Saturday, September 26, 2009

It's that time of year again...

The Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale! - this year attended by me and my friend Laura (who visited this blog earlier as Bellatrix Lestrange). We woke early and arrived at the Magnusson Park hangar at the ungodly hour of eight on a Saturday morning, but kept each other occupied with strategic planning and other stories.

To my utter surprise, I remained within my budget (I can say no after all!) and financed by a birthday gift from my brothers, I found many treats:

The Brontes Went to Woolworths - Rachel Ferguson (This title always makes me think "The Brontosaurus went to Woolworths." I have no idea why. I never think of Jane Eyre as being written by Charlotte Brontosaurus. Complete mystery. At any rate, this is being reprinted by Bloomsbury and available in the US next March.)

Monday or Tuesday - Virginia Woolf (Lovely slim volume published by Hesperus - though sadly underlined in some places...)

Days of Abandonment - Elsa Ferrente (Published by Europa. I have been thinking about Italy a lot recently, and Ferrente is an Italian author I've been meaning to try.)

Four books from E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia series

Experiment in Criticism - C.S. Lewis (which I just finished reading and will talk more about very soon as this was a work of sincere and concise genius.)

Confessions of an English Opium Eater - Thomas De Quincey (Reading this at work at the present, and so far De Quincey is a fat head.)

Women Against Men - Storm Jameson (Virago)

Jane and Prudence - Barbara Pym (I love Barbara)

Sisters: the saga of the Mitford family - Mary S. Lovell (The Mitfords being a fascinating aristocratic British family famous for their six daughters who turned out to be writers, duchesses, and Nazis. This is a relatively new fascination of mine.)

A Far Cry from Kensington - Muriel Spark (I don't know what this one is about, but have much respect for Ms. Spark's fine pen.)

Eustace and Hilda - L.P. Hartley (NYRB - enough said. Bought it for the cover.)

Sorrows of Young Werther - Goethe (The book that sparked the Romantic novel!...relatively)

Winter Sonata - Dorothy Edwards (Virago Press)

Month in the Country - J.L. Carr (which I've heard is good)

And my favorite: Silk by Linda Chaikin, which was the novel most beloved by my twelve to fourteen year old self, featuring a beautiful (but fragile) British heiress, a sea-roving rogue, Indian orphans/maharajahs, exotic plantations, and palace intrigue. Note the awesome front cover:

Since it's out of print, I was thrilled to find it for $1! Kristin and I have firm plans to read this one aloud...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Annus Mirabilis

On Saturday, I rang up a purchase which came to $19.63. The customer said: "Oh, that must have been a good year for somebody."

To which I invariably - could not help but ask if she'd read Larkin's poem, and when she did not reply I found that to my horror I was launching into the first verse:

"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."

And anyway, it slipped out and I mashed it up and swapped some of the lines around but the general effect was realized and instead of grinning at me (like I was hoping she would), she pursed her lips and turned all her attention to her check book.

"Well," she said after an uncomfortable pause, "it was a good year for somebody."

And then we rushed on to talk about the death of J.F.K for whom 1963 was not a good year. I've learned my lesson. I must not recite at the cashier's desk. And I will have to learn by heart some other poems without the words "sexual intercourse" in them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ernest & Elizabeth

Two books read this week, with very different voices: Hemingway's Farewell to Arms and Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (a sneaky-but-worth-it swerve from the Great Books...)

Again, like Madame Bovary, I knew the ending of Farewell to Arms by osmosis. But - one reads books not only for the conclusion of a plot, but for the enjoyment of the atmosphere the author creates and Hemingway’s voice is so unique.

A Farewell to Arms is the story of an American ambulance driver for the Italian army during the First World War and who falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine. I’m not sure how autobiographic it is – since Hemingway drove ambulances for the Italian army during the First World War. In true Hemingway fashion there is much understatement, there are scenes of drinking camaraderie and the hero’s canoodling with the nurse which leads to a pregnancy regulated by sound medical advice such as: “Do you think I ought to drink another beer? The doctor said I was rather narrow in the hips and it’s all for the best if we keep young Catherine small.”

His injunction to write “one true thing” is recognizable from the first sentences. He is able to bring landscape to life with short masculine sentences and only the barest of adjectival sketching. Though very dry and understated, Hemingway occasionally has metaphors which give his sentences happy weight: “I had been in uniform a long time and I missed the feeling of being held by your clothes.”

Rain is omnipresent in the book, and now when it rains – as it did last night – I can’t help but thinking of Catherine’s worrying words: “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it…And sometimes I see you dead in it.”

As a nice foil to Hemingway’s brevity and virility, is the sweet and melancholic Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, now a movie with Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend (Wickham of the Kiera Knightley adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). This short novel by Elizabeth Taylor (the British author, not the actress) is set in a rainy London, a grimy but still hopeful stage where the old are neglected by their families and left to wait for memorials as social occasions, but pedestrians watch the cracks in the pavement to watch the flowers grow.

Mrs. Palfrey is a widow with “big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl…would have made a distinguished-looking man and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” Needing a comfortable place to spend her years as she ages, she moves into a hotel, the Claremont, in London. Surrounded by an island community of seniors, who have their own distinct oddities and rituals, Mrs. Palfrey is lonely and unoccupied.

A chance encounter with a penniless artist who spends his days writing a novel at Harrods, Ludo, allows Mrs. Palfrey a daring respite from the stilted repetition of the Claremont and the souring characters within. Ludo agrees to masquerade as Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson, the real grandson being less than impressive and not willing to visit his grandmother, and the imposter does such a good job that Mrs. Palfrey is smitten. But Ludo, though warm and affectionate, has his own game afoot.

Elizabeth Taylor is a writer of delicacy and feeling but refuses to replace realism with sentimentality. Mrs. Palfrey is an empathetic book towards those who are ageing or alone, full of delights and intuitively crafted moments of connection and mutual sympathy, and also the unavoidable dreariness of life and disappointed hopes. I will have to check the movie out from the library to see if it is as nuanced, and will henceforth keep a sharp eye out for other books by Elizabeth Taylor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Madame Bovary, c'est moi!

In reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I occasionally came to such a feeling of eerie self-recognition in the character of Emma Bovary, that I felt as though I was reading the journals I wrote as a teenager. Frightening and unflattering thought. Sadly, if I had read this as a teenager, I don't think I would have made it all the way through, and I'm not sure I would have been self-aware enough to see my reflection in Emma Bovary's compulsions. But we learn our lessons.

I finished late Friday night, feeling myself starting to sneeze and the cold start to settle, but I couldn't leave it hanging. And still I needed to read on, to the very last death bed scene (because we know that death is imminent. We feel from the beginning, like Anna Karenina, that Emma is doomed.)

Emma Bovary is the desperately unhappy wife of a provincial bourgeois doctor. She thought marriage would be exciting, but it's not. Each anticipated stage of her life is accompanied by the dull monotony of realism that does not seem to afflict the characters in the novels she loves to read. Eventually, her boredom is corrupted by her careless and idealistic desires; she is destroyed by her nerves, by her own duplicity and wanton living (and I would classify this wanton living not as the love affairs she throws herself into but her wild expenditures on frivolous items and inevitable bankruptcy.)

It is a serious novel: Flaubert is ruthless in pursuing his character's motives, her actions and justifications. It is also a funny novel. In one of the first scenes between Emma and her lover Rudolphe, he declares his amorous intentions to her speckled by the announcements of an agricultural prize-giving ceremony. And after a pathetic and prolonged death, the chemist and the priest sit at the corpse's side, sleepily and jocularly discussing religion and science.

And oh! that very sly carriage love scene...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Quotable Morgan

While reading E.M. Forster's memoir of the time he spent in India as a young man, The Hill of Devi, as a companion to his novel Passage to India, I came across this magnificent line in one of his 1921 letters home and I had to share it:

“Religion approaches, to me in a very tangible form, as I have been hit on the head by an iron bar belonging to a sacred swing.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cads and Virgins

I have always been wary of epistolary novels. I have no idea why; I love receiving letters, and reading through my grandparents' love letters in early August occupied me for hours. Perhaps because I've always felt that the device was too heavy-handed, and weighs the story down. It's for this reason that I've delayed on reading Laclos' Les Liasons Dangereuses, that scandalous French novel found even in Marie Antoinette's library in an unmarked binding, filmed in the 90's (Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer), and reincarnated for teenagers as Cruel Intentions (Ryan Philippe, Reese Witherspoon).

But I have broken the soil! Evelina was a delightful read despite being epistolary. Burney uses the device without artifice, revealing letters from a variety of characters to round out the narrative.

("The Music Party" by Rolland Trinquesse, 1774)

Evelina Anville is a beautiful, innocent and virtuous country girl, out to see London and the Big Wide World for the first time. Though the clergyman she calls Father is beloved and respected, her natural father, Sir John Belmont, refuses to acknowledge his marriage to Evelina's (dead) mother or approve Evelina's legitimacy. Though Evelina's friends stoutly pursue her case for a cleared name and respectability, Evelina remains less than hopeful, and devout to the Reverend Villars.

Evelina's idea of a pleasant education in societal experience is somewhat altered by the inclusion of her scrupulous French grandmother; the rough and mischievious Captain Mirvan; badly behaved relatives; and forward gentlemen who will not leave her alone.

Annoyingly (for the reader), no male in the United Kingdom can resist Evelina. Lords swoon, bands of men whistle, soldiers proposition - although naive,Evelina's beauty, sensitivity, taste and education elevate her. (Her only deficiences are, I feel, a chronic sense of duty and gratitude; if she could combine her beauty and intelligence with a tad more forthrightness, I would be happy.) The question is : can she win the well-mannered, handsome, kind and extremely gracious Lord Orville's heart despite her questionable birth and the unrelenting farcical characters and circumstances that accompany her?

Lovers of Jane Austen will enjoy Evelina; but where Jane is ironic, Frances is vivid and her comedy is bolder. According to the introduction in the Oxford University Press edition, Burney had aspirations towards being a dramatist, aspirations which were not compatible with expectations for the eighteenth century respectable female. So she wrote novels instead.

If you are feeling a longing for a world where manners were currency, and marriage was crucial - a time of phaetons, assembly dances, proper introductions, scandalous pasts, and passionate overtures - read Evelina. I have picked up Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park on DVD from the library, and am on the way to both estates as you read these words...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Collectible Penguins

It is a truth locally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of continuous overdrafts must be in want of MORE BOOKS.

That being said, I have recently developed quite a crush on Penguin's Celebration series:

Something about the bold, simple design draws my eyes. This morning on a early bookstore jaunt, I wanted a Penguins Celebrations edition of Claire Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen but (that being sold out) found a book on the Classical World instead.

Penguin has a great team of designers. My friend and co-worker Erin obsessively collects Penguin Deluxe editions with their colorful covers, snarky cartoon biographies, French flaps and rough-cut pages:

And then the box of postcards with 100 different Penguin jackets! I wish I could look inside to drool even more, but alas, I have yet to find a way.

It combines two of my favourite things: postcards and books. What better combination? On second thought, Penguin also has these book bags:


Friday, September 4, 2009

Women to Note

Right now, one of the only things to coax me into the car and into the late afternoon traffic rush is the promise of Imogen Heap playing through the stereo, slipping out through the window and into the sunlight. I've been a fan of Imogen's since (like everyone else) I first heard her lush "Hide and Seek" from heard her solo album, and last summer I bought the album she produced as a part of the band Frou Frou. Her newest album, Ellipse, was released on August 25th and kindly given to me by Patrick. I am always half skeptical listening to a new Imogen Heap song since there cannot be much more she can do. I was wrong.

From the persuasive pulsation of the first song “First Train Home” propelling you into her unique blend of electronica and lyricism, to the humorous oddity of a woman confronting the evasive woman in the mirror in “Bad Body Double,” the pared down, eerily synthesized chirping social commentary in “Little Bird,” and the quiet but soaring intimacy of “Between the sheets,” Ellipse displays Heap’s breadth of capability in both melody and communication.

Ellipse does not omit her trademark touches: sighs and groans of cello in the background; sharply rhythmic lists and catalogues of words; collages of sounds - her range is impossibly wide, arcing in the head voice, and a whispered contralto, tight harmonies that weave quickly - songs which ask questions; which describe a banal reality; music which sounds just like London at night, inescapably English and urban. Composer, performer, producer, she is queen of little melodic touches, taking a pointillist approach to both timbre and harmony. Have I praised her enough?

Heap will sing things that make you feel silly singing, as in “Bad Body Double,” or crooning “the many windswept Stickies of my mind,” but the fact remains that you cannot stop singing along. Like one of my favorite choral composers, Eric Whitacre, who specializes in dense clusters of harmony, you can pick nearly any note and find your spot in the choir of Imogen’s voice.

Another birthday treat was the chance to watch Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married again. Of course, our incredibly insensitive and LSD-induced television screen (as big as the Hulk and as receptive) rejected it by going into a spasm of shapes and colors. This happens from time to time and Kristin and I will either smack it sharply and with hate, or squint at the screen really hard. We decided not to accept this kind of behavior from the television and so abandoned it to relocate to a spot in front of a laptop.

For those who have only seen Anne Hathaway in her prettier incarnations, watching Rachel Getting Married is a discomfiting change. Kym (Hathaway) leaves rehab to go home for her older sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie De Witt’s) wedding. A wedding is always a trying time for family dynamics, and this is immediately clear in the Buchmans’ case. Staged at the large house filled with energetic and creative friends and members of the wedding party, and behind the tension of the prodigal daughter returning after cleaning herself up, is a family history that the Buchmans try hard to forget but cannot.

It is clear very quickly what sort of person Kym is – she loves fiercely, but she is prickly, and defends herself with edgy comments and defensive dramatic posturing. Rachel, the bride, welcomes her sister home but is evidently hesitant as to her wedding being derailed by a self-destructive sister and the distracted concern of her parents.

The dialogue is painfully real, and the film is one of the most authentic I have ever seen. You will forget you ever saw Hathaway as an overly pretty Jane Austen when you see her with lanky hair, nervously smoking a cigarette, and accusing her family (“you people”) of neglect. Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress was well deserved.

The music is provided by a small string ensemble (violin, Middle Eastern oud, etc.) that performs constantly throughout the movie, like a Greek chorus or the underscoring to an opera. Rachel Getting Married explores not only human tragedy but color and music, incorporating hip hop, wedding saris, carnival dancers, trumpets, drum rolls and saxophone solos.

Not an easy movie to watch, Rachel Getting Married is a beautiful tribute to sibling love, to the wars that are fought at home, to the difficulties of substance abuse and the rocky road to recovery, the subsequent allowances that are constantly required of family members and, despite all, the vibrant richness of love and new life.