Monday, August 29, 2011

As I Lay Dying

I attacked As I Lay Dying, not as a leisurely read, but as a code to be cracked. I've been frightened of Faulkner for many years now, but as it turns out, my fear was misplaced. I should have been dreading Thomas Wolfe instead.

This was actually a really fast read: I read it in only a few hours on Saturday and Sunday, holding the book in my left hand, ta
king notes with my right. I like to give myself the occasional literary challenge in my efforts to call myself "well-read." This was one of those challenges (although it seems to be on the required reading lists of many high school sophomores... I guess I'm a decade overdue). My favorite kind of book is one in which I can forget myself and become lost in the pages; this was definitely not that. This was a book where I had to be focused the whole time, read and re-read passages, flip back a few pages, consult my notes, and pause to ponder.

I hate this book's cover. What is with that lady's expression? And did some old woman answer an ad to be the "weird dying lady on the cover of As I Lay Dying?" This weirdo cover with the weird depiction of Addie Bundren kind of fits well with the characters inside it, though... it's hard to enjoy a book when the characters are so crazy and unlikable.
But when it became clear that this was a complicated family, that each person had secrets and greedy motivations, it finally began to intrigue me. Of course, I was intrigued by the past liaison between Reverend Whitfield and Addie, and Jewel, the result of that affair. What would it be like to be the illegitimate son in a passel of legitimate children.... the physical embodiment of your mother's greatest sin? And Dewey Dell fascinated me, too. Her mother just died, but she can focus only on her own secret pregnancy.

One thing I liked about Faulkner's writing was that he does an excellent job of "showing" instead of "telling." Nothing drives me more nuts than when an author feels like they need to write to the lowest common denominator of human intelligence (or maybe t
hese authors are the lowest common denominator). I read a book recently in which the characters explained every possible thing via dialogue to the other characters--even parents and siblings--who should already know this background information. If it's there just for the benefit of the reader, and not for the benefit of the story, I want to throw the book down in disgust. That's not what dialogue is for! That's not what a person's inner stream-of-consciousness is for! In my daily thoughts, I don't try to explain my life to potential readers or listeners... I just think, daydream, wonder, unfiltered. Faulkner's writing uses a lot of stream-of-consciousness and I liked how he makes the reader fill in the gaps, as it should be. It struck me as a realistic representation of a person's inner monologue.

Grade: 3/5 stars. Now I'm ready to go to Faulkner country: Oxford, MS.

Here is the family tree I created from my notes. High schoolers, feel free to print this for your English classes.





Sunday, August 28, 2011

Everything That Rises Must Converge

1. I love her name.
2. I love the title.
3. I love this cover.
4. I did not love this book.

I was reading this on my lunch break the other day and someone I work with said, "Flannery O'Connor... now that's some Southern craziness." And that's exactly what this collection of short stories is... Southern craziness.

I don't generally read non-fiction or short stories for the same reason. They don't typically hold my interest because it's hard to feel an emotional attachment to cold hard facts or characters that will disappear in 27 pages. But these stories were well crafted, and if I didn't like the morbidity of the stories, at least that made them suspenseful and interesting: Who's gonna die in this one?

I hastily tacked a "2 out of 5 stars" rating on goodreads, but then I reconsidered my rating. Flannery's stories are all about family tension, race, faith, and class issues in the South in the tumultuous era of the 1950s and 1960s. And after second thought, I realized that I couldn't give Flannery the same rating that I previously gave other books that I marginally hated.

What came to me later is that these stories are powerful representations of what was wrong with Flannery's South. Each story can be read as a Medieval morality play. Flannery clearly had some strong and divisive feelings about race and class in the South and used her stories as a platform to express them. It strikes me that her worldview was probably unusual for a woman born and bred in Georgia and that's what makes them even more interesting. If a Northerner had written these stories, would they have the same impact? But Flannery had seen the things she tells of in the stories and they reflect the world in which she grew and studied human nature.

Being a devout Catholic, she could have just written out homilies with a few examples from life to punctuate them. Instead, she wrote horribly gruesome "Southern craziness" with highly unlikable, deeply flawed characters--that could have been you or me or Flannery--and told of their selfishness, their bigotry, their greed, the meanness of their spirits. Then she kicked the reader in the stomach with a horrible murder or a grisly death, leaving us to ruminate over the ugliness humans make of a beautiful world, with nary a sermon in sight.

After second thought, I'll give this:
Rating: 3/5 stars. She made me think.

Now I'm in need of some lighter fare. No survey of Southern Literature is complete without Mark Twain. Off to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom and Mark have always tickled my funny bone.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Confederates in the Attic

On one of the hottest days last summer, Nathan and I went on an excursion to Gettysburg National Military Park. Despite the 90-degree-plus temperatures, I remember getting goosebumps when we stood at the marker denoting the location of the Union line when thousands of Confederates plunged across a mile-wide field in the infamous Pickett's Charge. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine a sea of bedraggled gray rushing across the bare field to almost certain death.

I wish I had written down the quotation that was on the plaque at that spot, spoken by one of the Union soldiers who survived the battle; this is the best that I can reconstruct it: "Watching those soldiers cross that field, I couldn't help but be proud that these brave men--rebels or not--were my countrymen."


Goosebumps!

For this reason alone--that countryman fought countryman--the Civil War will never cease to fascinate. But there are other reasons--some subtle, some obvious--why the Civil War still romances us. In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Horwitz explores the idea that the South is still obsessed with the War by traveling the former Confederate States of America, interviewing strangers, cozying up to reenactors (that weird-looking dude on the cover is a hardcore Rebel reenactor), touring battlefiel
ds and other historic sites, and attending weird meetings of groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. What he discovers is at times disturbing and tragic, other times intriguing and amusing.

Tony Horwitz beautifully intertwines history and sociology into a respectful, fact-filled book. He writes about the details that I like best: not battle statistics or military strategies, but the humanity of the Rebels and the Yankees and of the Americans who still feel its echoes today, nearly 150 years after the last battle was fought.

The Civil War has been so romanticized that it is jarring to realize that more than a half a million men died fighting in it. If the Civil War itself is romanticized, the Rebels and the Confederate way of life are doubly so... and this is one of the conclusions that Horwitz draws about the South's continued obsession with the War. The fact is that those Johnny Rebs were a romantic image: they fought to defend their way of life, they were often
astonishingly brave in battle, they were country boys from the land of belles in hoop skirts standing on porches of antebellum homes. And of course, they LOST the war. All these things lend themselves to the idea of a romantic "lost cause." (Of course, Gone with the Wind helped to perpetuate the romantic Rebel image worldwide.)

By the end, Horwitz, I think, draws the same conclusion that I would. It's one thing--an admirable thing, even--to revere history and to celebrate the bravery of one's Confederate ancestors, and yet quite another to live stuck in the past of oppression. There's a fine line between celebrating history and perpetuating racism.

Grade: 4.5/5 stars

This is Nathan (right) and his brother, Grant, at Gettysburg when they were wee lads. Ironically, though I've lived in Pennsylvania all my life and have been to all 50 states, I'd never been to Gettysburg before. These little Buckeyes beat me to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Once Upon a River (Spoilers)

If I ever wrote a novel, I would probably doom my characters to fall into predictable molds: the female would be a thinly-veiled me (or the me I wish I were) and the leading man would be a country boy with a hint of mischievousness (in other words, a version of my husband). But they would be better than we are and stronger and funnier and have more adventures and be always courageous and daring. And that would pretty much be the death of my novel.

But Margo Crane, the protagonist of Once Upon a River, is probably the most original character I've ever read... she's an enigma. She's smart, but a high school dropout. She's promiscuous and doesn't regret it. She's beautiful but doesn't care. When it comes down to it, Margo loves her dad, her grandpa, the river, her guns, and her heroine, Annie Oakley... and that's about all. She becomes an adult by the end of the book, but thinks and processes life through a childlike lens.


Margo attracts the unwanted attention of men twice her age; one Thanksgiving her uncle rapes her in a shed. At the time, the incident didn't seem to affect her much. She was more concerned that her uncle was caught in the act of molesting her, not the fact that he molested her. She was aware that the incident would create ripples in the family that would be her "fault" by virtue of the fact that she was young and beautiful. It doesn't occur to her to fight back or resist or say no. It is only after mulling over the incident for months, that the word rape came to her mind and she recognized what had happened to her for what it was. Some people may attribute this to PTSD or shock or grief, but this is just an example of how Margo thinks. She processes things slowly, pushing them to the back of her mind to draw conclusions as they come to her, without forcing them. She comes across as almost slow in her thinking, but I think instead that she is just deeply introspective and thoughtful.

Margo's new understanding of the crime that had been done to her resolves her to take her revenge. She hides in a tree by her uncle's farm and waits until he is outside and especially vulnerable... and shoots the offending part of his body with her .22 rifle: a shot not to kill, but to exact retribution and settle the score. An already ugly scene turns even uglier, and Margo takes to the river.

I don't remember ever wanting to jump into the pages of a book just to befriend the main character more... I just wanted to hug her. Margo needs a no-strings-attached-friend and the reader is thrilled by the end of the book to see that she does find friendship and a place for herself. She makes a lot of bad decisions, but in the end, she, like her heroine, Annie Oakley, has become strong, resilient, self-reliant, and a crack shot with a gun.

Grade: 3/5 stars

Book Club of Two

Head on over to Sara's Blog today for a fun conversation about The Wild Rose.

Friday, August 12, 2011

TGIF at GReads


Author Block Party:
If you could gather a handful of authors to hang out with,
who would you choose?

This reminds me of an essay I wrote for my composition class in high school. Topic: invite five people to a dinner party and write about it. All I remember about my composition is that Fidel Castro was there and Harry Potter flew in on his Nimbus 2000. (Disclaimer: Fidel was there for dramatic effect only, he is not someone I admire.)

So, what authors would I like to hang out with:
  • JK Rowling. Not only has she created one of my favorite series of all time, but her life story is incredible. She's a real rags-to-riches story and has an amazing creative mind. One of my favorite things about Harry Potter is that Rowling is so intentional and playful with the words she creates to describe her imaginary world. I love that the teacher who turns into a werewolf at every full moon is named Professor Lupin, the French word for wolf. I love that the word "squib" defines a non-magical child born to a magical family. I've read that word used in military settings to describe a bullet or bomb or device that fails to detonate: a dud. I love that playfulness. And that's just scratching the surface, but Harry Potter is a world of fun for word lovers and anyone who has a basic understanding of Latin roots.
  • Diana Gabaldon (gab-uhl-dohn). I heard her speak at the Festival of the Book in Charleston, WV last October. She has about three science degrees including a PhD and a degree in Marine Biology. At the age of 30 she decided to "try" writing a novel. That novel was Outlander, which spawned a whole series, a spin-off series, and thousands of rabid fans of James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, of which, obviously, I am one. I love listening to writers talk about their craft: their methods and inspirations. Stephenie Meyer literally dreamed the Twilight series into being... Diana Gabaldon said she sat in church one Sunday morning, bored and distracted, thinking about a show on TV she'd watched the night before about an 18th century Scottish highlander warrior. She hilariously said that she couldn't get that "compelling image" out of her mind. So she went home and wrote a fantasy/sci-fi/historical/novel based on that compelling image. I also love that she is a mother of three and is wildly in love with her husband. She said that Outlander isn't just a love story, it's a story of a marriage. And I love that. From falling in love to growing old together, Jamie and Claire's love story doesn't get old. And so I'd like to get her to myself and ask her more questions.
In the resurrection category:
  • Charlotte Bronte (pretend there are two dots above the 'e'). Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorite books. I've always felt like Jane and I were kindred spirits, so I feel like I would also connect with Jane's creator. To me, Jane is one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, memorable characters ever written. What I love about Jane: her feistiness, her intelligence, her depth, her honesty, her absolute belief in her own value as a human being... she knows she is worthy of a great love and won't settle for less, her moral conviction, her resilience, her passion. She is someone I would love to have come to life and be my friend. (Can I choose Jane instead of Charlotte?) I hope that I embody some of the characteristics that Jane does. Oh, have I mentioned I love her?
  • Also, as I thought about this party, which is very heavy on the estrogen, I think I'll resurrect another dead author. Since I'm still getting over Hemingway, I'll bring him back to life circa 1925, in his hunky Paris stage, pre-him-becoming-a-total-jerk. I'm quite sure I'd end up despising him by the end of the evening and wind up just glaring at him across the party. But without him, Charlotte and I might just go off to the corner and gab about Jane and sip lemonade, and we know that Ernest knows how to party. Whether or not the whole "man's man" thing was just an act--the image he wanted to present to the world, or not, he's sure got the testosterone thing covered. And lest Ernest feel outnumbered by the ladies in the room (although I'm sure that was his favorite ratio) I might dig up John Steinbeck from his grave too. Then they could duke it out over who oozes more testosterone. I've always thought that these contemporaries had lots of things in common. I don't think they ever met in real life, but at this dinner party, they can argue over who killed more big game, seduced more women, and wrote better books.
Anyone wanna join us? :)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wild Rose (Spoilers!)

Toto's "Africa" kept popping into my head while reading The Wild Rose and especially while reading Seamie and Willa’s story in The Winter Rose. I guess I thought of it because of the word Kilimanjaro, but actually, all the lyrics are kind of pertinent to Willa's story:

It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you (like blaming you for the amputation of my leg. It's over!)
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do (no one can bring back what you took from me. Without my leg, I can't climb. Without climbing, I'm nothing. I want to die.)
I bless the rains down in Africa (those were the good days with you, before I lost my leg. Which, by the way, was your fault)
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had (we never had each other before, but now that I'm back in England after 8 years, lets be together, even though you're married to another)

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company (I'm restless, you're restless. I never stopped loving you, let's forgive each other and be alone together)
I know that I must do what's right (Now your wife knows about us and my brother is disgusted with my adulterous antics. I can't do this. It's over! Again.)
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become (Nothing can cure what I've become. I'm a lonely broken woman without you. Opium, other men, reckless adventuring, suicide attempts...nothing works. Nothing but you.)

Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you (Jennie croaked. Seamie didn't. Go get the girl, Seamie!)


At the end of Winter Rose, Seamus “Seamie” Finnegan is alone in Africa. Willa deserted him, just after they declared their love for each other on a treacherous Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, during which Willa falls and suffers an accident that costs her her leg. Even though Seamie saved her life and carried her broken body down the mountain, across miles of desert and African savannah, she blames him for the loss. She can no longer climb mountains, so she no longer wants to live. She leaves Seamie with just a note and travels to the East to live a solitary life in the Himalayas.

Fast forward to The Wild Rose: Willa has tried to lose herself in opium and in the arms of other lovers for eight years in the shadow of the mountain—Everest—that she will never climb. Seamie has made a name for himself among the most famous of the world’s explorers, but has never gotten over Willa. He hasn’t heard from her in all this time, but he doesn’t want to forfeit living his life, waiting for a damaged woman who will never be his. Seamie meets a sweet girl, convinces himself it's love, and marries her. Of course, Willa returns for her father's funeral mere weeks after Seamie has given his vow of fidelity to another woman.

This was my most anticipated book of 2011. After I inhaled The Tea Rose (loved it) and The Winter Rose (absolutely 5-stars adored it) around Christmas, I've been counting down the days until August 2, for the conclusion of the Rose series. Sometimes the anticipation of something sets you up for disappointment, although in this case, I don't think that was the problem. I just don't think the book was up to the caliber that we expect from Donnelly.

Donnelly weaves huge inter-connected webs in her books, and that's partly why they are so wonderful. She's a master storyteller, and the reader senses that there is a plan all along, that nothing is accidental, that every character, event, and detail is purposeful. Tea and Winter were undeniably centered around a strong heroine. Tea was undoubtedly Fiona's book... The Tea Rose was Fiona's tea room, the culmination of all of Fiona's dreams. Winter was India's story, and Sid called her his "winter rose:" she was as rare as a rose in winter time. But Wild Rose... whose story was it? Willa, the wild rose of the title, because she is... wild? But this didn't feel like her story, or Seamie's. There were so many subplots and secondary characters that got equal time that Seamie and Willa felt as if they were reduced to be secondary characters, themselves. If anything, the book felt more like Max von Brandt's, the German (or English?) agent whose tentacles of espionage spread into every plot line.

Donnelly had the opportunity again to really hit her readers where it hurts: in our hearts. My heart has rarely been so tortured as it was in Winter Rose, when Sid finds India after years of separation in the African desert and greets her simply, "Hello, Mrs. Baxter," after which he weeps with the pain of lost love. (To protect their safety and anonymity, Sid and India rented an apartment in London for their trysts under the names of Mr. and Mrs. Baxter.) Where was that drama and that romance and that love in Wild Rose? I thought Donnelly had a lot of missed opportunities for intimacy and beauty in Seamie and Willa's story. The scene when they first meet together illicitly--Seamie as Jennie's husband and damaged Willa, the other woman--didn't feel real to me. When they were young, they had every reason to think that they would get married and share love and adventures for the rest of their lives. Here they are meeting again as older, different, broken people. No longer innocent, no longer whole, in body or spirit. I wanted confessions and tears and forgiveness and comforting. I wanted Willa to confess that she hadn't waited for Seamie, that she had had many other lovers who didn't mean anything to her. I wanted Seamie to say how he had tried to find Willa, had written her letters and letters. I wanted more details! I wanted them to be tentative and then passionate. I wanted them to feel healed, but guilty. Then I wanted the reader to see Jennie and Seamie interact, when Jennie knew that Seamie was keeping the most painful secret of all. So many missed chances for emotions and real-ness.

The love that Willa and Seamie share is repeatedly called a destructive love, one that will ruin them and all they touch. I don't think Donnelly showed enough evidence of this to warrant that classification. I think it would be more accurate to say that Willa is a destructive force. Willa can ruin herself and has the power to ruin Seamie, but Seamie is about as gentle and good-natured as they come. Their affair does hurt Jennie, but the reference to a destructive love begins far before Seamie's marriage.

The Wild Rose however, presented really complicated and fascinating characters. Most other characters in the trilogy haven't been as rounded: the villain's a villain, the heroine is courageous and self-sacrificing and resilient. But here, in Willa, we have a broken woman, an addict, who hurts just as much as she helps. And the spy, Max, (though the wrap-it-up-with-no-strings-ending annoyed me) is a villain who really genuinely cares about the people he loves--even if he must murder them. For the breadth and depth of a novel that Donnelly attempted, with scenes set in London, Paris, and Arabia, with the multi-faceted characters and huge "cast," several hundred more pages would have helped to flesh the story out in a more satisfying way.

Grade: 3/5

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shiver, Linger, Forever

I thought that I was tired of the whole paranormal young adult novel thing. I loved the Twilight series, but since then, it seems that everything is werewolves and vampires all the time. So when Sara loaned me this series against my will, I thought, I’ll just read 5 or 6 pages, tell her I tried it and that it wasn’t for me. Ahem, 900 pages later….


Sam is a boy who turns into a wolf every winter; the cold makes him shed his human body. Grace has always been fascinated by the wolves living in the woods beyond her backyard… one yellow-eyed wolf in particular. When a wounded boy shows up on her back deck, naked and bleeding, with the same yellow eyes as her beloved wolf, it doesn’t take long for Grace to realize the truth. And because these two have shared a connection for years, ever since Sam-as-wolf saved Grace from a wolf attack, they jump right into a heated romance.


I’ve gotten so sick of the whole supernatural element in literature lately, because things have gotten so over-the-top. I mean, the conclusion of the Twilight series was so weird: a vampire pregnancy, a mutant vampire child, gurgling geysers of blood... The mythology of werewolves and vampires span cultures and centuries and I like that writers can share their own creative take on the old legends. But Breaking Dawn, though I enjoyed it at the time, was too crazy for me.


Many people will disagree, but I didn’t like the idea of Bella giving up her mortal soul and her humanity to join Edward in a life of vampirism and immortality. Maybe it’s that I believe in the promise of Heaven, so the idea of an immortal life on earth doesn’t appeal to me. Or maybe it’s because I have such a connection with my biological family that to sever my ties with them in the way that Bella has to sever hers with her parents is too much of a sacrifice for me to even imagine. It’s romantic, yes, but it hurt me when Bella gave up her humanity for a guy (even THE Guy). So it was refreshing to me that the characters of the Wolves of Mercy Falls series yearn for their lost humanity. Some of them enjoy the escape that being a wolf brings, but the major theme is: how can I fight this/cure this/stay human to think/reason/love/live/make a difference? how can I overcome the wolf inside me? Sam wants, more than anything, to be bound to his human body, to live a mortal, normal life with Grace.


The second book, Linger, introduces the newly-made werewolf, Cole St. Clair, the handsome frontman from a popular band, who was looking for pleasure/pain/death when he was “recruited” willingly into being a werewolf. Becoming a wolf, to Cole, is the ultimate way to lose himself, when drugs, sex, drinking, and music haven’t worked. He’s basically a jerk, until he’s not. And then there is Isabel, a normal teenager who finds herself tied into the secrets of the werewolves, who is as damaged as Cole is. Their story continues, as does Sam and Grace’s, in the third and last book, Forever. Cole and Isabel are my favorite parts about these books. They are two deeply flawed individuals, with enough redemptive qualities that you root for them. I love the way they warily dance around each other, near, far; putting up walls, breaking boundaries. Two damaged people who want to be loved but can’t figure out how to let themselves be loved.


The leap from teenager to paranormal feels minimal when reading these books. The stories of Bella and Edward (Twilight), or Sam and Grace are of such intensity, such urgency. Adolescence is exactly like that--urgent and intense--even when your boyfriend isn't a century-old sparkly vampire or turns into a wolf at the first frost. You’re all hyped up on hormones and you're short-sighted enough to think that this time is all that matters... that this is all there is and ever will be. When you get out on the other side of age 17, you realize that there is more. But for Edward and Bella and Grace and Sam, there is a very real sense of urgency. They are faced with doom and separation, so they live fully and love hard while they can. Maybe that’s why paranormal YA books have such an audience and why the angst of the paranormal teenager appeals so well to the everyday American teenager... Because the leap is small, and even those of us who are a decade beyond 17 remember what it was like.



The writing in this series is beautiful. I'd vote for the author to write adult fiction next. And a beautiful quote:


There is no better taste than this: someone else's laughter in your mouth.

I'm going to switch to the Goodreads/bn.com "out of 5 stars" method of grading for congruity.


Shiver: 3/5

Linger: 3.75/5

Forever: 4/5