Tag Archives: books

Quick! What are you reading now?

It’s been months since I’ve answered one of the prompts on Booking Through Thursday. But I can’t pass this one up!

Just finished:
Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez A book about a young slave woman in the 1850’s who travels north with her master — and the father of her children — to a vacation resort. There, over several summers, she befriends three other slave women, also brought by their white masters to the resort. The story of Lizzie’s desires for freedom and for her children to be recognized by her master as his own drew me in. Lizzie is young and naive, but throughout the novel the reader sees her grow in her understanding of the complexities of slavery and how any attempt to escape would hold more risks for her children than for her.

Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson. I don’t usually read mysteries or crime fiction, so I wasn’t very excited to read this when it was chosen by my book group. But, with a very long car trip planned, I ordered the audio version from the library and started listening. Jackson Brody isn’t a typical hero and he is the sort of person with whom I would probably not find anything to talk about if I sat down next to him and needed to make small talk. Which might be a loss because although Brody is a bit of a boorish oaf, there are some interesting things about him that aren’t readily apparent. The book kept me company for 13 hours and while I wanted to hear the last 1/2 hour, I was far too tired to keep driving when I finished my trip! (I finished the book the next day.) Some where in my bookcases, I have another one of Atkinson’s books. I just might have to explore a few shelves, find it, and dust off the cover to see if I can read through another of her books.

Think I might read soon:
Oak: The Frame of Civilization, William Bryant Logan. I checked this book out of the library where it somehow caught my attention several weeks ago. This is the type of non-fiction book that I like: take a seemingly simple subject and explore it in-depth, revealing all sort of fascinating facts, both important and trivial. I’ve started the book twice, each time being interrupted after only a few pages. I’m willing to give it a third try to see if it was just unlucky reading time, or whether this is something that just doesn’t lend itself to reading past page 5. But, I better hurry if I’m going to do that. I’ve already auto-renewed the book a few times and I’ve been reciting a “Do Not Keep Library Books Too Long” mantra for a while now. Not that I’ve followed that.

What are you reading now? Any recommendations for my next read?

Year’s End – All the cool kids do a wrap up

There are traditions during the last week of the year that are just as certain to occur as those pre-Christmas traditions we’re all familiar with. The calendar turns to 12/26 and you can expect enormous crowds at the mall, long waits if you order a pizza delivery for dinner, kids starting to get restless with nothing to do, parents counting down the days until Winter Break is over. And, everybody seems to do some sort of year-in-review or “best of” list.

The Best of Lists are something that pull me in every year, even though I often claim that they are ridiculous exercises. Best movie? Best play? Best book? Best Travel Destination? Top News Story? Best Restaurant? Best Politician — oh, wait: that would be too short of a list!

Yet, I often find these same lists fascinating because the only criteria for judgement is the calendar. One could just as easily look at the “best of” anything for the last week, or month, or decade, although I would have a hard time remembering much of some categories if I were going back over 10 years. Only the very best would withstand that test of time. And maybe that is both the point, and the foolishness of such lists. Would I only include some items on my “best books” because I read them recently? Is it the last one that always seem the best? If my time period were longer, would I decide that the book I read in October or the play I saw in April were not really that excellent after all?

And how do you winnow such lists when there may be no common characteristics between two works other than the fact that you engaged with both of them over a 12 month period? My husband asked me recently which of two plays that we saw this year was the best. We actually saw more than a dozen plays, so I wondered why he narrowed it to the two. But, I couldn’t decide between those two plays — a revival of Arcadia and Jerusalem. We saw several operas as well — I wouldn’t have been able to narrow that list either. Same goes for movies and books. If I remember them, it is because I either really liked them, or I hated them. It’s like picking one’s favorite child: can’t be done.

That said, here are some of the art/literature/theatre things that I experienced this year. I’d recommend any of these, although some of the theatre performances have long since closed.

Patti Smith’s Just Kids — a wonderful memoir that reminds you, no matter how different your life is from Smith’s that we were all once “just kids” trying to make our way in the world, figuring out our lives and loves. Smith seems to have maintained some of that innocence, without being smarmy. After all, she is Patti Smith.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I got lost in this novel, and even though the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it could have been, I still cried at the end. I thought that Patchett could have delved into other questions about women extending fertility than she did. I just finished reading this, so it would be interesting see what I think about this next December.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. One of those books that could be characterized as a ‘sweeping epic’, covering the lives of twins from birth til death, across countries, continents, love and revolution. There are still scenes from the book that come back to me in entirety seven months after having finished it. This will certainly be a book that I re-read.

Coriolanus — I saw a special screening of this in October & Ralph Fiennes spoke afterwards. (Ralph Fiennes = Squeee!) It’s rough, it’s violent, it’s Shakespeare in a modern setting — things that might put me off. Don’t let it. It IS relevant in it’s modern setting, right down to the occupy-like crowds of protestors. (I saw this two weeks after OWS started, and on the day when I wandered down to Zucotti Park to see what the Occupy movement was about. The irony was not lost on me.) Go see it when it opens in a theatre near you.

Midnight in Paris Made me fall in love with Woody Allen all over again and pushed Hannah and her Sisters from its long-held perch of best Woody Allen film ever.

Moneyball. I don’t like baseball and don’t care much for Brad Pitt. Loved it anyway!

Bill Cunningham, New York. Every time I’m in NYC and anywhere near 57th & 5th, I am always a bit hopeful that I might see Mr. Cunningham riding his bicycle and taking photographs of interesting people. I rarely miss one of his photo essays in the New York Times. The tagline in the movie trailer: “Photographer. Perfectionist. Loner. Maverick. Visionary.” One of the best documentaries I have ever seen. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go see it again, immediately after I saw it. It’s now playing on NetFlix. Cunningham may be all about fashion, but the movie is about so much more: it is about one man’s passion that has been his whole life.

The Ring Cycle. The first of the Ring Cycle was aired by the Metropolitan Opera Fall, 2010, but Operas 2 & 3 of the cycle were this year. I swore to my husband when he first coerced me into going to the opera that I would never sit through the entire Ring Cycle. What I would have missed if I had not. Still not sure how happy I would be after attending four long operas in a week’s time, though I’m willing to try. (I have tickets for next Spring at the Met, though it is unlikely now that I can work out the logistics of going — want to buy the tickets? Email me.)

While Wagner’s Ring Cycle is not a freshman outing for the novice, if you are unsure about opera, attending one of the Met’s Live in HD series is a great introduction. And you can have popcorn, too!

Aradia I went home and stayed up all night reading the script. I’ve read it twice since seeing the play during the last week of its run last April. I adore Tom Stoppard. I can’t think of anyone else who could write an amazing play with characters in two different centuries about English gardens, pomposity, infidelity, mathematics, quantum physics, love, obsession, insanity and rice pudding. And, rice pudding is integral to the plot. You can’t stir out the jam!

Jerusalem This play made me think for weeks. Mark Rylance plays a modern-day pied piper living in a trailer at the edge of a forest, giving drugs and booze and a safe haven to disaffected youth. I also saw this during the last week of its run. The entire cast headed back to London to reprise the play there. There are parts of the play that I think are lost on Americans, but it was still something that I’ve thought about and discussed many times since I saw it in August. I still debate whether Rooster was hearing giants or bulldozers at the end.

War Horse I said Neigh! when T first described this play to me. I was wrong. From what I’ve read of the movie, I don’t think that it is at all like the play. I was fascinated not so much by the story of the boy’s devotion to his horse, but the idea of a ‘modern’ war changing how war was waged and how tanks and barbed wire made the cavalry obsolete before the end of the war. The puppets were great, not cheesy as I pictured them beforehand.

Royal Shakespeare Company/Lincoln Center Festival (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Ceaser, The Winter’s Tale) It’s a HUGE committment to see 5 plays in 3 days. I gave my ticket to King Lear to my cousin who gave my husband and I a place to stay for the weekend, and although I would have liked to have seen Lear, I needed a break! I loved every one of the 4 plays that I saw. I don’t think that the RSC has a monopoly on doing Shakespeare, but this ensemble, who has been working together for three years, gave fantastic performances. It’s a toss-up between whether I enjoyed Romeo better than As You Like It, but I don’t have to decide: they were both favorites! I will always remember Jonjo O’Neill as the sexist, most manic Mercutio I’ve ever seen.

More Dance than Theater (if that even makes sense!)

Sleep No More (Finally, something that is still open.) If you’re in NYC, go experience this! Imagine a theatrical dance performed throughout a six-story warehouse, which requires you to walk — no, run! — after the characters as they perform scenes in an order that has no continuity with a plot. You may wander into an apothecary, through a maze, into a graveyard where Macbeth pleads with the stars to hide their fire before a rendezvous in Lady Macbeth’s bedroom, or find yourself at a witches’ rave, or see Macbeth murder Duncan. And then there is the whole other thing happening concurrently: a nod to Hitchcock vibe with a secondary story reminiscent of Rebecca. Part do-it-yourself adventure, part film noir, part dance, part haunted house: all a lot of fun and a memorable experience. This isn’t a “play”, but it is theatre that will immerse all of your senses. I’ve “seen” it twice and would go again if I could. Wear running shoes and contacts instead of glasses; the audience must wear masks.

Who is really the performer if the audience wears a mask?

Septimus and Clarissa Part dance, part play, this was an innovative adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway. Fascinating theatre.

Books, Art: Reflecting Life

I recently came across this video, part of the Metropolitan Museum’s Connections series, an interesting view of books from Ken Soehner, Chief Librarian at the museum. I almost didn’t watch this video because of the quote on the cover page about not having a ebook in a portrait: it seemed a bit pompous. But, I did watch it, and I don’t think that quote, out of context, reflects the entire piece. I love what Soehner has to say about the scent of books, the tradition of books in art, and the place and meaning of books in lives throughout history.

I am glad that I can read ebooks, but I will never get over the sound, feel, smell of books. This also reminds me that before there were books in their present form, the written word — and stories — existed in other forms. A case, I think, for the book in electronic form, as well as its existence along side the book in paper and ink form.

The other bit that I like about this is what he has to say about Van Gogh and books. I read once that Van Gogh suffered from hypergraphia, a obsession with writing and a compulsion to write. I never made the connection, though, with the books in his paintings or saw them as an extension or symbol of the artist rather than his subject.

Watch the slideshow here.

What to read: Road Trip Edition

I have several hours in the car ahead of me on Monday. The best way that I know of to make a long trip when you are driving by yourself go quickly is to listen to an audio book. So, I decided to see what audio books the library might have.

I had a brief hope that the library branch I went to would have a copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Unfortunately, it was not available. So, I spent 30 minutes I didn’t have to spare today searching for something else to take with me.

There were plenty of “Great Courses”, but I thought that all of those were likely candidates to either put me to sleep (not good, Driver!) or would be better suited for something with video (understanding geometry without any visuals?). There were several discs that would retell most of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps a good option, but again, unless it was originally decided for audio-only, I can’t imagine “listening” to a play. The sci-fi audio books had their own 2 shelves worth; the mystery audio books was the largest section, stretching on for several shelves and bookcases.

I eliminated anything that was more than 10 hours. I figure that I wouldn’t find be likely to listen to anything more than that. I should only finish about 8 hours worth, unless there is some colossal traffic jam on 80/94. Another hour or two I would be able to find time for. But there were some audio books that were 24 – 30 hours long. I rarely am in my car for trips longer than 10 minutes, and I don’t think that I’d have the patience to sit on my sofa while someone read to me for any length of time.

What did I settle upon? I checked out three audio books:

1. Washington Square, Henry James. Why? Because it’s James! And I’ve never read it before.

2. The Dubliners, James Joyce. Selection criteria: contains two of the best short stories ever: “Araby” and “The Dead”. Actually, “Araby”, though a great story, doesn’t come close to “The Dead”. Few short stories do.

3. Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom. How did this make its way from shelf to bar code scanner to my car? I’ve been thinking a lot about how people reinvent themselves. I’ve heard and read a lot on the Internets recently about the current recession causing people to find new careers paths. While my current reasons for not working are not related to the recession, I find myself at a crossroads wondering where I will head next. A book about retirees who have forged second or third careers seemed timely.

Who knows what kind of mood I will be in as I drive? Whatever it is, the mood will determine which of these I will listen to. One thing I do know: if I don’t get to bed soon, I will not be keeping to my timetable.

Booking Through Thursday: E-volution

Booking Through Thursday: E-readers vs. Physical books.

I bought an iPad in June, 2010. It is my constant companion; email, search, facebook, photos, reading The New Yorker, the New York Times and other news media, watching movies, listening to music, taking notes, navigation, calculator, shopping lists, procrastination tools (e.g., games): there are apps for all those and I have and use all of them.

But, I was reluctant, at first, to download the Kindle app. I just wasn’t convinced that reading — although I had been reading other things online for years — would be the same experience.

I took a Journalism class in the future of media when I was in college, way back in 1979. I recall reading the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander and having lengthy discussions on whether we would eventually be reading newspapers on computers. Few of us in the class could foresee such a future. To us, computers were the large mainframe computers in the labs, or large typesetting machines with blurry, amber glowing text displayed on monitors the size of a desktop. Even envisioning a computer as being something akin to a television that you would use to read was preposterous. Even those who didn’t agree with Mather’s thesis that television would be the end of civilization as we know it, agreed that reading “on computers” was an evil that we didn’t think we catch on.

“I like the feel of a newspaper, being able to fold it over and read an article. To take it with me anywhere”. That was the sentiment of the majority of the class, and I agreed with it.

About eight years ago, I stopped subscribing to our local paper when it was sold to a national outfit that produced thin papers and thinner copy. Not fit to wrap day-old fish in? It wasn’t even worth my while to walk to the end of the driveway each morning if I had had day-old fish. Besides, even with a clunky interface, the online edition was much more up-to-date.

But, I couldn’t imagine that the online news experience could carry over to my pleasure reading. How could I enjoy reading if I didn’t have that smell of paper, the tactile feel of a book, the ability to hear the spine give just slightly as I opened it for the first time? What would I do if there were graphs or photographs, even if only a headshot of the author in a pretentious author pose? How would I find books if everything was electronic and there were no bookstore shelves to peruse?

Eventually, however, at a point where I needed a book immediately and didn’t want to pay for the expedited shipping, I caved, downloaded the Kindle app and began reading.

You know what? The world didn’t stop turning on its axis. Printing presses didn’t stop churning out books immediately. My reading experience wasn’t hampered in any way. In fact, it was enhanced: I could now look up words without having a heavy dictionary nearby; I could mark passages and write notes that I could easily find for later reference; I didn’t find it annoying that I had to swipe my finger across the screen at the end of every page. I found that I finished a few books — ones I had not realized were greater than 500 pages in print — in a record time for me, a notoriously slow reader often discouraged by lengthy tomes. I no longer had to worry that my book weight would put my luggage over the limits at the airport, nor did I need to worry that I wouldn’t have a book that I wanted to read but had left at home. In short, ebooks did not have a negative impact on my reading. And you know what? Sometimes the old books are musty smelling, and, after too much wear, the spines fall apart and you need rubber bands to hold the book together before you reach the final pages.

I still like physical books, and, although I’ve bought fewer this year, I’m waiting for some bookcases to go on sale. (Gotta love that law of supply & demand!) My son recently told me that under no circumstances was I ever to buy him a Kindle. “I’m not reading a book on a little screen. I want to go to bookstores, like the Strand*, and I won’t contribute to their demise, won’t do in my favorite past-time.” He does have a point, but I’m hoping that bookstores, both new and used, chain and independents, find a way to adapt. I want lots of choices, but I don’t think that bookstores have to be bricks and mortar any more than books need to be paper and ink.

So, what do I see as a major drawback to an ebook rather than an physical book? When I’ve been reading while lying on the sofa or in bed and I fall asleep, with a physical book I’m less likely to have a slight bruise or bump on my forehead when I wake up. Dropping an iPad on your head can hurt! But when reading an ebook, I am more likely to know exactly where I stopped reading.

*Both B & I agree, Strand Books is the most awesome bookstore. So awesome that the word ‘awesome’ doesn’t really describe it!

Book Dilemma

For more than a few years, I have had a running feud with my local library. Really, it was a one-sided feud, but it did keep me from checking out any books for a long, long time. I bought a lot of books during that time, but not enough to keep Borders in business.

Recently, I decided that my feud was a bit silly, and that I really should start using the public library more often. So, a few months ago, despite my reluctance to show my face at the library, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went to talk to the stern librarian.

I need a new card, I told her politely, handing her my driver’s license and another proof of residency.

She looked up my name. We have a problem. You’ll have to talk to… and she muttered some unintelligible name.

What do I have to do to talk to her? I said, guessing that Muttered Name was feminine.

I got an odd look from her. Just stay here. You have several fines. She turned and walked into the small office behind the circulation desk.

I looked toward the door. I wondered if there were librarian apprentices ready to pour hot oil on me if I tried to escape. Not that the modern automatic doors looked anything like a portcullis, but I’m sure that there were at least a few books in that library that taught me about hot oil, portcullises, and stern librarians, though I doubt all at once.

A second librarian came out. She looked at me and my driver’s license and scanned the computer.

You can’t have another card until you pay your fine. That will be $36.10.

Maybe that feud wasn’t so one-sided.

I tried to keep my cool. Could you please tell me what those fines are for? I thought I had cleared all my fines before I decided to not darken the door of the library again.

There was a book that you never returned.

Yes, it was a book about glassblowers in New Bedford, Massachusetts in the 1890s. Lost.

She looked at me. Yes, it was. You have a good memory. $36.10 is the total.

So does the library, I thought.

I paid for the book — twice. I thought that after five years perhaps you had finally updated your books. I looked towards the stacks quickly and then added: Your receivables books, I mean.

I paid the library, and then they referred it to a collection agency. I wasn’t very happy with the runaround I got trying to work that out. Eventually I just gave up. That was about five years ago.

Seven years ago, she corrected me.

I paid the credit agency. Really, $25 gets you referred to a credit agency? And I had paid! I didn’t want that on my report, but I really don’t like it that I already paid $50 for that book. Guess I’ll have to wait another seven years?

She looked at me. Then, she looked at the computer.

The book wasn’t even suppose to be on the stacks. It had a discard notice in it when I checked it out. It hadn’t been out of the library for years.

I thought about adding “Maybe even centuries” but I didn’t think that this woman had much of a sense of humor.

I don’t know why it would have been on the shelves then.

Hmmm…because someone made a mistake, I thought. Don’t you think they happen here?

I kept my mouth shut and took a deep breath, which came out more like an exasperated sigh.

(Okay. Okay. It was an exasperated sigh!)

What’s the extra charge?

A charge for referring you to the credit agency.

She stood looking at the computer screen for another minute.

Well, what can we do to resolve this? Please give me the number of someone who can help me at the main branch. I’d like to use this library that I pay lots of taxes for. My voice was starting to quiver and I knew I was standing on the corner of Mean and Smart-Ass.

I have to charge you the $10 agency fee. I don’t have the authority to dismiss that. I’ll mark the book as ‘Lost’. So, $11.10.

What’s the $1.10?

Another late charge. Book returned.

I vaguely remembered the book. It was something read for Book Club. I paid the reduced fine, got my new card, updated my library web access and email, and looked moronic as I tried to figure out how to use the barcode scanner. Apparently the library now has clerks stand there and watch you check the books out, one at each self-serve scanner.

I’ve been back a few times since, feeding my book hunger. Today I received a notice that three books that I’ve had on hold had arrived. When I looked on the hold shelf (because the librarians and clerks don’t keep those behind the desk now either) I discovered that 11 of my hold requests had arrived. I should have brought a bag. One had not been checked out of the central library in decades and sported a check out card that looked like the kind used when I was a child.

Now my dilemma: Which of these do I read first? I’ve narrowed it down to four:

Just Kids, Patti Smith. I’ve been wanting to read this for months!
The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls. My November Book Club book. I think the person who selected this is going to hate it.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. I heard Diaz speak at a panel discussion at the New Yorker Festival a few weeks ago. Later that same weekend I was having dinner with friends. The book got one thumbs up, one thumbs down, and one person gave a mixed review, but added that I would love it.
Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez. The lovely Anne Fernald posted something from the Kindle version of this book to FB recently. I think it sounds intriguing.

Two novels, two memoirs. I hope it will be a busy reading weekend.

Book group reading

Book groups are an odd thing. It takes a long time to get a group together that has the right synergy, where all members of the group can use the same language to discuss, yet also bring their own perspectives.

I’ve been in the same book group for about 9 years now. There have been lots of changes over the years and only three of the original members are still in the group. We started with four women in their forties, and four women in their eighties. Sadly, none of the four older women are still able to participate. Two have died, one moved across country where her family could care for her, and the fourth decided that it was too much for her to do because of limited eyesight and limited mobility. So, we’ve had a lot of attrition. We’ve had some people who only show up for one or two months and then move on. Others who say that they will join us, but never do. Sometimes I think it is because of the books that we read. Or don’t read.

Now here is where I’m going to sound very complaining. I do not want to read “uplifting” spiritual autobiographies, especially when they espouse a theological perspective that I don’t agree with and one that states — flat out — that I am not only wrong, but doomed. I find nothing to discuss, although plenty to argue about. Yet, I won’t argue because I don’t much see the point. Now, should we have decided to read a theologian and then discussed his arguments, I would be okay with that. But don’t ask me again to read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and then fawn over it without looking critically at Lewis’ allegory.

I don’t want to read self-help books. I can use help, but I doubt that I’ll find it in a book unless it is the The Guide to Plumbing for the Inept. We read “The Happiness Project” last year. I couldn’t find much to say about it other than once the author began a blog along about Month Four of her project, the book seemed to rely heavily on excerpts from the blog. I could have just read it online. I would have been happier — and with a few more dollars in my pocket.

I won’t stand for romance novels. I cannot convince some of my fellow members that Debbie Macomber and Judy Piccoult fit into this category, even if some of their books are not romance per se. I don’t buy this type of book and I’ve given up the ruse of acting like I’m going to read it by checking it out from the library.

I made to pretense to reading Glen Beck’s Christmas story, either. It was not an option, though I showed up for that month’s meeting, as we always go out to dinner in December.

I am willing to read suggested works from the library’s “classic books” list, but the problem is frequently that I’ve read most of what the others have not. I didn’t like Pilgrim’s Progress or The Scarlet Letter three decades ago when I was an English Lit major and while I might be more appreciative of them now, I don’t really care to re-read them. The librarians also seem to not have noticed that there has been good literature written in the last 70 years. Listing an outdated list of great literature by dead white guys seems pretty lame to me. Reading many of those works does to.

When I’ve had an opportunity to choose a book, I’ve been known to spook the others with my choices. I don’t know if some in the group have forgiven me yet for choosing Anna Karenina. One of the group said about that book: “I knew it was going to be sad as it came to the end, but I didn’t see that train coming”. I didn’t score points by thinking that this was one of the funniest things I had ever heard. She has probably forgotten that, but I don’t think that I will.

Why then, you might ask, do I stay in this group? Because every month I met with five other extraordinary women, ranging in age from 29 to 72, who come from very different backgrounds and we all love to read, despite having differences of opinion as to what is worthwhile to read. I may be a literary snob in my reading choices, but I have been surprised sometime, and I like that possibility.

This month, we are reading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I had never read the book before, and although I was familiar with the title and knew that it had been made into a movie years ago, I knew little about it. I have only read about 30 pages so far and I’m not sure that I’ve been ‘caught’ by the book yet, which is to say that I could put it down. Or so I was thinking until I reached the end of chapter two. Francie, the heroine of the book, loves to read.

Francie held the books close and hurried home, resisting the temptation to sit on the first stoop she came to, to start reading….The story of Francois Villon was more wonderful each time she read it. Sometimes she worried for fear the book would be lost in the library and she’d never be able to read it again. She had once started copying the book in a two-cent notebook. She wanted to own a book so badly and she had thought the copying would do it. But the penciled sheets did not seem like nor smell like the library book so she had given it up, consoling herself with the vow that when she grew up, she would work hard, save money and buy every single book that she liked.

I think I just fell in love with 11-year old Francie and will keep reading.

Book Review: Your Voice in My Head

I don’t usually read memoirs. I have little interest in gossip or self-serving whining.

My opinion of memoirs tends to be this: that memoirs of celebrities usually try to “set the record straight”, to correct some perception that exists or to merely “drop names”, bringing a certain celebrity cache to the author by acquaintance. Memoirs of an “average” person, tend to focus on some sort of cause, aiming to shed light on something that the reader doesn’t know from her own experience, but tend to be of little interest unless the reader already has some stake in the topic: a specific hobby, a disease state, a certain political bent. For these reasons, I tend to avoid most memoirs. On a few occasions I have read some popular memoirs when people kept recommending them to me. Think Julie and Julia, or Eat, Pray, Love. I disliked them both.

So, I don’t know what possessed me, while at the library last week, to pick up a copy of Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head. Even the blurb on the front, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which would have normally caused me to replace a book on the shelf as quickly as if it were radioactive waste, didn’t dissuade me: “A blistering, transfixing story of obsession, heartbreak, and slow, stubborn healing”.

And you know what? I actually liked this book. I couldn’t wait to get back to it and read it quickly in a manner of a few days, days when I had limited time to read. Forrest, who has been a journalist, published three novels, and written screenplays, writes well. Her memoir is her story of living with years of depression, being both bulimic and a “cutter”, and so scarily bi-polar that it is hard to imagine what amount of energy would be needed to be her friend. But, more than simply explaining the horrors of depression or mania, of how she made wrong choices in life and love, how she felt when she cut herself, it is a love letter, not to herself, not to her lost loves, but to her psychiatrist, named simply Dr. R in the book, who guided Forrest through several years on her road to stability, and who died suddenly, leaving his patients both shocked and, in Forrest’s case, rudderless. It is Dr. R’s voice that she carries with her in her head. It is Dr. R who is still “treating” Forrest now.

Forrest could have written a much different book. She could have named names — her last debilitating love affair in the book only identifies her lover as GH — Gypsy Husband. She may not have named him for legal reasons — a quick google will tell you which handsome, bad boy, talented Irish actor she dated for over a year, the year that Dr. R died, a pivotal year in the book — but it doesn’t really matter. The book is not about GH, or any of the other people she was involved with, but is about Forrest’s journey, told with such apparent honesty, with such lyricism, with devastating insight that it doesn’t matter that this isn’t a gossip, tell-all Hollywood memoir, or about specifically bulimia, bipolar manic depression, or self-mutiliation. In the end, it doesn’t even matter that it is specifically about Forrest or Dr. R. The book doesn’t end with Forrest magically being healed. GH doesn’t come back to her. The reader isn’t told much about her new, and presumably healthy, relationship. This has a different kind of happy ending, one in which Forrest realizes the gift Dr. R gave her, and how what she learned will help her through her life even though she will never be “cured”.

I liked Forrest’s writing style enough that I will consider reading one of her novels.

My Summer of Shakespeare (Part II)

My Summer of Shakespeare continues.

Summer of Shakespeare: This may be a picture of Will -- or not

Over the weekend, I read Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, The World as Stage, and have Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare making its way towards the top of the reading stack. And this evening, I saw the second installment of the Globe Theatre’s cinema series. Tonight’s play was Henry IV, Part I, which I enjoyed very much, although I wish I had had the time to read the play before seeing it.

Bryson’s book isn’t going to win any awards for scholarship, but it is an entertaining read that condenses a lot of Shakespeare scholarship into a slim, readable volume aimed not at the scholar but at any person who will read or sees in performance Shakespeare’s work and wonder: Who was this genius that gave us some of the most endearing, amazing, beautiful works in the English language? Chapters in this book read more like a newsweekly article than an academic one, but one that, nevertheless, may make you think next time you hear someone pontificating about Shakespeare and the current Globe theater in London. (Hint: If they tell you it is an exact replica and your CrapDetector isn’t zinging off the scale, it is broken.) Mostly what Bryson presents is how little we know about Shakespeare.

It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. From the selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things — as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.

Of course, this brief quote, which appears at the end of the first short chapter, makes one wonder about the other blurb on the dust jacket which claims that Bryson gets to what matters most: the writer’s life. Bryson works to inform the reader that we don’t know much about anything about Shakespeare’s life. The CrapDetector is zinging – ignore that dust cover.

I know that many have built entire careers around Shakespeare and the so-called ‘problems’ with his life and work. Was someone else ‘Shakespeare’? Did others collaborate with him on his plays? Was he gay? Why did he leave his wife his second-best bed? Bryson writes that one would take 20 years at the rate of one work a day to read the body of work that is Shakespearean criticism. But this makes me wonder: does it really matter at all? I understand why — especially now when so little of anyone’s life can remain hidden — we want to know all that we can about a writer. But, if MacBeth was written by someone other than the person who penned Hamlet or Lear, or any of the histories, or comedies, would it make one bit of difference in how we experience and interpret those plays? I think that is precisely the point.

Next up in Summer of Shakespeare: Next week I head to NYC to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions at the Park Avenue Armory. I’m hoping to get a few of the plays read before I go. I can’t wait!

All my bags are packed

Arrivals. Departures. Lost bags. Small snack packages. Long lines. Great expectations and grand disappointments.

All are covered in Alain de Botton’s short book, A Week at the Airport. Asked to spend a week as a Writer in Residence by BAA, de Botton wrote of his observations of daily activities at Heathrow in this slim volume. It was an assignment that even de Botton thought was a bit odd at first, but his book is neither a promotional piece nor a piece of simple “day in the life” reporting.

And yet to refuse to be awed at all might in the end be merely another kind of foolishness. In a world full of chaos and irregularity, the terminal seemed a worthy and intriguing refuge of elegance and logic. It was the imaginative centre of contemporary culture. Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilization — from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticizing of travel — then it would have to be the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.

From the false sterility of the airport hotel, to the people who make those inedible in-flight meals, to the uncertainty and identity-stripping routines of flight security, de Botton observes what life is like in a typical week at what could be any large airport in the developed world. In fact, it is the sameness of the airport that makes his observations insightful, a runway liftoff to ruminations on human behavior, things one is likely to miss when in an airport precisely because the point of being there is to eventually be somewhere else.

The utilitarian aspect of an airport can make one merely an unaware participant in the complex system of a terminal. It is the functionality of the place that makes us turn off our observational skills and rarely think outside of our immediate needs — the line that is too long, the flight that is delayed, the uncomfortable waiting rooms with plastic chairs, too many people and not enough electrical outlets. The people who work there are only there to serve us — the corporate slogans enthusiastically boast this from signage throughout the building. “We are here to serve you! We may not be enthusiastic about our travel companions, or sure that we will win the big sale, or we may not find the refuge and relaxation on a trip to an exotic island. But, de Botton suggests, we may not even think about those things as we hurry on to the next place.

This isn’t so much about why we travel — I would assume that de Botton’s book The Art of Travel addresses that — but how Western culture can be observed within one massive functional building. (In that regard, A Week At The Airport may be similar to de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which used several people’s occupations as a springboard to discuss how we live.)

We may all go to the airport for the same external action — flight — but our reasons are varied: work, pleasure, joyful reunions with loved ones, or sorrowful departures. As short as a mid-distance flight, this work may not be one that I remember for much longer, but it was enjoyable reading, that pretty much covers the gamut of human emotions involved in leave-taking and returning to places, while offering a few philosophical tidbits on our lives to nibble on before landing.

In a way, I think John Denver captured all of these same feelings in his song, Leaving on a Jet Plan. When I was 9, I sang along with Mary Traverse non-stop for a few weeks, surely driving my parents to the brink of insanity and angering my older sister who had purchased the record. I couldn’t find a decent recording on youtube of Peter, Paul & Mary singing that hit, but I very much like the one below. Besides, in a vocal throwdown, Cass Eliot would beat Mary Travers any day.

From The Midnight Special television show, August, 1972. (Yep…people really dressed like that!)

This is review #1 in BlogLily’s BSLURP. Points: 30