Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Sunday Salon: Record Brevity

Four more days until it's over. The TBR Dare comes to an end March 31. In an ideal world, the last 'dare' book would be completed around 10:30 PM Thursday night, leaving me ready to pounce on a stack of new books Friday morning. But this is the real world, and it will probably take longer to finish Wolf Hall. It is rich, complex, detailed, and interesting... but very slow. After nearly ten days, I find myself just past the half-way mark. I'm never dying to pick it up, yet it always manages to hold my attention.

The coffee is poured and Wolf Hall is waiting. Enjoy your Sunday, and I'll be back later this evening to blog hop.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quote of the Week: The Big Rock Candy Mountain

You had to stay in a place to make it a home.  A home had to be lived in every day, every month, every year for a long time, till it was worn like an old shoe and fitted the comfortable curvatures of your life.
(page 236)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain
by Wallace Stegner
originally published 1943

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is my current audiobook, but with so many passages like this one, I ended up borrowing the paperback from  the library just to reread them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"No Pain Whatsoever" by Richard Yates

I'm a hopeless realist, especially when it comes to fiction. That probably explains why I've come to love Richard Yates' writing. His characters are nothing if not real.

"No Pain Whatsoever" opens with Myra smoothing her skirt and pushing Jack's hand away. She is in the back seat of a car, heading toward the hospital TB ward for a weekly visit with her husband. Jack is her boyfriend.
It wasn't that there was anything to be ashamed of - Irene and Marty knew all about Jack and everything; most of her friends did, and nobody blamed her (after all, wasn't it almost like being a widow?) - it was just that Jack ought to know better. Couldn't he at least have the decency to keep his hands to himself now, of all times?
Tension builds as details slowly emerge. After deciding they will go out for drinks, Myra's friends drop her off at the hospital.
All the sheets and the hospital pajamas were dyed yellow, to distinguish them from uncontaminated linen in the hospital laundry, and this combined with the pale green of the walls made a sickly color scheme that Myra could never get used to.
At last we are introduced to her husband, Harry. He has been in the hospital for an undetermined length of time, with no discharge plans in the foreseeable future.
When he bent forward to take the match the yellow pajamas gaped open and she saw his chest, unbelievably thin, partly caved-in on one side where the ribs were gone. She could just see the end of the ugly, newly healed scar from the last operation.
Their visit is comprised of solely superficial conversation. It's obvious Harry has developed a new routine around the rhythm of hospital life. Clearly more anxious to delve into the new issue of Popular Science, he seems only vaguely interested in Myra's conversation. When Myra asks if it hurts, he responds,
"Not at all any more... I mean, as long as I don't go raising my arms too high or anything. When I do that it hurts, and sometimes I start to roll over on that side in my sleep, and that hurts too, but as long as I stay - you know - more or less in a normal position, why, there's no pain whatsoever."
Myra has a brief breakdown after she leaves the ward, but recovers in time to join her friends for one final round of drinks.

This story, like the Yates novels I've read, is very real and slightly sad. Simon (Stuck in a Book) said it perfectly in his post yesterday: "... next time I feel like a bit of American sombreness, I'll turn to Yates."

It's interesting to note that Yates contracted TB and recovered after a brief convalescence. Using the resulting army disability pension, he moved to Europe in 1954, lived there for several years, and wrote stories. "No Pain Whatsoever" is from The Collected Stories of Richard Yates. I was not able to find it online.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Sunday Salon: Good-bye Winter

Good morning! After the gorgeous supermoon last night, it's sunny and cold in central New York. As the last few hours of winter tick away, signs of spring are finally beginning to appear. The snowbanks will be here for weeks to come, but I've heard birds singing, geese honking, and noted growing cracks in the ice on the lake. A new banner photo features this most welcome sight.

The week passed quickly as the first few days found me home and slightly under the weather. I read a couple of short stories and posted on "Eveline" by James Joyce for The Reading Life's Irish Short Story Week. The stories in Dubliners are unexpectedly accessible, but the feminist angle of "Eveline" provided an even greater surprise.

I also began reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Tudor England is an ongoing interest and our recent trip to Hampton Court Palace gave me the extra push to get started but, after 200 pages, I'm finding it a very slow read. The story will pull me through, but it may take the rest of the month to finish.

My current audiobook is The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner. I've listened to about a third of the nearly 26 hour download. Stegner is a favorite (have I mentioned Crossing to Safety lately?) and Mark Bramhall is an outstanding reader. This is definitely a winning combination.

The most exciting news of the week proved to be the announcement of next season's Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series speakers. Elizabeth Strout has been my sole lecture of the current season, but check out this line-up:

  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Dennis Lehane
  • Alexandra Fuller
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Laurie R. King
  • Abraham Verghese

I'm sure at least a couple members of my book club can be persuaded to purchase season tickets.

Finally, March Madness is here. Excitement, upsets, controversy, human drama... I love college basketball. Our Syracuse Orangemen play this evening. All reading and blog-hopping will happen this afternoon. Will the Madness interfere with your reading?

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter
by Eudora Welty
Vintage International Edition, 1990
originally published 1972
180 pages

source: personal copy

In a nutshell:
Winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, The Optimist's Daughter is a quiet novel of self-discovery.

My thoughts:
After reading just one novel and a short story by Eudora Welty, I'm prepared to state with confidence that this author is all about her characters. Of course there is a plot, but it's the characters that will be remembered after the last page is turned.

In The Optimist's Daughter, the optimist is Judge McKelva and his daughter is Laurel McKelva Hand.  Laurel, a young widow living in Chicago, travels to New Orleans to be with her ailing father as he undergoes what is ultimately an unsuccessful surgery. Her mother is dead and the judge married Fay, a silly, self-centered woman younger than Laurel, shortly afterwards. Laurel and Fay return to Mississippi for Judge McKelva's funeral. Alone in her childhood home, Laurel arrives at an understanding of her parents, the past, and herself. That is the plot in its entirety.

What makes the novel a delight, is the manner in which we gradually get to know the characters.  Passages describing Judge McKelva's appearance allow a clear, detailed picture to form in the reader's mind.
He lay there unchangeably big and heavy, full of effort yet motionless, while his face looked tireder every morning, the circle under his visible eye thick as paint. He opened his mouth and swallowed what she [Laurel] offered him with the obedience of an old man - obedience! She felt ashamed to let him act out the part in front of her. p.22
The judge's personality continues to emerge even after his death.
"This is still his house. After all, they're still his guests. They're misrepresenting him - falsifying, that's what Mother would call it." Laurel might have been trying to testify now for her father's sake, as though he were in process of being put on trial here instead of being viewed in his casket. "He never would have stood for lies being told about him. Not at any time. Not ever."
"Yes he would," said Miss Adele. "If the truth might hurt the wrong person." p.83
Fay is presented as a frivolous, self-centered woman and, although her words had me both laughing and rolling my eyes in exasperation, the picture remained constant.
"What a way to keep his promise," Fay said. "When he told me he'd bring me to New Orleans some day, it was to see the Carnival." She stared out the window [of the hospital]. "And the Carnival's going on right now. It looks like this is as close as we'll get to a parade." p.13
Laurel completes a journey of self-discovery as she learns more about her parents, their relationship, the past, and herself. The writing, at times, was simply beautiful and I can't begin to share all the flagged passages.
The past is no more open to help or hurt than was Father in his coffin. The past is like him, impervious, and can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world, like Phil [Laurel's dead husband], calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious. The memory can be hurt, time and again - but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it's vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due. p. 179
Novels that slowly unfold to give a clearer picture of characters and their motivations can be counted on to captivate me. The Optimist's Daughter did exactly that.

My rating:

Bottom Line:  The Optimist's Daughter was a perfect introduction to the novels of Eudora Welty. Especially recommended for those who enjoy 'quieter' books.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Quote of the Week: Wolf Hall

Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle:  he kissed the infant's fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me.  For what's the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?   (pages 35-36)

"But what do they get by the change?" Cavendish persists. "One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungrier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honor, and in comes a hungry and a lean man."   (page 45)

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel

Why don't I read more historical fiction? Wolf Hall is a fascinating novel about Tudor England, but definitely not a quick read. These 532 pages may keep me occupied for the rest of the month.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Short Story Monday: "Eveline" by James Joyce

"She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired."

The opening lines of "Eveline" by James Joyce create an immediate sense of loneliness or isolation in this very interior story.  The bookmark in my copy of Dubliners hasn't moved in months, but Irish Short Story Week hosted by Mel U at The Reading Life provided the motivation to finally return to this classic.

Our story occurs mainly in Eveline's mind. While recollecting happier childhood days when her father 'wasn't as bad', and her mother and favorite brother were still alive, she becomes wistful. But, 
"Everything changes.  Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home."
She pauses to reflect on home, question the decision to leave, and examine her hope to be respect as a married lady in a new country. Eveline does not want to be treated as her mother had been. With no one to protect her, she is afraid of her father's violence, yet she has two younger sibling to care for. And then there is the promise made to her mother. But what about Frank and the possibility of a new life as his wife?

Eveline's plight was not uncommon; few choices were available for women in early 20th century Ireland. Leaving offered the only opportunity for a better life, yet ties to family, home, and the past often proved too strong to be broken. Eveline is left paralyzed... as trapped as a 'helpless animal'.

Dubliners was first published in 1914, and "Eveline" may be read online.
Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

TSS: The Persephone Pilgrimage... Our Trip to London

We're back, unpacked, and finally caught up after a week in London. Now it's time to ease back into blogging.

Windsor Castle
The trip was all we'd hoped for. It was the perfect 25th anniversary celebration, with plenty of time to reconnect with our daughter studying abroad and see 'her' London. There were opportunities to meet with friends, old and new, see a show, and visit  historic sites and museums. Sure, there was a little rain and the natives kept apologizing for the cold weather, but it was wonderful to see daffodils, crocus, forsythia and flowering trees!

Hampton Court Palace
From the moment we checked into our hotel room with its beautiful view of Kensington Gardens, to the final day touring Winsdor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, I loved every moment! A highlight was meeting the lovely Claire from Paperback Reader at Primrose Bakery for cupcakes and tea. We recognized each other immediately. She was so friendly and easy to talk to, and we're still laughing about the Swiss tourists who took our picture because we were such 'typically English people drinking tea'! Wish I'd remembered to take a picture of my own....

This meeting tempered the previous day's disappointment of missing Verity in Oxford. Our group tour took us to Warwick Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and finally to Oxford where we had less than 15 minutes of free time. Our tour guide did hustle us past her library though...

"Are you in there, Verity?"

Naturally, I made the pilgrimage to Persephone Books. The shop was just as cozy and charming as expected, and I came out with a dovegrey tote filled with six books and matching bookmarks.

From the bottom:
The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple
Few Eggs and No Oranges:  The Diaries of Vera Hodgson 1940-45
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

We also visited Waterstones, where a few more treasures were collected.

From the bottom:
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt (I really dislike the US paperback cover)
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

At this point, with mounting concern over luggage weight limits, my book browsing was curtailed.  There was nearly one final purchase at Heathrow Airport.... I needed a copy of South Riding, but my husband, already toting a carry-on loaded with 10 books, put his foot down.

So, did I read on the trip?
I listened to The Color Purple on the flight over (outstanding audio read by the author), got through a stack of New Yorker magazines, then finished Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller as our return flight landed.

Current reading
Ten exciting new books to choose from, but the last month of the TBR Dare and a post- Hampton Court "Tudor mood" lead me to start Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. As many bloggers have noted, unclear usage of the pronoun 'he' is annoying, but I'm quickly becoming engrossed in the story.

On audio, The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner has captured my imagination. Stegner's Crossing to Safety is an all-time favorite, and this 20 CD semi-autobiographical family saga has me totally hooked.

Have I missed anything important while away? Unfortunately, I had to press the 'mark all as read' button on my google reader. Let me know if there is something I should go back and read. It's good to be back...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The View from my Window

... after yet another winter storm.

Look closely for the fence on the right.

A deer in search of food steps up from the frozen lake.

She spots me in the window.

An old cedar becomes a snack for two.

Spring seems so far away...


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