Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

I chose to read this book in company with the Slaves of Golconda, although I had never heard of it before.

According to the back cover of my Dover Thrift Edition, this book was one of those which earned the author, Ford Madox Ford (of whom I have also never heard), a reputation as one of the major writers of the twentieth century. That piece of paper labeled "Diploma" which states I have earned a degree in English doesn't seem worth much in light of this information, but I'm doing what I can to remedy the situation.

So, knowing absolutely nothing about this book or its author, I set out to read it entirely "cold," and my expectations were not very high. I assumed (silly me) that because I had never heard of it before, it probably wasn't really a great book, and in truth, if I had pulled it off the shelf at the library to read the blurb (unlikely, because the title doesn't strike my fancy at all), I probably would have put it back.

But I did read it, and I was pleasantly surprised. I did enjoy the book, although the story itself is not meant to be "enjoyed," since the narrator, American John Dowell, informs us in the first sentence that, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." From the first page, we know that two of the four main characters are dead, and that Dowell has suffered a shock or a blow from which he is still reeling.

This book has been called, according to my introductory notes, "the finest French novel in the English language." I'm afraid that conveys little to my mind, as I have not read many French novels. The point is, Ford was influenced by French impressionism, and this novel is impressionist in form and style. The story is not told in a linear fashion, but it is told entirely by John Dowell. During the course of the story, his mood shifts, and his attitude toward the other characters is displayed variously, not constantly. Did he love and cherish his wife, Florence, or did he hate her? Did he admire Edward Ashburnham or was he jealous? Did he care for Leonora or despise her?

This is the story of two couples, the American John and Florence Dowell and the English Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. They are both leisured couples with health concerns that keep them on the continent, at spas, and the four of them together pass nine years in close companionship. And yet Dowell asserts:
But upon my word, I don't know how we put in our time. How does one put in ones' time? How is it possible to have achieved nine years and to have nothing whatever to show for it? Nothing whatever, you understand. Not so much as a bone penholder, carved to resemble a chessman and with a hole in the top through which you could see four views of Nauheim. And, as for experience, as for knowledge of one's fellow being--nothing either.

Underneath that gaping emptiness there are four stories--Edward's, Florence's, Leonora's, and John's. The subtitle of this book is "A Tale of Passion," but I'm not sure that isn't just more irony. Only John gets to tell his story in a form of passionless, ironic humor, but it is enough to reveal that all four them were selfish, self-centered people. They took what they wanted from life, and they did it in fine style, maintaining a veneer--a very good veneer, if John Dowell is to be believed--of respectability, morality, and virtue.

Because the story is told in such a non-linear way, the book bears a second reading, to understand a little better what is happening in each episode. However, I didn't have time to do that. I have come away from the story with an impression (how appropriate, for this impressionist novel)--an impression of four selfish people who sabotaged their own chances of happiness by the weakness of their characters.

The pleasure in reading the book comes from the form--the rambling, conversational style of the narrator, who interrupts himself to tell you about something he saw from the train window, and recalls himself after several pages with something like, "but to get back to the day at the castle... "

Because I prefer character-driven books to plot-driven ones, I didn't mind the rambling style at all. This book serves as an illustration of "the saddest story" that almost everyone has experienced in some form--the unfortunate duplicity between public reputation and private character, and the unfortunate truth that no veneer is strong enough or thick enough to conceal the underlying weaknesses forever. In fact, the more attached to that veneer we are (as John Dowell most certainly was), the more painful will be its inevitable flaking away.

I'd consider this book quite an educational read for me, and I'm not sorry I decided to read along!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Not Leonardo, but...

For some reason, I've been overwhelmed by the urge to make beautiful things. I've had a number of my crochet projects on hold for a while, and I've recently finished one, worked diligently on two more, and also started and completed this experiment.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThis was made using a technique called "painted" doily. It's crocheted by holding three strands of sewing thread together. By changing the color of just one strand at a time, you get a nice, gradual shaded effect. I used a size 10 hook for this, and the finished doily is about 8 or 9 inches across.

This is the first time I have ever attempted this technique, and I learned a lot of things, which I am recording here for future reference.

1. Three strands of thread do not behave like one strand. Like siblings, they are close, but do not always get along.

2. Three strands of thread do not unravel very well, and because I was changing one thread each round, it was nearly impossible to think of going back even one round. There are three (three) major pattern errors in the above doily, which would have caused me to unravel and re-stitch under ordinary circumstances. I was not able to do that with this.

3. Therefore, it is important to choose a very easy, simple pattern for a painted doily. The whole point is to show off the colors, not the intricate stitches. My pattern above was a little too fussy, and I will pick something simpler next time.

4. The open, lacy stitches seem to show off the shading better than the close stitches, which is just as well, because...

5. This is an expensive way to crochet. I bought six colors and spent about six dollars. I used two spools completely, and this was only a small, 16-round pattern. For a larger pattern, you would need a lot more thread, and a lot more money. (Note: my spools only have 100m on them, but I checked some thread from the States and it had 300 yards per spool. It might be cheaper there...but I don't know how much thread costs.)

6. I used bobbins to wind up extra thread, so I could crochet with 2 or 3 strands of the same color. No matter how hard I tried to be generous with the allowance, I ran out of thread and had to cut and tie to get more on the line.

7. Which brings me to this point. There will be 4,216 little ends to weave in, give or take a few dozen.

8. I'm sure I learned something else that I have already forgotten.

9. I will make another painted doily. Someday.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

This is a detail, so you can see the color changes a little better.

As I said, it's not a Leonardo DaVinci, but as crochet projects go, this one feels "artistic" to me.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale

I recently received a number of "new" books, by which I mean relatively recent publications--such as The Book Thief--and I have been enjoying reading books that "everybody else" was reading last year.

This week, I finished The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, which came so highly recommended that I did go into the story with pretty high expectations. My reading friends did not lead me amiss--this book was engrossing and amazing from the start. The book-loving characters get things off on the right foot, and mystery and secrets hang in the air almost from the very first page.

I really enjoy stories that shift around in time (a personal quirk), which is another tick in the "plus" column for this book. The current action is very minimal. I was even a little taken aback by the fact that the characters write real mail-them-through-the-post-office-with-a-stamp letters. Yet the book is set solidly in the present. The atmosphere of Jane Eyre hangs over the book, as Margaret goes to stay in the remote Yorkshire home of the mysterious and elderly author, Vida Winters, to listen to her story and write her biography.

As Miss Winters is notorious for making up stories about her history, Margaret does not entirely trust her tale. As the story unfolds, told in pieces because of Miss Winter's failing health, Margaret makes some excursions to the actual sites she is hearing about. Back and forth, from Miss Winter's history, which resembles a badly fractured fairy tale, to the present on the lonely moors, the story unfolds from beginning, to middle, to end, exactly as Miss Winters has dictated it must. Margaret, haunted by her own "ghosts," is not supposed to ask questions or jump ahead in the story, but sometimes she does.

Both of the main characters in the story--Vida Winters and Margaret--have suffered extremely dysfunctional homes. As Margaret grows to understand what has happened in Miss Winter's life, she begins to wonder if it is not too late for healing within her own family and heart.

I am not going to give away any spoilers for this one. It's good enough to be saved and enjoyed even if you have to wait for awhile (I ought to know).

This is not a plot-driven page turner, although there are those secrets lurking in corners, waiting to step out and declare themselves. This is an "atmospheric" book with a collection of odd characters--past and present--most of whom are unhappy because of secrets in their past. By the end of the story, some of them, at least, have a hopeful outlook and are ready to put the past behind them.

P.S. I wanted to add an image of the book, but blogger is not cooperating with uploading images. I wonder if it's just me, or if it's a blogger problem? I'll try later.

What would you call this???

Okay, so I know I'm not going to win any awards for being "blogger extraordinaire." May has not been a good blogging month. I've been relaxing after my oh-so-busy April, and the relaxation extended all the way to not updating my blog!

In any case...

When a city (or anything) celebrates 100 years of existence, they call it a "centennial." After 150 years, you celebrate a "sesquicentennial." Two hundred long years, and you've hit "bicentennial," which is about as far as any place in the United States can go. Which is why I don't really know what to call milestones beyond that point.

What would you call the celebration of 750 years of existence?

That's what Krakow is celebrating this year--750 years since Krakow became an official city. There are posters and flags and displays all over the city. I guess it's a pretty big deal.

Happy Birthday, Krakow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Recent crochet progress

I'm continuing to work with colored thread and loving it. It's like a whole new world has opened up. I may do something in white again someday, but do not, under any circumstances, hold your breath while waiting. Color is so much more fun.

I finished this little two-color project a few weeks ago. Frankly, I'd like it a lot better if it would lay flat, but it doesn't want to. That annoys me, and so I'm not as fond of it as I might otherwise be. Of course, I would never give away something so imperfect, so I'm stuck with it myself. At least I like the colors.

I started this project a long time ago, as a "spring" project. I set it aside because I got tired of making the same little motif over and over, but I need to pick it up again, or work out a plan for finishing it, or something. I'm past the halfway point, and it would be a shame to let it languish forever. It's not laying flat right now because it isn't blocked, but it will when I'm finished. I blocked and ironed the other one to death, and it just won't behave.

Funny thing about this project...I spread it out to take this picture, and you know what it reminds me of? You're never going to guess, so I'll just tell you. It reminds me of Bram Stoker's Dracula, because I did most of this work while listening to the audiobook at Librivox.

This is the project I'm actually working on. It used pineapple motifs, but the unusual combination of a center worked in the round and a border (in a different color) worked back and forth gives it a very contemporary twist. This is going to be a good-sized mat when it's finished, as is the floral one above. I don't have places to use them on a daily basis, so I either need to buy some big tables to display them, or I need to manufacture an excuse to use them on the table. I like them too much to just fold them up in a drawer.

This blog is getting a little dusty from lack of use, so I'm formulating a game plan for posting regularly as well, on a rotation of subjects. We'll see if it comes to fruition.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I didn't plan it, but as it happens two books about Nazi Germany, both of which I have wanted to read, landed on my lap at virtually the same time. I have been reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Approaching Storm by Nora Waln simultaneously--fiction and non-fiction about one of the most puzzling eras of history. Can you imagine living in Germany during the 1930's and wondering, "How did we get to this place?"

I'm not quite finished with The Approaching Storm, so I'll save the discussion on that one for later, but reading that book at the same time I was reading The Book Thief has definitely provided added depth to the experience.

The Book Thief has received rave reviews almost everywhere--that's what made me decide to locate the book in the first place--but I have read just enough hesitation and distaste with it (mostly because Death is the narrator of the story) to make me approach it with caution. I didn't have my expectations too high, and I wanted to read it with as open a mind as possible, not prejudiced either for or against it. I will not say that I am the last one to read or review it--I know that is not so--but I wonder if the "newness" of it is wearing off, and if interest in reading it is being pushed aside in favor of newer books? I hope not.

I cried through the last few chapters, and I rate any book that can make me do that as a "real" book. The characters have lived, so their pain is real--real enough to reach out from the page and stab you in the heart. I am most emphatically not sorry to have read this book, but it is has such a hold on me right now (I just finished it this morning) that I'm not sure I can write about it very objectively. So that's what you're getting--my raw impressions of the book, while the tears have hardly dried.

Not until I closed the book after the last chapter was I suddenly struck with the resemblance between the main character, Liesel Meminger, and another one of my fictional favorites--Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Both books span similar years of the character's age, both live in gritty, less-then-lovely surroundings peopled by strong characters who are neither saints nor devils, but mixed-up blends of good and bad. none so bad but they can shine out for a moment here or there, none so good but that they will succumb to weakness or fear in a bad moment and behave regrettably. There is something about books like this--books where real human beings are set against a background of poverty, hunger, fear, or hatred--that sets human nature in relief, and everyday events, such as kicking a ball, or eating soup, or even just getting out of bed become small acts of heroism and hope.

The more I think about it, the closer the comparisons between the two books become. Can you picture the Nolan family if they were plunked down in Himmel street where Liesel lived with her foster family? They would fit right in. Both fathers are musicians, and although Hans Huberman is a stronger man than Johnny Nolan, they do share some of the same weaknesses. Katie Nolan and gruff Rosa Huberman are not unlike, showing their love in unlikely ways, keeping any softness hidden behind an exterior of hardness because that is what survivors do.

Francie Nolan and Liesel Meminger share a love of words and reading, and I can imagine Francie stealing books to read if she had no way to borrow them from the library. Also survivors, both of them.

I found the literary device of anthropomorphizing death to narrate the book to be a bit of a stumbling block. It was probably the aspect of the book that I liked the least, and yet it does work. I found Death's constant interruptions to the story to be irritating and frustrating, but as I read, I decided that death is very much just that--an interruption to the smoothly flowing story of life. Death is constantly interrupting--telling us things that we would rather not know--and then the story moves on. The interruptions do not stop the story--it goes on. Some people are no longer part of the story, but it goes on just the same, until death interrupts again: a pattern as old as the world.

I had almost forgotten that this book is classified as YA fiction. I wouldn't put that kind of a label on it, unless you would label A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the same way. Both books have young protagonists, but the writing and the themes are timeless. Quiet courage that gets up to the face the day, takes a few hard knocks and yet won't stay down, that fights to live even when life doesn't seem all that wonderful--that appeals to me more than heroics or daring deeds. This book is full of those kinds of heroes--smudged, smelly, dirty, even ugly people who have the courage to risk their lives and livelihoods for their neighbors. Like the good Samaritan, they aren't the ones you expect to do fine things, but sometimes they do, and those fine things shine all the brighter because of the bleak surroundings, like a diamond ring glinting in a muddy ditch.

If you haven't read it yet...don't miss this one.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reading Log, April 2007

I didn't think I'd have a lot of time to read in April, considering how much I had to do and prepare for. However, my addiction to the printed word proved strong enough to withstand the claims of mere responsibility and obligation.

Year In, Year Out by A.A. Milne--As this book of miscellaneous essays is divided by the months of the year, I'm just reading a little bit each month. A good bit of April was devoted to Shakespeare, in honor of his birthday. The good part is, now that it's May, I get to pick this up again and read a bit more. Milne sometimes makes me laugh out loud, and sometimes he irritates me, but he never bores me.

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun--My other book that I am stretching out across the whole year. I've fallen behind in my reading schedule, however, so I either need to make a new reading plan which takes into account how much I actually have to finish, or plan to catch up during the summer. We shall see, but in the mean time let me say that Barzun never bores me, either.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy--I am SO happy to report that this book is finally complete. It shall appear on my monthly lists no longer. I will read more Tolstoy in the future (probably Anna Karenina next), but not this year. One reason I've shied away from Tolstoy in the past is that I always heard it was hard to follow his stories, because the characters have so many names. I'm so accustomed to the Polish method of nicknames that the Russian ones were no trouble to follow. It wasn't even an issue.

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham--I was finally in the mood for a bit of a mystery again, and this author was recommended by the Deputy Headmistress at the Common Room, whose taste in books I share very closely, although our taste in decorating is worlds apart (no pink roses for me). As might be expected, she did not recommend amiss, and this was a fun mystery, liberally sprinkled with that sort of British humor that just makes me shake my head. Are these people for real? (Note: I don't think the Deputy Headmistress has bad taste in any area at all--it's just different from mine in the decorating realm. Except for the shelves full of books.)

The Charmers by Stella Gibbons--This one goes down as the second-worst read of 2007, the worst being Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond. I did, however, finish the book, which is more than I did for poor William Makepeace.

Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell--Okay, this one probably comes in as a close third for "worst book of 2007." I have enjoyed some of Ruth Rendell's mysteries in the past, psychological thrillers being an occasional indulgence of mine; however, this story didn't have much to offer. It all seemed so foolish and pointless--the main character murders a girl because she makes an offhand comment about a celebrity for whom he has a crush/obsession? Not very convincing to me. I think the story would have been better if his fascination for the local historical serial murderer had been more fully explored, rather than having him commit an off-hand murder with no real motive. This gets a thumbs-down from me, and I listed my copy at Bookmooch if anyone wants it. (Although who will, now that I've just given you no reason at all to desire to read it?)

The Approaching Storm by Nora Waln--Yes, that would be the same Nora Waln who wrote House of Exile. Ever since I read that book, I've wanted to read this one, about her life in Nazi Germany between 1935-1939. One of the most interesting things about this book is that it was published in 1939, long before much was known about Hitler's Germany. She was one of the early voices who spoke up with a warning, although it was much too late to do anything about it by then. I'm about 1/4 of the way into the book, appreciating again her calm, rational voice. How I wish there were journalists like Nora Waln around today! Incidentally, I was terribly curious to know how she ended up in Germany after so many years in China, where her English husband was an ambassador of sorts. He retired from his public service, and wanted to pursue a lifelong dream of studying music, and that was what he was doing in Germany. Nora almost refused to live there with him because she disliked what she knew of Nazism, but concluded that she ought to make a home for her husband wherever he was, and so she went. And we have this book, about which I promise to share more later.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak--Another book I've started and am about 1/4 of the way through. This was one of those books that everyone was reading and blogging about last year, and I finally gave in and got a copy to read for myself. I've read good reviews and bad, but I'm holding my own judgment in abeyance for the present.

Christmas at Candleshoe by Michael Innes--Another Common Room recommendation in the mystery category. I didn't quite get this one finished, although I'm 3/4 of the way through it. I found this one a bit harder to get into, but the Shakespeare references are fun, and the 18th century diary excerpts had me laughing out loud. It's worth reading the book just for that bit.

For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George--I picked this up on a whim, because I always enjoy the Thomas Lynley mysteries, although I sometimes wish Elizabeth George would make things come out a bit differently for her characters. (It's too much like real life--nothing works out the way you want it too, and there are always loose ends.) As it happens, this ended up being one I've read before, so it is technically a reread--the only one this month. (Something must be wrong with me!) I've heard unpleasant things about the most recent books in this series (=a major character is murdered), and although I'm sure I'll pick it up sometime, I'm not in any hurry.

Candide by Voltaire--this is my current Librivox "read," although I've only listened to the first eight chapters (which are very short) so far. I've spent more of my crochet time listening to these programs, which are terribly fun, even though I haven't heard of half the books and authors mentioned, and read very little of the poetry.

Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman--I sort of hated to finish this one, as I have nothing more to read by the author, and no prospects of getting hold of her books any time soon. Her Polish roots, her immigrant experience, her love of words, and her eloquent "voice" as she writes all strike at the very center of things that matter to me. I want very much to read more of her work, but this is it for now.

And that is the end of the list for April (notice the glaring absence of any Polish books)--a much more productive reading month than I would have supposed, considering how much we've had going on. Tomorrow is the last big planned event (a gathering of some 5 or 6 American families at my house for food, fellowship, fun, and prayer), and then I see of streak of quiet days, gardening afternoons, and hours of sitting on the swing with a book and sipping iced tea in my future.

Yeah, sure. I can dream, right?