it takes a long while to get there. And a large portion of his life was simply not that interesting. Petty scraping to get by, life in cheap hotels, staying indoors and eating at rotten coffee shops (as long as they don't play Muzak!) is not really the stuff of great literature. It's really the bookends of Nyiregyhazi's life that are interesting: his bizarre childhood, and his unlikely renaissance at the end of his life. Most of his ten marriages aren't even that interesting.

Still, if you like classical music, this one's worth a read. And if you like sad Hollywood stories about faded stars, this one's also worth a read, for it gives sort of an inside view of how one can wind up there, even without excessive chemical assistance.

Friday, October 23, 2009

More Booking: Five Minutes Alone With...

One Question October 22, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:38 am

If you could ask your favorite author (alive or dead) one question … who would you ask, and what would the question be?

A terrific question. I actually had the chance this spring to ask a question of one of my favorite authors, Tony Horwitz. He spoke at a private high school in my hometown, and I went and got my books signed. I asked him about his newest book, and why he didn't have a traveling companion as he did in Confederates in the Attic and Blue Horizons. The answer was mere happenstance. He said that he hadn't planned to travel with the memorable hardcore re-enactor in Attic, it just kind of worked out, and that his liver barely survived his pan-Pacific adventures with Roger.

But I don't know who else I would ask a question of. The real question, "How do you make it all happen?" has proven time and time again to be unanswerable. In interviews, writers say that they can be inspired by virtually anything. A. Manette Ansay wrote Blue Water after giving birth to a child. The child is fine, to this day, as is her marriage, but somehow her mind got on the track of "what if it died? what wild dream might my husband and I fulfill to escape the pain? how might it affect our marriage and our other relationships? what if the person who was responsible was a friend of mine?" All that, just from having a baby, when the majority of people who have babies don't produce a book like that. It's remarkable to see what someone like Alice Munro has done with just a relatively ordinary childhood.

But there is one writer that I'm curious about. I can't even call her my "favorite" writer, because she only wrote one book. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote a splendid book that's required reading in nearly every junior high and high school across America, which was turned into a top-100 film that's still beloved 40 years after its release, and into a frequently-performed play. Yet, so far, she hasn't written anything else. I'd like to know, why not? Has she tried, and it hadn't gone well? Did the success of her initial book scare her? Did she simply not have anything left? Or does she still write, and simply not seek publication for her books? (This is what I suspect, personally. I don't know why I think this, but I imagine there will be tons of new material released after she passes away). And if so, why not, and what does she write about? So I guess that's what I'd ask her.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Booking Through...yeah.

If you're wondering where I've been, well, so am I. Working every night, hanging out with my family, bracing for winter, seeking a better job, reading, playing WoW...all of these places, I guess. And I've neglected my poor blog, using it as more of a "favorites" tab for my links than anything else.

The book I'm on right now is not bad, but it's taking me a while to get through. It's not the kind that sets you on fire, but I did think highly enough of it to reccomend it to a piano-loving co-worker (it's about a child prodigy, and what became of him when he grew up).

So, in the meantime, I give you my thoughts on...

Weeding October 15, 2009
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 7:06 am

We’re moving in a couple weeks (the first time since I was 9 years old), and I’ve been going through my library of 3000+ books, choosing the books that I could bear to part with and NOT have to pack to move. Which made me wonder…

When’s the last time you weeded out your library? Do you regularly keep it pared down to your reading essentials? Or does it blossom into something out of control the minute you turn your back, like a garden after a Spring rain?

Or do you simply not get rid of books? At all? (This would have described me for most of my life, by the way.)

And–when you DO weed out books from your collection (assuming that you do) …what do you do with them? Throw them away (gasp)? Donate them to a charity or used bookstore? SELL them to a used bookstore? Trade them on Paperback Book Swap or some other exchange program?

Weeding out is hard to do! Oddly, I enjoy doing it for other people. I helped my parents weed out two huge closets in their house this spring, and was astonished by the amount of stuff that went straight in the trash. Directions to the homes of people who'd moved twenty years ago. Newspapers, receipts and other detritus that had gotten stowed in the closet for expendiency's sake prior to a long-passed dinner party. Stuff like that.

But when it comes to my own stuff, I'm much less resolute. Maybe I'll WANT the pictures off that 2007 calendar someday. It was a nice one!

I do all right with books, though. The best defense against drowning in crap books is a good offense, and I'm pretty selective about my purchases. I often try to sell books on I'm willing to re-list them repeatedly, but when all else fails, they generally get donated to the library to be sold. I don't pare down often. Usually what spurs it is the need to clear room for more!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stale BTT: To Tell the Truth

Wouldn't it figure: for the first time in a month, I feel like doing a Booking Through Thursday topic, and there isn't one. I hope the moderator of that site is OK. Maybe she'll post one up later on today, but for now, I'm going to do last week's, which is as follows:

Would You Lie? October 1, 2009

Suggested by Monibo:

Saw this article (from March) and thought it would make a good BTT confessional question:

Two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?

Honestly? I'm too chickenshit to lie about stuff like that. I hear my co-workers doing it on the phone every night: "Last week's concert was phenomenal, wasn't it?" All the while, I'm thinking, " You didn't go, you gave your comp tickets to me, remember?" I don't do that myself, because I'm afraid the patron will want to discuss it. A well-known singer who was popular around 40 years ago recently performed with the orchestra I work for, and I honestly sweat bullets every time I have to talk with someone about that concert, because I can barely conjure up any of his songs.

So it's sort of the same thing with books. In college, of course, I did implicitly "lie" a few times about having done the reading. I don't think there's a degree-holder out there who hasn't. But in casual conversation, I always admit to not having read something. I figure it's better to look like a mere idiot than an idiot and a liar.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Back...with a vengeance!

I suppose the title of this post could apply to both myself (who cleared her $27 debt to the library and is now in good standing again) and to the author of the book I just finished last night.

You all remember Wally Lamb. It's been about 15 years since everyone on the planet was carting around his debut, She's Come Undone, a sad, eloquent novel about a woman's lifelong struggle to deal with a childhood rape, parents' divorce and mother's death and lead a healthy, normal life. His follow-up, This Much I know Is True, came out a year or two later, and was written from the point of view of a man whose twin brother is schizophrenic.

Then, for a long time, nothing. Until now. The Hour I First Believed weighs in at 700+ pages, and has so much in it that it's difficult to even talk about, or summarize. The book spans ten years of real time, with flashbacks ranging as far back as the Civil War. It takes as its themes addiction, mental illness, recovery from trauma, sexual abuse, and the treatment of female prisoners. Like I said, there's a lot in this book.

The story begins with Caelum and Maureen Quirk. The marriage is a do-over for both parties, not only in the sense that they've been married to other people before, but that they have been married to each other before. Maureen is a school nurse and reformed adultress. Caelum is a school teacher, and my initial impression of him was that he was also an asshole. Unpleasant to his wife, unpleasant to the more initially intruguing Velvet Hoon (a student with a troubled past), even not terribly pleasant or responsive to his Aunt Lolly, who basically raised him. My views softened a bit over the course of the book, but I wasn't that far off about him. Caelum and Maureen work together, at an upper-middle-class high school in Colorado, called Columbine.

Familiar events set the plot in motion. On the day of the shootings, Caelum was out of town because his Aunt Lolly had just died. Maureen was in the library, having taken Velvet there to help her re-enroll in high school. Maureen hid in a cabinet, heard the whole thing, and was never the same again. The rest of the book focuses on how she, Caelum and Velvet each worked on putting their lives and relationships back together after that day.

It's hard to say too much about the plot. It encompasses long-past events (a subplot with Caelum's grandmother, a women's prison reformer, that I'm ashamed to say I never really clocked) and current ones. Everything that's happened in the past ten years since Columbine touch Caelum's life in some way: Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, September 11th. The book was wonderful. Lamb really knows how to draw readers in: even though I thought Caelum was an asshole, he was at least an INTERESTING asshole, surrounded by interesting people, and that gave the book momentum. He clearly put a great deal of work into the tale, and there is some beautiful plot symmetry. The post-traumatic stress of one of his Iraqi vet students, for example, echoed in his great-grandmother's journal from her stint as a Civil War nurse, and also in his father's alcoholism. Velvet Hoon as a teen writing a short story about her grandfather's stone-cutting work in the cemetery where she used to give blow jobs for cash, then finding peace and happiness working for a sculptor as a young adult.

But it's a lot to wrap one's head around. There was a subplot with some long-buried mild sexual abuse of Caelum that never really developed, and that I could have done without. The ending of the book, as well, hits like a freight train and almost seemed a bit of a cop-out. And I didn't really care for the fact that he gave characters from his previous novels walk-on roles in this one. It seemed a bit unneccesary, too. But overall, it was an excellent, if somber, read.