Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dr. Pellinore Warthrop's Favorite Raspberry Scones

Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, aka The Monstrumologist of Rick Yancey's horrifying series, spends much of his time at his necropsy table in his basement.  When a new specimen comes his way, Warthrop works around the clock, often forgetting to eat for a day or two.  When he finally emerges from his lab, his food of choice is typically scones.  It's one of those great character quirks you can look for in each installment of the series.  Here are some passages from Yancey's books showing Warthrop's cravings for these delectables:

Book One: The Monstrumologist:

If I simply returned to bed, he would wait until I was on the brink of sleep again, and them my name would echo throughout the house, Will Henreeee! until my will was broken.  Down to the kitchen, then, I trooped, where I set a pot of water on to boil and plated the scones.  I prepared his tea, leaning against the sink and yawning incessantly while it steeped.  I loaded the tray and carried it back to his room...

"What is this?  Tea and scones!  How thoughtful of you, Will Henry."

Book Two: The Curse of the Wendigo

The monstrumologist retreated to his shuttered study, where he brooded in a gloom both actual and metaphysical, refusing to even acknowledge my halfhearted attempts to alleviate his suffering.  I brought him raspberry scones (his favorite) from the baker's.  I shared with him the latest gossip gleaned from the society pages (he held a strange fascination for them) and the local doings of our little hamlet of New Jerusalem.  He would not be comforted..."

Book Three: The Isle of Blood

I was dispatched on the occasional errand, for tea and pastries (the doctor's profound disappointment that there was not a single scone on board would have been comical, if I had not been the one to bear the brunt of his displeasure) and newspapers, any and all I could find, in any language (the monstrumologist was conversant in twenty).  He read, drank copious amounts of Darjeeling tea, he paced the compartment like a caged tiger, or stared out the window, pulling and pinching on his lower lip until it grew fat and red...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Fancy for Yancey

It's Halloween time, and at the tail of September, Book Phantom searches for a little something in the horror realm to make the season spooky.  I'm not usually into horror films and books - I don't relish watching or reading about the torture, maiming, and murder of my fellow man, especially when it is by another human.  But I'm not bothered by the strange and supernatural like ghosts, bogeymen, and monsters because I've never actually seen any of them under my bed (though I've had a few monsters in my bed - but that's another story).

Last Halloween, I was perusing scary books via Amazon, and I came across The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey.  It was a Young Adult book that didn't much seem like a Young Adult book, besides the fact that it had a child narrator and some trendy leanings toward the paranormal.  What got my attention was that it was set in Victorian New England.  It had that American Gothic creepiness of Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe combined with the angst of Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein.  The novel's historical element was a clue that this might be so much more than typical YA fare.  What sealed the deal for me, however, was this review:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Calling All Adults! Read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

In case I forgot: the illustrations by Ana Juan are exquisite.
Why aren’t you reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?

Do you think you’re too old for fairy tales?

Did you give up Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz when you were ten?

If you go anywhere near the young adult section in a bookstore, are you looking
for vampires or angels or dystopian societies?

Does GWCFSHOM seem too saccharine?  Too little-girlish?  Too fanciful?  Too bizarre?

Is the title too long for your pre-Alzheimers brain to hold onto?

I don’t care about your preconceived notions, your inflexible literary preferences, or your personal limitations: Dammit!  Read this book!

Catherynne M. Valente has dreamed up a kaleidoscope world with vibrant settings, shining characters, and glorious themes – yes, themes.  You probably think this is some flimsy tale of whimsy where the author gratuitously paints with neon words and flashes fantastical images that hold no purpose other than to dazzle.  To be sure, Valente is a lush Dante Gabriel Rosetti with words, who is every bit as linguistically acrobatic as Lewis Carroll.  Yet, her story has heart; it has soul and feel-good stuff that burns off that surrealistically creepy fog that dulls Carroll’s Wonderland or Baum’s Oz.  Fairyland is treacherous and scary but it never devolves into a nightmarish freakshow.  Valente sprinkles the story with revelations about growing-up, loyalty and love, courage and fortitude, longing and loss, and even redemption, and she does it so gracefully that it takes the nasty edge off all that is unfamiliar and strange. 

Here’s what I mean – this is a beautiful passage where a soap golem sacrifices her own finger to clean the twelve year-old protagonist:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean.  You are brave enough for anything: crawling off staircases, saying your first words without fearing someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth.  But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like.  By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living.  So every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you’ll never be brave again.”

Valente’s story begins when September, the heroine, is whisked away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind; he flies her to Fairyland on a magical leopard because she “seems an ill-tempered and irascible enough child.”  Upon her arrival, September agrees to retrieve a magical spoon, the property of a very well-dressed witch named Goodbye.  This spoon is in the hands of the evil Marquess who rules Fairyland.  On her way to fulfill this quest, September meets a Wyvern, who is half-library (I won’t try to explain), as well as a sea-djinni (like a genie) whose past and future selves can show up at any time in the present.

Before you make any obvious comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, or Gulliver’s Travels, let me just say: “This ain’t your Granny’s Fairytale.”  Valente gives props to her predecessors of fantastical literature with references to magical wardrobes, boons of fancy shoes (not ruby slippers, but little black heels, mind you), references to winds whisking away waifs from the Midwest (Nebraska rather than Kansas), an evil queen of whom everyone is afraid (although she doesn’t scream “Off with their heads!”), and tiny customs guards who wear huge gargoyle automatons to appear more imposing than they really are (a la the wizard in Oz).

SPOILER ALERT:  Now that we’ve gotten some of the obvious similarities to other stories out of the way, here are some of Valente’s original details:  have you ever heard of beaches carpeted with treasure, entire cities made of cloth or baked goods, a girl whose hair changes colors with her moods, movie screens where the people on the film can see the audience and speak to them, half-people that mix and match with their siblings, inanimate objects that come to life after 100 years, or wild herds of velocipedes?  I could go on and on, but I think I’ve already said too much.

Today I sat at the swimming pool waiting for my kids to work out their overabundance of energy, and I finished the last chapters of the book.  A woman I didn’t know at a nearby table said, “That must have been a good book.  You were smiling the whole time you were reading it.”  If nothing else convinces you that the book will push every wholesome pleasure button in your being, that woman’s observation should.  I must’ve been grinning, not like a Cheshire cat, but like a flying Leopard.

So again, I ask, why aren’t you reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?  I don’t know how this book is being marketed, but I do know it transcends age, gender, cultural preferences, and literary tastes.  Don’t let it languish on a Young Adult or Children’s Lit bookshelf, and don’t compare it to the fantasy tales of your youth.  It’s modern in tone, it’s universally appealing, and it’s an indulgent gift you should give yourself.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Spring Reading Thing 2011 - What Happened?

My success rate for Spring Reading thing was about fifty percent.  I'll recap my list and explain (make excuses for) why I didn't complete my challenge:

  1. Swamplandia by Karen Russell.  I had high hopes for this book because the book flap was enticing.  Although the book had a few great moments, it was a slow-paced read overall.  I suspect Russell was trying to dazzle us with her prose rather than move her story along.  It could have been a great story had the pacing been a little better.  Here's my extended review if you'd like the deets on this one.
  2. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.  I had low expectations for Brown's novel about three sisters, a sick mother, and a Shakespeare-obsessed father because I thought it was going to be fluffy chick-lit (which I will read, but that's not what I was seeking here).  I ended up liking this story.  The characters were well-developed and showed growth.  It wasn't melodramatic (and the subject matter could have easily slipped into melodrama).  I found myself laughing during some scenes and my heart constricting in my chest in others.  Here's my extended review.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Punctuation and Grammar – An Update on My Summer Creative Writing Course

This summer, I am embarking on a self-taught creative writing course (see my post: Autodidact’s Summer Creative Writing Course).  I want to become a better writer.  I need help becoming a better writer.  While I can’t leave my kids to fly off to a formal program, nothing is stopping me from reading instructive materials and putting the advice I gather into practice.
            This week, I started with the basics: grammar – more specifically, punctuation.  I had a slow start with my self-assigned readings.  The subject matter evoked shameful memories of my undergraduate composition class where my essay, composed during the first class meeting, was chosen by my classmates as the best-written.  So why does this memory make me wince rather than glow with self-esteem?  Because my professor systematically reamed the essay to show us all that we didn’t know shit about writing.  Since then, I have never rushed to pat myself on the back – I try to avoid the embarrassment of premature congratulation.
            Once I got into Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I realized the subject wasn’t so bad.  I never bothered with Strunk and White during my university life (non-English major here – that obnoxious composition professor probably put me off the entire discipline), but The Elements of Style is great little book of writing basics.  It’s short, but eye-opening.  I now realize how moronic I must seem to my blog readers.  I am red-faced that I don’t remember as many of the guidelines of good writing as I thought I did (what was I saying earlier about hasty self-congratulation?).
           Once I absorbed Strunk and White, I moved on to Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.  It’s a technical read, but Lukeman provides abundant examples to make his points.  In the first section Lukeman covers the three primary marks: period, comma, and semi-colon.  He also covers colons, dashes and parentheses, quotation marks, and paragraph and section breaks.  The chapter format for each point is as follows:  how to use it, the danger of overuse, how to underuse it, the danger of underuse, context, what your use of the [insert punctuation here] reveals about you, and exercises.  My use of various forms of punctuation, more often than not, revealed my amateur writer status: no surprise there.  I haven’t done the exercises yet, but they can all be applied to my work-in-progress, which I am sure will render further revelations and self-loathing.  Nevertheless, Lukeman has shown me the stylistic force of these seemingly mundane symbols, and I am, at long last, more confident about how to use semi-colons and colons.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Great Feast Inspired by Chris Adrian's The Great Night

The kids are out of school for summer, which means there will be no more rushing to get them out the door in the mornings.  There will be hot, lazy days by the pool and reading lots of books.  To celebrate the season, I made a Great Feast inspired by Chris Adrian’s book, The Great Night.  So get out your grill, and crack open a beer and Adrian’s book.  You’ll be feeling the midsummer magic in no time.
Sweet and "Sorrow" Chicken on bed of "Soy"-lent Greens

Molly’s Sweet and "Sorrow" Chicken
"She hadn’t meant or wanted to enjoy that unexpected feast, but she had, and it made her feel big in her soul, how she could delight in the texture of a crispy bit of chicken skin at the same time that she mourned her lost boyfriend and her lost mind, and she didn’t have to choose between delight and despair: she could experience them both to their fullest simultaneously."
Bird on the barbie

Monday, June 6, 2011

Discussion of The Great Night by Chris Adrian

The Great Night by Chris Adrian is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream wearing the mask of tragedy.  Here’s a quick synopsis:  Three mortals coming from three different parts of San Francisco get lost in Buena Vista Park on Midsummer’s Eve.  They are all on their way to a party thrown by Jordan Sasscock.  The get lost because fairies live under the hill in the park, and Puck causes all hell to break loose.  Oberon, the fairy king, has left his wife, Titania, because she couldn’t stop grieving a dead human child they had both come to love.  Although Titania sent Oberon away, she is depressed and wants him to return home.  Desperate to get Oberon to return, she unleashes Puck from his magical bonds that keep him in control.  Puck is a murderous menace to faerie and mortals alike, and only Oberon can stop him.
            The three lost mortals are Henry, a pediatric oncologist with OCD issues resulting from his abduction as a child and his “mommy” issues.  He was dumped by his lover who couldn’t deal with his compulsive behaviors.  Then there is Will, an arborist/short story author, who falls in love with Carolina.  Will and Carolina both lost their brothers and hooked up in their mutual sorrow.  Carolina eventually dumps Will because of his sexually adventurous extra-relationship activities.  Will unrealistically hopes he’ll see Carolina at the party and get back in her good graces.  Finally, there is Molly, a floral shop girl, who grew up in an uber-religious family that rocked a Christian band.  They were like a Holy Rolling Partridge Family or the Jackson Five on Jesus.  During Molly’s childhood, she felt she didn’t fit in with her family and related better to the troubled foster children that cycled in and out of her home.  She tried becoming a Unitarian minister, but couldn’t relate to grieving parishioners.  That all changed when she found her boyfriend’s corpse hanging from a tree.   

Friday, June 3, 2011

Midsummer Madness: Books to Celebrate Fairy Magic

Die Elfenkönigin Titania streichelt den eselsköpfigen Zettel by Johann Heinrich Füssli ca. 1780 - 1790 
Midsummer’s Eve (June 24th) will soon be upon us.  It’s a shame Americans don’t celebrate it like the Europeans do, especially those wild Scandinavians, Finns, and Estonians.  I guess when you’re pounded by icy cold most of the year, you like to really throw it down in the summer.  Midsummer is a time for bonfires, drinking, singing, dancing, giant swings, picking flowers by the moonlight, and finding treasures beneath a will-o-the-wisp.  I imagine there’s also a little romance involved and a fair amount of lewd behavior.  For instance, those crazy Latvians like to run around naked at three a.m. to mark the festival.  Now that’s as good a reason as any to visit the Baltic countries.  Whoo-hoo! Where’s the sarīkojums?! (That’s Latvian for par-tay.)

Sadly, Book Phantom can’t make it to Latvia and will have to make her own little Midsummer Celebration; there will probably be a bonfire and some drinking, and with enough of said drinking, there may be something that approximates singing and dancing.  I’ll probably have to draw the line at streaking through my little town, because I’m middle-aged and that’d just be gross.  Plus, I doubt the local Baptists would turn a blind eye toward naked shenanigans done in the name of heathen debauchery.  So, I’ll just have to settle for some reading revelry (and I anticipate a bit of it will be lewd!).  For June, I’ve selected books that will imbue me with the magical feeling of this happy season – all of my picks pertain to fairies and fairy enchantment.

  • New Release:  The Great Night by Chris Adrian is a modernized take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It takes place in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, where three mortals who have experienced tragic losses find themselves lost on their way to a party.  Fairy magic is afoot when Titania releases a dark and murderous Puck from his bonds in hopes her absent Oberon will return to save the day.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Books to Celebrate Bathroom Reading Month

My reading room
“That’s exactly why I’ve designed the Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” Miss Hilly say.  “As a disease-preventative measure.”
I’m surprised by how tight my throat get.  It’s a shame I learned to keep down a long time ago.
Miss Skeeter look real confused.  “The Home…the what?”
“A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help.  I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea.  I pass.”
Miss Skeeter, she frowning at Miss Hilly.  She set her cards down faceup and say real matter-a-fact, “Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.”
                        From The Help by Kathryn Stockett

“After his breakfast he walked the path to the outhouse.  He felt remarkably peaceful sitting there, shut away from the world.  He’d always thought of the privy as a holy place, a refuge from all but the most basic human concerns.  As a novitiate he scandalized his superiors by claiming it wasn’t the church but the shithouse that was God’s true home in the world, the pungent effluvium as meditative an odor as incense, sunlight through the crescent moon carved in the door providing the dusky ambience of a monastery cell.”
                        From Galore by Michael Crummey

“…at once the tap glowed with a brilliant white light and began to spin.  Next second, the sink began to move; the sink in fact, sank, right out of sight, leaving a large pipe exposed, a pipe wide enough for a man to slide into.”
                                    From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

In literature, the bathroom has served as a means of racial oppression, a place for spiritual contemplation, or an entryway to secret dangers.  It's also a great place to read.  June is Bathroom Reading Month, and to celebrate, I’ve compiled a list of "bathroom-y" books for all reading types.  Keep ’em on top of the toilet for those captive moments throughout the day.

Monday, May 30, 2011

An Autodidact's Summer Writing Course

When I went on vacation at the end of April, I took a vacation from writing.  Although I have been back from vacation for over a month, I still haven’t resumed work on my work-in-progress.  I suppose I should call it my work-in-limbo.  It's funny that it has gone from a WIP, which makes me think of a whip cracking me into action, to a WIL, whereby I am trying to passively will my story to completion. 
The worst part of all this wasted time is that my children will be out of school for summer in less than two weeks.  Summertime is a ten-and-a-half week stretch of non-writing for me.  You can imagine how impossible it is to work with two children under the age of ten bubbling with excitement over their freedom from school drudgery, pulling and tugging me every day, ALL day long.  I have come to accept summer as a forced hiatus, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do something that will further my writing progress.  In order to make the best use of my arrested creativity, I have decided to do a summer creative writing course. 
I know what you’re thinking, but, no, I won’t actually be going to a creative writing class with other adults, where we can happily workshop our latest bits of inspiration.  Summertime is a time for me to enjoy my kids, and I won’t be taking them to day camp or shipping them to grandma’s.  There will never be an Iowa Creative Writing Workshop for me, nor a Gotham Writers’ Workshop, nor even the closer-to-my-geographical-range Wildacres Writers' Workshop.  I accept this with no regrets.  As a middle-aged mom, I have come to terms with the fact that I have to be, well, “creative” about my creative writing aspirations.  Therefore, my creative writing workshop will be of my own making.  This summer, I will be an autodidact.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Save the Whales Bookmarks and Whale Book Speed Reviews

It's time once again for Book Phantom to return her library books, which means another bookmarking caper!  This month, I bought my bookmarks from Save the Whales, and proceeds go to protect these intelligent and graceful giants.  I won't publish the bookmark fronts on my blog due to copyright, but here's the link so you can order some yourselves (the bookmarks are at the bottom of the link page).  There are eight different whale designs to choose from, and at only fifty cents each, you can order them all for less than a cup of Starbucks or a bargain paperback.  Below are the messages I left on the backs of the bookmarks for unsuspecting book borrowers.

Gray Whale Bookmark for Grayson.  It's a memoir, so the quote about time and memory seems proper.

Sperm Whale bookmark for Moby Dick.  I'm placing this in Chapter 32: Cetology, where Melville debates whether a whale is a fish or a mammal.

North Atlantic Right Whale bookmark for Galore.  This mark is just right for a story set in the North Atlantic island of Newfoundland.  The story begins with the removal of a man from a beached whale. 
Although I don't promote my blog by placing bookmarks into children's books I borrow, I'm putting my Save the Whales sticker (a lagnaippe that came with my bookmark purchase) into Nightbirds on Nantucket.  Just a little surprise for one of the younger readers out there.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ten Things I Liked About Moby Dick

I’m not reviewing Moby Dick on this post.  Now that I have completed it, I have mixed feelings about it.  It’s basically a treatise on whales and the whaling industry from a 19th century perspective stuffed between a slice of comedy (the first 100 pages) and a slice of tragedy (the last 100 pages).  I could never tell whether I was reading through Ishmael’s eyes or through Melville’s.  The author wasn’t kidding when he had Ishmael say, “…a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  Much of Moby Dick read like a dissertation.  That’s all I’m saying from a critical perspective.  Others more qualified than I can pick apart the literary nuances of the novel with greater skill and insight. 

I’d much prefer to list a few kooky things I loved about Moby Dick:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mrs. Hussey's Try Pots Inn Chowder Recipe

The first hundred pages or so of Moby Dick are surprisingly fun and humorous.  Melville devotes an entire chapter (albeit a short, three-page chapter) to chowder.  Ishmael and his pagan friend Queequeg spend the evening at the Try Pots Inn on Nantucket before shipping out on the Pequod.  The inn is famous for its chowder.  This chapter gave me such a craving for chowder, that I just had to make some.  Here's a passage from Moby Dick that's sure to get your mouth watering, too:
Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out "clam for two," disappeared.
"Queequeg," said I, "do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?"
However, a warm and savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us.  But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.  Oh! sweet friend, hearken to me.  It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.  Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we dispatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment.  Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat.  In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.  (Chapter 15, Moby Dick)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken: A Sympathy Message for Kennedy-Era American Children

Who can resist this jacket design by Edward Gorey?
For the kiddie portion of my Tales of the Whales booklist, I read Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken.  The story begins when ten-year old Dido Twite, an English girl, awakens from a ten-month coma aboard an American whaling ship.  When Dido recovers, Captain Casket asks her to befriend his skittish daughter, Dutiful Penitence, who refuses to leave her cabin because she is afraid of the sea.  Dido teaches the serious Quaker girl to have fun and play games.  Eventually, Dutiful, or Pen, as Dido calls her, musters her courage and leaves the cabin.
            Captain Casket is on a mission to find a pink whale he rescued from a beach in his boyhood.  He is so obsessed with finding “Rosie” the whale that he leaves Pen and Dido at his Nantucket home with Aunt Tribulation.  Aunt Trib is like the stepmother in Cinderella – she forces the girls to do chores all day and to wait on her like servants.  Dido teaches Pen to stand up against Trib, and the girl develops some backbone.
            Nightbirds is an “off-shoot” of Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, but the story won’t confuse readers who are unfamiliar with the earlier books.  Readers will like Dido because she is brave and heroic and a tad full of herself.  It’s great fun to see her give Aunt Tribulation what-for.  Aunt Tribulation (who isn’t who you think she is) is deliciously bad.  Nate the cabin boy is Dido's friend and ally.  He owns a talking bird named Mr. Jenkins who offers plenty of laughs with his silly, aristocratic squawking.  When Dido asks the bird where he’s been, he merely answers, “Your Grace’s wig needs a little more powder!”
            From what I know about Aiken’s Wolves series, the books revolve around an alternate history, where King James II was never deposed.  In her world, King James III rules, but he's constantly harassed by The Hanoverians.  This conspiring is critical to Nightbirds on Nantucket.  Dido, Nate, and Pen thwart an assassination attempt on King James III in the story’s climax.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Lovely (Whale) Bones - Field Trip to NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Happy International Museum Day!  To celebrate this event and to encourage reading books about whales, Book Phantom visited the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.  This museum has an expansive collection of whale bones hanging from the ceiling of the first floor exhibit hall.  In fact, one particular whale, a sperm whale nicknamed "Trouble", is the museum's official mascot.  This 54 foot, 100,000 pound behemoth shored on Wrightsville Beach, NC in April 1928.  It's decaying body presented quite a problem for the local health department, hence its moniker.  Over 50,000 people from six states came to view it.  Eventually, the state museum towed the whale to Topsail Beach to let nature do its work on the carcass before taking the remains back to Raleigh. According to marine biologist Todd Pusser, Trouble is one of only a few adult male sperm whales on display in the world.  Here's what's left of him:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review of Galore by Michael Crummey

Michael’s Crummey’s novel Galore takes place in a small Newfoundland fishing village called Paradise Deep and the surrounding coastal wilderness in the middle 1800s.  The trusty “stranger comes to town” scenario puts the story in motion when a man with white skin and hair, naked as a newborn baby, falls out of a beached whale the local fishermen have gutted.  The man is mute and reeks of fish forever after, but his is a mystical presence, responsible for healings and bountiful catches of fish.  More importantly, however, he is a pawn in the perpetual feud between the Devine and Sellers families.  He is a scapegoat who keeps the peace by offering himself up for his "newfound" family and friends.  The reader is taken through the many rites of life in and around Paradise Deep; we share with the inhabitants strange births, bizarre illnesses, forbidden loves, loveless marriages, and peaceless deaths.  Even figurative rebirths happen – patterns are played out generation after generation.  Time marches on, but human nature is unchanged.

Here is a list of things I liked about the novel:
  • Galore is magical realism at its best; the story delivers plenty of folklore, superstition, and just plain weirdness.  Galore is never dull because the characters' almost medieval adherence to superstition makes them unpredictable.
  • In spite of their brutishness due to ignorance and poverty, the characters are likeable and sympathetic.  You both love and hate them just as they love and hate each other.  Like life, the feelings are a mixed bag.  It’s the realistic part of the story.
  • The community had a ritualized way of demanding conformity without direct confrontation with people who had broken village mores.  At Christmastime, during the feast of the Epiphany, mummers went about in costume demanding food and drink at various houses.  A man dressed as a horse, aptly named Horse Chops, was led around the host’s house by the King mummer.  The King selected a particular person from the party and asked the all-knowing Horse Chops questions about the chosen one’s personal life.  No subject was taboo.  Horse Chops would answer yes or no to these questions in front of the whole party.  In one case, the mummers shamed a boy who carried a torch for his female cousin whom he could never marry.  In another case, they called out a gay man who was in love with his best friend.  It was a way for the community to say, “We know what you are, and we think you are hurting yourself and those around you.”  Everyone seemed to accept this informal trial.  Although the questioned parties were angry or embarrassed by Horse Chops, they held no grudges.  Sociologically, this was a fascinating means of depicting the closeness of the village. 
  • Galore is a family saga, and as a genealogy freak, I loved the family history aspect of the story.  It’s interesting how generations tie together, one generation’s behaviors affecting the next.  Mistakes and patterns are often repeated by sons and daughters because people rarely talk about the past.  Crummey writes in the first chapter of Mary Tryphena’s ignorance: “She felt she’d been delivered into a universe where everyone’s knowledge but hers was complete and there was no acceptable way to acquire information other than waiting for its uncertain arrival.”  This lack of communication between parents and children, elders and descendants, new comers and old timers occurs throughout – until someone lets information slip.  Sometimes the “loose lips” will be Horse Chops with his violation of secrets.  Sometimes it’s Obediah and Azariah Trim sharing the genealogy of Paradise Deep and the Gut with the American doctor.  At the end of Galore, it’s Esther, who, in her bouts of drunkenness with sickly Abel, unlocks the mysteries of his family.  Her sharing is an act so intimate in this culture, it becomes a seduction scene.
  • There really isn’t a plot, and surprisingly, it doesn’t matter.  Galore is a story like a fable or a folktale – it has bizarre characters, magical events, heroes and villains, moral lessons.  I kept asking myself, “With no plot, how can this end?”  Not to worry.  Crummey wrapped it up in a neat little package – it was elegant, a thing of beauty, a perfect full circle.  His characters often say, “Now the once” to mean either soon, a bit later, or some unspecified point in the future:  “As if it was all the same finally, as if time was a single moment endlessly circling on itself.” I don’t want to spoil it, but this timelessness and circuitry is the key to Galore's satisfactory conclusion.
There was nothing I disliked about Galore, but here are some things other readers may find problematic:
·    There are many characters to love, not just a main character.  If you like one hero or heroine, you may find reading about multiple generations confusing.  From time to time, I had to check the family tree at the front of the book to remember familial connections, but each character is so unique and so carefully crafted, you won’t confuse them. 
·    Crummey’s characters are sexual; everyone from a fourteen year-old child bride to two prepubescent boys playing naked in the pond to a renegade Catholic priest are having sex in this book, and it’s not spoken of in polite 19th century diction as you might expect.  Delicacy in any form would be out of character for these hardened people who were taught by Father Phelan that denying one’s appetites is an insult to God. It’s not just sex either; lots of times it’s vindictive hate sex.  Nothing in this book is what it seems.  Love and hate, fear and respect all combine in a confusing net of repressed emotion – it's a chowder pot of passion and resentment threatening to boil over.
·    Crummey doesn’t use quotation marks, and in many cases he doesn’t even use complete sentences.  It didn’t trip me up because it seemed fitting for a culture unskilled in words and loath to communicate.  They are a people whose speech is truncated and curt.  Language is a blunt tool only to be used when necessary.  Jude Devine never speaks, Absalom and Henley stutter.  Esther and Abel lose their voices when they go abroad.  Levi has a stroke and slurs his speech.  The village as a whole has no “voice” in the larger world, and the inhabitants are captive to its political and economic whims.  Crummey breaks grammatical rules in service to the story. 
·    Although the narrative moves through time from about the middle 1800s to WWI, there is some going back and forth from past to present which hinges on the arrival of Judah.  Judah is like Faraday’s constant on the show LOST.  He is the common thread from beginning to end.  Also, some characters fill in backstory and regale the reader with community legend and lore.  These sections are neatly layered into the narrative, and the reminiscences into the past never seem artificial or out of place.

I could spout on and on about how much I loved this book, but if you are like me, you don’t trust gushy reviews.  All I can say is that Galore is original.  It’s well-crafted.  The word choices, the use of grammar, the symbols, the dialect, the social behaviors – every piece of the story has a reason for being as it is.  It’s one of the best books I've read this year, and it deserves readers galore.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mark Twain: Ad Man?

In her writing guide, Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin uses “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain as an example of how to “be gorgeous” with your prose.  By being “gorgeous” she’s referring to how the words sound on the page.  “Jumping Frog” has wonderful dialectical cadences that make it sound authentic and folksy if not gorgeous.
Twain wrote such great-sounding stories because he observed real people and listened.  In “Jumping Frog”, he portrayed Mr. Wheeler, a man who prattled on and on about Jim Smiley, even though it had nothing to do with the narrating character’s inquiry about one Leonidas Smiley.  This confusion is typical when talking to the elderly or the perpetually bored – they don’t know who or what you’re asking about, but they do know something and, wanting conversation and company, by golly, they will tell you everything that they do know.  There is no way to interrupt someone midway into such rambling without being rude.  Such storytellers never pause for an instant to let you make your excuses and get away.  Best just to hunker in until something else catches their attention.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tales of the Whales – May Reading List

"Whaling Voyage Round the World" c. 1848 by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington
This month Book Phantom will be reading about whales and seafaring.  How did I come to this subject?  It’s nearly summer, and time to start thinking about seaside vacations.  However, little synchronicities in my life have been pointing me towards “whale lit”.  First, when I was browsing Books of the Month at Amazon, I came across a recommendation for Galore by Canadian author Michael Crummey.  I was pulled in by the blurb about a strange, pale man cut from the body of a beached whale.  My next sign came as I was reading Swamplandia!.  In the chapters that took place at The World of Darkness theme park, Karen Russell described a ride called the Leviathan in which tourists could slide down into the innards of a great fake whale.  The third sign came when I took my daughter on a field trip to Shackleford Banks last week.  This island was the site of a small whaling community in the 1800’s called Diamond City.  It was abandoned in 1899 after a great hurricane flattened most of the town.  I learned on this trip that North Carolina was the only state south of New Jersey that had a whaling industry of any note. 
My final reason for choosing whale tales is that whaling is in my family history.  My husband’s great-grandfather left the Azores at the age of fourteen upon a whaler and eventually settled in Erie, Pennsylvania in the late 1860s.  In order to give my kids a better understanding of their ancestry, I thought it would be helpful to read some literature about it.
So, the universe was giving me a nudge, and the notion to read about whales emerged from the depths of my subconscious as clear as a tail fin or a spout from a blowhole.  Here are my “Tales of the Whales” reading selections:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

15 Favorite Books from My Childhood

Original Books from Phantom's Childhood
It’s Children’s Book Week, and Book Phantom has been reminiscing about the books on her childhood shelves.  I still have many of my dog-eared and Pepsi-stained paperbacks (most of them cost between 95 cents and $1.25!).  I’m not sure I had very good taste when I was a child.  My mother bought me the best titles of that time (early 80s), many of them Newbery Award winners, but as I flipped through them, I realized that I don’t remember the stories as well as I should.  Perhaps my comprehension wasn’t as developed as it is now.  Perhaps I only read part of them before casting them aside.  The only books I absolutely remember loving to the point of re-reading was Judy Blume’s books.  My copy of Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret is pretty tattered. 

I also remember loving a couple of fluffy books that my mom probably gave away.  I guess they didn’t seem to merit saving for twenty years until I had my own home to clutter with childhood detritus.  In spite of their dubious literary value, I remember details from those books that I don’t remember from the award winners.  Just goes to show you that what appeals to kids is often very different from what parents and critics like.  Kids should always be allowed an opportunity to choose most of their reading, even if their selections make you roll your eyes and fill you with dread of story time.

Here is a list of important books from my childhood:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Why do I dread writing this review?  I was so excited about Swamplandia! – couldn’t wait to read it.  I began reading a few pages but stopped.  I didn’t read it over vacation because I wanted to be alone with it for a stretch (yet I couldn’t be bothered to lift it on the five hour road trip back).  I finished some other books and picked it up in earnest again.  I read.  I got sleepy.  Read some more.  Got sleepy.  What was going on?  I liked the characters.  I liked the concept – it had so much potential and originality.  Why wasn’t I loving this book?

I pushed on because it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t even bad.  It just made me very sleepy.  I think part of the problem was Russell’s extensive use of metaphor and many self-conscious turns of phrase.  Gustave Flaubert said, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe; present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  I felt that Russell was too visible in too many places.  Sometimes the description of the setting slowed the pace without adding anything to the general mood or tension in the book.  I got “bogged down”, so to speak. (har, har).  Some of her prose was beautiful but pointless.  Some of it didn’t seem to fit in the characters mouths.  For instance, the main character, Ava, muses:
“I tried to imagine what species of bird could make a sound like that.  A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling.  It was sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity.” 

Beautiful words, but I wouldn’t have put them in Ava’s mouth.  Ava often waxes poetic like this, but it doesn’t sound like a thirteen year old with a substandard education and a sheltered life.  It sounds like Karen Russell trying to dazzle me.  Another thing that slowed the book down was the insertion of historical facts about the Florida swamplands.  These were not seamless – I always felt like they were asides basted in with sloppy whipstitches.  It interrupted the flow of this fantastically original story.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Calling on The Book Lady in Savannah

Entrance to The Book Lady
If you are ever in the Savannah area, go to The Book Lady book shop.  This is an excellent used book store on
Liberty Street
in the Historic District.  It is located in the bottom of a building, almost like a basement, but it is cozy and well-stocked.  The main room has that comfy reading-room-feel, with a large well-worn sofa and easy chair by a fire place.  My husband got the kids some treats while I poked around.  I didn’t see the entire refreshment selection, but I know they sell coffee, water, prepackaged biscotti, and out-of-this-world oatmeal chocolate chips cookies (homemade by the store). 

As I wandered through the tiny shop, it revealed itself to be a labyrinth of shelves, hallways, and rooms practically spewing books.  The front area had a classics section and a regional section, as well as what appeared to be some first editions of better-known authors.  One room was dedicated to women’s literature and contemporary bestsellers.  The Book Lady had a small but interesting collection of literary criticism, as well as the obligatory shelf or two dedicated to Flannery O’Connor, whose childhood home was just blocks away.  The interior staircase had stacks and stacks of books resting on it.  What was the effect of all of these books, lying about and covering every wall?  I felt blissfully blanketed in spines and pages. 
Sign and shop window (look for the nib)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Greetings from Low-Country Georgia! Postcard Bookmarks

It’s time once again for the Book Phantom to return her library books.  Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor will go back with a postcard bookmark of Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia.  Savannah was O’Connor’s birthplace, and although I have a postcard from her childhood home, it was too large to fit into the paperback copy I borrowed.  To add meaning to my postcard bookmark, I put a snippet of my historic Savannah map on the back of the postcard with O’Connor’s home on Charlton Street
circled in red.  Because the front depicts the Forsyth Park fountain, I slipped the card into Chapter 5, where Enoch enters the gates of City Forest Park to ogle female swimmers and insult animals at the zoo.
Forsyth Park Postcard Bookmark for Wise Blood

Savannah Breeze by Mary Kay Andrews is also due.  BeBe, the heroine in the novel, is a well-to-do business woman who is swindled by her conman boyfriend.  All she has left in the aftermath of this affair is the run-down Breeze Inn on Tybee Island and a few good friends to help her fix up the property.  These same friends help her get her money back from the villain, and they serve up his just desserts.  Savannah Breeze gets a Tybee Island postcard depicting an aerial view of the pier and coastline.  On the back I added a clip from a Tybee Island map.  (Note: I didn’t post the fronts of the postcards as they are protected by copyright.)
Tybee Island Postcard Bookmark for Savannah Breeze

Here’s hoping the next readers enjoy this taste of low-country Georgia!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor House

O'Connor Childhood Home, 207 E Charlton St.,Savannah
The only museum my family and I bothered going to in Savannah was the Flannery O’Connor childhood home (we spent the rest of the time eating in spectacular restaurants).  My nine year old daughter and seven year old son had no idea who O’Connor was.  They only knew Mommy was reading one of her books, which made her look baffled most days.  The kids heard me go on about “weirdos” and “freaks” and asking what these characters could possibly be trying to tell me.  In spite of the obsessive muttering to myself about Wise Blood, the kids and The Hub were willing to humor my need to see the crazy environment that produced such a disturbing author.
Portraits of Mary Flannery and her parents, Edward & Regina
But O’Connor wasn’t raised in a loony bin.  She was raised in a loving and cozy home supplied by a wealthy and doting aunt.  Her parents were attentive.  They sent Flannery to good schools and attended Mass regularly at St. John’s Cathedral, the steeple of which was ever-present in O’Connor’s view from the upstairs window.  O’Connor’s Catholic faith heavily influenced her work.  In spite of her religious nature, she was a precocious child who was not the silent and obedient type.  At age six, she called her parents by their first names and attended the adult-only mass rather than the family mass at church.  When a nun told her she should attend family mass, Flannery replied something to the effect of: “The Catholic Church will not dictate what mass my family attends.”  There appeared to be a thread of rebellion beneath her unshakeable faith.

View of St. John's from upper bedroom

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review of Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood is a truly baffling piece of literature.  I knew when I read O’Connor it would be Southern Gothic with plenty of freakish, grotesque characters.  However, I was expecting to understand more clearly where the story was taking me.  After reading it once, chewing on it for a few days, and still finding the point of the story “hazy”, I went online to see what critics and scholars were saying.  One of the better scholars I found was Yale’s Amy Hungerford.  After watching part 1 of her lecture on Wise Blood, I gained a clearer vision, if you will, of Hazel Motes and his motivations.  Armed with some of Hungerford’s insights and pondering questions she posed to her students, I went back through Wise Blood and thought more about the symbols and themes in the novel.
            Here is a quick plot synopsis:  The protagonist, Hazel Motes, was raised in a fire-and-brimstone preaching family.  His grandfather was a roving minister who put the fear of Jesus in Hazel at an early age.  Hazel realized that the easiest way to avoid the scary Jesus of his grandfather’s sermons was to avoid sin.  He thinks he will become a preacher, but he is drafted into the army, and that plan is thwarted.  During his service, fellow soldiers try to take him to a brothel.  Haze refuses, saying he will protect his soul from the government and foreigners.  His comrades tell him he has no soul and leave him behind.  This plants the seed in Haze’s mind that maybe he truly has no soul.  If he were rid of his soul – converted to nothingness instead of evil – he would have some relief from the Jesus moving “from tree to tree in the back of his mind.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Break Reading List - Swamp Things

"Books – the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity."
 – George Steiner

The Book Phantom is leaving for vacation this week-end, and I will be in the marshy low-country of Georgia, partying with alligators in a “drinking town with a fishing problem”.  That’s right – I’ll be in Tybee Island for a little R & R, with plans to jaunt into Savannah for some culture and good food.  Because I’m going to be in the “swamp”, my New Book pick is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  Hopefully, Russell will cure me of the aforementioned marsh-gas of boredom, but since I’ll be on vacation, I can deal with at least a little vacuity.

In fact, my reading list will be a little fluffy this go ‘round.  After Shakespearean tragedies, my mind craves some lighter fare.  I’m leaving out my usual professional development book selection, just because I don’t want to think about working.  Instead, I’m adding a contemporary “chick lit” title for leisurely reading on the beach.  So here is my non-boring yet non-taxing reading list inspired by Swamps, Savannah, and the Seashore.

  1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (New Release).  I've had this book for a little over a month, saving it for the vacay, and it hasn’t been easy not to peek.  It’s about a girl and her carnival-type family who run a gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades (I know, I know – the Georgia low-country isn’t exactly the Everglades, but did you read about that grandma that was eaten by an alligator in Savannah? I'm a little scared I’ll encounter one on the beach, too!  Maybe Russell will have some “gator wrastlin’” tips in her book - just in case.)  Anyway, the character descriptions on the book flap totally sucked me in: Ava Bigtree, the thirteen year old heroine, must save the family theme park from a competitor called The World of Darkness; Ossie, the sister, falls in love with Dredgeman who is probably a ghost; Kiwi, the scholarly brother, betrays the family by joining The World of Darkness; and Chief Bigtree, the father, is missing.  Oh, and there’s a cast of 98 gators in little Ava’s charge.  You can’t get more original than this.
  2. Wise Blood  by Flannery O’Connor (Classic).  As a Southerner, I admit with some chagrin that I have never read Flannery O’Connor (although I have a foggy notion that at least one of her short stories crossed my path in high school English class).  O’Connor was born and raised in Savannah, so I will make the pilgrimage to her childhood home.  She only wrote two novels – Wise Blood is one of them.
  3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (Non-Fiction).  I read this title in the mid-90s when it was released, and I loved it.  I plan to thumb through it again to refamiliarize myself with the Savannah locales mentioned in the story.  It seems de rigueur for one touring Savannah.
  4. Fallen by Lauren Kate (Young Adult).  This is the first in a paranormal series about fallen angels.  It takes place in a boarding school in Savannah.  The second book is called Torrent, and the third, due for release June 14th, is called Passion.  I perused this a few times at Target but didn’t buy it because I thought it might be a bit Twilight-y (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I just like variety).  If I want to go out and immediately buy the rest of the series, you’ll know it’s a winner. 
  5. Savannah Breeze by Mary Kay Andrews (Contemporary).  This is chick-lit beach reading.  Here's a quick synopsis:  BeBe Loudermilk is in a relationship with a con-man who said he was an investment counselor.  He absconds with all her money, and all she has left is a run-down motel on Tybee Island.  BeBe and her friends fix up the motel, saving her from financial ruin.  When she locates the crooked boyfriend in Florida, BeBe heads south to get her money and perhaps some sweet revenge.  I’ll be enjoying this in lieu of a writer’s reference this week.
  6. Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers by Susan Shaughnessy (Writers’ Reference).  Even though I won’t be doing any professional development reading, I'm at least suggesting a writer’s reference book.  This title seemed appropriate for my "Swamp Things" reading list. 
I'll be posting my reading adventures next week from Savannah (unless the gators eat me before I can eat them!)  Stay tuned…