Friday, June 27, 2008

Who Are You to Criticize?

By now, those of you who read me on a regular basis must know I’m not extremely fond of literary criticism. I’m pretty sure this sort of criticism can be blamed for the fact that despite the two things I’ve always loved most in the world – reading and writing – I didn’t have my heart set on studying English as an undergraduate, and I entered college determined to major in accounting. Accounting! Can you imagine? Well, I’d be making a lot more money at this point in my life. I also might be dead by now, having hung myself from boredom about four years into it.

Luckily, my first semester courses and a strict school that required all sorts of unappealing classes and then two years in its undergraduate business school in order to be an accountant discouraged me. I’d spent my first semester taking things like an introductory writing class, a class on the history of England, and an introductory psychology class. I took a look at what was going to be required of me from then on and thought “ugh,” realizing my most fascinating class had been that introductory psychology one. I wanted to keep pursuing that rather than public speaking and economics and more calculus courses. Thus, I became a psychology major.

And then I ended up minoring in English. This minor was somewhat of an accidental one. What happened is that midway through my third year, I suddenly realized that I’d taken so many English courses, I wouldn’t have to take too many more in order to get a minor. Thus, I decided to go ahead and take the couple of required courses I had yet to take and a couple more electives to get my minor. I can only say that the fact I’d taken all these English courses had more to do with my absolute love of reading and some fantastic professors than it did with any of the critical essays and texts we read alongside the likes of Shakespeare (whom I finally learned to love in college), Wordsworth, Bronte, Faulkner, and Woolf (to name just a few).

I so often felt that these critical analyses just didn’t get it. Either the critics were trying so hard to prove they knew something no one else did – they had the one, true brilliant insight into this author or this particular piece of work – or else I had a hard time believing they’d read the same thing I’d just read and enjoyed, because they so often seemed determined to make it un-enjoyable, to make it as difficult as possible. Or worse, it was something I’d hated, and they were in complete awe over its brilliance.

I find I haven’t changed much since I was in college. Maybe I’m not very good at paying attention while I’m reading, but I’ll read a book and then go back to read the Introduction or search online for some academic’s commentary on it, and find myself thinking, “What the …?” I’d be tempted to believe that I’m just extraordinarily dense if not for the fact that I’ve had the experience of reading quite a few texts, texts typically defined as “difficult,” and have found myself marveling at their beauty and genius.

One of these was Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I absolutely, positively did not want to read this book chosen for a book discussion group to which I belonged years ago. Sometimes, I’ve discovered, that’s the best way to come at a book, because then I can be pleasantly surprised rather than bitterly disappointed. What I most remember about it, once I sat down to read it, was finishing it. I immediately returned to Macbeth’s soliloquy printed at the opening of the book, and read it over and over again in complete awe. Faulkner hadn’t missed a single detail from Shakespeare in writing his novel. How had he done that? I went to that book discussion group, completely fired up, certain everyone else would be, as well, only to discover that most of my friends were fired up, but fired up about how much they’d hated it. (And by the way, I’ve never read any literary criticism for that book, too afraid it would ruin the book for me. I have, however, listened to a sound recording of Faulkner reading some of it aloud – such music to my ears!)

That book discussion meeting was when I discovered I couldn’t really articulate my thoughts much beyond “Faulkner was a flat-out genius!” This, in turn, led me to realize that my reactions to books are almost always somewhat dreamlike. Like my dreams, I will know exactly what a particular book looks, tastes, sounds, feels, and smells like, but trying to describe it to others, putting it into words that others can understand, almost immediately causes it to lose something. And, just like a dream, often something I know is profound, comes off sounding like so much jumbled nonsense to the person who is listening to me babble on about how profound it is.

Literary critics (at least those I seem to read) lose this sensuality when describing books and their meanings. They stay in their heads, never asking the fingers what they felt, the tongue what it tasted. Now, I love to wander around spending countless numbers of hours in my own head, but the head is not always a great place to be, especially when it comes to books. The head loves to look for meaning in places where the eyes would say, “No, it really is just a black wall and nothing more. The author didn’t mean death, or loss of innocence, or anything here. She just wanted you to see that odd black wall exactly the way her character saw it.” Or perhaps the head starts thinking that this particular protagonist was torn from his mother’s breast when he wasn’t ready, because throughout the book, he’s drawn to the fresh milk he gets from his neighbor’s dairy farm. Meanwhile, the critic’s tongue is screaming at him, “Have you ever tasted really fresh milk? I mean real milk, not that pasteurized and homogenized watery crap most people call ‘milk?’ I’d be drinking up that dairy farmer’s supply, too, if I could.”

Part of the problem, of course, is reading critics and wondering what on earth they’d do with my own writing. I can’t imagine what they might have to say about a ghost who haunts a fancy gas grill, say. My guess is some critic possibly surmising about my character’s (or, God forbid, maybe even my own) pyromaniac tendencies. Truth be told, though, that ghost appeared in my imagination while reading a friend’s email account concerning assholic NYC neighbors. Maybe it had something to do with pyromania – maybe I ought to revisit the story and write that into it – but my guess is that he was nothing more than what many of my characters are: a product of the interesting and out-of-the-way places my muse likes to explore and/or frequent.

But let’s forget my own writing. So often I find myself reading an Introduction and thinking “Oh, if only [fill in the blank] were here to respond to that!” I’m reminded of some of the interview footage I’ve seen of Bob Dylan in which he’s basically telling the critics they’re full of shit. I’ve now read two Introductions (yes, I did get a copy, so you can cross that off my Christmas list) and an academic blog post for L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda, and I don’t feel any of the critics got Eustace’s character right. I want Hartley to come back from the grave to defend himself. I want to hear him say, “Boy, were you all reading the book I wrote?”

However, I think Hartley might be quite pleased with Anita Brookner’s conclusion in the copy Bob – a “gift,” to him from me, but I swear he’s going to love it as much as I did – and I now own. She says:

One closes the book with a feeling of profound sadness, of regret not only for Eustace and Hilda but for the beautiful literary undertaking that is now ended. Few modern novels impose high standards. This one unquestioningly does.” (L.P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda, New York: New York Review of Books, 2001, p. xiii)

Okay, maybe Brookner did read the same book I read after all. And maybe critics do sometimes manage to feel rather than to think a book. Then again, Brookner is a novelist herself. Perhaps she wonders sometimes about the things the critics say concerning her own works.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

25 Concerts

I really should quit doing memes and photo/pencasts and things and write a proper post, especially since Courtney recently described me as a “marvelous, brilliant writer” (I won’t argue with her, because, well, it takes one to know one, right?), and then she told everyone if they’re not reading my blog, they should begin immediately. So, people are going to come over here from her place, find nothing but memes and photos, and think poor Court has lost her mind (something I definitely don’t want them to do). However, I could not resist this truly fun one that I found at Sprite Writes. (And besides, what’s summer for if it isn’t for memes, the “beach reading” of blogs?) So, for all those of you who are sick of the have read/haven’t read/love/hate book lists going around out there, this one might be a bit of a breath of fresh air, looking at music rather than books. Here you go:

Copy this list, leave in the bands/singers you’ve seen perform live, delete the ones you haven’t, and add new ones that you have seen until you reach 25. An asterisk means the previous person had it on his or her list. Two asterisks mean the last two people who did this before you had that band/singer on their lists. Three asterisks, etc.

1. CSN (with or without Y)** — I wish I’d seen them with Y, but alas, not. Still, it was a great outdoor show at an old amusement park with a good friend from college who’d moved to Connecticut for a couple of years not long after I did.

2. Dar Williams** — She’s my cousin. Of course I’ve seen her, and I’m thrilled that she’s on this list and has two asterisks. Oh, and I get to brag and say I bet not many, other than family members, can say that on a number of occasions they’ve had dinner with her parents before a show.

3. Janis Ian** — a few years ago at a folk festival. She’s still wonderful.

4. Sting ** — I saw him twice with The Police, and he once opened up for The Grateful Dead.

(Gee, this means there were only four on this list that I had seen. Let’s see if I can possibly come up with 21 more.)

5. B.B. King – oh man, oh man was he ever GOOD! I think that was definitely the best concert I ever saw.

6. David Bowie – more like watching great theater than a concert. I’d love to see him again, but it’s never happened.

7. The Grateful Dead – about a gazillion times, but I’m only a fringe Deadhead. I mean, I didn’t follow them all over the country, strung out, becoming best friends with complete strangers, and selling falafel and friendship bracelets, or anything. I just happened to live in places that were close to arenas where they came a lot (Madison Square Garden, Giant Stadium, etc.), always had friends (and a brother) who were willing to go, and I loved to hear Jerry Garcia play the guitar.

8. Queen – yep, saw them before poor old Freddy Mercury died, before anyone even knew what AIDS was, I think.

9. Syd Straw with the Golden Palominos – wouldn’t life be grand if I could perform like that?

10. Talking Heads – they came to my college and put on a helluva show the year Stop Making Sense was filmed. Just loved it. I’ve also seen David Byrne solo in New York (and Paul Simon was wandering around in the audience that night).

11. R.E.M. – a number of times. We used to see them down South before anyone knew who they were. Most recently, I saw them at MSG right after the disastrous 2004 election.

12. Jethro Tull – that was my first concert ever at age 13. Pretty impressive, huh?

13. Bruce Springsteen – it took forever, because I wanted to go see him when I was in high school, but Bob and I finally saw him a number of years back at The Meadowlands.

14. Cream – we saw them on their reunion tour a couple of years ago at MSG. I’m telling you, I don’t care how old he is, Eric Clapton is still a hot guitar god.

15. The Jayhawks – Bob and I are a bit obsessed with them. We went down to The Town Hall in Manhattan where they played (and were sold out) and hung around for hours until the poor guy at the ticket booth finally conceded some tickets to us. It was worth it.

16. Marti Jones and Don Dixon – oh, they were just so much fun to see together. I had a tape of that show (Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill) for years, because a friend of a friend had worked sound for them, but it eventually wore out.

17. The Nields – it’s so much fun to watch them bounce all over the stage.

18. The Proclaimers – they played at the infamous Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT and Bob and I were busy shopping in one of our favorite CD stores before the show, and they happened to walk in, so we talked to them (or I should say, Bob talked to them. I don’t do such things).

19. Cowboy Junkies – saw them at Toad’s Place, too. Twice. And we got to go backstage and meet them, because Bob befriended their photographer while hanging around waiting for the show to start.

20. Marshall Crenshaw – I remember dancing so hard, I accidentally kicked off one of my shoes.

21. UB40 – what fun, fun, fun! Everyone was so happy at that show.

22. Guadalcanal Diary – a number of times. They were my favorite “bar band” in their heyday.

23. Iris Dement – she was introduced to us by a friend of Bob’s, who’d interviewed her for a journal article, so after her performance, she’s another one we got to talk to (it pays to hang out with Bob. Somehow, it often means you get to talk to performers).

24. Suzanne Vega – we saw her just last fall at a really cool theater here in Pennsylvania. She was just terrific and very funny.

25. Michelle Shocked – oh, I’d follow her all over the world (even though that's a Marti Jones song) to see her perform. If you ever get the chance, go see her. She’s also very funny and she so obviously loves to play music. (Wish I’d been with Bob. She’s one I would have loved to talk to.)

Actually, I’ve just realized I could go on with many more than 25, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll give you some I almost saw:

  1. Elvis Costello – had a ticket, but got a horrible flu and didn’t get to go
  2. James – again, had a ticket, but a huge blizzard hit Connecticut, and the show was cancelled
  3. Wilco – well, Danny (Jeff Tweedy’s brother-in-law) offered to get me passes when they were in Philadelphia last winter, but that didn’t work out. However, I will see them one day (maybe even with Danny, which would be truly awesome).
  4. Rolling Stones – a guy who wanted to date me called me up the day of the show and told me he had a ticket for me. My sister was coming to Connecticut from North Carolina, so I turned him down (besides, I didn’t want to encourage him).
  5. U2 – another guy who wanted to date me called me up a few days before the show and told me he had a ticket. I already had plans to go to Provincetown that weekend and turned him down.

(From this, you’d think I had lots of guys wanting to date me and offering me tickets to great shows, but in all my single life, that only happened these two times. Both times, it’s really a good thing I didn’t go, but sometimes I find myself thinking, “Rolling Stones? U2? Free tickets? I should have cancelled all plans and just gone, even if Ted Bundy had been offering to take me.”)

Let’s get the music conversations going. I’d love to know who else has seen some of those I’ve seen. If I’ve ever commented on your blog, please consider yourself tagged and do with your tag as you please (no pressure, but you do know that the Queen o’ Memes -- by the way, I found out that some of you who are newer to my blog don’t know how I got that moniker. It was bestowed upon me by Hobs some time ago when I had tagged him for the umpteenth time – has the power to do as she will with those who ignore tags).

Oh, and all right. I promise my next post will be a real one. It might even be about something really substantial (nah. I doubt it).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Photo and Pencast

A few months ago, my mother was going through boxes of old photographs and finding some very interesting things. As a result, she sent me a little photo album with pictures through the years. I thought I'd share some of them with you and combine them with a pencast, because it's been a while since I did a pencast. So, here you go, from very little Emily to present-day Emily (and a few shots of family members to boot. Apologies to my siblings, because I'm sure they're all going to complain about how horrible they look in all these photos. I don't agree, and I bet no one else does, either).

Set #1 (click on each set to enlarge it, so you can actually see it):
Can you believe my mother made all those Halloween costumes for us? And I think I was squeezing Forsyth a little too tight in that one photo. She looks quite uncomfortable. And here's an interesting detail in that picture where I'm holding Panda: on the right you can see a tree hanging on the wall. My mother made that out of cut-out fabrics, and in and around the tree are an owl (Ian's favorite animal at the time), a dog (Lindsay's), a horse (Forsyth's), and a frog (mine). Sweet, huh? I'd forgotten all about that until I saw this picture. (Also, if you look really closely, you will see I'm wearing some extremely mod pants with some sort of flower or paisley or combination-of-the-two design. I don't remember them at all, but how cool. I recently bought a somewhat similar pair.)

Set #2: The expression on my face in that Battle Abbey photo is the expression that seems to have been on my face in every single photo that was taken of me between the ages of 14 and 17. I don't think of myself as having been a particularly sullen teenager, but the photos tell a different story. In the second photo, I have no idea what airport the four of us are in, but it looks like we're seeing Lindsay off (probably to England or Scotland, since she's laden down with that all-weather coat she's carrying).

Set #3: One of the few good things one of my ex-boyfriends ever did for me was to have a series of professional portraits done. I'm usually terribly un-photogenic, but those turned out quite well, and I remember being very surprised by the results (just goes to show what touching up can do and why we should never compare ourselves to models, because all we ever see of them are professional portraits). And here's proof that, as I always say, my wedding day was the happiest day of my life. Don't I just look so happy? I must say, Bob looks pretty happy, too. That "Easter" picture was actually taken a couple of nights before Easter (which was my parents' anniversary), at a local restaurant that's in an old tavern.

So, tell me: have I changed much over the years?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Two Monday Memes and a Whole Lotta Fives

(Please excuse all the bizarre formatting. Blogger despises cut and pasted posts.)

Meme #1:

I’ve done five things and seven things and eight things, I think, but now Charlotte’s put a new twist on the Five Thing Meme by adding “Fluffy,” which has made it great fun, and I couldn't get around the fact that I'd been (very creatively) tagged for this one, so here we go again.

Five Fluffy Things About Me:

  1. I don’t know which I like more: gummy bears or Swedish fish. They both have their distinctive pluses and minuses and are both probably the reason I had so many cavities as a child. And I now live in an area where all the local shops tempt me with bags of them at their registers.
  2. I love roller coasters. The bigger, the higher, the scarier, the better. I’ll ride any, but I prefer the good old-fashioned, wooden, rickety kind. I still think Coney Island’s Cyclone is the best I’ve ever ridden.
  3. I love pink. It isn’t my favorite color (green is), but I definitely love it all the same.
  4. I get more excited over a brand new package of magic markers than most kids. I especially love the kind that smell like different candy flavors.
  5. I wish someone would deliver a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers to me everyday the way they do for the reception desks of many businesses. No day could possibly be bad if it starts off with a delivery of flowers (even if I can’t identify all the flowers).

Copying Charlotte, rather than tagging five people, you are to consider yourself tagged if any one of these pertains:

  1. You’ve eaten at least one gummy bear or Swedish fish sometime in the past year
  2. You’d rather ride a roller coaster than a carousel
  3. You wish pink would get more respect
  4. The pen and marker aisle in office supply stores has a certain pull for you
  5. You don’t feel you get flower deliveries nearly often enough

Meme #2:

Then, Ms. Make Tea went and sort of tagged me for this one, with lots more fives (or multiples of fives, I guess).

What was I doing 10 years ago?

I was approaching my third wedding anniversary. I was working as an acquisitions editor for a reference publishing company and had a boss who was a micro-manager to the nth degree. Bob was also working for that company at the time (in the marketing and sales department), and he and I would soon be adopting a wonderful two-year-old sheltie named Lady with whom we would enjoy 9 years together.

Five snacks I enjoy in a perfect, non weight-gaining world:

(I'm changing this to a perfect, MSG-and-trans-fat-free world)

1. Doritoes
2. Cheese Doodles
3. Pepperidge Farm coconut cake (I'm waiting for them to get rid of the trans-fats, which reminds me, it's been a while since I checked that)
4. Things like ready-made onion and crab dips
5. Hotdogs (luckily, I can still manage to eat up to two at a time with no ill effects as long as I am very, very vigilant about my MSG intake for about three days afterwards, but they are worth it)

Five snacks I enjoy in the real world:

1. Chips and guacamole
2. Any kind of cheese and cracker
3. Any kind of nuts
4. Fresh fruit
5. Greek-style yogurt

Five things I would do if I were a billionaire:

1. Quit working
2. Give away lots and lots of money
3. Buy a small house on the water near Acadia, ME and an apartment in New York on Riverside Dr. with a view of the Hudson River
4. Start a quarterly print magazine composed of original book reviews written by book bloggers (who are a much better lot than most of those reviewing books in most of the print media I read)
5. Have a fresh-cut bouquet of flowers delivered to me every day

Five jobs that I have had:

1. Grocery store cashier
2. Nurse's aide in a nursing home
3. Language therapist for dyslexic kids
4. Library assistant
5 . Editor

Three of my habits:

(Why 3 and not 5? I think I’ll do 5, even though we all know a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.)

1. Drinking coffee every morning
2. Reading in bed before I turn out the light every night (even if only one page)
3. Obsessively checking email
4. Turning on the radio the second I get in the car when I'm driving alone
5. Keeping track of books I read and my thoughts on them in a book journal

Five places I have lived:

1. Winston-Salem, NC
2. Kent, England
3. Charlottesville, VA
4. Fairfield Country, CT
5. Lancaster County, PA

Five people I want to get to know better:

Besides Ms. Make Tea, of course, and I’m going to try to tag those she didn’t tag to spread this meme a little farther: Mandarine, Pete, Eva, Susan, and Sarah.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones

Jay, Charlotte. Beat Not the Bones. New York: Avon, 1952

This book was the current selection for the detective book club, and well, here’s one for those of you who have pleaded with me to quit adding to your TBR pile. I won’t beat around the bush: I didn’t like it. I would have given up on it if I hadn’t been reading it for the book discussion group. To give you an idea, at one point, when I picked it up, I put it down about three minutes later and started asking Bob where today’s Sudoku puzzle was and whether or not he’d like to play a game, he said,

“You’re not much into that book, are you?”

My answer? “Well, I keep hoping I’m going to get to the good part.” Just to let you know: the good part never comes, despite this great promise from the back cover copy, “Sudden, violent death enshrouded the island port of Marapai. The kind of death known only to voodoo cults and savages. On this island Europeans lost their civilization, their innocence – and their sanity.” Oh man, how can something that sounds so, so promising end up being oh so dull?! And take a look at what the New York Herald Tribune had to say about it (again, according to the back cover copy): “A writer of rather astonishing capacity…most persuasive – hair raising. All-and-all a most unusual and compulsive proceeding.” Umm…hair raising? Only if you consider Goodnight Moon a book not to be read in the dark.

I wonder if I should just bullet point all the things I found wrong with this book. Nah. That would be lazy (and about as scintillating as the book itself). What I do want to do is to apologize to whoever chose this book, because I’m about to trash it (some more). I hope you don’t take that personally, as I've certainly recommended my fair share of books to people and had them turn around and tell me they hated them. The joy of reading is that it’s subjective (something the most snobby of book reviewers don’t seem to understand), and I would never claim to be someone whose opinion should really mean a damn to anyone else.

Now, apologies out of the way, I will continue. First of all, I’m convinced Charlotte Jay must have attended the Elizabeth Bowen school of minimalist writing (the one, I mean, that produced Friends and Relations. My final opinion on Bowen is still out, as I haven’t yet read a second book by her. Uh-oh, I’ve just realized I have to read a second book by Charlotte Jay – ugh! – to give her her due). As when I read Bowen, I kept finding myself, way too often, thinking, “Huh?” This was followed by, “Please, please, just a few details,” a starving bird following someone eating a croissant and pecking desperately at every dropped crumb. Thus, we have such things as a seemingly loathsome, despicable man suddenly proclaiming that his real problem is that he’s in love (probably for the first time ever). We have in Emma, the main protagonist, a young woman barely out of her convent school, married to an older man who spends the first two months of their marriage off in the wilds of Papua, New Guinea. Based solely on the odd behavior of her dying father, after he receives a mysterious letter, this naïve wife, when she hears her husband has committed suicide, is determined to fly off to the jungle, where she’s never been, to prove he was actually murdered. We also have a man all the women are mad over who seems to be nothing but a malicious, paranoid fool. And we get absolutely no real explanation for any of this.

Then again, maybe I was nodding off (a distinct possibility given how not into this book I was) or something during the detailed descriptions of how a woman can be both innocent and dense enough to be someone whose

“…own view of such things was beautifully simple. People who were kind like David, her father and Trevor Nyall, one loved. People who were cruel, who went out of their way to wound, like Anthony and apparently, too, like Philip Washington, one hated. She had no notion of the horror of loving a persecutor.” (p. 109)

and yet, who would climb into cars with those she despised. Not only would she climb into cars with those she despised, but she would head off into the jungle alone with such people.

That’s one of my biggest problems. I found her completely unrealistic. She wasn’t one of those characters who arrives on the first few pages of a book as a child and then learns and grows throughout it, becoming someone wise and knowing (or maybe someone cruel and cold and calculating herself) by the end. That, although predictable, is at least believable. We all, most of us, grow up at some point, or change when thrown into unfamiliar environs. But no, that’s not Emma. The Republicans would have a heyday with her, as her character just flip flops throughout the book. It’s as if Jay couldn’t decide what she really wanted Emma to be: kind and naïve or tough, brave, and wise.

Oh, and talk about predictable. I didn’t find a single unpredictable character in the book. You just knew Emma was getting it all wrong with each new person she met. I know she was meant to, being the inexperienced soul she supposedly was, and in the hands of one of the many authors I love, it would have worked, but it didn’t work here. I just found myself getting extremely annoyed with her cluelessness. When it comes to predictability, though, one positive thing I can say for the book was that when the truth of what had happened was revealed, I was surprised. That part, at least, wasn’t predictable. I’m glad it was there. Without it, I don’t know how I would have made it through the last forty or so pages of the book.

Not only were all the characters predictable, but also I didn’t find any I liked too well. The most interesting character was a woman named Sylvia, but poor Sylvia’s role seemed mainly to be a means for filling in a few details (maybe that’s the reason I liked her. After all, without her, I would have had even fewer rewards for my desperate pecking). I suppose she was also meant to be Emma’s contrast, but that didn’t work too well for a character with such a bit part.

So, I was bored; I was annoyed; I was waiting for something worthwhile to happen; but I was also quite offended. The racism in this book was hard to ignore. Usually when I read books written during certain eras, although I get a bad taste in my mouth, I’m able to move past the racism and to think of the book as an interesting historical/sociological piece. I found I just couldn’t do that with this book. Jay didn’t seem to be detached from the racism or to be observing it with any real critical eye, or just presenting it as a matter of fact of the times. Yes, she provides a few nods to the plight of the natives, but it’s all quite condescending and viewed with the notion that the Europeans are “civilized” and “advanced,” and the poor natives aren’t. It’s a bit of a precautionary tale, too: Europeans had better be careful when they come to these places where “savages” abound, because such places just might turn them into savages themselves. And, of course, the “good savages” were those who had learned to adopt the ways of the Europeans. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and hope that all this really may have been commentary on her part, a way of helping us to understand that this was the way her characters thought, a way to provide us with a few details (hope, hope!) about them, and not necessarily her own view of the situation, but again, in the hands of a different sort of author (think Mark Twain, for instance), if that had been the intent, I’m sure it would have been made more clear.

So, there you have it: a book you need not add to the TBR list. I have to stick in one disclaimer here, though. I picked up this book right after finishing The Book of Lost Things. That’s tantamount to being the poor kid who’s handed a basketball as Michael Jordan walks off the court. No book should have to be the book to follow such an act. I just may have felt differently about this one if, say, I’d been reading an auto mechanic’s manual before cracking its spine.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Being Bold and an Important Note

The four greatest career guitarists to have lived, composed, and played in my lifetime are (in alphabetical order, because the idea of ranking them in any manor makes me cringe): Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Mark Knopfler, and Pete Townsend. Okay, now that I’ve made such a bold statement, I suppose I really must defend it, huh? (Oh the treacheries of making bold statements!) After all, I’m sure many of you read that sentence and thought, “What bias. First of all, those are all rock guitarists. What does she know?” Others thought, “Hey, hey, hey, what about [fill in the blank]?” Still others are wondering, “Why all male? Why all English/American?” All right, I’ll admit that I probably need to add a hundred qualifiers to my (ridiculously) bold statement. However, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to stick to my guns.

Here’s my first defense: I know absolutely nothing about music. I can’t read notes. I’ve never played any musical instrument (except the recorder, briefly, but those lessons at age fourteen were interrupted by our move to England). I don’t know what is and isn’t complicated. Some of you would say this means I have no ability to judge. I’m not going to argue that you may be right in that. However, I’d say that maybe it gives me an advantage, because I’m going on nothing but gut instinct and emotional response. And isn’t that what music is all about?

My second defense is that, although I may not know much about music, I have certainly listened to my fair share of it all my life. There isn’t a child of my father who didn’t lie in bed at night “conducting” to the baroque and classical music that wafted upstairs from the living room stereo. Along with that were such things as Simon and Garfunkel and Eric Clapton’s Layla, to which my father’s students and colleagues were introducing him at parties at our house. Meanwhile, one of the greatest treats was to have my mother put on her waltzes and waltz us around the living room or to have the adults clear the floor at parties (later in the evening, after many bottles had been emptied and Simon and Garfunkel was done) to put on the Scottish bagpipe music and dance the Highland Fling. Soon to follow my parents’ influence (not on that stereo, but on the kids’ record player upstairs) was music off the albums my older sisters purchased. They taught me to love Donovon, Cat Stevens, Three Dog Night (was I the only first-grader in history to have a huge crush on Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night? Maybe that makes up for my four-year-old crush on Mr. Greenjeans), Steppenwolf, The Beatles, Jethro Tull, and (yes) The Who, among many others.

My third defense is that the reason I single out these four guitarists is their distinctive, unmistakable sounds. I guess that’s what impresses me so much about them. Play clips of most guitarists for a music dolt like me, and I can tell you that I either do or don’t like them. I can tell you such things as whether or not they sound better “plugged” or “unplugged.” I can tell you what’s melodic and what isn’t. However, most of the time, my untrained ear can’t possibly identify them, even if they happen to be people I listen to all the time.

These four are different. First of all, I guess I need to add that I do happen to have one major bias. I want anyone I claim to be a great guitarist to be someone who knows what it means to be able to carry a melody. I’m really not much of a fan of those who like to imitate the noise of a young puppy chewing on guitar strings. I don’t mind if my “greatest” guitarists occasionally slip in something that sounds like this, when it’s appropriate to do so, but I want them to be aware of the fact that the human brain, most of the time, appreciates things that follow somewhat soothing patterns. Excite it a little with edginess and surprise and puzzles, from time to time, yes, but don’t do that all the time, unless some sort of psychotic illness is the desired result.

So, these guys all know a little something about melody and how to shake it up to the appropriate degree without overkill. Their biggest plus, however, is that I can recognize them. Play me a riff I’ve never heard from any one of these four, and I’m 95% sure I could identify them. Nobody can really rock like Pete Townsend, right? Eric Clapton, no matter what he’s playing, just doesn’t ever seem to be able to divorce himself from the blues, even when they’re wearing fake glasses, nose, and mustache. I don’t care if Jerry Garcia was taking over Pete Townsend’s chords with Baba O’Riley (which I once caught him doing live), or the less rocking chords of David Grisman, or his own compositions for The Grateful Dead, the way he handled that guitar to produce those sounds he did is more distinctive than the way Renoir put paintbrush to canvas. And then there’s Mark Knopfler. How does he manage to make the guitar whine in such an extraordinarily pleasant way? Children could learn a thing or two from him if they really want to get their way when resorting to whining.

All this is not to say I don’t have other favorite guitarists. And it certainly is not to say I may not be completely wrong. But there you have it. I’ve said it. Now, argue with me if you will (or feel free to agree, if you’d rather).

Important Note: I'm still planning the blogger meet up in Philly for anyone who's interested. Saturday August 9th is fast approaching, and I'd like to get a head count, so I can plan something that makes sense. Please let me know if you plan to join us for what I hope will become an annual event.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fun Home

Bechdel, Allison. Fun Home: A Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

(This was my third read for the Graphic Novel Challenge.)

How do I even begin to describe this, one of the best autobiographies I've read in a very long time? Bechdel's book is almost enough to make me give up on ever again reading another book in that genre that has always held a certain fascination for me: I-Come-from-a-Very-Dysfuncional-Family Memoir. The book has also, if not exactly awakened, at least moved my desire to read James Joyce from dead to deep sleep. This is not your typical dysfunctional family memoir, nor is it your typical autobiography, and not only because it happens to be a graphic novel (although, technically, I guess, it's referred to as a "graphic memoir").

For one thing, Bechdel's use of literary allusions is brilliant. You know her parents' marriage couldn't possibly have been anything close to a match made in heaven when you read this,
"If my father was a Fitzgerald character, my mother stepped right out of Henry James -- a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces. "(p. 66) She's also heartbreakingly honest, a trait that shines forth in a quote that comes a few panels after that one, "I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms." (p. 67) I can so relate to that quote, because it seems the neat boxes into which I tend to fit people I know are based, more than anything else, on fictional characters, or types of fictional characters.

I love the fact that the subtitle of this book is "A Family Tragicomic." That's exactly what it is, both literally and figuratively. I, who if I'd seen a book such as this one 25 years ago, would have described it as a "comic book," found myself wondering at times, "How can a comic book be so gut-wrenchingly sad?" The panels in this book do a far better job of getting at the heart of family understandings and misunderstandings and their accompanying pain than some of the in-depth descriptive prose I've read. Bechdel has a wonderful wry sense of humor, though, to ease the pain. This sense of humor reveals itself both through her drawings (what she chooses to portray) as well as the words she chooses to describe them.

Now that I've read my third graphic novel, I'm full of generalizations. One of these is that maybe this is the perfect medium for autobiography (at least, if one has the artistic ability to produce pen and ink drawings). To be able to capture facial expressions along with descriptions of feelings (or sometimes with no need to describe the feelings) packs a double whammy. I also love the details that can be conveyed in drawings that are often lacking in straight prose. For instance, when the beloved babysitter arrives, we get a picture of him rough-housing with the kids: one of them is thrown over his shoulder, held by one arm. The other child is being wrestled with the other arm, as the sister comes running. Soon all three are grabbing onto and/or being held by him -- expressions of joy on everyone's faces.

I'm also, I guess, beginning to get used to the shock of how "graphic" these novels can be. As opposed to the couple of panels presenting masturbation in Blankets, this book has not only a number of such panels but also quite a few devoted to lesbian sex (I'm quite surprised that this book was available at the Lancaster Public Library, given the "Christian" population here. I was even more surprised to find, when I went online, that it wasn't available at the Westport, CT public library, a library I used to frequent). These panels didn't really shock me that much (and probably wouldn't shock anyone who's ever looked at a Penthouse magazine) now that I know to expect such things. However, I do think that, at heart, I much prefer the power of suggestion over graphic portrayal when it comes to sex (think the sexiness of Anthony Hopkins in 84 Charing Cross, where there is no sex at all, versus, say Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman). The latter is sexy, yes, unless you're dead, but the former is (well, I can't think of anything subtle enough to describe it).

I'm also beginning to think that this medium just does not get its due, although I was very happy to see the NYT Book Review quoted on the back cover copy saying, "The most mysteriously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced. It's a pioneering work...The artist's work is so absorbing you feel you are living in her world." Very well put and a sign that maybe people are truly beginning to sit up and take notice of the form, instead of being pleasantly surprised that one of these books can turn out to be beautiful and profound. (Then again, maybe that's just me.)

Anyway, I'm eagerly awaiting Bechdel's next book. My advice to you? If you don't think you're the graphic novel type, try this one. It very well might be the one that changes your mind.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Off at the Ecojustice Challenge

I've posted over here today, if you'd like to visit me. We can have a cup of (organic) tea together.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Pushers

Does anyone else remember that Steppenwolf song “Goddamn the Pusher?” It was on Steppenwolf Live and was the reason my older sisters would shoo Ian and me out of the room when they listened to that album with their friends, because it had that “bad word.” Now that I’m older and am allowed to read, hear, and even say (although not around parishioners, of course) such words, I’m beginning to empathize with those lyrics just a teensy, tiny, little bit. You see, I am (and always have been) completely surrounded by pushers. I can’t join a twelve-step program, because I’d have to go live on a desert island with no online access in order to get away from them. In fact, I happen to be living with my #1 pusher (who sometimes, if truth be told, gets a little annoyed that I do so much business with others). I also happen to have grown up with five pushers.

Bob and my family members aren't the only ones, though (we’ll get back to them in a minute). Let me introduce you to some of my current pushers. First of all, there’s Becky. She’s the one who tempted me with Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight. She’s also the one who told me about Slightly Foxed, an entire catalog of various sorts of highs. (I was suffering severe withdrawal from that until just the other day, because the effects of the spring issue were beginning to wear off, and my summer issue had not yet arrived). And she introduced me to Persephone Books, the Dom Perignon of publishers. One recent morning, my cell phone trilled with an odd sound that is still unfamiliar, because I get so few text messages (Becky is a dear friend, who knows I hate to talk on the phone, and is very patient with my Luddite skills when it comes to texting. She texts me and patiently waits an hour for my three-word, misspelled reply). I picked up the phone and read “You must read Caitlin Kiernan. Southern, gothic, urban fantasy, spooky. Becky.”

She might as well have just stuck the joint in my mouth and lit it for me. I’m surprised she wasn’t afraid I’d drive up to Connecticut and steal her stash. I mean, if you know anything about me at all, you know I’m not about to resist such a tantalizing high. I did decide to do a little research before “just saying yes,” though. I went online to see what our library had and discovered Kiernan’s a YA author (a.k.a. “gateway drug”). A trip to the library was immediately planned, where the only Caitlin Kiernan on the shelf was Threshold, which was fine, one of her earlier novels, so I grabbed it before it could go missing (like two of the others that were supposed to be there) right before my eyes. And there I was, in the YA section, with all that temptation, and harder stuff just one staircase below…

Five books later, I was home. Around 11:00 p.m., I put down The Book of Lost Things (those of you who’ve read it know that’s a feat comparable to climbing Mt. Everest barefoot) to make sure all the lights were out and that Francis’s litter box was clean before going to bed. I forgot to bring it upstairs with me, and I can’t go to sleep without taking at least a couple of hits in bed before turning out the light. No problem, though, I figured. It was late. I’d just take a couple of hits off of Threshold instead, which was upstairs, to see how it felt. This would probably be a good idea. It always takes me more than that really to feel the effects of anything, and I was dying for some more The Book of Lost Things, which was guaranteed to wire me and keep me up too late. Well, 1:00 a.m. rolls around, and I’m off in the guest bedroom, completely wired on this new high, hiding from Bob who never even knew I’d slipped away to be alone with my secret addiction. I'm completely engrossed in Chance Matthews‘s bizarre life, already thinking “This is going to end too soon. I must get more.”

Then there’s my friend who shortly after this little binge of mine, sent me an email that said, among other things, “…I nearly died last night, trying to eat dinner while reading Sedaris's latest. I was choking and spitting up food all over the place. I couldn't breathe.” This is the friend, who when I once mentioned that I loved Me Talk Pretty One Day (pushed on me by my sister Forsyth), decided one snort just wasn’t enough and showed up the next day with a whole kilo (his entire Sedaris collection). That was very early in his career as my pusher, but let me just say, on more than one occasion, he’s been known just to give away really good shit to me. Without my even asking for it. I’m talking shit not laced with anything undesirable, here. And the way he overindulged me with Sedaris is his standard way of doing business. If I say I'd like to try some Ross Macdonald, I get everything Ross Macdonald ever wrote, plus a biography, plus some literary criticism. (Everyone needs a friend like this, huh?)

Anyway, next thing I know, I’m in the Border’s parking lot pulling When You Are Engulfed in Flames out of its brown paper bag. It’s about 110 degrees in the car on this sunny summer day, but I’m not about to wait till I get all the way home before trying it. I’m risking heat stroke here, as I open it and that familiar uncontrollable laughter begins to overtake me. I don’t want to get a DWI, though, so I slip it back in the bag, along with a couple of others (probably inferior, but they’ll do one day when I’m desperate, I’m sure) I picked up from the sale table while there.

If you’ve ever read Of Books and Bikes, I don’t need to tell you what a pusher Dorr is. I’ve decided she can’t write about her latest trip, even if it’s been a bad one, without my jonesing for some of what she’s just had. When we get together, she often arrives with something to share. On her recent visit, she knew exactly what to bring. I didn’t even have to ask: Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds, which is near-impossible to get in this country. Then, while here, she took her share of Anne of Green Gables, and then left it with me, when I said I’d managed to go from childhood to adulthood without any wandering at all through that particular gateway.

Dorr, of course, is not the only Blogland pusher. You all know who you are. I log onto your sites with half anticipation/half dread. I’m hoping you won’t show up with some good stuff, hoping that today we’re just going to drink lemonade and talk about our shared insecurities or something. Then, you show up with nothing to push, and I’m pissed. I mean, I’m counting on you for something more than a lemonade-sugar buzz.

It’s like getting together with my family members. If they come here, rather than my going to visit any of them, then I know I won’t be arriving home with at least four books in my bag. However, why shouldn’t I have the joy of arriving home with four books in my bag? Trips to my parents’ house are heavenly these days, because I’m pretty much guaranteed to arrive home with a box of books, since my mother is trying to get rid of things (everything that is, except what’s in the sacred bookcase where the Georgette Heyers, Agatha Christies, and Margery Allinghams live. Somehow, my sister Lindsay knows the secret of taking a swig or two of those and putting the bottle back on the shelf, my mother none the wiser, but I always seem to get caught when I try it). Oh, and then there’s the mandatory trip to the nearest bookstore we all have to take whenever we’re together.

Probably my worst pusher, though, is Bob, who is really into the hard stuff. I’ll mention to him that I’m so enjoying Sophie’s World, and the next thing I know, he’s pulling his collection of the Dialogues of Plato off the shelf and advising me what to read first. I’m terrified of James Joyce, sure something like Ulysses will be the death of me. People will find me in a back alley somewhere, a spine-cracked copy of the book obviously having slipped from my cold, dead hand. Bob’s been pushing Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man on me for years, trying to convince me I’ll like it, telling me it’s nothing like Ulysses (sure, and heroin is nothing like angel dust). I should have known from the moment I met him, since that’s when he was pushing Anna Karenina on me, that life with this man who’s actually read Euclid would be this way. Euclid sits on a shelf in the room we call the study, tempting me when I’m trying to work or write, because for some inexplicable reason, of all the hard stuff, I am most drawn to Euclid.

I’m not too worried, though, really. As the saying goes, “with friends like these…” I figure no one I know is ever going to force me into rehab. I’m free to enjoy my little addiction as long and as much as I like. After all, if I happen to walk into my living room one day to find all my friends and family members gathered together for an intervention, I’ll have one simple phrase for them, “Enablers. All of you.”

Monday, June 09, 2008

Pastor Bob and the Frog Shrine

(Before we get started, we are about halfway through the first quarter of the ecojustice challenge. This is a call for all those of you who are participating to please try to write a post this week to let us know how it's going. I include myself in this call.)

So Dorr came down from Connecticut to Pennsylvania over the weekend to visit us. I will have you know that, besides being a wonderful houseguest who allowed us to do things like give her tours of the reception areas of Lancaster hospitals and rehab centers (places familiar to pastors), she also stood her ground against Pastor Bob and all his teasing (not a mean feat, I can assure you). And we had more interesting discussions than Bob and I have had since he left seminary.

We were supposed to meet Courtney on Saturday to go hiking, but it turned out that poor Courtney had to work. This was actually a good thing as the heat and humidity we experienced in PA did not exactly scream, “Let’s go for a three-hour-long hike.” It was more like, “don’t go out in this heat except to do things like buy fudge and cheese and sticky buns, or to drink beer at the Lancaster Brewing Co., or to go eat ice cream at the country ice cream shop.”

Bob, Dorr, and I all three decided not to argue with the weather. This meant she and I spent Saturday morning just sitting around re-hashing much of Friday night’s conversation (a conversation that had me so enthralled, I made everyone come sit uncomfortably in the kitchen while I cooked dinner, so I wouldn’t have to miss any of it) while Bob finished writing his sermon and other Sunday worship elements. You may be wondering why we would need to re-hash the conversation. Let’s just say that Friday evening began this way:

Dorr arrived after her long drive, and we immediately gave her a tour of the house and then asked if she’d like to go on a walk. I have a favorite walk that really shows off the pretty farms and landscape around here, and the weather wasn’t quite as bad on Friday as it was on Saturday and Sunday. She agreed, and so we set off. We’d barely left the church parking lot, when Bob (too excited to contain himself, I guess) says, “So, what do you…[then, obviously thinking better of the question, prefacing it with] Emily’s going to kill me for asking this, but [Emily is immediately lost for a few seconds, thinking, “uh-oh, what is he going to ask?” while desperately trying to remember if there’s some on-going argument between the two of them he’s going to trick poor Dorr into taking his side on, and breathes a huge sigh of relief when he asks something to the effect of] Have you been following the primaries, and what do you think?” Because Emily is a blogger, and Bob isn’t, she already knows Dorr won’t reply, “I’m really, really pissed that Clinton lost and am going to vote for McCain.” (Of course, Bob is right. She would have killed him if she hadn’t known Dorr wasn’t going to answer that way.) Thus, we started the weekend off with the first of the big three "taboo topics" to avoid in polite conversation: politics, religion, and sex.

We all know that politics is not one of the three taboo topics those in my corner of the blogosphere avoid. Religion, however, is. I don't find much discussion of it here. People know I’m married to a pastor if they read my blogger profile, and occasionally, I’ve posted on some of my beliefs. Like everywhere else in my secular life, though, we mostly steer clear of it. I know you can find plenty of discussion of it elsewhere in blogland, but I don’t tend to be very comfortable in that “elsewhere.”

I wasn’t expecting to discuss it much this weekend, but Dorr came with lots of fascinating questions, and thus we moved right from taboo subject #1 to taboo subject #2. We never made it to taboo subject #3, with the exception of some very adolescent-like comments (mostly – no, maybe all – from Bob. Yes, from the minister) that everyone makes when they visit this part of the world and encounter town names like Intercourse, Blue Ball, Bird-in-Hand, Paradise, etc. Since sex has become the “non-taboo" taboo topic, though, we didn’t feel like we were missing anything.

Inbetween very interesting discussions about why people believe in God, what exactly that means, the “brokenness” of creation, what a radical Jesus was, truth in myth, and the paradox of Christianity (to name a few), we took Dorr to such interesting places as the Amish bookstore (where I don’t shop for books, but do shop for things like pencils and wrapping paper), the Amish natural food store (where I do about 80% of my grocery shopping), and, of course, our little local library (that I frequent). She also actually chose to attend church, something we do not require of our house guests. It was a wonderful, stimulating weekend, and I’m eagerly awaiting a return visit (with Hobs next time, we hope), because we didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all we could have discussed.

Oh, and then there is the frog shrine. Pastor Bob loves the frog shrine, and he made sure Dorr got a chance to admire it. I wasn't present when he brought her attention to it, but I am sure she was humbled by her gaze upon it. That’s all I’ll tell you about that. You have to come visit if you want to know more.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A New Favorite

I am not a book blogger. I write my thoughts on specific books for the challenges I can’t seem to keep from joining and for the detective book club, and I like to give synopses of favorite reads twice a year. But that’s about it. I can’t even begin to write about books the way those who teach books do like Hobs and Dorr and Litlove. Right now, I have a long list of things I want to turn into blog posts, like why we need more female CEOs, especially at certain kinds of companies. I want to write about complications that arise when a romantic soul is paired with an unromantic one. I want to tell you about my frustrations with the novel that just isn’t happening. And then there’s music. I have a post that’s almost written on the best rock guitarists ever and another one on radio stations I have known and loved. There are even a couple of memes out there calling my name. Oh, yeah, and then there’s the ecojustice challenge that’s beginning to feel very neglected, because I haven’t given an update in ages, and I’ve actually finished another graphic novel for the graphic novel challenge.

However, I recently read a book that just won’t leave me alone. It’s been badgering me day and night to share my thoughts on it. It’s why I’m sitting here, starting to compose this little piece at 11:00 p.m. when I should be in bed, because I’ve got to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning to review material for a meeting I have at 9:00. I want to tell it to go away, to leave me alone, but you know me. Who am I to tell a book to shut up?

This book just might have to give Thomas Hardy and Tess a gentle nudge off that alphabetical list of favorite reads of mine to take the “H” spot. I can hear those of you who recently voiced your disdain for Tess of the d’Urbervilles saying, “Oh good. She’s finally come to her senses.” But I haven’t. I’m not sure this tragic work really deserves to replace that one, as far as tragedies go. The thing is, though, when I read Tess I find myself thinking, “Well, of course this book has to be tragic. There’s no hope here, and no way Hardy could have made this particular story anything other than tragic.” While reading this book, though, my thoughts ran more towards, “Oh, I know it’s headed for disaster, but it doesn’t have to be!” The fact of the matter, though, is that like most family stories, it does. And it has to be tragic just as much as Tess does. The genius of this book is that the author is so convincing. The reader hopes family stories aren’t so inevitable, hopes that our roles aren’t cut out for us basically from the day we’re born, hopes that these roles are not all but impossible to escape.

The book is Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley. You know how a while ago I mentioned that it had been a very bad idea to ILL a 700+ paged trilogy? Well, this was that book. I did manage to get a 2-week renewal on it, which was a good thing, because this is not a book to speed read (not that I’m capable of reading at more than a glacial pace anyway). I’ve discovered another reason it was a bad idea as an inter-library loan: this is a book to own, a book to return to at a later date, a book to quote to friends. It’s also a book you want everyone you know to read, so you need to have a copy (or 2) to lend.

This is not an action-packed page-turner. It is an old-fashioned novel in the best sense of the word (despite the fact it’s really three novels in one). Truly laugh-out-loud funny in those parts where we dreamers/worriers completely recognize ourselves in Eustace, yet such a heartbreaking story overall. This is not one to read if you’re seeking a love story with a happy ending.

Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason (read: I let my compulsive nature, which likes to start at the beginning and end at the end in all things, have its way for a change in this matter), I read the Introduction first, when I almost always read that after I’ve finished a book. And this time, I’m really mad that I did that, because the Introduction, of course, laid out exactly what was going to happen. No writer of introductions should be allowed to do that (the pieces ought to be Afterwords, if they insist). For a book like this one, it’s irresponsible, if not downright criminal. Yes, the book has a forbidding undertone throughout that signals doom, but does any reader really need to know the details of what that doom includes before reading the book?

Anyway (I’m hopping off and shoving the soapbox away now), the different levels of this book and all its complexities just amazed me. I wish I were back in school and could write a paper on it. I’d have so many topics to consider for a thesis: sibling relationships (Eustace and Hilda are brother and sister); what dooms a love affair; the roles of rich benefactresses; whether or not Eustace and Hilda were a replica of their father and aunt, repeating family history; class differences, which seem to be a major subject in almost all great early twentieth-century English literature. Then, of course, there are the personal associations, because I am a dreamer/worrier like Eustace. I hope Ian doesn’t think I’m his Hilda. I can’t imagine any brother/sister reading this book and not adamantly denying any glimpses of Eustace/Hilda in their own relationships.

For some reason, both the Ruin-It-All Introduction Writer for this edition (David Cecil, by the way for anyone who’s interested) and the cover copy on this book refer to Eustace as a hedonist (my guess is the cover copywriter was just pinching from Cecil's piece). Has the meaning of that word changed? Or, is it one of those words that means something completely different to everyone other than literary critics, the sort of word literary critics like to use in an obscure way to separate themselves from the riff-raff of common readers? I suppose, compared maybe to some of the puritans surrounding him, he looks like the kind of guy who would spend his days lolling on beaches, drinking umbrella drinks, and sleeping with a different woman every night, never a care in the world for work or any practicalities of living. Cecil's point may be that this is Eustace’s nature, what he would have been without the reigning puritan influence in his family and among his acquaintances, most notably Hilda. However, “hedonist” is the last word that ought to be used to describe him (mind you, you’ve got nothing but riff-raff here making this point).

Dreamers/worriers do not good hedonists make. They have very keen vision when it comes to seeing what would happen if they did nothing but loll on the beach, drink umbrella drinks, and bed down with as many partners as possible (skin cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and AIDS to name a few in this day and age). And that’s what makes Eustace so charming and funny. He’s not a hedonist. Under all those filmy layers of dreams, he’s a realist. For instance, he works hard at school. He does not separate himself from his sister, never looking back. (And that, because I don’t believe in revealing plots, is all I’ll say about that. I’m being very good here, because much more happens to Eustace that I’d love to discuss, but I won’t.)

And then there’s Hilda. She’s not quite as well-drawn as Eustace. We’re not really meant to sympathize with her, and we don’t really until the latter parts of the trilogy (when it’s sort of a surprise for some of us to find ourselves doing so). Ultimately, though, I came to realize that the poor thing can’t really help what she is. I most especially settled on this idea when I started thinking about the family’s situation and the only real models she had: her father and her Aunt Sarah (Eustace’s feelings toward Aunt Sarah are so revealing in this regard).

My only real complaints are that some of the dreams aren’t dream-like enough and that the sea anemone and the shrimp (which is the title of the first book in the series) are overdone. These two creatures and the siblings’ interactions with them are a great way to set the stage, but Hartley hits us over the head with them. He leaves such a vivid image in the reader’s mind from the get-go that the impact would have been greater had he never mentioned them again, never felt the need to revisit them. The last visit is so unnecessary as to be almost distracting.

However, I don’t feel truly comfortable in having voiced such complaints, because I, of course, will never write a masterpiece such as this one, so who am I to complain? After all, this book is full of sentences that beg to be read two or three times to savor their perfection (and to strike awe – or maybe utter despair – in would-be writers). I’d quote some for you, but I can’t, because I had to return the book. If anyone’s trying to figure out what to get me for Christmas this year, I think I just may have an idea…

Hartley, L.P. Eustace and Hilda. Stein and Day, 1986