Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Goose Girl

Goose Girl is a fun, rich, real-feeling development of a classic fairy tale.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead. Housekeeping, written in 1980, is her first and only other work of fiction. It’s the story of Ruthie and her sister Lucille, who grow up under the care of their grandmother, and when she died, of their great aunts Lily and Nona, and when they fled, of their aunt Sylvie. They live in the tiny Idaho town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake where their grandfather died when his train went off the bridge and where their mother died when she drove off a cliff. It is a story about loss and longing, about how family bonds outlast absence and even death.

Housekeeping is a dark and dreamy novel, abstract, ponderous, murky. It's a slow-paced book of very little plot and very beautiful language which is often challenging—steeped in metaphor and foggy with abstraction. It is a book about becoming, about the devastating losses that lead to Ruthie becoming a transient, a ghost. “When did I become so unlike other people?” she asks herself at the end. “Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us, or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain.” It's that sense of absence, of what her life does not contain, that so haunts Ruthie.

What is good about this book:

Details, when they are provided, are wonderful—concrete and specific, very closely observed. Check this out:

I have often wondered what it seemed like to Sylvie to come back to that house, which would have changed since she left it, shifted and settled. I imagine her with her grips in her bare hands, walking down the middle of the road, which was narrowed by the banks of plowed snow on either side, and narrowed more by the slushy pools that were forming at the foot of each bank. Sylvie always walked with her head down, to one side, with an abstracted and considering expression, as if someone were speaking to her in a soft voice. But she would have glanced up sometimes at the snow, which was the color of heavy clouds, and the sky, which was the color of melting snow, and all the slick black planks and sticks and stumps that erupted as the snow sank away.
I like how carefully she describes the road, the colors of the sky and snow, the tilt of Sylvie’s head, the expression on her face. Too, Ruthie is really only imagining this scene, and this is something else I enjoyed about the book—the narrator imagining how things must have been for others, what a given situation might have been like for them, what might have happened if…. There is something really generous about the way she thinks, and the book ends very satisfyingly with one such imagining.

Location plays an amazing role in this book. It casts a pall of gloom that is never really interrupted. The setting is stark and cheerless, a sort of gray watery vastness that is not exactly pleasant, but I have to admire Robinson’s skillful use of place to create a mood and set a tone. Water images pervade the book, the lake is a constant, haunting presence, and the landscape—the ring of mountains that surrounds the lake—eclipses the small town, engulfing it in a “spacious silence that seemed to ring like glass.” It's eerie and beautiful.

Also I was impressed by the use of imagery. In fact a person of greater ambition than I could write a very decent paper tracing Ruthie’s journey from fairly normal child to ghostly transient through the image of a lit house at night, of looking at a lit house from the outside. The first use of this image is very early in the book, when the two sisters are coming home late from ice skating on the lake:

“We walked the blocks from the lake to our grandmother’s house, jealous to the point of rage of those who were already accustomed to the light and the
somnolent warmth of the houses we passed…When we finally came to our house, which was low and set back and apart by its orchard, we were not much surprised to see it still standing, the porch and kitchen lights shining as warmly as any we had passed.”
At this point, when they are so young, the lit house simply represents physical comfort and shelter, the security of knowing their aunts are waiting inside, though too in that scene there is an ominous mention of the darkness hovering just outside the lights. Moving through the book the lit house image appears repeatedly, becoming a more overt symbol of the sort of shelter provided by familial bonds, human relations. Finally at the end, there is a strange, shocking scene where the entire house—every last window—is lit up, and Ruthie, outside in the dark orchard, can’t imagine going inside. Entering would somehow mean the further loss or forgetting of “her kind”—which I took to mean her mother, her grandfather, grandmother, all the people she’s lost—and so the physical comfort would not, in fact, comfort.

Finally, it is a story about sisters, about the close bond of sisterhood and the devastating effects of that bond being broken. I like reading about sisters.

What I did not so much enjoy:

I had difficulty wading through this book. As I said before, it’s slow and murky, and that made it not a book that I couldn’t wait to pick up again—I had to force myself to read it sometimes. Too, the language is occasionally bogged down by strange word choices and muddled abstractions. Here’s an example:

I remember Sylvie walking through the house with a scarf tied around her hair, carrying a broom. Yet this was the time that leaves began to gather in the corners. They were leaves that had been through the winter, some of them worn to a net of veins. There were scraps of paper among them, crisp and strained from their mingling in the cold brown liquors of decay and regeneration, and on these scraps there were sometimes words. One read Powers Meet, and another, which had been the flap of an envelope, had a penciled message in anonymous hand: I think of you. Perhaps Sylvie when she swept took care not to molest them. Perhaps she sensed a Delphic niceness in the scattering of these leaves and paper, here and not elsewhere, thus and not otherwise.
You see how the paragraph starts out with lovely, concrete details and then devolves into something very like nonsense? Delphic niceness? Does anyone know what that means? and what the heck are those last two phrases?

Anyway, my final verdict: Housekeeping is a novel I respect, and a reading experience I value, even if I did not entirely enjoy it. If you do read it, give yourself time to read very slowly. Savor the beauty of its language and the chill of its disturbing, quiet drama.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Palate Cleansers

In between amazing books I needed a breather—a palate cleanser, if you will. So this is what I read: Ghost World, a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (“now a major motion picture”). It’s a subtle, complex portrayal of two recent high school graduates, Enid and Rebecca, as they try to figure out what to do next. It’s kind of just about growing pains—two longtime friends attempting to discover who they are, navigating the changes they each see occuring the other. It’s an insightful, funny, sad, engaging book. One of the things I most enjoyed about it was actually not the girls but the book's depiction of the poor souls trying to parent them. Mainly I was interested in Enid’s dad who hovers anxiously, trying to let his daughter be who she will be, make her own choices even when they’re clearly bad ones. My favorite part was a scene with a big fight between the two friends and then the dad digging up his daughter’s old record player and a record she listened to as a child. It’s a heartbreakingly sweet moment which I do not explain well at all—you'll have to see for yourself. I do recommend this book unless you are squeamish about four-letter words and some “adult” material. It captures so well the fragile adolescent ego, the vulnerability, angst, cruelty, and self-doubt. And the graphics are pretty amazing: done in ghostly pale colors, they speak volumes in facial expression and body language.

Palate cleanser #2: Letters to a Young Poet. This slender volume is comprised of 10 short letters written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to the student of one of his own former teachers. The letters are what one Amazon reviewer calls “a sublime, one-on-one equivalent of the modern writing workshop” in which the poet warmly encourages and instructs the student. But you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate these letters. What I loved about them (learned most from) is their generosity—they’re incredibly compassionate, empathetic and wise, written with the warmest regard and concern for the recipient while sharing beautiful truths that apply to all. Rilke is at once humble and authoritative, and his sentences are so graceful, so elegant—these letters are wonderful to read for the language alone. He does write about writing a lot, about the aloneness of the creative spirit, but also writes about reading, about how to judge literature, about the dangers of a too-ironic worldview, about how to love, how to find beauty in the smallest things, how to win oneself back from “the demands of the multiplicities that speak and chatter”—I loved that part of the 5th letter. This was a perfect palate cleanser for me—a small book, simple, beautiful and wise.

Friday, September 01, 2006

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7, 057. He can also square 2 up to over 30 million. He cannot stand to be touched.He hates the yellow and brown. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. Christopher is autistic. The novel is Christopher's very own book he has decided to write. He loves mystery novels. He loves Sherlock Holmes but hates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

One night he discovers Mrs. Shear's dog Wellington with a pitch fork in his belly. Laying in the yard. He decides to find out who killed Wellington and write a detective book documenting his investigation.

So this is the book. It is amazing (I stole Lisa's word ha). It was so interesting reading from the view point of an autistic boy. The back of the book says its like The Catcher in the Rye. But I've read that too. And it isn't. Holden Caulfield is just wierd. It never says what the heck is wrong with him. He just is a freak. I'm pretty sure. Christopher Boone is a genius with some emotional issues :). Here is a paragraph to show how cool this book is:

Eight years ago, when I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture : ( and I knew that it meant "sad," which is what I felt when I found the dead dog. Then she showed me this picture : ) and I knew that it meant "happy," like when I'm reading about the Apollo space missions, or when I am still awake at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning and I can walk up and down the street and pretend that I am the only person in the whole world. The she drew me some other pictures ; ) (angry face) (confused face) : o [sorry i couldn't make those faces] but I was unable to say what these meant. I got Siobhan to draw lots of these faces and then write down next to them exactly what they meant. I kept the piece of paper in my pocket and took it out when I didn't understand what someone was saying. But it was very difficult to decide which of the diagrams was most like the face they were making because some people's faces move very quickly.
So anyway, theres a peek of the book. It gets cooler than that paragraph but it's really late in the night-time and I just want to sleep. So just read the book. It is good and a really easy read, and a quick read, and it is just swell.