Wednesday, July 30, 2003

I recently got back from vacation, a lovely week in California at my mom's house where I did very little besides lounge about and read light summery books. I traipsed along with Annie Dillard through Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; skimmed halfheartedly through White Apples, Jonathan Carroll's latest; strolled through London with Inspector Wexford in Ruth Rendell's Murder Being Once Done; shivered at the re-released From a Whisper to a Scream, originally published under Charles de Lint's pen name for his darker novels, Samuel M. Key; and thoroughly enjoyed Past the Size of Dreaming, Nina Kiriki Hoffman's sequel to A Red Heart of Memories. But there were two books that were more than summer reading.

Bread Alone, by Judith Ryan Hendricks, is indeed a fluffy beach novel in many ways. It has a simple, predictable story, as well as a plotline that's been done to death--middle-aged woman is cast adrift after her husband ends the marriage, and must find herself while dealing with various other upheavals in her life. However, as I read it I found the plot to be almost incidental and secondary to what was really happening. During the divorce negotations, Wynter Morrison moves to Seattle to live near her best friend and to work in a small local bakery. Baking bread has always been one of her ways to relax, ever since she studied with a famous baker in France, and now she does it for a living, along with the oddly assorted women at the bakery. Reading about the bread-baking process is nearly as soothing and satisfying as actually doing it, and the included recipes only add to the charm. I attended my mother's book club meeting on this book, and while we didn't end up discussing it nearly enough, it was interesting to hear everyone's responses--nearly everyone loved it, for the same reasons I did. It's just a really nice story!

The other noteworthy book is in a completely different category, unsurprisingly. I'd been wanting to read Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling Seabiscuit since it first came out, but somehow never got around to it until the release of the movie. Since I prefer to read the book before seeing the movie, I took along a copy on vacation. The first part was a little hard to get into, since it covered the background and history of the people involved in the story, so after reading that I set it aside for a few days. Finally I returned to it, after having refreshed myself with lighter matter, and once sitting down I didn't get back up again until the last page. What an amazing horse! I've always loved horse stories, especially ones with racing scenes--nothing else can get me on the edge of my seat like a well-told equine struggle to win--and this was exceptional. Many of the descriptions choked me up, which is something that very rarely happens; I couldn't help by get teary over the incredible drive and courage of that funny-looking little horse. I'm still looking forward to the movie, though I am pretty sure how it will be dramatized and Hollywoodized, but there's no way it will compare to the book. Don't be turned off by the fact that it's a horse story--it's written for everyone to enjoy.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

It isn't often that I really miss being in school, and even when I do it's more for the social part than for the classes. The community of a college is such a strange and wonderful thing, where spending time with someone doesn't even require a phone call. I always loved the casualness of strolling over to someone's dorm room to hang out, or continuing a conversation after class, or even sitting in companionable silence over another wretched cafeteria lunch; whereas, in the strangeness of this in-between life I lead now, too much planning is required for time with friends, especially if more than one is involved. It's difficult to make friends and get to know people without the commonality of shared classes or dorm life, which frustrates me into thinking that a commune might not be such a bad thing.

Re-reading Pamela Dean's Tam Lin brought all these feelings to the surface (particularly because my first experience with the book was when Odious read it aloud to me during our freshman year in college), but I was surprised to find myself also missing classes and study. I think this was partly because St. John's was so lacking in the fields that particularly interest me; namely, literature and the English language. Janet, the main character in Tam Lin, is an English major, and many of her friends are studying Classics, and in reading of their gallops through poetry and strolls through Shakespeare, I realized how much I've missed out on and how much there is to learn. Unfortunately autodidactic study is difficult and often one-dimensional, but it will have to do until such time that I have money and inclination to return to school.

But this post is not all about the fact that I will be twenty-five in a few weeks and am wondering what I'm doing with my life--I'm also recommending a book! As always, Pamela Dean defies description, but in Tam Lin she has recreated the wonder and exasperation of college life, interspersed with moments of oddness that build up into what is literally a fairy-tale ending. The characters are strange and lovely and just the sort of people you wish you'd known at college, and utterly real and alive in a way only Pamela Dean can manage.