Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year-end wrap up: Sunday Salon Dec. 28

  Twenty-thirteen was a good year in reading. I hope 2014 will be a great one.
This year I tried new reading activities and modes.
  • ·      took on and met a reading challenge.
  • ·      joined a local book group (I still miss the Maine book group I read with in the past).
  • ·      went to a book meet-up in nearby Charlottesville.
  • ·      took a Coursera course in historical fiction.
  • ·      read my first book on Kindle.

Total books read: 47 (I have never tallied books read before as I have a natural aversion to quantifying. But, there, I’ve overcome it.
Challenges: I chose one The Europa Challenge. I chose a modest goal : 6 books and got carried away trying to discover what these books were. Read 14

Notable books for me this year:
  • ·      Most loved mysteries : Gene Kerrigan’s trilogy: Little Criminals, The Midnight Choir, The Rage
  • ·      Most loved novels: Jane Gardam’s trilogy: Old Filth, The Man with the Wooden Hat, Last Friends. I liked Old Filth best, but all three were good.
  • ·      Most haunting: Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square.
  • ·      Most delightful: Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • ·      YA classic (and the only YA read all year) John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars
  • ·      Best Historical Fiction: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
  • ·      Most unlikely for me to read: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (Gaiman not on my radar until I started reading blogs.)
  • ·      Grizzliest: Caryl Ferey’s Mapuche
  • ·      Great Books having to do with where I live now: Art of Power, Hemingses of Monticello, John Adams
  • ·      Least Memorable: Broken For You, although I read this about a year ago, I have no idea why and I have no memory of it. Zip. Someone – I can’t remember who—must have recommended it or lent to me
  • ·      Book quit mid-stream: Swamplandia. I was having a hard time getting into it anyway, but when it disappeared, I quickly forgot about it. Recently found it underneath the bed. (Maybe I should leave it there?)
  • ·      Reading now, soon to finish: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

New challenges to come next Sunday.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter Solstice 2013: Sunday Salon

            I am almost half way through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, having joined the virtual challenge at classicvasilly on wordpress.
I panicked when I joined last Sunday thinking oh how am I going to get through this big fat book by year’s end? So I put aside the very slim Olive Kitteridge, which I was loving.
I needn’t have worried. How different my readings of these two books are. Even in my current highly-distracted-by-life state, The Goldfinch absorbs me. I fly through these pages because the story propels, the characters engage, the settings engulf me --  they are filled with rich and palpable detail. What a great story of orphaned and half-orphaned children, those whose lives are upended and displaced by the death of one parent, or both. In his review of this book, Stephen King compares Tartt to Dickens and says he won’t be the last to do so. So let me say “ditto.”
My reading of Olive Kitteridge is much slower. I read through Olive’s prismatic character; each chapter is a linked short story that subtlety or otherwise reveals some shade of Olive’s self. In some chapters, she’s merely peripheral; in other’s dominant.  But this, for me is slow reading as I piece together this wonderful, somewhat crotchety retired schoolteacher living, as I once did, in a small Maine town.
What’s next: I am looking forward to both looking back on the year and looking ahead to some goal setting—so unlike me. I am considering new challenges.

 Happy holidays bloggers an others. I have learned so much from all of you this year.

My contribution to Virtual Advent

Happy Holidays, Virtual advent:

I give you my Mrs. Gwilliam’s Chocolate Fudge Cookies. Mrs. Gwilliam’s was our neighbor when I was a little girl and my mother got this recipe from her. My mother is now 91 and I now make these no-bakes  only at Christmas. They are very sweet – almost too sweet and full of sugar. They are not something I would normally be attracted to. Once a year, they are fine.

I give you the recipe as my mom wrote it:

Bring to full rolling boil: 2 cups of granulated sugar, ½ cup of milk, ½ cup of butter, 6 tablespoons of cocoa and a pinch of salt. Remove from range (stove); add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 3 cups of Quick Quaker Oats, 1 cup of shredded coconut and ½ cup of chopped nuts (I use walnuts). Stir thoroughly and drop by teaspoons on wax paper and allow to cool.

Very simple.  I have had other no-bake cookies, but these are my favorite.

Apologies to those in virtual advent. I have pretty much ignored the event I signed up for. We’ve been both sick and precoccupied.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Salon: Dec. 15 Reading update

I’m glad: I don’t live in Maine anymore, where the temperature is in the teens and the snow is piling up. Central Virginia is a lovely place to live – it has seasons, but the winters are mild. Just right for this time in my life.

This week:
Finished: my Coursera class on the historical novel. I listened to my last lecture. I liked the class, especially the lectures. Best book for me was the last one: The Ghost Bride. It’s also one that crosses genres and perhaps, the historic part is the least dominant for me.
Reading: Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife, which I find mediocre.  Reading for book club. Another so-so New York Times best seller. It’s a fast read and does highlight the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as well as what marriage was like in the first half of the 20th century for a woman, gifted in her right, who was married to one of the most famous men of their time. Also: Celebrity and paparazzi problems; baby kidnapped; Nazi sympathizer; polygamist etc.  
At the book’s midpoint, I’m wondering if it isn’t a bit presumptuous to put words into the mouth (first-person narration) of a woman who just died in 2001, who was a writer in her own right and whose children guard the family’s privacy.  Daughter Reese Lindbergh, also a writer, is the notable exception. In addition there’s A Scott Berg’s biography, titled Lindbergh, which won the Pulitzer Prize and which apparently goes into detail about the marriage – but not the secret families.  Why wouldn’t one just read that and Anne’s and Reese’s own writing (all of which I haven’t done, though I confess I am now intrigued by Gifts from the Sea)?  Probably won’t; I’m not that interested in the Lindberghs.
Conclusion: Might be good for adolescents, but not for serious readers.
Also reading:  Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. How did I miss her books when they came out? Lovin’ it. I’m identifying with the territory.  I too spent a lot of time around a Cook’s Corner in a small Maine town.
Looking forward to: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
New to me: Reading books on Kindle. Doing okay.

Listening to: Audiobook—John Boyne’s The Absolutist.
Looking forward to: End of year round-up, new challenges

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Katherine Howe's "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" turns me twitchy, witchy, b……y

            Connie  -- Constance  --- Goodwin is constantly in emotional flux. 
 Anxious, angry, annoyed – she flares into feelings and then swoons into sweetness. She’s coy; she cloys.
At times, some might even call her witchy or its more modern rhyming equivalent. Witchiness – albeit the good kind –runs in her family, so with a little romance from a steeplejack/preservationist Sam Hartley, Connie, the heroine of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, transforms from petulant shrew to enamored schoolgirl.  Under the influence of a parasitic professor/adviser, she transforms once again to empowered spell-caster.  With the emotional maturity of a high school sophomore, she’s hardly what one might expect from a Harvard PhD candidate.
In Katherine Howe’s first novel, the writing is as uneven as the maturity of her main character. Part historical novel, part supernatural tale, Howe weaves two stories and several generations. At its best, which is just above mediocre, it describes historical events of the Salem witch trials and their aftermath. At its worst, it features Connie in 1991 seeking a lost book of family spells,” which could conveniently also be the “remarkable unusual primary source,” her dissertation adviser wants her to find.
Connie becomes aware of Deliverance Dane, and subsequently the book, when she moves into her long abandoned ancestral home at the request of Grace, Connie’s mother, who says she wants Connie to ready the house for market.  Grace, who Connie refers as “a victim of the 1960s” –  is pure Hippie cliché so naturally she's away reading auras and doing other New Age work in Santa Fe.  Connie’s move to the house first seems a diversion; she is supposed to be working on her dissertation. But as she digs deeper . . .
A PhD candidate at its writing, Howe, like Connie, is a descendant of those accused of witchcraft in the Salem trials. She can trace her lineage back to both Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe, one accused, the other condemned for witchcraft.  This is interesting. So one understands her deep interest in the witch trials.
One also presumes she has first-hand knowledge of the trials of history orals as well as the possible perils of working under an adviser. Why then do we get such a stereotype? Connie’s adviser, Boston Brahmin Manning Chilton, (do I hear echoes of Hawthorne’s leech Chillingsworth here?), is a tweedy, condescending villain we suspect from the start. (This is not the only Hawthorne echo from the Hartley-Goodwin- Chilton triangle).
It isn’t just Chilton’s interaction with her adviser that bristles. Ice cream servers ignore her. Archivists glower. Clerks are curt. Research librarians find her irritating. (Only a private librarian indulges her.) If I were Connie, I would begin to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with me.
Ah, but there is. 
She shudders when picking up the family Bible. Blue meteors streak across the night sky. Mysterious circles appear burned onto the cottage door. Withered plants come alive under her spells.  Blue electric light emanates from her fingers.
Here’s a sample when Connie discovers her magical powers over a spider plant:
 …. The blue orb of light grew more soild, its electrical veins snapping in jagged lines from her fingertips and palms to the center of the ceramic planter. In that instant, the dried spider plant leaves \flushed with water and health, the fresh, waxy green of life crawling down each black leaf…… “
Connie’s reaction? 
“She staggered backward, groping for the support of the dinning table, her breath coming in shallow gasps. Hot tears spring into the rims of her eyes, and she realized that with each breath she was also letting out a high, panicked whimper. Her hand found the back of one of the shield-back chairs, pulling it toward her just in time to catch her falling weight. Horrified, Connie wrapped her arms around her middle and bent over, resting her forehead on her knees, her breath breaking into hiccupping sobs.”
 Shock. Horror. Melodrama.
I have read other blogger’s complaints of the implausibility of Connie’s story – those moments when one stops dead in in one’s reading and says Whaat?  My own knee jerked repeatedly, but was twitchiest when Connie first visited the house – abandoned 20 years but still standing, despite New England winters that would cave in most roofs. People know that the danger of leaving a house uninhabited is that it soon becomes home to all kinds of creatures who create holes.  Though there's something growing through the floor, no animals seem to have made the cottage their home.  Including local teen age party animals.  No beer cans. No condoms.  This cottage, lived in through 1971, has no phone or electricity.  Why?  Marblehead is hardly abandoned rural America.
Then, there are the ripe tomatoes growing in the cottage garden on years-thick stems in June.
Tomatoes – in this garden are perennial – which is in fact true of tomatoes.( I looked it up) But only in the tropic climes.
By book’s end, one realizes these knee jerk moments may have been clues to the family’s powers over plants, early clues that things in 1991 are not what they seem. Unfortunately, by the end I was paying more attention to the twitches than the story. 
Ironically, Deliverance Dane’s interwoven story—the historical one which I have not talked much about here is the more soberly realistic, more academically researchesd; Connie’s more recent one the more hysterically supernatural—a reversal of some dominant belief systems of their respective time periods.
A New York Times best seller, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, must appeal to many. Just not me.  When I try to imagine its audience, I think young girls, maybe those who are enthralled by all things vampires and witches, along with syrupy romances.   I think maybe I'm just too old. Too crochety.
            After all, I’m a victim of the 1960s and early ‘70s myself. My own literary preferences were forged during my education in those times, much of it around Boston.
         Which brings me to….. The author’s silly attempts to render local accents into print completes my complaints. Why do these various New Englanders have to sound so ridiculous?
I don’t like my reading to put me in such a snarky mood. Maybe Connie’s annoyance is catching. Or maybe, it’s not the book. Maybe it’s me. Bitchy me. Witchy me.
 I pick up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I mumble a few words. I feel electricity surging through my hands. I see blue.
Poof! I shut the book with these words:
The End.