Monday, July 24, 2006

I Am Still Alive and Reading

Sorry about never writing. The only time I ever have to read is after midnight sometime, depending on when I get off work. Oh the joys of life!

Okay, so it seems to be well understood that Jane Austen is amazing and the author of the classics that most people have read and love b/c of the characters she creates and their timeless tales of love and friendship. Having already experienced the joys of her genius while reading Emma and Pride and Prejudice, I can honestly say that I agree with that understanding whole heartedly. And Sense and Sensibilty is no exception. At first, I admit, it was hard for me to set my mind back a couple centuries and focus on what I was reading b/c of the Elizabethan language and Austen's seemingly long-winded descriptions of events. Despite this setback, it wasn't long for my modern brain to adjust to the style and get sucked right into the life of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. They are characters who, similar to both Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennett, the reader cannot help but admire b/c of their individual minds and strengths.

Elinor is a thoughful and devoted sister and daughter who is considerate of all yet is reserved in her attitude and communication (thus comes the sense). Marianne is quite the opposite. She is full of emotion and romance (here is the sensibility) yet has few reservations about revealing her thoughts and feelings to the world. Throughout the novel, the reader knows that all will be well with the Dashwoods but it is the path to the happy ending that is clouded with questions of how and when. For Marianne, the imaginative and lively girl who has dreams of perfection in love, the ending seemed to have been exactly as she has hoped. But her ideals came crashing to the floor when a scandal was revealed and her love vanished leaving her hurt and confused. Elinor, on the other hand, suffered from a secret ache as the man she loved was confidetially revealed to her to be engaged to a woman who she could never possibly admire due to the woman's lack of sense and propriety. The sisters both learned from their trials and became stronger coming to rely on one another for the sense that they needed in their mixed up and painful worlds. Sense and Sensibility is a beautiful tale of love of family and finding happiness when all seems lost. The end is touching as one reads of Marianne's turn from a zealous romantic and outspoken child to a mature woman who has experienced the joys of love, lost herself in the pain of heartache, and found herself a new and wiser being through the example of her patient and good sister who is her anchor through all things. It is b/c of this turn about that she is able to finally find lasting love and happiness. Elinor's ending is equally pleasing as she is ultimately blessed with her secret wish of marrying the one man she thought she could never have. As always, Jane Austen has delivered a romantic and witty tale that has been able to overcome the barriers of time and will continue to endure in the hearts of readers for years to come.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

I’m so used to breezing by the non-fiction tables at the bookstore that though I have many times seen books by David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked), I never stopped to take a second look. Until now. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to have found this entertaining, witty, insightful essayist. But I also discovered that Sedaris is not in fact new to me—I’ve heard him on NPR, and just now realized that he wrote "The Santaland Diaries," a very funny piece about his experience as a Christmas elf at Macy’s which I saw performed four years ago at Portland Center Stage. (It was a total crack-up, followed by another one-man performance of the heartwarming/heartbreaking story “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, one of my favorite things to read during the holidays).

Anyway. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a collection of personal essays that parades before readers wise enough to stop at non-fiction tables Sedaris’s self-depracating, sardonic wit. Topics stem largely from his personal relationships, and he spares no one—least of all his nearest and dearest—but is seldom (if ever) actually mean-spirited. On the contrary, pretty well every essay, however cynical and biting it may start out, ends with a moment of raw, exposed human emotion, or some insightful Truth that lends a warm glow of tenderness to the absurdity he’s just trotted out. Take, for example, “Let it Snow.” Young David is in 5th grade, and he and his sisters are snowed out of school. “On the fifth day of our vacation my mother had a little breakdown,” he writes. “Our presence had disrupted the secret life she led while we were in school, and when she could no longer take it she threw us out. It wasn’t a gentle request, but something closer to an eviction. ‘Get the hell out of my house,’ she said.”

After several hours in the outdoors, the kids devise the rather desperate attention-getting plan of getting hit by a car; when they’re ratted out by a well-meaning neighbor, their mother comes to fetch them:

Another car passed and then we saw our mother, this puffy figure awkwardly negotiating the crest of the hill. She did not own a pair of pants, and her legs were buried to the calves in snow. We wanted to send her home, to kick her out of nature as she had kicked us out of the house, but it was hard to stay angry at someone that pitiful-looking.

“Are you wearing your loafers?” Lisa asked, and in response our mother raised her bare foot. “I was wearing loafers,” she said. “I mean, really, it was there a second ago.”

This was how things went. One moment she was locking us out of our own house and the next we were rooting around in the snow, looking for her left shoe. “Oh forget about it,” she said. “It’ll turn up in a few days.” Gretchen fitted her cap over my mother’s foot. Lisa secured it with her scarf, and surrounding her tightly on all sides, we made our way back home.

In “Put a Lid on It” Sedaris describes his nutty sister who trolls garbage bins for anything she can sell (or eat—shudder) and basically lives like an animal, but at the end of the chapter there is a lovely, distilled moment in which he steps back and takes a look at himself, acknowledging that the real problem is not his sister’s unusual lifestyle but his own need to make her into something he can understand, to fix her. There are lots more examples, but this is getting long. So I will just say, do yourself a favor and read something by David Sedaris. His extraordinary, sharp wit made me laugh out loud, but each chapter seems to boil down to some really poignant insight, such as: when it comes to family, forgiveness is automatic (got that from the jacket). Or this, from a chapter called “Who’s the Chef” in which he's frustrated by an argument with his boyfriend Hugh: “Dead or alive, I'd have no peace, and so I let it go, the way you have to when you’re totally dependent on somebody.” Loved that line.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Another three for Dan

I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: Underaged cab driver Ed Kennedy has little to do except share a run-down apartment with his faithful yet smelly dog, drive his taxi, and play cards and drink with his similarly washed-up friends. Then, after he stops a bank robbery, Ed begins receiving anonymous messages marked in code on playing cards in the mail. Usually the messages instruct him to be at a certain address at a certain time. So with nothing to lose, Ed embarks on a series of missions as random as a toss of dice: sometimes daredevil, sometimes heartwarmingly safe. He rescues a woman from nightly rape by her husband. He buys a poor family new christmas light to light up their house, and their lives. But after all the things he does, the last question is who is sending the messages, and why? The person sends gangsters to beat him up. So apparently they don't care much about his well-being, but do care about these random people living on Glory Road (no that has nothing to do with the movie : ) , it was just the only address from the book I could remember) etc. Anyway, it was great! Very action packed. I'm in to action books lately, as you will see, since 2 out of the 3 are action books. Also, it kind of reminded me of the M. Night Shyalaman movie Unbreakable because of how he just had this instinct of what to do. Only on the first card out of four did they tell him exactly where to go, on the remaining three he had to figure it out on his own, and then every time he just knew what he needed to do to help the people he was sent to. It was great!

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum: This is A LOT different from the movie. It had this assassin named Carlos that was going after Jason Bourne because Jason wasn't really Jason his name is Daniel Webb and he was hired by Treadstone to pretend to be an assassin so they could arrest Carlos. And (I'm just going to assume you've all seen the movie) the thing with Marie is WAY different. Instead of paying her for a ride he kidnaps her, and then the assassins going after him "rescue" her and then get him and then they're going to go kill her but Jason saves her after he kills the guys that were going to kill him. So that's why they fall in love. Anyway, it's action packed and all that jazz :) Pretty darn sweet!

The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick: A free-verse novel told in three voices. Billy, 16, says good riddance to his abusive father and hops a freight train. Settling in a small town in Australia that has a friendly librarian and a train yard with abandoned cars to call home. He adjusts quickly to life as a bum, figuring out how to eat and keep clean. Intelligent and mature, the teen thinks about cruelty, compassion, and what his life has become–"I'm poor, homeless, but I'm not stupid." He meets and falls in love with Caitlin, a rich and dissatisfied girl who quickly sees there is more to Billy than a starving bum grabbing leftovers off the tables in McDonald's. He also befriends Old Bill, a homeless drunk who teaches him a few things, including how to earn money. Billy has little to offer but compassion, and that's what these two people so desperately need. All three of them are able to give the simplest gifts to one another in this beautiful, subtle, and sensitive story. (If you couldn't tell I totally stole that thing from amazon haha). So, it's fantastic! It was a really quick read, since it was all written poem style. Free-verse though, so it was like reading a book but shorter. It turned out that Old Bill isn't really a bum, he only wants to be. He has a house, but his daughter fell out of a tree and died, and a year later his wife died in a drunk driving accident. So he doesn't want to live in his house anymore. So when the welfare guys come around asking where Billy lives, they tell them Old Bill's address. Billy moves in, and Caitlin comes often to make dinner..and there is also some love scenes indirectly portrayed. Anywho it was pretty darn good :)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Anna Karenina

First, a brief and woefully inadequate plot summary: Anna Karenina is the story of a fashionable married woman who seems to have it all – beauty, wealth, a sensible (read insipid) husband, an adored son – until she meets Count Vronsky. Her reaction to Vronsky is immediate, passionate, visceral. So Anna leaves her husband to go and shack up with Vronsky, losing her son and her social position. The story follows her life with Vronsky to its inevitable conclusion: Anna throws herself under the wheels of a train. (Sorry for the spoiler, but this is one of the most famous suicides in literary history, so I really think the cat's out of the etc.) It is to Tolstoy's credit that Anna is not an entirely selfish person, nor motivated by entirely evil (or obvious) impulses. In fact she is a fairly enigmatic character – her motives and her history go largely unexplained, leaving readers to judge for themselves.

There is another storyline, about Levin. (The book may as well be called Anna and Levin – he gets just as much air time as she does.) Levin is a passionate, restless, shy aristocratic landowner who lives on a rural estate which he manages in a very hands-on fashion. He is in love with Anna's brother's sister-in-law, and after a lot of awkwardness they get married, settle down and have a family. Levin is considered to be almost a self-portrait of Tolstoy, representing his views particularly regarding familial happiness as the highest human ideal. Levin also goes through a religious crisis that mirrors Tolstoy's own spiritual struggle: even though he is happy in his family life, he comes very close to suicide because he feels he'll never know the meaning and purpose of his life. He does not, however, end up under a train.

If I had to state one theme or message of the book – though there are many – I would say it is that "we err in imagining that happiness is the realization of our desires." To wit: Anna throws her life away to follow her passion, and ends in ruin. Also, Levin gets the life and love he has so long wished for, but still only finds inner peace and purpose in the Higher Good which is in his power to bring to his corner of the world.

So as not to kowtow too deeply to Tolstoy and this book, I will state a grievance or... three:
1. In order to demonstrate the joy and peace found in honest hard work and decent family relations, Tolstoy paints the peasant class as a cheerful, healthy, rosy-cheeked lot who chatter merrily and sing rollicking songs as they work. Any resentment of the wealthy, land-owning class is "drowned in a sea of common cheerful labor," as if the labor is its own reward and the fact that they don't enjoy its fruits is irrelevant. This struck me as unrealistic and improbable.

2. I felt Tolstoy treated some women's issues too lightly (e.g. the question of women's education is literally laughed off). I did, however, appreciate the both implied and explicit acknowledgement that infidelity is punished unequally for men and women by both society and the law. The double standard is shown as grossly unfair, as Anna is ruined while her philandering brother is promoted at work as well as in society.

3. There are some very long and seemingly extraneous sections (e.g. Levin's hunting trip, the provincial elections, philosophical debates on education, farming, and the development of Russian society and economy). These may be interesting from a historical perspective, but they do little to advance themes or propel the plot forward.

But geesh, let's face it, who am I to judge Leo Tolstoy? This is one of the great novels of all time. It's a beautiful, tragic, timeless story and a rich, expansive evocation of 19th-century Russia. I was surprised to find Anna Karenina so approachable, and though it did take me a long time to wade through its 800+ pages, I did not for a moment regret the time spent. It's the kind of book that reminds me why I was an English major.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Empire Falls

I recently watched the HBO movie of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, and it reminded me how great the book was. I read it a while ago, so for a summary I will just refer you to this reading group guide. (This is a good resource, by the way, for those who have a book group or just want food for thought. It’s got reading group guides for tons of books. Click “Find a Guide” to browse all the titles.)

Anyway, Empire Falls is a pretty amazing book, and I’m not just saying that because Russo won a Pulitzer Prize for it (although that is usually a good sign). The characters and place are vivid and memorable, and the book is funny, scary, heartwrenching, wise and true. I can’t imagine anyone not being totally hooked.

P.S. The HBO movie version (available on DVD) actually does pretty well by the book, and it’s got a great cast that includes (but is not limited to) Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt and Robin Wright Penn.