Archive for April, 2009
Stuff I’ve seen my kids reading recently:
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
The Saturdays and other Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright.
175 Amazing Nature Experiments by G. Morgan. (Oh that’s just freaky. I went to Amazon to check on the exact title of this book; Beanie’s been carrying it around all week. I knew it was called something about nature experiments. When I found the right one and clicked on its page, Amazon informed me that “you purchased this item on July 13, 1999.” I don’t know what’s freakier: that Amazon knows my buying history so intimately, or that it was ten years ago that I bought that book.)
The Art Lesson by Tomie de Paola.
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.
Peter Pan by James Barrie.
The Crochet Handbook.
Plus the usual assortment of Warriors books, Agatha Christie, Showcase Presents, and Muse magazine.
From Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, that is. It turned out to be a biography of Mötley Crüe. And so, there in the title of his collection of a year’s worth of literary columns, Nick Hornby has given a nod to what seems to be the high and low points of his year’s reading. Marilynne Robinson’s The Housekeeping vs. Mötley Crüe: The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band.
I just took a look at my 2008 book log to see what my own high and low of last year would be, and it can’t be done! There wasn’t a single dud on the list. I didn’t read a lot last year, but what I read was quality. On the whole list there’s only one book I didn’t love, but I recognize that it was well written, penetrating, ambitious (in a good way), and thoughtful. I liked a lot of things about it, but one of its subplots was creepy in the extreme, and I thought the ending was massively, maddeningly flawed.
How’s that for politely cryptic?
Well, it hasn’t all been Nick Hornby this month. Last week I read two of the books from my March TBR stack and both of them were the kind of book you fall into headfirst and feel dazed when, hours later, you come up for air. That’s about the only thing they have in common. The first was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I bought a copy last year when Jane was reading a lot of books from the Ambleside Year 7 list. We don’t “do” Ambleside but we mine those booklists for all we’re worth. (Thanks again, women-behind-Ambleside, for putting treasure in our path once more.)
Jane has probably read Daughter of Time half a dozen times in the past year. Now I see why. I’m enormously impressed that Tey was able to pull off having a mystery novel take place entirely in one room—in one hospital bed, really—and have the mystery revolve around a five-hundred-year-old bit of English history, and wind up with not one millisecond of dull moment in the whole book. That’s quite a feat.
It’s hard to say anything about this book, and how fascinating it was, without giving things away. I think I can safely say this much: the novel is about a Scotland Yard policeman, Alan Grant, who is convalescing from a serious back injury after an on-the-job fall. He’s bored and irritable, and his actress friend—aware of his interest in faces as revealers of character—brings him a stack of portraits of historical figures connected with mysteries of one kind and another. Grant’s attention is captured by a portrait of Richard III—you can see the very one here—whose serious and sensitive expression does not gel with Grant’s understanding of the man as a monster who ordered the murder of his nephews to secure his own place on the throne. Despite being stuck flat on his back, subject to the ministrations of businesslike nurses, Grant-the-policeman opens an investigation, as it were. He wants to know the facts behind the case against Richard III.
Have I said too much? I hope not. The real magic of this novel is the gradual unraveling of the ancient mystery, the poking through old letters and town records to get at the truth. (Grant ropes in a volunteer to do the leg work, and here I felt a sharp stab of deja vu, because that’s exactly how I managed the research for Little House in the Highlands. Jane was stuck in the hospital, getting chemo, and I had a researcher in Edinburgh who would take my daily battery of questions and go look up the answers for me, and then she’d send me sheaves of articles and impenetrable scholarly documents to pore through at night beside my baby’s hospital bed. So Grant’s fascination, his obsession really, rang very true to me. There’s nothing like a treasure hunt to get you through long days and nights in a hospital.)
About the mystery (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers)—did we all know this already? I was blown away by the revealed truth. But then, everything I knew about Richard III I learned from Shakespeare, and now I realize Shakespeare got the Tudor-approved version of the story. Not that Shakespeare was ever particularly interested in accuracy. He was after compelling drama, and that he certainly succeeded in creating with his version of Richard III.
After Daughter of Time, I turned to Suzanne Collins’s recent YA thriller The Hunger Games. Wow. Going just on its premise, I wasn’t sure I would be recommending it to Jane, but by the end of the book I was as eager for her to read it as she’d been for me to pick up Daughter of Time. I’m thinking it’s too dark for my sensitive Rose, at this point (she’s only ten anyway; not exactly the YA audience).
All the kidlit bloggers were raving about Hunger Games this past year, but I didn’t read any of the reviews. You know how I feel about spoilers. What I gathered from skimming past was that it was grim and gripping and well written, and that it was about (click away right now if you don’t want to know) a future dystopia whose government hosts mandatory annual ‘games’ in which 24 teenagers (chosen by lottery) must fight to the death. As if that weren’t chilling enough, every moment (as the publisher’s website blinks at us in creepy TV-static text) is televised. So, yes, as you’re fighting for your life in a wilderness arena, liable to fall victim to starvation, dehydration, wildfire, wild beasts, or treacherous terrain if your teenage competitors don’t brain you first, your family back home is watching. Grim is too weak a word.
But it was great storytelling and, in these days of creeping privacy erosion and reality-show entertainments, there is much food for thought in this novel. Jane and I (and Scott read it too) have been discussing it for days. The ending leaves you hanging a bit, just a warning. I figure if you’re still reading this post, you’re the kind of reader who appreciates a warning.
I believe The Hunger Games is being made into a movie, and if I have any complaints about the book, it’s only that it felt self-consciously cinematic, as if the author were keenly aware as she wrote that the story was a shoo-in for film adaptation. But I want to say (to myself) that that supposition is actually a too-shallow reading of the cinematic quality: the self-consciousness is part of the point. The heroine knows she is being filmed, knows her reactions to arena events will affect her audience in certain ways and will in fact have a material affect on her own situation. If her anonymous sponsors like what she’s doing, they may choose to send her food or supplies. Her fight for survival, therefore, happens on two levels. She must literally fight her opponents in the arena, but she must also fight her fears and fatigue and desire for privacy and even, sometimes, her sense of honor and decency, in order to turn in the right sort of performance, because her life depends as much on audience approval as anything else. This is complicated stuff, and it’s part of what makes the book so powerful.
So: highly recommended, but, you know, with caveats for the very young or very sensitive. After all, it’s kids killing kids because their government makes them do so. Not exactly the stuff of which bedtime stories are made.
“I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping [by Marilynne Robinson] I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep and dark and rich): it’s possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul? It’ll get flushed out by something else before it’s even halfway there. The trouble is that most literary novels don’t do anything but touch the sides. They stick to them like sludge, and in the end you have to get the garden hose out. (I have no idea what that might mean. But I had to escape from the metaphor somehow.)”
—Nick Hornby, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt
(This post is a follow-up to this one.)
Ah, now we’re coming to it. I’ve reached the essay in which Nick Hornby includes a novel called Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson in his list of books he purchased that month. This is bound to be the Housekeeping that takes on The Dirt in the title of his essay collection. But I don’t know anything more about it yet because he didn’t actually read the book that month. We’ll have to live in suspense a while longer.
The “Books I Bought This Month” lists are one of the things I love about these essays. Hornby begins each column with side-by-side listings of books bought and books read, on the premise that the books you want to read, intend to read, go so far as to purchase in order to read, say as much or possibly even more about you as what books you actually do read. He explored this idea in a thoughtful passage I would like to quote, but five minutes ago Scott left for the library and The Polysyllabic Spree is, alas, mine no more. I mean, it was never mine at all, but I loved it well during its tenancy under this roof. Laid it tenderly upon a tasseled velvet pillow when home duties forced me to turn away from its enchanting pages for a while.
Okay, maybe I’m laying it on a teeny bit thick. It’s just that after inviting Nick Hornby over for pizza, I went and ran off at the mouth about not liking the plot of a movie based on one of his books, and (insult to injury) not even having read the book to see if the plot is better executed in prose. It probably is. I mean, I feel no guilt over not having read all his books—after all, I’m quite sure he’s never read any of mine. We can’t all read everything, can we? I’m thinking my stuff is a wee bit outside his preferred genres. For example, I happen to know he has read Man on the Moon at least sixty times. (Cf. Housekeeping vs. the Dirt p. 34.) I’ve never written a word about astronauts, so you see how it is. So no haven’t-read-yet guilt (the yet is key: I’m sure I will someday; I am always stubbornly, delusionally optimistic about the likelihood of my getting around, eventually, to everything on my mental TBR list), but it’s probably bad form to invite someone to dinner and in the next breath start picking apart the themes of his books which you haven’t even read. Hence the velvet pillow for the books I have read.
It was nice to see, in H. v. the D., that Hornby agrees with me about the no-guilt-over-unread-books thing. About reading the classics, he says,
“There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I’m beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they’re a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.”
Nonetheless, Hornby does seem to experience a fair amount of angst over books he meant to get to but didn’t and probably never will. When moving house he suffers the pangs of the book-hoarder, pangs I know all too well: there is nothing like filling up boxes with books you haven’t read yet to stir up a whirlpool of reader’s agony, the swirling currents of longing and remorse. When we were getting ready to leave Virginia and I had movers come in to give us estimates, one guy who’d been in the business for twenty-five years told me he’d never seen anyone planning to move that many books before. And this was after I’d shed a good 25% of our collection. When you’re going to be charged by the pound, those are scary words to hear. I did some more purging before the truck actually arrived, but still. We’ve got a ridiculous number of books here, and it would be swell if I, you know, actually read them someday.
Well, Nick Hornby and his recommendations aren’t helping. Neither are all those intelligent book blogs out there. I read a post today about the most recent A. S. Byatt and it was like a knife in my heart. I don’t know how I managed it, but I forgot about Byatt. Possession is one of my favorite books of all time, top five material, no question. Angels and Insects was spoiled for me by the movie (saw it first; big mistake) and the short story collection, Sugar, left me flat. But that was almost ten years ago. She has at least half a dozen novels I haven’t read yet. How could I forget her? Seriously, I’m baffled. So now I’ve got the urge to chuck my whole TBR pile and go on a mad Byatt binge.
Except that three more reserved books came in from the library today. (Gilead—which I heard about on Semicolon, I think, and was amused to see in one of Hornby’s booklists during the very same hour in which Scott was picking up my holds at the library—and The Graveyard Book and Olive Kitteridge. I don’t remember a thing about that last one, not even who recommended it.) Plus there’s the Benedict Society sequel and another Jane recommendation called Chasing Vermeer. And then—talk about guilt—this terrifying tower of review copies I’m supposed to read and say insightful things about.
Oh, it’s hopeless, isn’t it. Agony. And at the very same time, deliciously, satisfyingly tantalizing, like the hour before you sit down to Thanksiving dinner and the kitchen is full of good smells driving you crazy.
So I’m halfway through Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, my new collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books and reading. I haven’t yet come to the bit I assume will be there, a passage or series of passages illuminating the title—you know, the name that made everyone think my husband was taking his life into his hands by leaving the book on my pillow as a sort of gentle hint. (NB: Scott would be the last man on earth to do such a thing. He was a stay-at-home dad for eight years: he knows what it takes to run this place.)
In The Polysyllabic Spree, the first book in this series of essays, the Spree of the title is a running gag, Hornby’s tongue-in-cheek references to the editors of his literary column, whom he describes (in Housekeeping, where the Spree continue to make appearances) as “the fifty-five disturbingly rapturous and rapturously disturbing young men and women who edit the Believer.” (In reality, there are two editors, and it’s obvious Hornby thinks highly of them both.) The Spree made repeated appearances in the batch of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns that were collected in the book that bears their name, each mention more ridiculous and far-fetched than the last, and they’re back in full force in the second collection of columns. (There’s a third volume in the series: Shakespeare Wrote for Money. I expect it’ll turn up in a Christmas stocking one of these years.)
Nick Hornby is one of those rare writers who makes me literally laugh out loud. I’m sure it’s quite annoying to be in the same room with me when I’m reading one of his books. Even more annoyingly, I can’t help but read out passages to Scott or Jane or anyone passing through the room. (Huck has been known to burst into tears after the first sentence, but Mr. Hornby shouldn’t take it personally. After all, Huck still finds his own fingers vaguely alarming.)
Nick Hornby also makes me really, really want to read a lot of books. He writes so engagingly about the books he’s reading that you can’t help it, you want to read them yourself. And then you’d like to have him over for pizza and a nice long confab about where he was completely off base, and where he steered you correctly. I have this persistent and somewhat adolescent notion that Nick Hornby and Scott would really hit it off. They’re both readers and thinkers, both full of snark. And I do very well in conversations populated by that sort of person. Also they’ve been linked in my mind for a very long time, ever since Scott and I saw the movie High Fidelity, which was based on Hornby’s novel of the same name. (The film starred John Cusack, and he too is someone I’m convinced would enjoy our company. Also his sister Joan, and Jack Black, both of whom appeared with Cusack in High Fidelity. Also Wil Wheaton. Also Steve from Blue’s Clues. But not Joe.)
A passage in Polysyllabic Spree illustrates exactly why High Fidelity linked Scott and Nick (I can call him Nick, can’t I? Since we’re having pizza together?) in my mind. He’s talking about a book he’d just read, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and how he was enjoying the book until—
“a character starts talking about football. He tells a teaching colleague that he’s been to see Arsenal, and that ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0.’ Readers of this column will have realized by now that I know almost nothing about anything, but if I were forced to declare one area of expertise, it would be what people say to each other after football matches. It’s not much, I know, but it’s mine. And I am positive that no one has ever said ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0’ in the entire history of either Arsenal Football Club or the English language. ‘Beat,’ ‘thrashed,’ ‘did or done,’ ‘trounced,’ ‘thumped’—”
—he goes on in this vein a while, and asserts that no one would ever, ever use the word “won” in that context, and that furthermore, “Arsenal haven’t beaten Liverpool 3-0 at Highbury since 1991. What chance,” he asks regarding the author’s likelihood of winning him over as a reader, “did the poor woman have?”
By the end of this passage, I’m sure I had a very silly grin on my face, it tickled me so. Because, you see, there’s this bit in High Fidelity. John Cusack plays a guy who owns a record shop, and Jack Black works there and is very snobby about whom he’ll sell certain records to; you have to be worthy of the music and your worth is proved by your opinions about other music. These record shop guys are the kind of people who know every detail there is to know about the content and production of the entire body of work of pretty much every band ever. And at one point in the movie, John Cusack puts a Springsteen album on a record player, and carefully sets the needle onto the first track, and “The River” begins to play. And in the movie theater when we saw this film in college, Scott leaned over and whispered to me: “That’s the wrong track. It’s the last song on the second side of the first LP.” And I was filled with an enormous and terrible affection for him that has not abated one iota in all these years.
So that’s why I think Scott and Nick Hornby would get along. They understand being passionate about a thing, and that God is in the details.
I have to send Spree back to the library tomorrow. I’ve been holding on to it because I want to make a list of the books it made me want to read. And I thought this post was going to be a list of those books, but it turned out to be something else. It’s too long a list, anyway. I remember George and Sam, a book about author Charlotte Moore’s two autistic sons (which resonated with Hornby, I mean Nick, because he also has a child with autism), and a Robert Lowell biography, and there were about twenty others. But perhaps it’s a little too meta to write about the many books this one book made me want to read, and why. You’re much better off getting it directly from the horse’s mouth.
I hope Nick Hornby won’t be annoyed that I called him a horse. With luck he’ll have forgotten about it by the time he comes over for pizza.
I’m bumping up this question from the comments because I thought some of you might be able to answer more authoritatively (pun intended) than I.
Dani Joy asks,
“I recomend your books to parents with young girls but do you think my boys might like to read the books? I haven´t thought they would but I haven’t read them yet either.”
The feedback I’ve gotten from parents, teachers, and, yes, boys!, over the years has been gratifyingly enthusiastic. I’ve been told there’s enough grit and adventure in the books that they appeal to young male readers as well as girls. Martha and Charlotte both have brothers, so there are as many boy characters as girl characters figuring prominently in the books. But would some of you parents of boy-children out there care to share firsthand reading experiences with Dani? Be frank! It’s ok if your answer is ‘my boys thought they were too girly.’
Scott just sent me the link to this LA Times article about the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said.
At first, that may seem like a quaint observation — one of those poet-as-holy-fool lines. Yet an effort to “fortify your inward side,” Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of “immune system” against material difficulties.
I have a collected Heaney and a collected Keats Yeats* in a basket by my rocking chair for those moments during the day when I need a little fortifying.
Even better is hearing Heaney read his poems aloud. That rich voice, oh my.
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
The Poetry Friday roundup is at Becky’s Book Reviews today.
*I typed Keats by mistake. I meant Yeats. I’m a rather ardent Keats fan, too, but his poems reside on a shelf, not in my rocking-chair basket. Somehow it’s the Irish poets I return to the most often, those wry observers, mouths quirked to one side. Their lush imagery and the obvious delight they take in hunting the right word, like wall-builders seeking the perfect stone to fit into the next spot, knowing all the while that the wall won’t keep the evils out entirely but will, for a time, protect a quiet space of peace. More fortification, I suppose.