Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What I'm Listening to Now: Wrecking Ball

OMG! It's BRUCE! Bruce as you remember him, a vital member of the "Pit Crew" (or whatever the equivalent cheering section of your high school basketball team was), the guy who was singing "Born to Run" at that party where you got drunk for the very first time, the one who was crooning in the background when you finally made out with that guy (or gal, as the case may be) in the back seat of his newly-acquired, second-hand Honda Accord (or the back seat of your parents' station wagon. Whatever...). He's the same Bruce who followed you to college where you and your roommate decided "I'm on Fire" was one of the sexiest songs ever written and where you laughed at the buffoons who thought "Born in the USA" was a testament to Ronald-Reagan-style "patriotism."

He grew up with you, became politically aligned with you (or maybe it was that you became politically aligned with him). He protested the Iraq War with you, voted for our first Black American president with you, and now, all. of. a. sudden, you and he are back in high school again -- you, desperately wishing you could go to Asbury Park with him, even (shhh! Don't tell anybody!) wishing you were from New Jersey, and he with that familiar deep voice, those familiar guitar strings and piano keys and jingle bell sound. Which is not to say that this latest album of his isn't new and fresh.

One of the things that's always amazed me about Bruce Springsteen is that, no matter how distinct his sound, he is always evolving. He adds new instruments (bagpipes, for instance here), new sounds, goes back to his roots and shoots forward to a time we've yet to encounter (good old rock 'n' roll infused with something that steals itself from the rap music of today). This one, more than any of his other recent efforts, however, takes me back to a time when Springsteen on the turntable meant even wallflowers were pulled up from their seats and onto the dance floor. I want to dance. I want to stomp. I want to romp around the room when I listen to it. It's like being in an Irish Pub with or without the beer. And when you've been romping and stomping and sweating up a storm, here comes the ballad that causes everyone to raise mugs high and to sway.

That's what the music does. What the lyrics do is make me want to shout, "Rock on, Bruce!" Pay attention to them. Here, we have an angry Bruce (who says only young men get to be angry?). He's angry at what this country has become. Angry at corporate America. Angry about the death of "my hometown."Angry about all the things that make me angry and that should make all Americans angry, if only they'd wake up out of this country-wide stupor that has so many under its spell and take notice.

No unbiased review here, or seeking out something to criticize. I just love it. I unapologetically love it. If you're a Springsteen fan and haven't bought it yet, do. You won't regret it. I promise.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Two Challenges: Classics 2012 (Continued) and Once Upon a Time VI

Sophocles. Fitts, Dudley and Fitzgerald, Robert, tr., eds. The Oedipus Cycle. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976.

(This English translation was originally published in 1939, and I see it's been reprinted since the version I have, because the cover image I found for it -- left -- is completely different.)

This collection of Sophocles's three Oedipus plays (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) was my third read for the 2012 Classics Challenge. As luck would have it, I chose two classics that would actually fit into Carl's Once Upon a Time VI challenge. If I'd been thinking, I would have saved this one for that, but I (as is so often the case) wasn't thinking. I still have another title that works well for both challenges, but more on that in a moment. For now, let's look at the March prompts given to us by November's Autumn, who is hosting this challenge. She chose to focus on setting this month (appropriate, since these three plays are so often referred to as Sophocles's "Theban Plays"). I've finished the book so will participate at all three levels.

Level 1
How has the author introduced the setting? What does it tell you about the character? About the time period? What is the mood of the setting?

The author introduces the setting, first very briefly by describing Oedipus's palace and the people gathered in front of it, bringing sacrifices as if to a god. We learn more when the chorus sings of the woes of Thebes, of which Oedipus is king. Despite the fact that very little is said about the physical aspects of the place, all the people are despairing, because they have been suffering for a long time, plagued by illness and drought and war. What the setting tells us about Oedipus is that he's a bit clueless (something he will continue to be), questioning why his people are so desperate. The second play is actually set in Colonus, a place that doesn't seem much happier, where Oedipus goes with Antigone after running from Thebes. Oedipus and Antigone are immediately reproached for resting on sacred ground but are allowed to stay, adding a bit of false hope to the tragedy. The third play is back in dusty, despairing Thebes, where it's so dry, Antigone has quite a time of it trying to bury her brother.

Level 2
How do you envision it? Find a few images or describe it. Do you feel the setting is right? Or was it a weak point of the author?
This is how I envision Thebes: a bleak, dusty, dry, and rocky place. The buildings are made of pale stones -- grays and tans -- and there isn't much color, except the blue, blue sky. People walk around with the dust of the city embedded in their feet, impossible to clean, and they try very hard to find relief from the hot sun. The setting is perfect for the three stories (who can argue with an Ancient Greek?).

Level 3
If this particular setting were changed, how would it affect the course of the story?
I'm having a little fun imagining what might have happened had Oedipus remained in Athens. What if he had never gone to Thebes? He might never have killed his father or married his mother. He might just have been a Nobody King, or maybe he would have been some tyrant, some horrible king, known for killing babies instead of his father. If he'd stayed in Athens, the world of modern psychology would be turned upside down: what would Sigmund Freud have done without Oedipus?!

And now we go from "what if? to "Once Upon a Time" with (I can't believe it) the sixth annual

Once Upon a Time Challenge

I used to read about this challenge every year, but last year, I finally decided to join in, and I had so much fun (the number 1 rule of the challenge, so I've followed that one well) that I'm back again this year. If you've been reading my blog for the nearly six years I've been keeping it, you know that I love snow and that winter happens to be my favorite season. Spring is always a bit of a sad season for me, not that I don't love all the buds and birds and flowers and a gorgeous, warm spring day as much as the next guy, but I hate the fact that it's a sign that the long, horrible, hot, muggy days of summer are just around the corner. Now, however, I've got this challenge to look forward to, something to make spring even brighter, even on days like today, when the sun keeps changing its mind about whether or not it's going to come out. What better way to get my mind off the impending wretchedness of summer than immersing myself in times and places, long, long ago?

This year, I am taking on Quest the First. The instructions are as follows:

Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

And these are the 5 books I've chosen:

The Arabian Nights (folk tales, although I believe some -- or all -- could also be described as fairy tales? I haven't read them, but I'll see what I think once I do) -- Husain Haddawy
This is the one that I'm also reading for the Classics Challenge and one I've been wanting to read, oh, for about 20 or so years now.

Lyonesse (fantasy) -- Jack Vance
I've been reading and loving Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth, sent me by a friend who never fails when it comes to sending me good things to read. The same friend also sent me this one, about the kingdom of Lyonesse and its ruthless, ambitious king who plans to arrange a marriage for his beautiful daughter that will benefit the kingdom (and its king, of course). She defies him and is confined to her beloved garden where she finds her love but also, apparently, her tragedy. Doesn't that sound fabulous? Yeah, I think so, too.

Magic Study (fantasy) -- Maria V. Snyder
Maria V. Snyder is really, maybe, just chick lit disguised as fantasy. Then again, maybe not. I got hooked reading the first in this series, Poison Study, and there's a little more there than what appears on the surface. Our heroine Yelena is back in this novel, returned to Sitia, her place of birth, where she will study the magic she recently discovered she possesses and will also become the target of some rogue magician, intent on making her his next victim.

The Hobbit (fantasy) -- J. R. R. Tolkien
I don't need to tell you what this one is about. Everyone has read it but me. I'm feeling hopeful. Maybe this will be the year I read, get, and fall in love with Tolkien. And if I do, maybe that will bode well for a beautiful summer, full of warm days, soft rain, and very little heat and humidity. We'll see...

The King Must Die (mythology) -- Mary Renault
Thanks to Zoë's Mom, I recently came home with a copy of The Hunger Games, which she and Ms. Musings assure me I'll like (and I'm quite sure they're right. For some reason, I've got it in my head that it's going to be a cross between Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery and Scott Westerfield's The Uglies). Bob took one look at it and said, "You must read The King Must Die first." So, I'm reading The King Must Die first even though I don't quite understand the connection. Nevertheless, it looks absolutely terrific, given that it's about Theseus, which means it's about the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Did I ever tell you how much I love the labyrinth and the Minotaur (a love affair that was solidified when I read Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths in college. As a matter of fact, that one is due for a reread. Maybe I'll do that after I read The Hunger Games)?

Looks like it's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny sort of a spring, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Meme Continues

It seems most who've answered my 11 questions meme would like to see my answers, and Ms. Musings tagged me to answer her own questions, so here are both.

Answers to My Own Questions

1. Have you ever liked a movie more than the book? If so, what movie(s)?
Yes, before legal thrillers were a dime a dozen, and no one had ever heard of some new guy named John Grisham, I read a book called The Firm, which kept me absolutely riveted from beginning to end. When the movie came out, I was sure it wouldn't be as good as the book, especially since it starred Tom Cruise. I was wrong. I can't remember why (we're talking nearly twenty years ago now), but I distinctly remember thinking that some changes had been made for the movie version that made it even better than the book.

2. ________ opening for __________ would be a dream concert. Fill in the blanks. (You can fill them in with performers dead or alive.)
Jamie Cullum. Ella Fitzgerald. And then I hope they would come onto stage and do a few numbers together.

3. If you're making dinner and don't need to take into account anyone else's tastes but your own, what do you find yourself having over and over again?
Fried egg on toast, or baked beans on toast, or (if I'm really being fancy and decadent) fried egg and baked beans on toast.

4. You get to interview the author of the book you are reading right now. What's the first question you'd ask?
I'm (as usual) reading several books at once, but I will ask Lawrence LeShan, author of How to Meditate: Am I ever going to get to the point at which I can focus and keep my mind from wandering all over the place? (I've been trying fifteen minutes a day for three weeks now without much success at all.)

5. If the world becomes one in which all new novels are only published in digital format, what will you miss most?
Going to bookstores and browsing the new book shelves to see what (if anything) strikes my fancy. I do judge books by their covers, and digital covers are completely unsatisfying.

6. If you had been gifted to play any musical instrument brilliantly, what would you choose to play? (Or maybe you are so-gifted. If so, what do you play?)
The banjo. It's just such a fun, happy instrument.

7. The "war between the sexes" has been around since the beginning of time. What do you think is the biggest problem between the sexes today?
The fact that we still raise our children in ways that adhere to traditional sex roles. We're getting better, but we have a lo-o-ng way to go, and I'd say we've gone backwards since the 1970s, and Free to Be You and Me, what with all this focus on princesses and fairies and pink and lavender for girls these days, not to mention seven-year-olds being encouraged to wear tight-fitting, cleavage-baring clothes for their non-existent cleavage.

8. If you could switch places with any celebrity for three months, with whom would you like to switch places?
Nigella Lawson. I want to be able to cook like her. I want her kitchen. I want to write like she does (and to write for such publications as The New York Times). And I want to look like her. If I didn't love her so much, I would hate her.

9. You can eat at any restaurant in the world. Where would you eat?
The Hanapepe Cafe and Espresso Bookstore. Books, delicious coffee, fabulous food. What more could you ask for? Oh yeah, it's in Kauai, HI.

10. What book do you wish you hadn't wasted your time reading last year?
Heaven is for Real. That one very nearly did in this curious cat, who wonders just how many lives she has left to waste on books that pique her curiosity because she can't believe so many people are actually reading them and taking them seriously.

11. Would you like me to answer all these questions myself?
I think I've answered this one.

Answers to Ms. Musing's Questions

1. How do you mark the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend?
Since I work part-time, often on Saturdays and am married to a minister, my "weekend" is very different from most, basically it consists of Sunday afternoon and Monday. I typically mark it by coming home from church, changing into something extremely comfortable, eating lunch, and spending the afternoon reading before having some sort of "date" with Bob, whether that's going to dinner or a movie or just staying in and playing games.

2. What is your idea of luxury?
A day spent in bed, alone, with a good book.

3. Tell me a book, a drink, and a food that all complement each other.
Amor Towles's The Rules of Civility, a martini (or anything made with gin), and crackers with some sort of really delicious aged cheese.

4. What is one thing you love about the house (flat, apartment, yurt, whatever) and one thing you would change?
I love almost everything about it: the fact that it's over a hundred years old, its high ceilings, its hard-wood floor, its cool molding, it's large front porch, the large walk-up attic. It's a fabulous house.
I would change its horrible, horrible location: right on an extremely busy highway, traveled day and night by noisy tractor trailers, which makes the front porch impossible to use. There are so many gorgeous places in this county where I would happily pick it up and plop it down, if only I could.

5. What is something about yourself that you have made peace with?
I will never tan; that creamy, white skin can be beautiful, too (I mean, look at Nicole Kidman), no matter what the fashion industry wants us to believe; and that it is much better to stay out of the sun than to burn myself and risk skin cancer.

6. If you're browsing in a real-world bookshop, what will make you pick up a book that you've never heard of by an author you're not familiar with?
a. The cover
b. The fact that it's on a "staff recommends" shelf or has some sort of "staff-recommended" blurb associated with it

7. If you could (or do) have it your way, what's your decorating style (plain, fancy, girlie, austere, classic...?)
Definitely classic. Visit Pierpont Morgan's library in NYC (the part that was his). Antiques, leather, wood, huge fire place, wall-to-wall books. That's what I want (unfortunately, I don't have the money for that sort of thing).

8. What never fails to cheer you up?
Reading Three Men in a Boat (preferably outside, on a gorgeous day, by some body of water, with multiple glasses of fresh and icy cold lemonade).

9. What are you going to do when you retire that you don't have time for now?
Bake my own bread. In fact, bake in general. I also hope to learn about wild flowers and trees, hiking all those trails in Maine.

10. Given the chance, which house in literature would you move into and why?
The brownstone in NYC that Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family lived in in The Saturdays, because it was obviously conveniently located to anything the kids wanted to do (museums, opera, Central Park, etc.), while also being a typical brownstone, with its multiple floors (I'm a fan of multiple floors). I would also like to have the country home the family moves into in The Four-Story Mistake, because it's another dream house, with its cupola and secret rooms and nooks and crannies (and, of course, multiple floors). It was probably in Westchester County somewhere, but once I moved to Connecticut, I liked to think it was in Connecticut.

11. What don't you wear, not because it doesn't suit you, but because you don't think you're the sort of person who wears that style/colour/a poncho?
Long, tight dresses with plunging necklines and slits up to the hip. I don't have the right sort of curves, and I'm not a movie star and will never be on stage receiving an Oscar. Also, if I need tape to keep myself inside anything, I'm not going to wear it.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Smith, Martin Cruz. Gorky Park. New York: Random House, 1981.

Three corpses show up in a park, buried in the snow. One of the weathered investigators who finds them is shocked by their condition: faces basically skinned off the heads and fingers cut off at the first joint, so no identifying prints can be had. If this were a 21st-century novel set in America, we'd have the makings of a story about some sick serial killer who will go on to terrorize a city, skinning more faces and cutting off more fingers before our clever detective finally identifies and catches him.

But this isn't 21st-century America. It's 20th-century Soviet Union. A Cold War era novel written by an American. I must confess that I was less than thrilled that this book was the March choice for the Connecticut mystery book club. In 1984, I flew to England for my sister's university graduation. Gorky Park was the movie on that flight. My father and I both chose to watch it, and in my comatose state (I'm exhausted, always, on overseas flights but rarely manage to get much sleep), I tried to follow the complex plot with very little success. I was convinced I was in for the same sort of luck with the novel, sure that knowing as little as I do about Russia (either Soviet or non) would make it impossible for me to penetrate.

I needn't have worried. Gorky Park turned out to be one of those novels that, instead of being confusing and referring to all kinds of things about which I knew nothing, actually taught me quite a lot about those things. Some authors can do this, serve as teachers. Others lose a reader like me, expecting me to have advanced degrees in their book's subject before I even get started. Cruz Smith, I guess, assumed his readers knew nothing and did his best to inform us.

Because we were in Soviet Moscow, the plot was, indeed, far more complicated than a serial killer terrorizing the city. It was interesting for me to have just read 1984 as a prelude to this, because it's another book in which the main character, and thus the reader, has no idea whom to trust. I found myself not trusting anybody (well, except Arkady Renko, our Chief Homicide Detective and main character), and I was right not to do so. Certainly, during the Cold War, the Soviets weren't to be trusted, but don't be so quick to trust the Americans in this novel, either.

That's ultimately what I found most interesting about the book. Cruz Smith was challenging stereotypes and encouraging readers to think about the fact that corruption is a human weakness, not something that any one society necessarily does better than any other. Yes, we were in Moscow (and New York), but we could also have been in Madrid or Tokyo or New Orleans. And our killer? Well, how and why and where he chose to kill was a bit more complicated than the standard serial killer's profile, but underneath it all was a murderer who was just as brutal, just as animalistic, someone with the same sort of overinflated ego and lust for blood.

Although I didn't actively dislike the book, I will say it wasn't one of the best I've read. Given the genre and topic, it moved extremely slowly. I never quite got that feeling of dying to know what was going to happen next, flipping through the pages, afraid for the characters and what might happen to them. In fact, I found 1984 to be much more of a page-turner than
Gorky Park. This book was far too easy to put down and not so easy to keep picking back up. There was a distance between the characters and me that was unsettling, that kept it from quite coming alive.

I think next time I read a mystery that takes place in Moscow, I'll read one written by a Russian. (In fact, I'll take recommendations from anyone who's read any good Russian mysteries set in Moscow.) I may, then, have to face the problem of the author assuming I know much more about his or her city and its people than I do, but I have a feeling the characters might be a little more believable than they were here. I liked Renko, but he was still a bit flat after living with him for 365 pages, and who's ever heard of a flat Russian character? Give me some lively characters, and I'm sure I'll be turning the pages, dying to know what's going to happen, as afraid for those characters' lives as they are.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Meme from the Queen

(Note all the labels for this post. This one conveniently fulfills all my recently created blog categories for The New and Improved Telecommuter Talk, except for "music." Seems I must do a couple of posts on music, then, no?)

Remember back in the day when I was dubbed "The Queen o' Memes"? No? I don't blame you. I barely remember it myself, seeing how long it's been since I either responded to or created a meme. There have been quite a few that I've meant to respond to, but, well, we all know the difference between meaning to do something and actually doing it. I'm much better at the former, not always so good at the latter. In other words, if proverbs are to be believed, you don't have to look too hard to see the good intentions oozing out of the big truck paving my road to hell.

Luckily, I have Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books doing her best to save me from the fiery pits of hell. She tagged me for a meme that I just couldn't resist (and even emailed me to tell me she'd tagged me so that it wouldn't whizz by unnoticed, the way so many good blog posts seem to do these days, while I plod my way much more slowly around the blogosphere than I used to).

These are the rules for what I'm calling The Eleven Questions Meme:

1. Post the Rules.
2. Answer the eleven questions that were asked of you by the person who tagged you.
3. Make up eleven new questions and tag eleven new people to do the meme.
4. Let them know you tagged them.

And these are the questions Susan made up for those she tagged to answer, along with my answers to them:

1. What is your favourite place in the world?
I'm not sure. I absolutely love so many places and would move to any of them in a heartbeat (New York City; London; Edinburgh; Mt. Desert Island, ME; Portland, ME; Asheville, NC; etc.), but there are plenty of places in the world I've never been that I'm sure I would love just as much (Vienna, for instance. Rome for another). The world is just too big, and there's just too much to love.

2. Have you ever visited an author's home, and did the experience live up to your expectation?
When I was fifteen, I visited Beatrix Potter's home, and yes, it absolutely did live up to my expectations. It was the perfect place for the creator of Peter Rabbit, et al., and I loved discovering that she actually found dead animals and dissected them in order to be able to draw them as accurately as possible. I also, a couple of years ago, visited the home where Edgar Allan Poe lived during his Philadelphia years. There's a museum on the first floor, but the rest of the house is unfurnished, giving it a wonderfully eerie quality that just quietly whispers "Poe."

3. Do you read biographies of authors you like, or do you prefer to let their words speak for them?
I'd prefer to read biographies, and do, but not nearly as often as I'd like. I frequently find myself thinking, "Hmmm...I really ought to read a book about (Poe, say -- especially when touring his house)," but then I never do. Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn't help when it comes to this. These days, I typically just refer to it and the links it provides when I want to know more about an author. When I do sit down with a biography (or autobiography or memoir), though, I always end up wishing I did so more often.

4. Do you have a comfort food?
I have tons of comfort foods: grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, hot dogs, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie (real chicken pot pie, not the chicken stew people in Lancaster County call "chicken pot pie"), bagels with cream cheese and lox, shrimp cocktail, fried egg on toast, baked beans on toast (actually, just toast, period)... I'm making myself hungry, so I'm going to stop now.

5. Do you have a favourite classical author?
That's like having a favorite place in the world. Many, many spring to mind: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe (he's popping up all over the place in this meme), Aristophanes, and I could go on. I'm sure, though, that I have plenty of undiscovered authors who would fit the bill once I get around to reading them. Maybe in my next life?

6. Do you prefer to watch the movie first, or read the book first?
Unless I know it's going to be my next lifetime before I finally get around to reading the book, I prefer to read the book first. There's nothing I hate more than being told what a character looks like (via images on a screen) before I've created the character in my own mind. In fact, it can ruin a book for me. Sometimes I accidentally see a movie first, because I don't realize it's a book (The Descendants), but usually I read the book before seeing the movie.

7. Do you have enough bookshelves? (I know this question is a cheat, because really do any of us have enough bookshelves?)
I would if my husband didn't have so many books :-)!

8. Is there an author that you are planning to read this year for the first time?
Yes, Jack Vance (and I've already begun to read him and have fallen in love with him).

9. Do you have a favourite historical period, and why is it your favourite?
The 1920s. It's my favorite because I love the 1960s, too, and all the radical changes that shook up the world, and the 1920s were the same. People forget that because our memories are short, and no one studies history much anymore. The 1920s were the original radical decade of the twentieth century.

10. Name a book that you are anticipating reading that is being published this year.
Tana French's Broken Harbour. Can. Not. Wait.

and just because I [Susan, although Emily loves this question, too] like this question so much:

11. Name two of your favourite novels that you have reread more than once.
Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, which I recently wrote about here and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, I read it about once a decade or so.

These are my 11 questions (which will include some questions about music, so technically, I probably could label this post "music", as well, but I won't):

1. Have you ever liked a movie more than the book? If so, what movie(s)?
2. ________ opening for __________ would be a dream concert. Fill in the blanks. (You can fill them in with performers dead or alive.)
3. If you're making dinner and don't need to take into account anyone else's tastes but your own, what do you find yourself having over and over again?
4. You get to interview the author of the book you are reading right now. What's the first question you'd ask?
5. If the world becomes one in which all new novels are only published in digital format, what will you miss most?
6. If you had been gifted to play any musical instrument brilliantly, what would you choose to play? (Or maybe you are so-gifted. If so, what do you play?)
7. The "war between the sexes" has been around since the beginning of time. What do you think is the biggest problem between the sexes today?
8. If you could switch places with any celebrity for three months, with whom would you like to switch places?
9. You can eat at any restaurant in the world. Where would you eat?
10. What book do you wish you hadn't wasted your time reading last year?
11. Would you like me to answer all these questions myself?

I'm tagging the following 11 people (some of whom have been tagged in almost every single meme I've ever done, I think, which reminds me of the good old days when I used to spend so much time whizzing around the blogosphere):


Looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say!