Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Smattering of Irish Stories

March had me really missing Ireland, wishing I was there, and thus reading Irish literature as a way to make do.  I finished a small assortment of Irish books, and felt like I'd keep finding more, but I think the craving may have receded for a while.

After owning it for 2 years (and having it partially read for just about as long) I have finally finished reading the stories in this volume. While many of the stories left me ambivalent or disappointed, there were a few standouts that I was very glad to have read. As a group, I think they made an interesting Irish portrait. Two authors I especially enjoyed, and anticipate reading more from, were Dermot Bolger and Orfhlaith Foyle.  

I was disappointedly not as enraptured with my first tastes of Roddy Doyle, Colum McCann, or Colm Toibin as I'd hoped I'd be.

"These mornings when I wake up - no longer even caring if I wake up - I feel oddly free. It's a terrible freedom, but it's the freedom that comes from knowing there is nothing more that life can do to you, that fate can have no more tricks up its sleeve.  I'm numb with grief, Maureen, I don't know if I'll ever feel warm again.  But I'm afraid of nothing now.  My sleepless nights are over because there is nothing left for life to snatch away from me." Winter, by Dermot Bolger

Ireland by Frank Delaney is a book that always caught my eye in the book store, so I finally received it through PaperbackSwap sometime last year, and then I ended up listening to it on Audible just recently.  Actually, it was a much more drawn out process than "recently" implies.  It was narrated by the author himself, and - though he has much experience reading aloud - wasn't very engaging.  The recording was some 20 hours long (thank goodness for being able to speed up the narrator's voice) and felt that long - and longer.

In the end there was much to appreciate, but I felt that Ronan's story was too bogged down by the lengthy "histories" that were the real point of the story.  The stories themselves weren't connected enough or interesting enough to keep me going.  Only the fact that it was on audio (and therefore multi-task-able) got me through it.  Makes me loathe to try his other titles, even if they are all about Ireland.

Sebastian Barry always writes beautifully.  If you are in the mood for some contemplative, gorgeous prose, pick up a Sebastian Barry novel.  His novel of WWI (A Long Long Way) is one of my most favorite books, and in fact, little Annie Dunne appeared in that novel, as she was the sister of the main character.  In this novel, life has passed her by for the most part, and we are treated to a portrait of her aged self.

Most of what I've read from Barry (this was my 4th novel) has a perfect (for me) balance of plot and sparkling composition, but Annie Dunne was definitely lacking a bit on the plot side—even for me, which is saying something!  I actually began reading it last autumn, and just now picked it up to finish it.  It took a level of focus I've found difficult to harness lately.

Still, I'd recommend giving Barry a try.  As a first foray I'd recommend The Secret Scripture, as I remember it being a tad more plot-driven.  And as always, I'm up for recommendations also!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

"He had never learned to live without delight.  And he would have to learn to, just as, in a Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry.  Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs.  But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that."

Largely hailed for her sense of place, I've always believed that Willa Cather's talent for writing a realistic character is one of the core qualities that make her books so easy to love.  She writes of struggles and sorrows familiar to us all.  The Professor's House was a look at a man coming to terms with the fact that his life had shifted gears, and not necessarily for the best.  Looking back at his life as he nears retirement, he thinks about Tom Outland - the man whose life so greatly affected his family in a variety of ways.

Willa Cather's most famous setting is, perhaps, the Great Plains of Nebraska, but she is equally as talented in her magnificent descriptions of the canyons of New Mexico.  Her love for the majestic serenity of the Southwest is apparent.  My heart has never sung in adoration of that locale, preferring the lakes and trees of the Sierra Nevada Mountains I call home, but the more I read of Cather, the more I develop that love and respect for a landscape so different from my own.

Makes me want to go visit! (photo credit)
As I've read through Cather's oeuvre, I've noticed a quirk to many of her novels: in construction, she seems to prefer segmenting her story into two or three distinct sections.  She may jump to a different time, place, or point of view—or in this case, all three.  The best part of this small book was the middle section: Tom Outland's Story.  What a vivid experience, and perfect companion towards shaping a view of America around the time of the Great War.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  By virtue of location, as well as circumstance, Tom's early life captured the imagination of the professor's young family when they first met, and it captured my imagination as well.

Quiet and contemplative, as is to be expected, The Professor's House was not my favorite Cather book I've read, but it is worth a  read for the middle section alone.  Check out my other Willa Cather reviews here, and for a fabulous summary (and more info and discussion about The Professor's House,) I highly recommend checking out this post by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis.)

"He had let something go—and it was gone: something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished, probably.  He doubted whether his family would ever realize that he was not the same man they had said good-bye to; they would be too happily preoccupied with their own affairs.  If his apathy hurt them, they could not possibly be so much hurt as he had been already."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Benediction by Kent Haruf

I believe I've read two previous novels by Kent Haruf.  One, Plainsong, I loved.  The other, (title unfortunately forgotten,) I remember loving until the ending—at which point it earned itself a spot at the bottom of the Caribbean.*  Benediction has redeemed my opinion of Haruf.

For being a story packed with things that could [quite plausibly] have been antagonistic or offensive, (the roles of religion, sex, and other beliefs and needs,) the book is surprisingly gentle, warm, and embracing.  Well, from my point of view at least.  I'm curious to see how it would hit others.**

Haruf uses beautifully fleshed out characters to explore the gap between our ideas and our actions.  What is good? What is bad? Why?  Do we believe (and live by) the ideas we profess?  What do our words and actions show our priorities to be?

This passage addresses what very well may be the crux of the problem:
People don't want to be disturbed.  They want assurance.  They don't come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones.  They want to hear what they've been told before, with only some small variation on what they've been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.

I am a Christian because I believe in Jesus Christ and his teachings.  The point and purpose is to improve my life and those around me by changing my actions to align with his. This takes thought.  This takes action.  This takes making difficult choices and challenging my built-in thought processes.  These are good things.  What on earth is the point of floating around in a little bubble of platitudes?  Why bother with the tremendous effort of keeping up appearances when you could be getting all the benefits that come with actually living out your beliefs?

Benediction represents one of the larger reasons I love to read.  It expands my horizons and exposes me to different ideas that I can bounce off my own—it allows me to see the world through different eyes and prevents me from becoming complacent.  I loved the complexity of the characters, the beautiful simplicity of the writing, the way it pulled me through in a few hours' time.  The characters seem to belong to their setting in the way that Willa Cather's are one with theirs: without effort, but with a vitality that makes the story that much more real.

* It wasn't me who put it there.  Rather, my husband, himself inflamed at my griping, tore it from my hands and fed it to the fishes.  True story.

** It got me thinking.  Why wasn't Benediction offensive to me when Flight Behavior was?  In a way, they both took a small town setting to address some big issues...yet Flight Behavior felt smug and preachy, while Benediction felt compassionate and peaceful.  The subject of Flight Behavior (global warming) isn't as personal to be as the subject of Benediction (beliefs etc) so it seems that my reaction should be opposite...unless Benediction was in fact written with more respect, more peace, more compassion.  I'm compelled to think it must be so.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

For the Record: March 2013

Abysmal.  That's how reading went in March.  I moved house, which ending up including many more hours on So. Cal. freeways until the new school bus route could be fixed.  Not my favorite time-suck.  Our 1960s house rebuild is progressing slowly, but we will soon be moving onto all the framing/plumbing/electrical and so many final decisions are needing to be made - all of which take TIME.  I'm missing reading and blogging, though, and am making efforts to have a better book month in April.  Here's the rundown for March:

4 Books Read in March: (18 year-to-date)
1 for Classics Club Challenge:
  - The Beautiful and Damned, F.Scott Fitzgerald (4.5) [I simply love the era and this was a wonderful way to learn more about it. review here]

3 from my shelf:
  - Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym (4) [fun & cozy]
  - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie (3.5) [lent to me by a book club member and very good until the abrupt and odd ending.]
  - New Irish Short Stories, var. (3) [purchased in Ireland 2 years ago, and finally finished in a surge of wanting to be back there once again.  Wide range of quality, overall good experience.]


2 Current Reads:
  - Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Yikes.  Still.  And stalled out to boot.  Must re-motivate! Get it done!
  - The Professor's House, Willa Cather.  I had to take a break to finish The Beautiful and Damned by April 1st, but am looking forward to picking it back up.  [update: finished already! April might be a good reading month after all.]
  - Ireland, Frank Delaney.  Listening to this on audio and almost done! Not very good...but it's about Ireland so it balances out somehow. [update: finished this too!  Onto my next audio book: The Chaperone read by Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern.]


On My Nightstand:
I'm away from home right now, so my "nightstand" is currently a "bookbag" which contains the following:


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Beautiful and Damned: Classics Club Spin List Selection

I finished my selection - The Beautiful and Damned by F.Scott Fitzgerald - just after midnight on the 31st...squeaking in a final March read and barely accomplishing this goal.  Sometimes I forget how much more I accomplish when I have deadlines.  I should probably give myself more of them.  I'm definitely glad that The Classics Club gave me this one!

First published in 1922 and said to be a largely autobiographical look at the author's own marriage, The Beautiful and Damned was an intriguing mix of the expected and the unexpected.  It seemed to drag a bit in the middle, but was otherwise a captivating read.

I expected (and received):
  1. New York, alcohol, and parties
  2. All the fashion, glitz, and glam that goes along with the Gilded Age
  3. Poetic Prose
  4. A somewhat depressing, hopeless outlook
I didn't expect (but enjoyed):
  1. A different writing style than Gatsby - a bit more straightforward
  2. Many film and literature references
  3. The intricately complex and precise portrayal of mental/emotional dysfunctions
  4. The shocking number of similarities between that age & the current age.
F.Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald
(did you see them portrayed in Midnight in Paris?)
One of the things I loved most about this book was how the era was portrayed.  Reading about the first quarter of the century through the eyes of the authors who lived it just can't be beat.  It's a better learning experience than any history lesson.  There is a similarity to the experiences, (a flavor, a vibe, a sort of stunned observance of the massive changes happening in America,) that seems to place me directly into the time period as if a movie is happening around me.  From Willa Cather's O Pioneers! to Edna Ferber's So Big, and then to F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned - the stories stick with me, the characters are as real as life, and they make me hungry for more.

If you have a passing fancy for the era, or any interest at all in Zelda's life, I recommend this book.  It wasn't a very happy book, but it was a fascinating character study and peek into the culture of the times.    It kept me reading and interested, and I have a feeling that it will stick with me for a while.  Between Prohibition, the entrepreneurial spirit, the contrast between rural and urban areas, and the cocky American pride in the face of the First World War, I can't seem to get enough of the literature of the day.  Do you have any suggestions of other authors/titles I should try?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Knitting up my Reading Time

Here are some pictures that I promised Belle and Heidi I'd post regarding some of my knitting projects.  I've always loved working with my hands, (mostly quilting, some crochet,) but just over a year ago I taught myself a new trick: knitting.

{Confession: I'd always held a reverse snobbery for knitting: everyone said it was so vastly superior to crochet that it couldn't possibly be.  Now I'm sold. There are so many possibilities!}

I went on a Great Sock-Making Spree in the months before Christmas, making 8 pairs to give away to family members and one for myself.  Now my girls are asking for socks, so even though I just about sickened myself with the small thread and small needles, I have more socks in my future.

I've also conquered the fear of making a whole entire sweater.  Not only did the sweater above turn out nicely, but it actually fits!  Super comfy, in fact.  Having miles of simple knitting to do was quite nice after the intensity of complex sock patterns.  I have 2 other sweaters currently in the works.

The hat with the horses.  It was for my 8-yo-horse-loving daughter who is adamant that horses should always be depicted in natural colors...which meant that I had to adapt a pattern and do things WAY beyond my skill level.  But.  I learned so much! And I do love a bit of a challenge.

This simple hat just came off my needles and was a wonderfully satisfying quick project.  The yarn has some cashmere in it, so it feels nice too.  I haven't decided it I'll keep it or gift it, but I'm leaning towards keep right now.

This is the other project that just came off my needles, but it is a gift so I don't want to say much about it.  I had to include it in my post, though, because it was a fun pattern and fun yarn.  I can't wait to give it away, but I'm trying to amass Christmas gifts so I shall attempt to practice restraint.

If you knit or crochet, Ravlery is a wonderful resource for patterns, info on yarn, and discussion.  I'd love to see anything you've made!  If you have pictures online, post a link or find me (melopher) on Ravelry.