Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (6 of 147)

One-Sentence Summary: A children's book and framework tale in which a little prince shares the story of his journey with a downed fighter pilot in the African desert. 

Subtitle: Feels You Didn't Know You Had

"Goodbye," said the fox. "Here is my secret. It's quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes."
My incredible boyfriend gave this to me for a Christmas gift, along with a $10 gift certificate to an antiquarian bookstore with a $5 admittance fee, and my own film camera. I'm always telling him to read things and as he despairs beneath a pile of to-be-reads from which, at this point, he could easily construct a book igloo, it is the rare and exciting moment that comes along when he can tell me to read something I've never read before. Because he is not six years old, he stops just short of leaping up and crying "A-HA" when the words "I've never read it" fall from my mouth, but just. The reaction was different with The Little Prince, though. It came up in conversation and he seemed truly struck and even disheartened that I'd never been exposed to it before. Months after that initial conversation had passed into forgetfulness, I opened my Christmas gift to find my very own copy. For me, there is no love like the sharing of a story that is close to your heart. It is a jewelry box, lying open, waiting to be plundered, hoping that its pieces are instead loved and respected. Reading The Little Prince was beautiful two-fold. First, it was a wonderful, wonderful story that I am so glad to now have in my heart and mind- Second, it was a reminder that the young man who loves me is full of a rare and wonderful light, and I am so very lucky to have it brighten my life.
"And I realized I couldn't bear the thought of never hearing that laugh again. For me it was like a spring of fresh water in the desert..."
"People have forgotten this truth," the fox said. "But you mustn't forget it. You become responsible forever for what you've tamed. You're responsible for your rose.""I'm responsible for my rose..." the little prince repeated, in order to remember.
This is the story to tell in dark times. De Saint-Exupery, the man who wrote it, was a French fighter pilot in World War II, who died only a year after the publication of The Little Prince, which was his master work. On the phone last night, the boyfriend and I got into speaking about it when I called to thank him for what was potentially the loveliest Christmas gift I have ever received. Exupery brought me back to Roald Dahl, a much beloved writer of similar background. These two men had both seen incredible darkness by the time they came to the table to write their most loveliest stories. They had seen blood and death and skies on fire, but it remained that those experiences were not the most important thing they shared. "How did they protect the wellspring from where such child-like wonder and goodness flowed," we asked ourselves.

 It occurred to us both, even upon wondering, that it was perhaps their defense against the vicious world gone mad, that their exposure to great darkness allowed them to recognize those things that truly generate great light: the love of the Buckets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the friendship of The BFG, the gentle care of the volcanoes and rose in The Little Prince, and so on and so forth. In a very complicated world, they detected what was vital in the landscape and found that the components of happiness were very simple indeed.

I look forward to having the opportunity to share this book with individuals both young and old that come across my path in the future. Its relevance is timeless. Best described as pure, The Little Prince does nothing if not reignite in the reader their sense of wonder.

I Recommend This For: Human Beings
New Goal: Read this in French

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (5 of 147)

One Sentence Summary: An awkward, innocent young heroine walks haplessly into the aftermath of the death of the lady of Manderley, only to find the poison of the mysterious event seeping into the waters of her new life.

Subtitle: Jane Eyre got nothin' on me.

"We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still too close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic- now mercifully stilled, thank God- might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion, as it had been before."
Now this is my kind of Gothic literature. My personality and tastes pin me as a Bronte sort as there really seem to be two fawning camps- Team Austen and Team Bronte. I certainly don't fall into the former, as I have never been able to push through the first chapter or so of anything Austen (although I confess, somewhat shame-facedly, to loving the films where I do not enjoy the books), but I really don't fall into the latter, either. I have never read Wuthering Heights and, while I enjoyed Jane Eyre sufficiently to complete it, something fell flat in it for me. I think it had a lot to do with this:
Click on me to make me bigger!
Appalling male characters aside, I also didn't find that Bronte possessed the same knack for creating momentum that Du Maurier had such a grip on. The way she spins out the tale is nothing short of masterful. From "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," I was totally taken in. Every time I thought that I knew what was going on, I was wrong and when it comes to thrillers- of any time period- I love being wrong.

This was the perfect end of winter book. All of the lush descriptions of spring-to-summer on the grounds of a grand and half-wild English estate had me lying in bed, washing the half-light drain from the treetops with longing. Soon, life will return to everything and all of the intrigues of nature will conspire to bring personality back to the land. I fell in love with Manderley as our heroine did, a beautiful thing to be kept at arm's length- deceptive beauty, a place for hiding things where they would be neglected for lovelier imaginings. Next, our nameless narrator- watching her grow into herself, sharing her (very familiar) daydreams, her anxieties, her child-like fits of passion, made me want to embrace her over and and over again. I felt for her, enormously, and her emotional journey struck an intense chord with me. My heart accelerated with her Belle-esque poking in the West Wing, with her horrifying failures, and her little triumphs.

This is the rare sort of book in which you can lose yourself completely. The language is absolutely incredible, the descriptions transport and turn common-place perceptions into the author's play-things:
"There was something rather blowsy about roses in full bloom, something shallow and raucous, like women with untidy hair."
In the same vein, the changes of mood, the most minute tweaks in wording and landscape, give you the best variety of literary whip-lash. It is a book for hyper-vigilance, for hearing voices in an empty room, for seeing the water move when there is no wind, and it doesn't let you go until the very last possible moment. The violin string finally snaps, and then you are alone with the trappings of the 21st century room slowly becoming concrete around you again. The world you are surfacing from seems so much more real, the world you belong in has new shadows and grades of light than it did before. 

I read somewhere that du Maurier is sometimes credited with the creation of the modern thriller. I am not in the least bit surprised. I read the whole book in a couple of days spent at home in which I was finally required to erect a strict rewards system in order to get anything done: work for one hour, read for one hour. I stuck to it... mostly. The deviation couldn't be helped. I was so desperate to get back into the story, to brew another cup of tea and sip it furtively while attempting to hold up this heavy leather-bound copy with the other hand.

Upon finishing, my wrist hurts and I am content. There is a certain impenetrable sense of calm that comes only at the end of the finely tuned instrument of agitation that is a great mystery, and Rebecca left me with that, in just the way I'm sure it will leave me upon many stormy nights to come.

Recommend this for: cast-iron gate and flower symbolism lovers, Bronte fans, Turn of the Screw fans, Downtown Abbey people
I Do Not Recommend this for: people who are into jump-scares, sociopaths

Note on this Copy: Leather-bound, gold leaf, heavy enough for self-defense- I don't really know where I got it, but it is beautiful and, according to the gently penciled in price in the front cover, only cost me $7. Whoop!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Have a Problem: Book III

I will not be buying books for a little while.

I will not be buying books for a little while. 

I will not- you know, if I say it enough times, maybe it will become true. But in all honesty, I am going to try not to buy for a couple of weeks at least. I am saving up for a Salt & Cedar candle. No, really. I'm not buying books because I'm saving up for a candle, which I will burn while reading books. So this will be my last "I Have a Problem" update for a little while (hopefully).

I've been really into food information for the past couple of years and really only started cooking in earnest this past year. One of my absolute favorite topics of conversation and thought is sustainability and what it means to be truly invested in the workings of one's life- specifically from a consumer standpoint. What does it mean to buy the things we buy- from food to the clothing on our backs? I think that this find will feed into the accumulating body of work I've read in this direction. It's mostly been pop non-fiction up to this point, but I can definitely see myself going down the food rabbit hole. As a side note, Mark Kurlansky wrote The Basque History of the World, which I really enjoyed reading before I went to Basque country, a couple of years ago.

I am missing a 145. I really don't know how that happened, but I guess that makes this 145.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I Have a Problem: Book II

It looks like "I Have a Problem" is going to be an ongoing series because, well, I can't stop buying books.

I have been looking longingly at this one for a while and I finally just broke down and purchased it. I'm obsessed with good, ol' fashioned ghost stories, which is weird because I'm a bit of a pussycat when it comes to all things spooky. Still, back in November I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I wrote a novel that takes place in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and so I bought this for research. 
Yeah, research
No one believes that.

The lad and I nabbed this in an antique store the other day for three dollars and it will probably be one we read together. Is James Bond suited to cozy reading out loud nights? I think so.

These books are, respectively, 146 and 147.

Neverwhere (4 of 145)

One Sentence Summary: Ordinary good guy Richard Mayhew's life dissolves around him when he saves a
panic-stricken young girl on the streets of London and is thrust into the midst of a sinister plot in an alternate underside London as a result.

Subtitle: Some doors should just stay closed.

“There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelery; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.” 

My love-hate relationship with Neil Gaiman continues. My brother has literally been trying to get me to read Neverwhere for years. He knew I would love nearly everything about it: the beautifully cultivated darkness of the atmosphere, the quest oriented story-line, deception, betrayal and, most importantly, the character of the London Underground. I have this thing about trains and subways that will become increasingly apparent because if there is even the slightest mention of either in a book, I am more likely to forgive other trespasses. Not that there were so many things wrong with this story- it was actually pretty damn wonderful in most of the ways that counted.

Neil Gaiman always makes me feel a strange when I've finished reading- stuck in the strange indiscriminate place between like and love, wondering why you aren't feeling more sure of the latter. All of the pieces are there, the great plot, unforgettable characters, witty bits, a world you can hunker right down into and stay for a while, so you start rooting through your pockets for the bitter seed that keeps you from really and truly loving it. I think I finally know what it is, for me, at least. I find Neil Gaiman to be a good writer, but a truly great story-teller. This is a man I would love to sit across the campfire from, having him regale us long into the night- or someone I would set out on a great journey with, letting him wear my ears down with the passing miles and enjoying every second of it. What he lacks in technical genius, he makes up for in a creative muscle that is so finely tuned that it is has carried him to the top of more than one genre. So yes, upon thinking it through more thoroughly, I really do love Neil Gaiman. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane recently and it occurred to me that I had rarely read a stand-alone story with such a beautiful sureness of story, character, and its elements of magic. Gaiman's fantasy comes straight from the heart, from that basic part of being that spurred the first storyteller to stand up and hold an audience captive. That comes across in Neverwhere, just as it does in all of his work.

I absolutely loved the world he created, the dark London seething beneath the surface with all of its bizarre denizens, whacked out versions of nobility and perfectly sinister assassins. It has been such a long time since I read a book until two in the morning, but that is where I found myself this very dark AM, looking at the clock on my phone and being earnestly confused about when, you know, time happened. I am going to have to read this again in London. Maybe I'll just hope on the Underground and consume it cover to cover in the very place where it most belongs. I actually don't know what I'm quibbling about. This book was awesome. Go read this book.

Sidenote: Speaking of spooky books, my current read is Rebecca, which is apparently something I must expose myself to if I am going to continue in the vein of writing ghost stories or thrillers of any kind. I'm extremely excited. After that, I am going to read the fourth Harry Potter, so it will be a little break in the project.

I Recommend To: anyone who likes a well-crafted world, anyone who likes a good chill
I Do Not Recommend To: people who like happy, shiny books with happy, shiny endings, people who are afraid of the dark

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cold Mountain (3 of 145)

One Sentence Summary: The intrepid Inman journeys across the unforgiving landscape of the Civil War South in hopes of reaching his beloved Ada, a young woman tending the land and changing with the times on the other side of Cold Mountain.

Subtitle: Come to Beautiful North Carolina!

“He tried to name which of the deadly seven might apply, and when he failed he decided to append an eighth, regret.” 
I have the travel bug big time. Right after high school, I ocean hopped to Spain and then wrangled a position with a company back in the States that ultimately sent me to India. I got back about six months ago (I can't believe it's been that long) and I've been busy, but oh my goodness, I am starting to get jumpy again. Itchy feet is a curse. Mix that with my recent fascination with the American South and reading this book was the final element in a volatile Kerouac-ian cocktail.

Beautiful descriptions make me weak in the knees. Dandelion Wine will forever be my favorite summer book because it is summer, written down and pressed between some pages. I bring up that Bradbury classic as an illustration of the fact that I am not afraid of slow-burn storyline, winding its way through corridors of description. John Muir's wilderness essays? Right up my alley. For fiction, Cold Mountain has some of the most beautiful descriptive language that I have read in a very long time. The juxtaposition of feeling and landscape, each a tool that enhanced the understanding of the other, was absolutely masterful. Throughout Inman's great American odyssey, you can feel the threat of approaching winter, the long slog of the unchanging road, the minute thrills of witnessing evolution in the landscape. Also, by Ada's side, your heart steps into a more primal space- you get to learn to appreciate Cold Mountain, and all mountains, for their quiet language alongside her. It spoke straight to an ongoing monologue in my heart, a yearning for simplicity- love and toil in a beautiful place as a recipe for a well-lived life. Ruby and Ada speak straight to the ongoing war between the urban intellectual and the rural sage that I get to experience in my own life, poised between the middle of nowhere north-country and the influence of Boston and New York. 

There was an enormous purity to the whole arc of the story that I was able to get lost in, because I seek it so constantly in the spaces between books where my own narrative unwinds. Inman's love of Ada. Ada and Ruby's friendship (my favorite element of the book). The landscape itself. Now that I write it, purity is the word for it- a book clear and cold as mountain air.

All of that being said, I sometimes lost the thread of the story. It disappeared under a few interrupting narratives that didn't seem to quite fit in, the way they were written and some of the more beautiful moments lost their weight in descriptions of process that went on for just a couple of paragraphs too long. Still, the experience of the whole book is worth it. Cold Mountain is often referred to as a "contemporary classic". I have to say that I think that fits.

I'll be watching the movie this week and I'll follow up with some thoughts. I've been told not to expect much, but come on guys- Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellwegger? I'm probably going to dig it.

I left my paperback copy, gleaned from God knows where, on a shelf in the '70s throw-back ski house that I stayed in this past weekend, right between the Jan Karon and the Reader's Digest condensed novelizations. I'm not one to judge, but I think it's safe to say that the contribution slightly raised the quality level on that shelf.

Special Note: Pair this book with Goldmund's "All Will Prosper" album. It's all beautiful Civil War tunes set re-arranged with Goldmund's signature atmospheric mood music. So good. It really heightened the experience.

I recommend this for: wanderlust types, Civil War buffs, Bradbury fans
I do NOT recommend this for: people who describe their ideal read as "fast-paced", Ulysses S. Grant

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kuntsler

One-Sentence Summary: Following the nuclear holocaust, the residents of an isolated community in upstate New York face adversity and creeps of every background.

Subtitle: If we all work together, things will suck less

I have seen the future and it is sexist, but I think it's good to talk about the positive things in a book before getting to the finger-wagging. James Howard Kuntsler writes process beautifully. He has obviously spent many evenings in his smoking jacket, puffing smoke rings out over the rolling fields at sunset, thinking on how he will survive the inevitable demise of modern civilization. This novel sets itself apart from a long train of slap-dash dystopias by being conscious of nuance. What will we eat? How will we make it? How will we build, repair, and form relationships without our technological crutches? Union Grove unfolds as a post-apocalyptic community relearning innovation through hardship, forced from their individualistic hidey-holes by the arrival of the bizarre New Faith cult- I mean, fellowship- and the threats of vigilante communities both far off and on their own borders. Charismatic thugs and charismatic narcissists reign. Kuntsler leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the basics of survival, so often left unattended in dystopian literature. I respect him for that- also, for the idyllic pictures he paints of field to table feasts, for the dragonflies darting about in the dwindling sunlight as our hero walks back from a satisfying day of fishing. I would read this guy's non-fiction in a heartbeat.


For all of that attention to detail, this man could not write a convincing female character. Every woman in this story exists to make Robert, our main character and an emotionally sterile Nietzsche-esque Superman, more secure in his growing alpha-male role. Kuntsler is obviously one of those writers that regards writing women as writing another species entirely, strange and foreign. This approach results in one-dimensional, doe-eyed weirdos whose primary tool in the new society is the suppleness of their lady bits. At one point, a female character literally says something along the line of "Women aren't moral animals, Robert," after a roll in the hay (literally) that clearly sums up her entire purpose in life. We know this because she says it, stating that she would kill herself should her illicit trysts with HER HUSBAND'S BEST FRIEND be forced to come to an end. Somehow hardship and changes in the social climate forgive clearly immoral decision making in our much-put-upon male characters. How convenient. How desirable? I'm looking at you, Kuntsler.

Still, I would not saddle a book with the dreaded two stars for only a marked inability to write humans with believable emotions, oh no, not me. What mostly got me about World Made by Hand was the fact that the plot was stomped all over by sprees of self-indulgent world building. Kuntsler seemed to become aware that the story-line had gotten out of hand somewhere around the last 50 pages, when he appeared to give up and throw in several little plot cherry bombs (an obese cult leader/hive queen with seizures, mysticism surrounding Brother Job, a replacement family effective NOW) that completely sabotaged any hope of a coherent conclusion. I had so many unanswered questions that I was literally confused when the credits rolled (audiobookedly speaking, of course) and the whole thing ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I would almost be tempted to read the sequel, The Witch of Hebron, just to see if some of my questions get answered.


Aside: This is my first audiobook in YEARS and I will discuss that in its own post, because that topic deserves one. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I Have a Problem

It's only fair to update when the list grows, as well as shrinks, so here are the facts. Yesterday I visited two different book shops and through an astounding demonstration of my unparalleled self control only purchased as many books. They were books 144 and 145 on the list. That's right. I have reviewed (and nixed) two books from the list and yesterday I added two more.

This project is never going to end.

I heard so much about this one from the Book Riot podcast that I couldn't resist taking it home.

If someone ever comes up to me and challenges my Lord of the Rings fan cred based on this book then I will fail. I actually waited to get the copy that was in my town library growing up because there's something so perfect about the big ol' font and sketch that has stuck with me, long after I tried and failed to absorb this masterpiece back in the day. Call me sentimental, because um- I am.

I also purchased A Separate Peace because come on- it's inspired by Phillips Exeter Academy and that is close enough to my home turf to inspire some misplaced pride!

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray (2 of 143)

One-Sentence Summary: Hot narcissists cheat fate, but get crazy in the bargain until crazy gets them.
 Subtitle: Or, your friend is a jerk and now you are, too.

From the Preface:
"All art is at once surface and symbol.Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."
(Guys, I am in TONS of peril.)

I must have owned the most accurate and unflinching aesthetic copy of this book ever produced. I haven't the slightest idea of where I picked up this monstrously unattractive mass market paperback, but it demonstrated a commitment to Gray's portrait that I found a little disturbing when waking up to it beside my pillow. My copy was filled with the scrawl of someone preparing feverishly for a paper. With some books, particularly ones where every page is seething with so much brain fodder, it is of great value to have the notes of another reader to set against your own thoughts. 

I think most of us are familiar with the story of Dorian Gray, or think we are, but upon reading it through I find that it is perhaps one of the classics we have been most liberal with in variations of. He's not a demi-god, he's not in the least bit nice, and his immortality is up for debate. As I read, I realized I was familiar with many passages, which led me to wonder if I'd actually read it before, long before I was ready for all it had to offer. This happens to me sometimes- I've read the book, or pieces of it on lazy days, or abridged versions, or textbook extracts. It made me think back. I've danced with Dorian Gray, before. I had a friend growing up, a very attractive guy with a social life that I found mysterious and a bit enthralling. My own brief forays into that world yielded little but disillusionment and even one or two hard lessons.  I remember speaking to him about this book, which he loved, and once going so far as to call him "a Dorian Gray". Having read the whole piece now, I feel like a real jerk for saying that without realizing the full implications. Then again, perhaps there were more similarities than my small window into his life would have ever shown me. 

I recount that story because I think that is one of the great cruxes of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Beauty is a goodness independent of all other things and it is neither comparable to or to be confused with any sort of inherent morality. It is easy to forgive a beautiful thing its sins, for a time- we even explain them away as the burden of their particular genius. But, as many wise people would, and will, tell you, "Ugly is ugly." If your hardness was written across your face, how would you fare? Beauty may make you friends, but how many will it keep? It blew me away how Wilde could create a character that I despised so fully and yet still felt some sympathy towards. I was fooled- knew I was being fooled- and was still fooled. Damn it, Oscar.

Oscar Wilde was a genius. His prose, like his protagonist, is of unparalleled beauty and, like his protagonist, provides the perfect vehicle for all that is toxic that follows. From a technical perspective, he was as able (flower symbols, I'm looking at you). Wilde's wisdom comes across as hard-won, acquired from much stumbling and a keen ability to understand why. All of human life was the butterfly pinned to the display case, for this guy. The second you find yourself agreeing with Henry Wotton or even Dorian Gray, you are then forced to examine yourself. This book prompted introspection at every turn of the page and I'll say, within me, the debate raged on. I will return to this text and find more and more every time, will recommend it freely, because more than one hundred years later, Oscar Wilde is still placing heat on relevant themes of human weakness, narcissism, unchecked adulation, and the natures of beauty and morality. They have never been more apparent or fascinating as they are in modern culture. Imagine what he could have written in the age of facebook. No matter how much time passes, The Picture of Dorian Gray will always be humankind's own shameful portrait. As the screws twist and turn in the book, so they twist and turn in you.

I recommend this for: everyone, huge narcissists, Kim Kardashian
I do not recommend this for: people in denial, people who can't take a metaphor