Thursday, March 30, 2006

Godfrey: May I be frank?
Irene: Is that your name?
Godfrey: No, my name is Godfrey.
Irene: Oh. Well, be Frank.

--My Man Godfrey

So I'm going to be Frank: I'm having a hard time with these posts from Jack and Odious. When I first read Pascal, I thought he was exactly right about the human urge to be distracted from wretchedness, but it's only recently that I've realized I don't have that urge. Oh, sure, there are times when I watch TV or read a mystery novel because I don't want to think about cleaning the house, but for the most part, if I'm wretched I'm just wretched (and everyone knows about it). My journal entries will certainly attest to my tendency towards self-flagellation, while my husband will attest to my tendency towards tackling problems the second they arise--in parking lots, bathrooms, hiking trails, and other random spots. I have an almost pathological fear of turning a blind eye to things that bother me, much to his dismay. Why is this? I don't know, but it's certainly linked to my often brutal honesty. I can't hide my feelings; I can't pretend things are okay when they're not; I can't spend very long being wretched. So I pour out all the things simmering in my head--to God, to Odious, to my mother, to my journal--and then, pretty much, I'm okay. And that's just the way I am. This, too, is the way I am, that I have to make sure to add the disclaimer that I don't think Jack and Odious are wrong, far from it--I just don't understand.

Okay, so now I'm going to stop being Frank and go back to being Godfrey--er, I mean Kate.

Mental Multivitamin linked to this list of books "every adult should read before they die". If you can get past the shocking grammar of that sentence, here's the list (I've read the ones in bold):

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

Apparently I've got eight to go--not bad. Of course, I doubt I'll actually read those eight, other than All Quiet on the Western Front and possibly The Time Traveller's Wife because my mother recommended it. It's certainly a bizarre list, but then, librarians are an odd bunch. (I think I'm allowed to make that comment since I once was a librarian, or at least a library assistant. Anyway, no offense to Librarianne!)

And how I am doing on my own list? Well, I've gotten a bit distracted by reading at whim lately (mostly Elizabeth George, I must admit), but I think for three months' progress I'm doing pretty well. So far the best has been Death Comes To The Archbishop. I'm always surprised at how good Willa Cather's novels are, and I don't know why I should be--of the eight or so that I've read, there hasn't yet been a doozy. Her prose is clear and lucid and elegant, and her characters so thoughtfully created that they make me want to cry; I can't recommend her enough. I'd shied away from this book previously, for reasons lost to my memory, but I loved every word of the quietly good priest's life.

And finally, I've found some books that I REALLY want. I was reading The Old Schoolhouse homeschooling magazine at Borders today, and discovered this website and these lovely books illustrated by a homeschooler whose name is so familiar that I believe she was the friend of a friend years ago. At some point I will purchase at least one of her books, but I've had my splurge for today (no, not at Borders--at a restaurant supply store. I bought a pizza cutter, a fine mesh strainer, a pastry brush, and a rubber spatula--oh so exciting). Later, after a few more paychecks have rolled in...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jack is back! That, and the exhortation that it is my duty to recommend books to my friends, and a day off, all combine to put me in front of the computer determined to write something.

I've been reading Elizabeth George's mysteries as if there were an infinite supply; after getting off work yesterday, I read two. No, I didn't do anything else. It was nice, but I think I might be ready for a break, which is good because I think I've reread them all within the past few weeks. Besides this potato chip fare, I've been reading more Iris Murdoch, who I like quite well. I'm not sure why she isn't a more well-known writer, because her style is unusual and seems to have affected literature in general. It may be, however, because she wrote so many novels without producing any that particularly stand out from the rest; it'd be difficult to choose one for a high school English class or a 100 best novels list, for example. Indeed, of the five or six that I've read, it's hard to choose a "favorite" or even one that I'd say was specifically well-done. For the first time I'm having the experience of liking the author more than her books, or maybe outside of her books.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be one I read a few weeks ago--An Unofficial Rose. I might never have picked this one up, since our library branch doesn't have it, were it not for a book of essays I found at Powell's last year. I believe I mentioned it at the time, since I'm always pleased to find anything by A.S. Byatt. This book, Imagining Characters, is a collection of discussions Byatt had with a friend, a psychologist named Ignes Sodre, and has proved quite fascinating and insightful on Mansfield Park, Villette, and The Professor's House thus far. Because the two women discuss the books so deeply, I wanted to read each book before reading its companion discussion, so that's why I sought out An Unofficial Rose.

One might make the claim that Murdoch's books aren't really about anything--there's not much of a plot to summarize or a conclusion to analyze. But before you turn away with a yawn of disinterest, let me say that in my opinion, they're about something crucially important and largely misunderstood. In The Magus, John Fowles says that "Men see objects and women see the relationship between objects"; well, Iris Murdoch had astonishingly clear vision. In all her novels she explores the strangenesses of relationships and the way people interact with each other, to an almost excruciating degree. To her there is nothing more absorbing than the ways people live their lives, and I'm inclined to agree.

If I were to attempt a summary of this novel, it would read something like a soap opera episode (the blurb on the back of my library copy was appalling): When Hugh's wife dies, he decides to go back to his mistress Emma. Emma's companion, Lindsey, is having an affair with Randall, Hugh's son. Randall has a fight with his wife Ann and leaves the house. His daughter Miranda flirts with her cousin Penn who is visiting from Australia. Mildred, a family friend, has designs on Hugh because her husband Humphrey is gay. Humphrey takes Penn to London. Felix, Mildred and Humphrey's son, has adored Ann for years, but so has the vicar. Randall convinces Hugh to sell his beloved painting so that he can use the money to marry Lindsey. Hugh finds out that Emma is dying.

Are you reeling yet? The novel actually wasn't that hard to follow, partly because the relationships are so clearly delineated that they define the characters. Here's a slightly more lucid review; and do look for the book by A.S. Byatt as well, especially if you've read or plan to read any of the other novels she discusses.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

There are many things for which I could blame my month-long disappearance, but the truth is I simply haven't been in the mood. I'm going to try from now on to post once a week, which I think is a fair goal. But in the meantime, as a little gift to you in apology for my absence, here is the poem I wrote this morning.

I stand before the shelf of slouching books,
cocking my head to scan the lazily leaning spines,
and pause in my search to wonder what it's like
for Sylvia Plath and Proust to live next-door.
Do they talk of a child's drowsy morning sleep
or eternal sleep? At night, in the flash of
passing cars, do they murmur to each other,
remembering things past--two lives, one brief,
one six volumes long, both deeply introspective.
Their conversation is surely more companionable
than that of Patrick O'Brian and Flannery O'Connor,
who simply stare at each other, awkward and at sea,
with nothing at all to say. But Dickens and Dumas
make up for them, filling the long days with
story-telling contests, bartering descriptions
and comparing characters, each wilder than the last.
Faulkner and Fitzgerald fight constantly,
while Virginia Woolf hunches over her knitting,
trying desperately to ignore the jovial,
chuckling P.G. Wodehouse.
But here, now, is the book I'm looking for.
I slide Anna Karenina from the shelf
and go off to bed, leaving Mark Twain
to stretch his arms in relief and invite Thurber
to come over for a frog-jumping contest.