Sunday, August 24, 2014

Literature in the 1940s

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley

The Body in the Library* by Agatha Christie

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Hungry Hill* by Daphne du Maurier
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn*  by Betty Smith

Gigi* by Colette

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by Josephine Leslie/ RA Dick
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Village in the Sun by Dane Chandos

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson

Maigret's First Case by Georges Simenon

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
No Boats on Bannermere by Geofrey Trease

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Village in the Sun (1945)

This book is about Ajijic, a small village situated between a lake and a mountain, found within close distance to the larger Chapala and the even larger Guadalajara. Currently, Ajijic is a thriving expat community full of Americans and Canadians, but in 1945, when Village in the Sun was first published Ajijic was a remote, hard-to-reach pueblo accessible easiest by water. The author Dane Chandos (a pseudonym for Peter Lilley, Nigel Millet, and Anthony Stansfield) was one of the area's earliest foreign residents.

Very little happens in this book. The writing is heavily descriptive about birds, dogs, the water, light, sunsets, fruit, and flowers. It's a beautiful night-time read, very painterly and restful, right before you go to sleep. A paradise of Eden in print.

The narrator, known only as el SeƱor, is kind but remote to the story's plot. He is primarily an observer. The real characters are the Indios: Candelaria the cook, Cayetano el mozo (a joven/youth with butler duties), Don Bernabe the builder, and to a lesser degree many others including the three seamstress sisters, Aurora the laundry woman with a sour face, and the revolving maids who work together to keep the position filled. While the Indios may be antiquated in practice, their dialogue is translated with an elegance reminiscent of Shakespearean English. Chandos clearly has respect for the culture in which he lives and writes. El Senor's visitors are not quite as accepting, though. Some of the Europeans who breeze through the small town and some of the big-city Mexicans are condescending and rude. Social class is definitely an issue in 1940s Mexico and the external world is moving in. At the end of the novel, the presence of a powerboat on the lake sums it up. Mexico is changing. And so is Ajijic. The future of the small village is foreshadowed by Don Pedro who takes a loss every year in anticipation of the time when Ajijic will become a resort town with conveniences. That time is now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Summer Place (1958)

A Summer Place by Sloan Wilson begins in Pine Island, Maine, and moves midway through the story to a vacation spot in Florida. The author's focus is on the social issues surrounding sexuality and adultery during the 1930s and 50s. He describes how one family, torn apart by divorce, suffers guilt, resentment, and unresolved anger for many years. The pain the characters feel is ameliorated, though, by the fact that Ken Jorgenson's wife Helen is frigid and more interested in money than she is in her marriage, and it's a bit easier for us to forgive Sylvia for her transgression when we learn that her husband Bart Hunter is an advanced alcoholic.

The reader's allegiance, while Ken is building his financial kingdom and Sylvia awaits her punishment, goes to the children, Molly and Johnny, who in their innocence inherit the sins of their parents. They struggle throughout their teenage years amidst their family drama and eventually find their own place in the world, back home where they met on Pine Island.

I recommend this novel because …

1) the casting off of the old caretaker, Todd Hasper, with his evil dog Satan, from the island paradise, at the very end, is overwritten and cruel, but symbolic;

2) these mid-century novels all have a certain elegance of life that escapes us now;

3) and, because the author served in the Coast Guard.

Yes, Sloan Wilson gets it. 

Palm River, Florida, is full of characters who live the boating life. Yachtsmen wave as they take the inland water route down to Miami and parts south. A woman lives on a houseboat and walks her dog every night with a man who dreamed of sailing around the world but decided to settle down instead. Another man, not quite right in his head, keeps a grand piano on his motor boat and anchors out all alone in the river. Molly and Johnny bond romantically while they sail their dinghy farther and farther, eventually capsizing and in need of rescue.

For all of the books I sought out (68 Knots and Adventure on the High Sea) and for all of the books I cannot bring myself to read (Moby Dick), this is the one story that gave me in part what I was looking for … a little bit of the boating life, some glamour, and a nice conclusion. "Well done, and good luck."

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Ice Princess (2003)

From Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Writer Erika Falck returns to her hometown after the funeral of her parents. She finds no solace. Erika is instead met by the news that the body of her childhood friend Alex has been found frozen in an ice cold bath. Her wrists have been slashed, but did Alex really take her own life? In order to deal with the tragedies, and to overcome her writers block, Erika starts working on a memoir (about) her dead friend. The writing process turns into an obsessive interest in Alex and her fate, and soon Erika's research leads her to local detective Patrik Hedstrom. Only when they start working together are they able to find answers, and to unfold the small town's deeply disturbing past.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg first drew my attention on the Metro. I don't remember what the advertising poster said but I went so far as to seek the book out with no luck at my local library and bookstore. Time passed and I forgot about the novel until recently when Chuck, a fellow mystery reader, recommended I read it.

Now available via download, The Ice Princess is a good BBC-style mystery with a Swedish village as its backdrop. The mystery itself and the conclusion to the story are satisfying but I can't fully recommend the book without telling you about its multitude of faults, primarily its lack of organization and content editing.

Too many primary characters. 
The most confusing structural problem with The Ice Princess is its lack of a primary character. To whom do I owe my allegiance? Eilert Berg introduces the book as the man who finds the body. Erika Falck follows as the main character who cares about Alex's death. And then suddenly, halfway through the story, Patrik Hedstrom takes over as the detective who drives the story to its conclusion.

This problem with focus is further evidenced by the fact that Goodreads initially called the series the "Patrik Hedstrom books" and now has revised that title to read the "Fjallbacka series." I have read books where there are many people narrating the story but it didn't work easily in this case.

Too many minor characters. 
I know it's a literary device for writers of crime fiction to create an entire village of people so the killer is better hidden from the reader's suspicion but there were just too many minor characters. The inner life for each was well done and interesting to read but I began to feel as if the vignette was more important to the writer than the character was to the story.

Too much information when it comes to romance. 
The budding relationship between Erika and Patrik was central to the story but it was TOO detailed, particularly when it came to underwear choices and the avoidance of urinary tract infections. YUCK. What kind of book is this?

Too many pages in each chapter. 
Hundreds of pages, in fact, with no clear reason for the text division when it finally did occur. Where is this going? I like organization within a book that makes sense and I like a clear place to stop and take a break.

Too chatty.
Overall, the book was satisfying but a big red pencil would have helped it read better. Hopefully as the series continues, Lackberg will have learned how to remove the excess and focus on building her story and characters with more relevant information and less inconsequential detail.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2012)

I was pushed really really hard into reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Asia, my 11-year-old niece, wrote the title on all of my note lists. She asked me about it every time we saw each other. She told me it was the Best. Book. Ever. That I HAVE TO READ IT NOW!

So, with that pressure on my back, I finally took the time to download the book and started reading it. It's not often I come across a book I read non-stop until finished. It's not often I take a book (hidden on my iPad) to meetings and read a page or two under the table when the conversation becomes dull. It's not often the whole family reads a book and talks about it during long distance phone calls.

This book is considered children's literature. Really? It's about two kids, teenagers, both dying of cancer. They are smart, clever, deep, intellectual, and care about each other and the big questions. What happens when you die? Is it important (or even possible) to do something heroic that makes your life worthwhile or are we all destined to oblivion any way?

To give you more information about this "amazing book" Asia wants you to read (or else), I now turn my review over to a Q&A session with Asia "the great and powerful"...

Asia, The Fault in Our Stars is a love story. What do Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters mean when they tell each other every thing is okay? When Hazel and Augustus say everything is okay, they are referring to their friends, Isaac and Monica, who tell each other "always" so that they will "always" be there for each other. Hazel and Gus mix this statement around to create their own "always;" it is okay.

Which scene in the book do you remember and love the most? The scene from this book that I remember most is Augustus' pre-funeral. SPOILER ALERT!!! I loved this scene because the connection between Augustus and Hazel is emphasized in a way that you understand what they are going through.

Why do you think Augustus carries a cigarette in his mouth but never lights it? Augustus is a very metaphorical person. In the book, Augustus says that he is putting the killing thing in his mouth (the cigarette) but not giving it the power to kill (lighting it). It's a metaphor.

What do you think Hazel means when she says she is like a grenade? Hazel has cancer in her lungs. When she says she is like a grenade, she is stating that one day she is going to blow up and obliviate everything in her wake and she doesn't want to hurt anyone.

Are you glad you found out that Sisyphus the Hamster ended up okay? Yes, because at least when Hazel and Gus went to Amsterdam they weren't totally disappointed.

Even though the "world is not a wish-granting factory," if you had a Genie foundation wish, what would you ask for? I don't know what I would do with my wish. I have a good life so I would probably give my wish to someone who needs it more than me.

Do you think Augustus chose a visit to Amsterdam because he wanted to give Hazel her wish or do you think he chose Amsterdam because he wanted to make Hazel fall in love with him? Or both? I think both because Augustus is a very charismatic person and he wants Hazel to have a good life before she dies but Gus has very strong feelings for Hazel and the trip to Amsterdam shows his affection for her.

Why do you think we like to read sad stories that make us cry? Because it's real life. Real life is hard and it will make you cry. But it also makes you laugh and smile. That is what I love most about this book. You are crying because Hazel is sick or because Gus dies, but you are laughing at the jokes and you feel happy when you think about the love they share for each other!


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Love Story (1970)

Having recently read The Fault in Our Stars, I decided to revisit the love story that broke the young romantic hearts of my generation: Erich Segal's Love Story.

I will say up front and center: The Fault is better. The writing style is more sophisticated. The characters are more developed. The story deals with death more intimately and much more realistically. The connection between Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters is deeper and more heartfelt than the relationship between Oliver and Jenny, even though they are all supposed to be intellectuals of some sort.

Love Story is almost still an outline. The story was published too soon and still needs work. It isn't finished! Yes, it's a classic but it can never be called literature. The success of the story in 1970 must have been due to timing. Jenny was ethnic in an era when the blonde-haired blue-eyed standard of beauty was being challenged by the "other." It was what we wanted to read and see at the time.

Here's a brief summary of the story: Harvard jock meets Radcliffe music student. Oliver Barrett IV has generations of wealth and accomplishment behind him. Jenny Cavalleri is the daughter of an Italian baker, although her father is specifically not an immigrant and does not speak Italian. The social gap between the lovers is wide but the disparity of their class is part of what attracts them to each other. They date, marry while still in school against the wishes of Oliver's parents, and then struggle to make ends meet. Oliver achieves success with his wife's help and then - blam - she dies.

The heart of this story is about Oliver and his father, not about Oliver and Jenny. 

Oliver gets good grades, excels in sports, but is angry at his father because he gets no recognition for his accomplishments. Oliver is expected to do well because he's a Barrett and generations of Barretts have always done well. There's even an underlying suggestion that many of Oliver's accomplishments are due, not to his personal efforts, but instead due to his last name and the financial contributions made by his father.

Jenny is this perfect character with no apparent faults. Everyone in the neighborhood loves her. She sleeps with Oliver without expecting a relationship. She marries Oliver when he's broke and then helps her husband through law school. Jenny doesn't even suffer tremendously when she becomes ill and only asks to be held tightly right before she dies.

Jenny's illness and death scene is shorter and less detailed than Oliver's opening hockey games which play no significant part in the story. (And what's with the doctor telling Oliver that Jenny is sick and asking him to keep the information to himself? WTF? My God, times really have changed.)

Love Story is about how Oliver stands up to his father, makes his way in the world, graduates third in his class without his father's assistance, learns the value of money, and then acknowledges the unconditional love he feels for his father after he has matured and become a successful man in his own right. With a little more work, Love Story might have been a work of literature but probably not the great success it was in theaters.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Repair: Old Storage Box

We found this box on an abandoned ship. It's roughly built and was probably a first-year shop project given lovingly to a parent who left it behind thinking he'd return some day. Exposure to moisture over the years caused the wood to swell and the lid would no longer shut.

Found box.

I put the box out with the intention of working on it and while I was away Eric sanded the lid down so it will now shut. We then gave the box two coats of polyurethane and tightened the hinges. It's not a beautiful show piece by any stretch of the imagination but it serves me well hidden away on my bookshelf storing note cards and envelopes. Lucile's letters rest on top.

Repaired box.