Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Great Fire

23 years after her last novel, The Great Fire earned Australian-American author Shirley Hazzard the 2003 National Book Award. The honor is well-deserved.

The book begins in the aftermath of the second world war as decorated British officer Aldred Leith arrives in occupied Japan to write about the effects of the bomb at Hiroshima. There he meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the delightful son and daughter of a boorish medical bureaucrat and his horrid wife. Antithetic to their parents, Ben (dying, at 20, of a rare degenerative disease) and Helen (younger, and utterly devoted to her brother) are precocious and sensitive, having been, in Leith’s words, “delivered by literature.” (wonderful thought.) Leith develops an intense friendship with the two, and finds himself falling in love with young Helen (beautiful, brainy, elfin—a "changling," he calls her). At which point the book becomes an unabashedly romantic Romeo and Juliet-like love story (a lot more than that too, though), with parents conspiring to keep them apart, and good friends favoring their cause.

The Great Fire takes us back and forth across the globe—Japan, China, Hong Kong, Britain, France, Italy, New Zealand—and is wonderfully atmospheric in each location. Everywhere there is destruction and weariness, squalor (physical and psychological) interspersed with moments of beauty and consolation. Hazzard's style is complex and lucid, with a lovely formality that lends pleasure but requires slow, careful reading. She is at her best when describing the landscapes, scents and colors of her various backdrops. (A sample: “Outdoors, in the squelching world, rain had drawn off into purpled sky; green smells were sharp, chilly wet, delicious.”)

Really, her style isn't particularly contemporary. The book’s sensibilities, reflecting the times and places it evokes, could in fact be called old-fashioned. She is skittish with physicality, illness, violence; horrors of war are only hinted at; private moments between lovers are left just that. While I can imagine some readers seeing her book as an antique, I think Hazzard's reserve is commendable, especially given the novel’s far-flung set pieces and grand themes (impossible loves, striving for human connection in a world shattered by war)—it’s ripe for melodrama and sensationalism, but is entirely without it because her observations are so finely nuanced and so deeply insightful.

If pressed to state a criticism, I wouldn't have to think too hard: dialog in the book tends to read like something written rather than spoken; it's often stilted and unnatural. But that aside, the quality of her writing is extraordinary—careful, lyrical, solemn, beautiful. A line that I enjoyed, to illustrate: Helen calls her brother's attention to a full moon as they contemplate their new friendship with Leith. "Her life, and even his, in the little prison of their rooms, had also rounded and ripened, grown luminous." (Dear Shirley, that’s so lovely.)

What I liked best about this book (besides that Helen is such a remarkable reader!) was the sense that this was a rather personal work stemming from a time and a place which the author herself experienced (which is true); that she finally shared it, in an act of compassion, with a world “entirely charged with human wishes, existing for the most part silently and in vain.” Everyone has a cruel story, one character concludes, and “the entire world needs comforting.” Shirley Hazzard’s extraordinary novel is a gift of hope, as comforting today as it would have been 50-some years ago: a shared wish that love may rescue us all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Perma Red

Perma Red, by Debra Magpie Earling.

I don't really have much to say about this, it's not the kind of book you can really tell anyone what it's about. It's one of the many loaned to me by Draw and Britty...Anywho it's about Louise White Elk who is a young woman on a Flathead Indian reservation. It changes stories kind of. Like each chapter is the same story but centered around another character. I guess I'll just put some chapter beginnings so you can kinda get a feel for the book... and say it was MAGNIFICO!

A Louise White Elk Chapter

"After Florence died the weather changed. The sun turned cold, and dark owl days perched over Louise's life. The approaching winter light blinked through the windows of her grandmother's house to find her still slumped in bed. Louise would wake to a sun so bright she would cover her face with her hands. She would sit on the porch until late afternoon waiting until she could return to bed."

A Charlie Kicking Woman Chapter

"I burned the roads getting home, early enough to change my uniform and meet the day looking decent, but I arrived too late to save my marriage. Aida had left me. I guess I knew even as I sat in that hotel room she was already gone from me. A man knows these things."

A Baptiste Yellow Knife Chapter

"Even the smallest bones in his hands and feet were lit with pain. He had to brace himslef against his mother to make it to bed. Stars rushed his head, burning stars glittered his backbone. The ground seemed to drop from him and rise up again suddenly. He couldn't get his bearings. He wobbled in his walk."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Catcher in the Rye

Just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, and enjoyed it quite a lot. I read it aloud to Nick, which is a great way to read this book if you don’t mind a lot of cussing, because it's all about voice—voice and attitude, because of course Holden Caulfield is an icon of teenage anxiety, cynicism and depression.

Now that I've read it, I do think it's too bad that Catcher in the Rye is so widely read in high school English classes. Not because of Holden's potty mouth or the book's depictions of adolescent sexuality and alcohol abuse (all official excuses for banning this book), but just because there are better books out there. I will say, at no point did I find this book uninteresting, and it does have moments of real poignancy, but I think kids these days might find it dated and tedious.

Here are a few bits of trivia from wikipedia:
  • The word "goddamn" appears in the book 252 times.
  • Salinger has refused to license the film rights to any producer or director. The reason for his refusal to allow a film version of the novel: "I would like to see it done, but Holden wouldn't approve"—a reference to Holden's distaste for movies and Hollywood "phonies."
  • Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter. John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, was also reported to have been obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, and Kurt Cobain is said to have been carrying a copy of the book and wearing a red hunting cap in the weeks prior to his death.
  • The Catcher in the Rye continues to be both one of the most banned books in America and one of the most taught books in public schools.
  • The poem’s name (and a central theme) comes from the poem “Coming Through the Rye” by Robert Burns. If anyone can restate this poem in modern American English, I'd love to know what it means.

And some memorable lines:

"I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody."
(now why didn't I think of that?!)

"What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff— I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

"Sleep tight, ya morons!"

"All morons hate it when you call them a moron."

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

(Hello, is this the Austen residence? May I speak with Jane, please?)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Haunting of Hill House

This fall semester I took a senior seminar for my major on "Literature of the Fantastic." We read chronologically starting with E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Sandman" from the mid-18th Century and ended with a collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter. My understanding, for those of you who aren't familiar -- I sure wasn't before the semester began -- is that Fantastic's beginnings are aligned with the advent of the world in which we live now: a modern, industrialized, increasingly complex society. It follows the strangeness of population growth and urbanization, the proliferation of bodies and culture.

The Haunting of Hill House was a really fun book to begin wrapping up our discussion of this genre because it is packed with literary and cultural allusions and available to a compelling variety of theoretical interpretations and literary analyses. My class' approach to Fantastic literature was that the genre represents the darker side of modernity; an era in which everything is in motion, categories are no longer fixed and social codes are reformulated. With this reading in mind, Jackson is really quite masterful. Plus, guys, it's totally creepy. The surprising thing is that Hill House isn't gory or even scary, really. It definitely doesn't feel like a horror novel. But the language and the story are just downright unnerving yet totally dynamic and fascinating, a style that Shirley Jackson is famous for. I was extremely drawn in by the low-grade anxiety that I felt from page one...if you think you might be as well I definitely recommend it.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

I Capture the Castle

I've read 2 things I haven't posted on, I Capture the Castle, and Wicked. So Lisa said I had to report on them.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
It is soo good! I'm in love with it. The narration is so good, and it is just so fun, and a great story and I can't think of anything bad about it! It's narrated by Cassandra Mortmain who wants to be a writer. Her family is very poor, living in a broken down castle. She starts a journal where she wishes to "capture" her family, and the castle, in her writing. Her sister Rose longs for romance and money, while Cassandra says, "I know all about the facts of life, and I don't think much of them." But their isolation from romance ends when the rich American boys, Simon and Neil Cotton, move into the house down the lane. The back of the book says, "[Cassandra] strives, over 6 turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle's walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has 'captured the castle'--and the heart of the reader--in one of literature's most enchanting entertainments."

I think it was marvelous, and I want to see the movie that Debbi says is also marvelous. Here's a excerpt just for fun:
"I decided to think a little before i began writing, and lay back enjoying the heat of the sun and staring up at the great blue bowl of the sky. It was lovely feeling the warm earth under me and the springing grass against the palms of my hands while my mind was drawn upwards. Unfortunately my thoughts will never stay exalted for very long, and soon I was gloating over my new green dress and wondering if it would suit me to curl my hair. I closed my eyes, as I usually do when I am thinking very hard. Gradually I slid into imagining Rose married to Simon--it doesn't seem to matter when you imagine about other people, it only stops things happening when you do it about yorself. I gave Rose a lovely wedding and got to where she was alone with Simon at a Paris hotel--she was a little frightened of him, but I made her enjoy that. He was looking at her the way he did at dinner when he raised his glass to her........
I opened my eyes. He was there, the real Simon Cotton, looking at me. I hadn't heard a sound."
So there you are. I feel like stopping, so maybe sometime this week I will put Wicked on here.