Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Next Thing

I have read a few books since last posting, and started a few more. I read "Flaming Iguanas" in about three days. It's such a short book, and it's put together more like a journal or a scrapbook than a novel. It's square and bright yellow and illustrated by the author. It looks like a novelty, and maybe it is, but I'm all right with that because there were some valuable lessons hiding in there inside the dirty lady with the motorcycle. I did think it was nonfiction at first, and when I realized it wasn't, I was a little sad. The voice was just so believable. I can only give one example of a valuable lesson, and I'm being too lazy to look up the actual quote, but it goes something like this: Happiness is coming home to someone who asks you how your day was and actually gives a shit about the answer. That's it. Problems, schmoblems/everybody has them. Also that forward slash. You see it a lot in that book. Like she's writing poetry but she isn't. She just needs to move to the next line in the verse sometimes. Like that piece of advice about doing the next thing.

My next thing was "The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte" but I have put him on hold in favor of the new A.M. Homes: "May We Be Forgiven." Branwell is fascinating, but when I get a shiny new hardback in the mail and it's signed by the author, I have to eat it before it spoils.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I've never been old before

This morning I finished reading "I'll Never Be Young Again" by Daphne du Maurier. I'm not sure why, but I decided to scroll down on the book's Goodreads page and see what people had said about it. Normally I avoid this, but I had a mild curiosity. This is Du Maurier's second book, and I think a lot of people used that as an excuse for why they didn't enjoy it. This argument makes no sense to me as a devout Du Maurier lover. Her first book, "The Loving Spirit," was brilliant. It stands to reason that she would explore different styles, and anyone familiar with her at all should know that this wasn't just an early phase of experimentation. Du Maurier dabbled in a great many styles of writing throughout her career -- it's just that she is more well known for "suspense." Several reviewers of this book found it boring and disappointing, some unable to finish it. I, however, fell in love with this book from the first page.

Anyone doubting Du Maurier's ability to hook you with suspense early in her career should read the first chapter of this book more closely. Dick's description of impending death as he stands on the edge of a bridge ready to jump was more than enough to convince me I was at home in this novel.

"It seemed strange that things could still be done to me after I was dead, that my body would perhaps be found and handled by people I should never know, that really a little life would go on about me which I should never feel....Not the fear of that hasty look round, the sudden plunge headlong and the giddy shock of hard, cold water, the river itself entering my lungs, rising in my throat, tossing me upon my back with my arms out-flung--I could hear the sob strangled in my chest and the blood leave me--but fear of the certain knowledge that there was no returning, no possible means of escape, and no other thing beyond....I felt the flesh that was mine and the body that belonged to me; queer to think it was in my power to destroy them so swiftly."

Later, of course, there are instances of her humor and surprising worldliness as Dick begins his life journey anew. Du Maurier reveals that she knows the human mind and mood and the self-denial of predictability. Dick had been shut off from the world -- sheltered in his parents' home for years until he ran away, thinking there must be nothing in the world for him. It was a beautiful experience to watch Dick awaken to life like a child, and sad to watch his eventual complacent acceptance of responsibility. However, we all know that for him to survive, this must occur. He must get steady work and support himself in society -- with only his memories of adventure to remind him that there once was more to life. But without these experiences, his mind would be dull and lacking in compassion. Truly a man formed by his relationships, he will remember those that he lost in his surreal other-life, taking with him the wisdom they both knowingly and unknowingly imparted.

"She's no longer young, you see, Richard, this is her home. Her roots are here, the whole meaning of her life. Even now that he is dead she will go on, with her memories, and it will be her consolation, living with them."

Because we all must live and die, and find our place in the world. And we can only hope that in our death, those we have touched will carry our memories with them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Poison dart? I mean, raisin tart?

The copy of "My Cousin Rachel" I just finished reading has a Reading Group Guide at the back. I usually avoid reading these because I don't want to be influenced by corny questions meant to inspire conversation at a tea party. But I gave in, because that is a ridiculous attitude for someone who wants all the information and trusts herself to interpret appropriately. I won't answer the guide questions in essay format or any other; though, I will say that they were reasonable and have not adversely affected my understanding of the story. They touched upon the obvious themes of youth and immaturity, and the universal battle of wits between men and women. I could go there, but really what I want to do is wonder what happened. 

The narrator, Philip, is, for lack of a better phrase, living in his own head throughout the novel. Usually a first-person narrator gives you a fairly broad viewpoint, the author allowing you to discover things through the narrator's interactions; but Philip is often confused, and the reader is no wiser. Ultimately the story is tragic, regardless of who was originally in the wrong. Were Philip and his cousin Ambrose both deceived by Rachel? Did she try to poison them each in turn for their family fortune? Or were Philip and Ambrose really so similar in character that they both misread her actions out of paranoia, and it's only a coincidence that they both became ill during their time with her? With no proof that she was plotting against him, and supplied with enough rationalizations to justify her spending, Philip and the reader find it believable that she is innocent. Because if she was trying to kill Philip, why would she not have succeeded? Or was she using her power to demonstrate that she, too, is capable of employing a stranglehold? Philip's anger literally caused his hands to grip her neck -- flashback to "The House on the Strand" -- but her move was drawn-out and calculated, if  such a move indeed existed. It's hard for Philip and the reader to determine whether Rachel's feminine wiles are the manifestation of misappropriated good or fallible evil. 

But, ultimately, no one wins. (And so without telling the full story I'll spoil the ending...) It can take only a moment to ruin the rest of your life. A split decision can have ramifications that you knew you risked, but something told you to act. Is it fate stepping in? Fate meaning nothing but a tipping point -- a Choose Your Own Adventure plotline that happens to bring the story to an outcome that makes a strange kind of sense. I keep thinking of a trial I reported on in Alabama, in which a woman turned her car around using the emergency median of an interstate, killing the lead man in a group of motorcyclists. Sometimes you ignore things that you can clearly see. "I just didn't think ... " Philip didn't know for sure that Rachel would die if she walked along the unfinished bridge, that it would certainly break beneath her weight. But yet he had been warned, and chose not to pass the warning on. The driver of the car in Alabama received a jail sentence; but in Cornwall, Philip was hanged. 

I found the novel's ending everything I could have hoped for -- surprising, saddening, thought-provoking. It brought the story full circle to the opening scene where Philip remembers seeing the body of a dead man who was hanged for killing his wife. While I am not a proponent of the death penalty in reality, for the purpose of fiction I find myself feeling the sentence justified. At the same time I want to believe that Rachel was not evil, that she was simply a cultured and knowledgeable woman of the world who found herself in a Twilight Zone upon moving from fancy Italy to frumpy England, where she tried to fight off love feelings for her dead husband's doppelganger and failed, leading him on and leading him to destruction. And the satisfaction of that heartbreaking duplicity is just one example of what pulls me in every time, convincing me that Daphne du Maurier is herself a sort of supernatural vessel of the collective unconscious, reaching into the most intimate moments and fears and dramas of the mind with exquisite finesse.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fun and games until ...

Yesterday I finished the Daphne du Maurier novel "The House on the Strand." I've yet to go over the supplementary material in the Companion, but she dedicates the book to the former occupants of her home, and it's obvious a lot of research went into the writing. It reminded me of A.M. Homes researching her genealogy in "The Mistress's Daughter," except in memoir form the process was fairly boring and in novel form the process exploded into a life-altering experience on mental and physical levels. 

The narrator, Dick Young, spends the summer in his professor friend's historical Cornwall home and begins secretly testing a drug that transports him six centuries into the past to observe some yesteryear drama. While unable to involve himself in the events, he feels drawn into the action as though he were mysteriously connected -- as though there were some reason he needed to be there, to solve a mystery or to validate certain actions. But in reality, and much to the bewilderment of his wife, his obsession leads him into a double life whose secrets are revealed only when events turn lethal. The professor takes a hypnotic drug walk into a freight train, and Dick takes a hypnotic drug walk into his wife, choking her (but not to death). If only she had been a cohort in the drug testing, perhaps a safer environment could have been created. Alas, the reader wonders, was this marriage headed for instability either way? Their best moment as a couple came when he teased her: "Husbands loathe wives who understand them. It makes for monotony." There is some truth to that statement, but if she could have been trusted, maybe the professor's life could have been saved. And just perhaps, Dick would not have ended up taking the final dose of drug -- the one which paralyzes him. Was it worth witnessing the finale to his story? He saw the plague kill his hero, Roger, and many others. He saw it kill the liveliness of the era, and now a plague is on him, one which he will likely live through for many years. He enjoyed the way his life commingled with the past, popping in and out as though he were reading a book, I thought. And now that's the only way he'll be able to visit any other place or time. If Vita can stand it, she'll read to him at bedside, sending him into other worlds at intervals. Will he allow himself to connect to fiction, or will his misery overshadow any spark of happiness?

"There was no past, no present, no future. Everything living is part of the whole. We are all bound, one to the other, through time and eternity.... I felt myself on the brink of some tremendous discovery when I fell asleep."

Du Maurier's sense of humor never ceases to surprise me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

We had softshell crab and swordfish, too!

I went out of town this weekend, so I decided to take a break from Gertrude. I didn't want to bring the weathered Stein book on the airplane because if it didn't just put me to sleep, it would definitely get crushed and bent inside my over-packed purse. So I grabbed Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." I knew I'd want to read this. I'd started it a while back, but it wasn't until I started obsessing over "No Reservations" on Netflix that I fully realized the Bourdain appeal. I'd say I'm two thirds in, and so far it's everything I expected. I like that I can hear his voice reading it to me in my head. I'm not sure if I like picturing a lot of what he describes through the lens of a restaurant for which I was a starch-shirted waitress. I keep picturing my old alcoholic chef and his crew -- a misanthropic leader of a misfit army -- and all of them reeking of truffle oil. Bourdain's descriptions of the grill man, the expeditor, the dishwasher, the sous chef and the owner bring up long-forgotten faces in my mind. It's an interesting reading experience, but instead of dwelling on my personal interactions with the apparently archetypal personalities, I'm focusing on the business details. I'm remembering studying the menu, tasting wines, eating samples of the specials, catching expeditor mistakes, watching the chef check the reservation list and check things off on a clipboard, hearing gossip about our competition, staring out the window while waiting for tables to walk in.... And I'm also trying to block out all that noise and listen to Tony tell me his story.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Read anything good lately?

I was asked this question by one of my bosses today, and when I replied, "Yeah I started reading this Gertrude Stein book ... " he replied, "So no." What is this magical gentleman reading? "The Hunger Games." A young adult he is not, and I told him so. Then I learned we had already talked about that, and I vaguely remembered because I had been drinking at the time. Well, at least my boss wants to talk to me.

So about that Gertrude Stein, I'm having a little trouble. I'm reading this fantastic copy I picked up at The Strand, and it's called "Three Lives." Three lives equals three short stories. The first was great and super short. It was about a housekeeper and the houses she kept, and the friends and lovers for which she cared. I'll keep it simple there. The second though, is about a girl and her experiences learning about men. She was a bit of a tease for a while, but now she's in a relationship, and apparently they can spend 200 pages worth repeating the same sentences over and over. It seems to go on eternally, because when I try reading it at night, the rhythmic dialogue just puts me straight to sleep. I'll paraphrase: "I know, Melanctha, that when I'm saying to you the things that I am always saying to you, Melanctha, that you really are understanding that I'm feeling just like you would know that I would be feeling when I really do know that you have a good mind, Melanctha, and that I really do like spending time with you, Melanctha, so much that I have a hard time telling you things, Melanctha, but you always seem to know what I'm saying when I'm saying all these things that I'm always saying to you, Melanctha." So yeah. It's a tough one. I find that I can follow it a little better if I am reading aloud, but you know, Melanctha, it just ain't always easy to be doing such a thing.

Help me Daphne du Maurier, you're my only hope

I can't believe I haven't posted here in a year and a half. That is disgusting. I'm seriously disgusted with myself. So just for that, I'm going to copy and paste this half-written blog post that's been sitting in my email drafts for like two years. And then I'll write a real one, because this is pathetic. Yeah that at the bottom? It's the notes I was supposed to report back on. Ugh.

Daphne du Maurier really wanted me to cry on the subway. But I refused. She kept bringing the dramatic death scenes, and I kept biting my bottom lip. I got all excited about writing about this book, but I couldn't stop reading long enough to finish a blog post, even though I found myself crafting sentences in the shower. (I'm sure I forgot them all, maybe I need a waterproof notepad in there.)
There are some really beautiful parallels in the lives of the four family members profiled in this book. Janet, Joseph and Christopher all died in connection with the Janet Coombe, the ship the family built at their own shipyard. Upon the vessel's launch, its namesake's spirit became its primary resident. As a figurehead at sea Janet could enjoy the life she always dreamed of, close to her son Joseph (the ship's skipper) and watching over her family as a sort of matriarchal ghost. She died, it seems, of pure joy -- ecstatic, fulfilled and in compliance with her fate. Her legacy was the foundation of future events she knew would occur but could scarcely predict. It's as if these four generations of sea-loving deep feelers was predestined to be part of a neatly tied package, sad and tedious at the time but inspiring and heartwrenching in legend form.
Joseph throws his life into the sea after his mother's death, and eventually dies by literally throwing his life into the sea. He became depressed when his sometimes-fragile son, Christopher, decided to try out his sea legs upon the Janet Coombe, only to abandon ship in London. Joseph had high hopes for his firstborn, and felt betrayed, deciding never to speak to him again. His depression leads to a breakdown in his second marriage, and wife Annie visits her old friend and gentleman caller, Joseph's brother Philip. Joseph discovers this, and his agitated state and verbal rage are enough to kill Annie and her unborn baby. Philip has Joseph committed to an asylum, a move that causes him to live out his days in a mournful stupor, eventually giving up completely.
Meanwhile Christopher has managed a tolerable London life. He returns to Plyn too late to save his father, but brings his family and settles down there.

missed connections