Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 8, 2012

Where the two worlds touch

Belle Prater’s Boy (1996), Ruth White, 196 pp.

I apologize for being away for so long. No excuses, really. Just plumb wore out. I’ve been reading plenty (see list below), just finished this one today, and got inspired again.

The two children in the tree are cousins: Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster and Woodrow Prater (Belle Prater’s boy). Each has lost a parent, and White takes her time to reveal the stories behind the losses. The two become acquainted, and then best friends, in Coal Station, Virginia, summer of 1954.

Woodrow has just moved in with Gypsy’s grandparents, who live next door to Gypsy’s family in this small town. Gypsy has been instructed to say NOTHING about Woodrow’s mother, which she disobeys by immediately asking him explicitly what he thinks happened to make her disappear one morning, in her nightgown and bare feet. And Woodrow tells her. But not everything, not right away.

One of Rumi‘s poems is important in the story, and it’s so beautiful I’m including it:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.

Woodrow believes his mother has slipped into this place where the two worlds touch, his conviction adding to the mystery of her disappearance and lending an almost supernatural flavor to this story.

But it is definitely not a tale of the supernatural. It’s truly 1950s America, in the coal hills of Virginia, where modern conveniences are starting to appear. Gypsy’s grandparents have a TV, and the children go to see Rear Window one memorable afternoon. There are wienie roasts by the river, midnight rambles, and conversations in a tree house, all in an idyllic town complete with apple orchard and barbershop were the town’s men hang out just to chew the fat.

The cousins join forces against the sometimes insensitive adults and often cruel children of Coal Station, and Gypsy eventually discovers something that Woodrow seems to know already — that to be seen for herself, and not as her mother wishes her to be, she needs to know her whole story.

The sequel, The Search for Belle Prater, is now on my to-read list.

Other books I’ve read since February: Michael Buckley’s 9 volumes in the Grimm Sisters series (because the 9th & final volume came out); Eric Kraft’s latest installment of the Peter Leroy Chronicles, Love at First Sight; 28 YA novels for a course I taught this term; two excellent books by Jaclyn Moriarty; a new version of Snow White by Jane Yolen; Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England; and some new (to me) authors: Nora Baskin, Alison Bechdel, Jack Gantos. Watch for reviews of these in the near future.

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Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 23, 2012

World Book Night 2012

Read and be happy

Hey, just learned about this from Twitter (so it CAN be useful). Not enough time to prep for tonight’s give-away (plus I’m teaching), but I’ll be ready for next year.

Learn about the event here, and see the list of this year’s books here. I was so happy to see how many of the books on the list I’ve read, and how many I still need to read. And to think that last night I was recommending one of the books (Marilynne Robinson’s Homecoming) to a friend!

So, get out and encourage others to read. Here’s a quote from Kafka to get you started: “A book should be the axe for the frozen sea within you.”

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 23, 2012

448 years ago today

I think I signed up to post something in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday (check the Blogging Shakespeare site — I might be listed there somewhere). But what to post that hasn’t been written or said a thousand times over in the past 4.5 centuries?

Perhaps this: it’s impressive that, all these years later, his work is available at all. I’m impressed, at any rate. It makes me wonder if there were 16th century equivalents of Jacqueline Suzanne or Harold Robbins (remember them, anyone? anyone?). There must have been dozens of playwrights and poets back in the day, popular best-sellers who could pack theaters with performances of their latest works. And now we have no clue who they may have been.

I heard the other day that it’s mere accident we have anything by Aristophanes (5th-4th century BCE), who placed 3rd in a play-writing contest. 11 of his plays survived the millenia, but the guys who came in 2nd and 1st — we don’t know their names, we have none of their plays — not even the merest fragment. For a writer, it’s humbling to contemplate the vicissitudes of time. It used to be we only had to worry about worms, flood, and fire. Now, it’s also storage capacity, hackers, and perpetual upgrades that make old technologies unusable.

When I finally figure out how, I’ll be able to download hundreds of books to my e-reader, but what happens when the next generation of e-readers comes along and I can no longer access my out-dated book files? Don’t forget all the iterations of recorded music over the past century: 75-, 45- and 33-rpm vinyl, 8-track and audio tapes, cds  — which of these do you still have, packed away somewhere? I’ve moved on to MP3s, but this is the end of the line for me. Whatever the next version of recorded music may be, I’m done. And still, nothing beats live music — the aural equivalent of hard copies.

Courtesy 4umi.com/shakespeare/

We have Shakespeare and Aristophanes and Moby Dick because the hard copies survived — in some cases by chance and others by design. I vote for chance over planned obsolescence, so I’m keeping my bookshelves stocked with old and new works. I like looking at what I’ve read, at shelves that reveal my favorite authors by the number of books under their names, and picking up something at random to find favorite passages. Try that with your e-reader!

But back to honoring Shakespeare: Listen to Mendelssohn’s incidental music for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream (the scherzo is my favorite part). Enjoy excerpts from any of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m partial to Macbeth). In honor of National Poetry Month, copy a few lines from anything WS wrote and carry them with you to read (aloud or silently) as you go through your day. And support writers everywhere — visit libraries and bookstores, go to readings and performances, engage with language in all its forms. Enjoy the challenge of reading and hearing what others have written through the centuries about what it’s like to be human.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 15, 2012

Centennial memorials

I can’t resist joining the mega-memorial for the century-old tragedy. For my first 11 years in NYC, I lived just a few blocks from Straus Park, built in memory of Isidore and Ida Straus, two of the victims when the Titanic sank 100 years ago today. For a while, Straus Park Café was right there. You could sip a cup of tea, nibble on a scone, and watch the homeless sort through their belongings next to Ida’s statue.

That was in the gritty 1970s, before this little park was replanted, fenced, and generally made presentable. Now it’s an oasis between Broadway and the top of West End Avenue.

I cycled down on a gorgeous day. A few children with parents/child-minders played around. Men from a nearby homeless shelter sat on one of the benches. The tulips were just a few moments past their peak.

Candlelight vigil 3:30-4:30, but I’m going to skip that. I prefer just a quiet moment for myself, to remember all those people, and to wonder why, 100 years later, we’re still fascinated by that doomed ship. If no one rich or famous had died heroically (an Astor and a Guggenheim, along with the Straus couple), would we be marking this date?

What about the Maine (1898), Lusitania (May 1915, so we’ll see what happens in 3 years) or even the Battle of Hampton Roads (Monitor v. Merrimac, March 1862 — 150th anniversary last month)?

Well, it’s a mystery. BTW, despite Cameron’s titanic Titanic, A Night to Remember is still moving and desperate. Whenever I watch, I hope they’ll miss the berg.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | February 18, 2012

My first thumbs down

Warning — a few Pride and Prejudice references are coming at you.

For nearly 2 years, this has been an all-positive blog — me, posting about books I’ve loved, giving you, my readers, what I hope are useful tips about a broad range of books. Plus what I also hope is an enjoyable peek into the mind of an avid reader.

I’m almost like Will Rogers, in that I’ve almost never met a book I didn’t like. That makes writing good things about good books easy, since most books are good to me. But yesterday I finished something that made me just a wee bit angry about the time I’d wasted on it. It was bad, yet I kept reading it, partly in hopes that I’d be proven wrong about its qualities, partly to see if my guesses about the plot were proven correct. In the end, the predictable plot and the mediocre writing meant I was right on both counts.

Still with me?

The perp is PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, a piece of fluff fan fiction that brings murder to Elizabeth Bennet Darcy’s front door. It’s just a few years after her happy marriage, there are 2 boys in the nursery, and Lizzy is planning her annual ball. All looks wonderful and comfortable, until her sister, Lydia Wickham, unexpectedly arrives the night before the ball, screaming about how her husband has just been murdered.

I must confess that this isn’t the first sequel to Pride and Prejudice that I’ve tried. There was one told from Darcy’s viewpoint, but I couldn’t get past page 5 and had to give it away — it was simply a poor excuse for soft porn. There was also the one about the modern girl who walks through her closet into, not Narnia, but the Bennet’s house just when Mr. Bingley has made his first appearance in the neighborhood. This came to me as a book-on-tape, something for a cross-country drive, but I had to keep hitting the fast-forward button. Dreadful.

And now this. It should teach me to stay away from such attempts. James is good at imitating Austen’s style, although there were many moments when sentences seemed more like plagiarism than really good ersatz 19th century English. But, ok, I could live with that. What I couldn’t live with were repeated plot devices, such as the servant who comes so quickly when summoned that he could have been just outside the door — 3 different servants on 3 different occasions — and the not very subtle clues to the resolution. I spotted the murder weapon as soon as it appeared, which spoiled any suspense about who the real murderer was. I knew which character was the baby’s real mother, so no exciting reveal there when that finally came out.

So, my final word: be wary of any sequel to Elizabeth Bennet’s story. It will never be as satisfying as P&P, so you’re much better off rereading the original.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | February 7, 2012

200 years old and still on top

I’ve been too busy with other things to keep up with my regular posts here, but I had to get in some birthday wishes for Charles Dickens, a great story-teller of questionable morals. One could argue that we all have questionable morals, but it’s difficult to ignore Dickens’ mistreatment of his wife, his long-term affair with a much younger actress, and his reputed dislike for his children.

But, one mustn’t grumble. There are still the books. So many classics. Did you know that he also walked up to 20 miles a day before sitting down to his writing? I can picture the man, race-walking through the streets of London into the surrounding countryside, mumbling to himself as he tries to work out a sticky plot point. Because his books were serialized, he couldn’t rewrite chapters that had already been published — he couldn’t go back to plant necessary clues or to revive someone he’d killed off too soon. I wonder how many of his secondary plots would be axed by a parsimonious editor if Dickens were writing today.

I would bet that most native speakers of English who read at all, or still watch black-and-white movies, can name at least 5 of his novels. Here’s my attempt to name all I can think of, in no particular order:

Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, The Old Curiosity Shop, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, A Tale of Two Cities, Pickwick Papers — that’s as far as I can get without peeking at my bookshelves.

I’ve actually read only 4 of the above. I tried reading 3 of the others and got no further than 30 pages into each before abandoning the book and picking up something thinner and faster-moving — yet they’re still on my t0-read shelf. The others are favorite films or PBS series (Bleak House stars among all adaptations, although the recent Little Dorrit comes in a close second). The unfinished Edwin Drood was a play on Broadway; before the final act the audience chose how the story would end (i.e., which character would die).

If you’ve never read Dickens, start with David Copperfield. Then see the 1935 film version. Those actors’ voices are the ones I hear whenever I reread that book.

Anyone wishing to learn more about today’s celebrations around the world, check out the Dickens2012 site. Read one of his books, or watch an adaptation, and just enjoy how a great story can take you into a completely different world. Here’s a curious article about a connection between Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. Want to know more about the man and his works? Go here for the motherlode of info. Need to fill your e-reader for your next plane trip? Project Gutenberg will give you that. (Almost makes me want to get my own Kindle.)

So, happy 200th, Mr. Dickens! And thanks for all those books!

Brief NB: Today is also Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday, but she’s a youngster at only 145.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | January 20, 2012

Do cannibals make great chefs?

Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991), Barry Hughart, 255 pp.

I’m sorry, but I must begin with a nod and a tip of the hat to the lifeboat sketch from Monty Python (which, btw, segues very nicely into the undertaker sketch). The reason for this, and for the post’s title, is the cannibalism motif that runs through Hughart’s third novel in the Master Li and Number Ten Ox series.

When we last saw these two, they were hot on the trail of a gang of murderous, laughing monks bent on destroying a fertile valley. Now the two are in search of the evil offspring of a couple of minor deities who are hoping to destroy the world.

A pivotal scene involves Master Li disposing of an inconvenient body by cooking it up for a many-course feast for his enemies. It’s better than any Greek myth, because Master Li gives a running commentary on each dish, with all ingredients. Poor Number Ten Ox finds it hard to write the full description, but he manages. There are several other instances of cannibalism, including the most disgusting one, which happens off-stage. We hear only the slurping, and the screams.

As Number Ten Ox would say, Gllgghh!

A minor character who pops up occasionally is a mass murderer and cannibal who can’t stop talking about his favorite recipes, and he knows hundreds. But don’t let the Hannibal Lecter-ish flavor keep you away. Hughart combines humor and mystery, Chinese history and mythology, puzzles and misdirection in a wonderful concoction. There’s a neck-and-neck boat race, puppetry, gymnastics, and a shamanka (female shaman) who would love Number Ten Ox if she could.

Hughart had originally planned 5 Master Li novels, but stopped after this one. A shame. I haven’t had my fill yet.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | January 13, 2012

Horrors underground

Neverwhere (1996), Neil Gaiman, 370 pp.

There’s a point on the 1 train in Manhattan, between the 86th and 96th street stations, when you pass through a ghost station, the remains of the 91st street stop. Actually, there’s a logical explanation: when the platforms at the nearest stations were extended, for the lengthier trains, there was no point in keeping this station. Yet it’s so much more thrilling to think of it as a ghost as you pass its grimy walls and empty platforms. You can almost picture squatters taking it over.

Courtesy Underground-History.co.uk

If the idea of ghost stations gives you an appealingly creepy feeling, then you need to read Neverwhere, a good portion of which takes place in the hidden stairs and ghost stations of the London Tube. The hero, Richard Mayhew, is thrown into this world by an act of charity for which he’s punished rather than rewarded. Unless you take the long view.

Courtesy Underground-History.co.uk

Gaiman has created two of the most relentlessly evil and bloody-minded villains in Messrs. Croup and Vandemar, and populated London Below with tribes of people who can speak to rats, or open solid walls, or suck your life from you as if you were an orange. Mayhew, like Dante, Ulysses, Aeneas, and Orpheus, must find his way through this Underworld, with help coming from unexpected quarters.

Best secondary character: the Marquis de Carabas. See “Puss in Boots” from Perrault (English translation here) to get the reference and appreciate the character even more.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | January 6, 2012

King of Elfland’s daughter, a la Gaiman

Stardust (1999), Neil Gaiman, 248 pp.

This is my month to focus on fantasy, catching up on stuff I should have read long ago but am only just now getting around to.

So, catching up with Gaiman. Stardust reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which is not a bad thing. Gaiman even uses the line, “beyond the fields we know” as direct (although only for those in the know) homage to Lord Dunsany’s classic. I love old-style fantasy, with its lofty language and references to Faerie, a land just beyond a wall, or through a forest — a place any fool can visit, but few fools can survive.

In a nutshell, Tristan chases a fallen star he’s promised to give to his beloved Victoria (not worthy of him, but no surprise). The fallen star turns out to be the snooty Yvaine, who needs (but hates needing) Tristan’s help. She’s in mortal danger (of course), and not just because Tristan wants to take her out of Faerie. There’s also a Faerie Kingdom looking for the rightful heir to its throne, a vicious Witch-Queen, a cryptic prophecy, and all kinds of aid coming from unexpected places. Deliciously complex, with suitable retribution for those who’ve earned it.

Gaiman earns his place next to other classic tales of Faerie.

Posted by: Lizzie Ross | December 30, 2011

Another visit to hell

The Story of the Stone (1988), Barry Hughart, 249 pp.

Somehow, Master Li and Number Ten Ox seem to find themselves at the center of the most despicable doings. This time around, it’s a rampaging Prince who’s been dead for 3000 years. The Prince is the prime suspect in a murder and the theft of a manuscript, as well as the growing areas of dead land in an otherwise beautiful and fertile valley.

And then there’s the lure of the Prince’s missing fortune, a treasure buried somewhere in the valley.

Number Ten Ox carries Master Li through caves, over cliffs, and even to Hell in search of the solution, with only Master Li’s phenomenal memory and respect for the deities (and Taoism) as their guide.

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