Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011.

Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Who said that?

Ivy Compton-Burnett has one of the most intriguing and baffling styles of writing that I have ever encountered. Written almost entirely in dialogue minus tags or attributions, the book challenges the reader to follow along.

Trying to sort out the dialogue of nine (!) children, their parents, grandparents, family friends (I think) and assorted nannies, nurses, and staff, including one child who refers to himself by name in the third person, dares the reader to follow the thread. If you didn't like Wolf Hall, you will hate Parents and Children. If you had no trouble realizing that every time Mantel wrote 'he,' she meant Cromwell, you might be able to wend your way through the thickets of dialogue and find the treasure at the center of this labyrinth of dialogue.

The effort is worth it, though, and the payoff is huge. I was amused that Compton-Burnett is one of the writers offered to Queen Elizabeth in Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader. I hope Her Majesty enjoyed Compton-Burnett as much as I do.

When I finished the book, I immediately started reading again, and when I finish this time, I will be going back to the well for another book to savor.

Ivy Compton-Burnett DBE 1884-1969

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nature or nurture?

$9.99 is my top limit for Kindle books, unless they are books by Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, or GRR Martin. Not that I worry too much about overspending on that last one. I'll probably die before his next Game of Thrones book comes out. In the world to come, the books are free, and you have all the time you need to whittle your TBR stack down to size. 

I exceeded this self-imposed limit to buy We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I have a library copy, but I would have to race through it, putting aside all other reading, to finish it before my renewals are used up. I’m willing to do that for quick reads, cozy mysteries by favorite writers, and lighter material, but not with this book. This is not a story to race through. The protagonist/narrator is so astringent, and the writing so masterful, I want to savor it slowly  in small doses, spread over time. Shriver is magnificent.

The book started so slowly that I almost returned it unfinished, but then something happened to me while I was reading, and I was hooked. This is a book I will read more than once. It is dark, dark, dark. So is the best chocolate. The book was written in response to the school shootings that shock us out of our complacency and belief that we know our children. The childless Shriver dares to address the question of whether a child can be born evil (Bad Seed) or becomes that way because of inadequate parenting, mostly on the part of the mother. Nature or nurture? Neither? Both? Shriver doesn't try to answer the questions she raises. That task is left for the reader. I’m toying with the idea of bringing this novel to my book club, but I’m afraid it might end in a shouting match between the mothers and the childless members.

Because I haven’t finished the book or seen the movie, I’m not sure whether Eva is reliable or unreliable as the narrator. She appears to be honest, but how honest can a mother be when her child has committed such horrific acts? Surely there must be some self-serving elements in her account of the events leading up to that Thursday.

I have the film from Netflix sitting on my desk. Tilda Swinton makes me swoon, but I was going to put off watching it until I’d read the book. I changed my mind. Now I’m going to watch it before finishing the book. Inconsiderate reviewers have already ruined any element of surprise by not labeling their spoiler reviews. Shriver’s writing doesn’t depend on shocking actions but craft and careful character building to achieve the effect she wants. It’s not what happens, but how the story is told that makes this book important.

If you like The Almost Moon by Sebold, I think you will like Kevin, although Moon was a comedy and Kevin  is pure horror. They both challenge the reader to go beyond the initial reaction and search out what the writer is attempting to accomplish and ponder your own reaction. The number of reviews that hate both these books would indicate limited success on the authors’ parts, but I love them both.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Happy Birthday, A. S. Byatt

Happy Birthday, A. S. Byatt. Your book Possession is one of my favorite reads. I actually buy used copies of the paperback edition to give to people because I want to share the joy.

I believe that the underlying theme of the book, as indicated in the title, is the question "Who 'owns' the poet?" There are several who have claims to ownership. One claimant is the scholar who has devoted time and research to unraveling the mystery of a previously unknown relationship. This could be the making of him as a scholar. Fame in his small corner of the literary world, maybe even tenure could be possible if he is able to publish conclusive findings, original research about a poet that was previously considered researched out.

Another claimant is a wealthy American devoted to the poet and his works. He wants to acquire any object related to the poet and add it to his collection. The English museums and colleges/universities are opposed to having 'their' poet being stolen away and taken out of the country.

The final claimant is the homeowner who owns the house where a vitally important cache of letters is discovered. The letters contain a great deal of information that sheds light on the relationship of the two Victorian poets. The possibility of selling the letters lures them into refusing to give up the physical possession of the letters into the hands of the scholar until they decide what is in their own best interests.

Ultimately, we, the readers, own the poets in the sense that we are the only ones who have the knowledge of their true relationship, as this is revealed in passages that parallel the investigation of the scholars piecing together their history. They get some of it right, and some of it wrong, but only we know which is which.

A wonderful read, truly worthy of the Booker Prize it won in 1990.

I also love Iris Murdoch, and was reminded of her when reading Byatt's works. I was not surprised to learn that Byatt and Murdoch were friends and colleagues and that Byatt wrote critical works about Murdoch's life and oeuvre.  These two women would sit next to each other on my bookshelf, if I had a bookshelf. Instead they share space on my Kindle, and I value them both.

I'm currently reading The Children's Book, Byatt's 2009 novel loosely based on the life of E. Nesbit.  In the books, she mixes the lives of fictional and historical characters into a story of a peaceful world before the first World War. Perhaps the last period of our history where hope and innocence had an opportunity to live and thrive before it was replaced by cynicism and irony. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but was beaten by Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I'm glad I wasn't a judge trying to decide between these two wonderfully written masterpieces.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Today I finished reading Sparta by Roxana Robinson. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time. In fact, it's so good it made me angry. Angry at lesser books, written by authors who don't care enough about their book to make it better because that would be work.

I know it is unfair to become angry with sloppy writers just because there are books like this. Books that the author spent an enormous amount of time and energy to get just right. How is it possible for a woman to enter into a man's mind and body and understand? Perhaps it takes a woman to be able to understand the mystery. This book had me in tears by page 39, and it ended with tears. Tears of pain and tears of hope for the main character, Conrad. Tears of anger and grief at what we ask of our young people and how little we give in return for their service.

Before I retired, I worked as a nurse at a VA hospital. I believe that had Conrad been one of our patients, he would have had a much better experience than what happened to him in the book. I thanked every patient I had for his or her service. I meant it, and so did my coworkers. Our patients were treated with attention and respect. Were our services perfect? No, but our patients told us over and over again how grateful they were that we were there for them. We cared, and it showed.

I was lucky. I retired before the flood of the young ones coming in from the Middle East began, but I had enough contact to see that it was very bad. I hope services continue to improve, and I hope we as a country stop feeling the need to ask them to keep sacrificing their lives for no good reason. Afghanistan is full of lithium we need for our batteries, and we are afraid China will move in? That's no reason for the loss of one young life. War is necessary at times to stop great evil or for self-defense. War is for a real enemy, not an amorphous ghostly figment of our imagination, and our government must tell us the truth about why we are risking the lives of our military.

I don't get excited about politics very often, but I swear that if the government reinstates the draft to fill the numbers they need to fight these ghost wars, I will take to the streets and demonstrate. I will work to prevent any cutbacks in services to our vets and their families. They have earned everything they receive and more besides. They have earned our attention and respect and support.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Happy Birthday, Papa

Happy birthday, Ernest Hemingway. You've gone a bit out of fashion right now, what with your rampant huntin', shootin', drinkin' masculinity. When I put all that aside, though, and just read what you wrote, you never fail to engage and amaze me. Lucid is the first word that comes to mind. No extra words, every piece polished until it shines.

A couple of months ago I bought a collection of your complete short stories for my Kindle. It was only $2.99, and if there was only one story worth reading, it would be worth it. It's been much more than worth it.

I tend to associate Hemingway with high-school reading assignments. I don't know whether he is still used in schools today. In my time, I suppose it was because he was considered and 'easy' read. His sentences are short; he doesn't strain the vocabulary of a high-school student; and the plots are easy to follow.

Coming back as an adult, I wonder why anyone would think that an adolescent would understand what is going on between the lines. So much is implied rather than openly stated that it takes an adult understanding of the tensions of life and relationships to pick up on the subtleties of what is actually happening.

There's a contemporary writer who reminds me of you. Not in his lifestyle or image, but in his writing. Stewart O'Nan has that same lucidity. When I read his work I imagine him revising and rewriting, examining every word and demanding that it justify its inclusion in the work. His Last Night at the Lobster would sit on my bookshelf cheek by jowl with Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and feel right at home.  Nothing extra, no padding, just polished, glowing words that communicate so much more than what is read.

I'm sorry your life had so many sad parts, particularly the ending, but I thank you, Papa, for what you left us in your writing.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Salute to a Pioneer

Happy birthday, Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Your pioneering work with the dying paved the way for the hospice movement in the United States. When I was an ICU nurse, I heard one of my colleagues say "I come to work every day and torture old people to death." Thanks to you and the hospice movement, that is no longer true. People are allowed to die a natural death, with dignity, and as much comfort as we can give them. I had hospice services for three of my family members, so I have first-hand knowledge of the benefit of their services. Losing a family member to death is never easy, and it's always too early, but hospice can help ease the way.

I love this photo of her, which I obtained from this web site:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Finished rereading My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison, first in the series about Lady Mara, a Brehon judge in 16th-century Ireland. 

This is just as good the second time around, if not even better than the first reading. Lady Mara's good sense, her budding romance with the not-too-bright, but manly king, her dealings and insight into the character of her students make this series one of the best I've ever read. I love learning about Brehon law, too. Compared to English law of the time, it was humane and just. Unfortunately, it works best in a close-knit community of people with strong clan ties. In a large city full of individuals with no ties to a community, accountable to no one outside themselves, it breaks down. If you liked Sister Fidelma, you will love Judge Mara even more. For one thing, her hair is not rebellious.

The books are set in a part of Ireland called The Burren, which is very rocky. Most of the words I learned from this book had to do with geology:

clints and grykes are fissures in limestone. Lady Mara plants her rock garden in the fissures and grykes around her home. She likes to plant herbs and flowers with strong scents, so the sweet smell is released when people walk on the sturdy plants.

hoggets are young sheep, betw 1-2 years, too old to be lambs, but not old enough to be called sheep yet.

Another plant she likes is sweet cicely. I only know Cicely as a girl's name, never knew it was a flower. It's very closely related to anise.

Sometimes they picnic in the garden and carry the food out in willow pottles, small basket made just for this use.

Sometimes she plants avens, sturdy little flowers that do well in rocky soil. Here's a picture: 

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