Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is about an aging English butler reflecting back on his long life of service, confronting uncomfortable truths about his employer and painful regrets regarding his friendship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. It's about disillusionment and remorse and, finally, trying to make the best of what remains of one's day.

One of the first things that struck me about this book is how clear a picture one gets of the main character, Stevens. Stevens narrates in first person, and I felt immediately like he was a real person I could watch and listen to. He's very formal and reserved, proud yet humble. Every word of this book sounds like something this character would say - the voice and tone are flawless.

The sophisticated narrative structure also impressed. The plot centers on a short vacation during which Stevens pays a visit to Miss Kenton, whom he hasn't seen in years. It's written as a journal of this trip, but woven in with that we get decades of history at Darlington Hall, philosophical reflections on big ideas like the definition of dignity and the democratic responsibilities of the ordinary man, memories of fork-in-the-road moments in his relationship with Miss Kenton. The narrative is very intricate yet "flows" so naturally one hardly notices.

To sum up: I found this a beautiful novel - brilliantly written, quiet, heartbreaking. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm

Dan already posted about this book (see her review here), but I liked it so well I thought I would re-enforce the accolades for anyone who hasn't read it. This was such a fun book to read, and Flora, the main character, is so "droll" and charming. As a parody of the rural novel, Cold Comfort Farm is often laugh-out-loud funny--it was published in 1932, but the comedy is completely unharmed by the passage of time. Consider this passage in which cousin Urk attempts to sweep his new-found love Meriam off her feet--a classic example of screwball physical comedy:
'Come, my beauty--my handful of dirt. I mun carry thee up to Ticklepenny's and show 'ee to the water-voles.' Urk's face was working with passion.

Urk put one arm around Meriam's waste and heaved away, but could not budge her from the floor. He cursed aloud, and, kneeling down, placed his arms around her middle, and heaved again. She did not stir. Next he wrapped his arms about her shoulders and below her knees. She declined upon him, and he, staggering beneath her, sank to the floor. Mrs Beetle made a sound resembling 't-t-t-t-t'.

Mark Dolour was heard to mutter that th' Fireman's Lift was as good a hold as any he knew.

Now Urk made Meriam stand in the middle of the floor, and with a low, passionful cry, ran at her.

'Come, my beauty.'

The sheer animal weight of the man bore her up into his clutching arms. Mark Dolour (who dearly loved a bit of sport) held open the door, and Urk and his burden rushed out into the dark and earthy scents of the young spring night.
Now am I the only one who finds that hilarious? Besides being a parody, Cold Comfort Farm also is itself a fine specimen of the rural genre--some of Ms. Gibbons' descriptions are just amazing, and it does end with a lot of happy marriages. Anyway I highly recommend this one. It's super fun.

I saw the movie adapted from this book a long time ago, but I can't recall whether it does justice to the book. Anyone?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

We just read this little gem for book group. I use "little gem" somewhat ironically, because that's exactly what it is, and sometimes it's just a bit much.

Overall, this really is a great little book. I enjoyed his weaving back and forth between classic folk tales, some familiar and some new to me, and his own experience. The tales were well chosen and unadorned, just the simple story offered for our pondering and followed by his parallel experience. Following this pattern, he takes us on his journey not only to accept but to find beauty in his personal tragedy: being a storyteller who loses his voice.

Oddly, the tragedy doesn't seem to touch at all on mundane temporal concerns like "how do I pay my bills now that I can no longer practice my livelihood?" His is a purely existential crisis, and he seems to have plenty of time to explore it.

He spends most of this time at his storytelling mentor's house, where he encounters frustrating riddles that eventually lead him to discover the truth: that losing his voice really has given him a gift that he could find in no other way, a gift that really does make a difference in his life.

This mentor framework is part of what I mean by "a bit much." It seems obvious to me that every insight was not actually spurred by a conversation with this one crazy, wise man. Of course, it would make for a very confusing and boring story to explain that one insight came while he was driving, another in the shower, another during a conversation with his wife. So I appreciate the necessity of the mentor frame, but it still distracted me.

Even so, this book does give you a lot to think about and provided our group a rich, big-ideas discussion. I marked many passages in spite of myself (and in spite of the fact that it was a library book--I used pencil and erased before returning). I don't want to spoil it by giving away the insights, so I'll just encourage you to sit down with it some rainy weekend when you're in the mood for a folksy, life-affirming, easy but thought-provoking read.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Bean Trees & Chocolat

Hey ya'll, we haven't really been doing this, because most of you just rate your books on Goodreads, but I don't really do that... Anywho, I borrowed a whole stack of books from Lisa, and then she gave me some for Christmas, so I'm gonna be reading all sorts of good books. I read The Bean Trees and Chocolat, and I'm now 100 something pages into The Power of One.

The Bean Trees I thought was excellent. It's the only book by Barbara Kingsolver that I have read, so I don't know how to compare it, but I liked it a lot. It's a really great story about independence and motherhood. One reviewer said, "[It's] as random and unexpected as real life... Whimsical, yet deeply insightful." 

About was wierd and a little confusing. Nothing gets resolved, either. I like the movie a lot better. At the end of the book, she gets pregnant again and leaves town again. It's just a circle, no happy ending or resolutions. It was still good, but pretty odd. :)

And The Power of One, I have a question. Apparently I need to know a bit more about South Africa and apartheid or something, but I don't really get why the kids at his school hated him, and such. He's English...were they German? It was more confusing because I assumed that a book about apartheid would be about a black kid, but then I realized he wasn't black... Anyway, anyone who knows anything, tell me stuff! :)