Wednesday, December 31, 2014

looking ahead to 2015 -- you know, tomorrow...

The Great American novel. Is there such a thing? Throughout 2015,  I'm going to try to find it, if it exists. Or maybe it will take me a lot longer.  Doesn't matter.

I've been spending an ungodly amount of time going through bookshelves at my house lately, and have come to the conclusion that of all things, there are less American novels here than from any other country.  It  hit me that I'm sorely lacking in  knowledge re my own nation's authors so I've made up my mind to make their work my central reading focus for 2015.  Hours of research later, I've got a list of writers to get me started, in chronological order, no less. I'll pop in from time to time with the contemporary stuff, but I love having a direction, as in the case of my crime reading where I'm focusing on obscure/forgotten women mystery/crime writers.  Any ideas at all will be helpful and most appreciated.

On tap to start: The Coquette (1797) and The Boarding School, by Hannah Webster Foster.

 This is going to be a great reading year.

Monday, December 29, 2014

in short, it's been a terrible month...

this isn't my photo, but it was me for pretty much most of December.  I still have a little moodfunk going on, but it's slowly getting better, and I'm slowly crawling out of it.  It's not easy. But this is a reading journal, not a place where I spill my guts about my personal life, so on with the show.

The joy that I normally get out of a few hours (or in the case of Blood Meridian - a couple of weeks) with a book just wasn't there for me this month, so the reading list is quite short.

First, in the realm of literature, there was Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, and I have to say that if I hadn't finished when I actually did, I probably would have been even more down than I was.  Thank god for good timing.  And thank god for my online group whose opinions & interpretations of this novel really helped me to understand it better than I could have reading it alone.  I've already shared my experience reading this book -- talking about it with other people whose opinions I value was one of the highlights of my reading year.    Second and last comes a new book from Penguin, Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera (from Brazil),  which was hard work but trust me when I say that it was well worth the effort. I haven't completely wrapped my head around it yet, but the first thing I did after reading it was to grab my copy of Borges' Collected Fictions and reread "The South," which was mentioned early on in this novel. What a huge difference it made to my understanding of Blood-Drenched Beard, but then again, I'm one of those people who feel like life's answers are all there in Borges' works.  I'll be writing about Galera's novel shortly -- it doesn't come out until January 22nd, but I'm happy I didn't have to wait that long.  It's an oh my god kind of read for the right person.

Next I move on to the crime zone, starting with the latest read, Escape, by Dominique Manotti. A leftie at heart, I appreciated this novel not only for its look back into the past, but for its implications that truth can be so easily buried and controlled by whoever holds the political reins at the moment. This is a novel about using the written word, even  fiction, to "salvage" the truth, and to give a voice to the reality and  to the people who lived it.  Moving on, another very dark read which I probably should have saved until my mental state was a little brighter is Celia Dale's A Dark Corner.  This book is one in my ongoing project to read the work of obscure (or at least forgotten) women crime novelists, and it just laid me flat with its darkness. Not one for the squeamish for sure, but that's more because of the ugliness that lives in one man.  Another one pulled from obscurity that I probably should have waited to read is They Rang Up the Police by Joanna Cannan, but here's the thing: it started out as a kind of silly crime novel written in 1939, complete with bumbling local cops, exaggerated class attitude etc., all the things one would expect of a novel at that time. Then the ending came along, and I was horrified.  On two lighter notes, however, there was The Devil in Montmartre, by Gary Imbinder, and Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz.  The Devil in Montmartre is historical crime fiction, set in a Paris that's just been through the Dreyfus Affair and Moriarty -- well, a clever little book about the London criminal underworld after the events at Reichenbach Falls.

Only one dark fiction/horror novel in December -- The Cormorant, by Stephen Gregory --   yet another one that did not help in the cheering up department. I haven't really discussed this one (next month, when my mental state isn't still in the toilet) but if depressing is what the author was going for, he did it. Bleak, but not-so-inexplicably excellent in its bleakness.

That leaves the realm of nonfiction, and again, just one book in this department, Ice Ship: The Epic Voyages of the Polar Adventurer Fram, by Charles W. Johnson.  It's a look at a ship, of all things...not just any ship, but the one that on its third voyage took Amundsen to Antarctica when he successfully made a run to be first at the South Pole. That was probably the cheeriest book of them all this month.  I sort of find that a little sad in its own way.

the end, and I hope with the end of this month coming up very shortly here, I can put all of the bleak sh*t aside and move along. There's just something so nice about a new year on its way -- especially for me, especially right now.

Monday, December 15, 2014

another mystery from the vault of obscure: They Rang Up the Police, by Joanna Cannan

Written in 1939, They Rang Up the Police by Joanna Cannan  is quite frankly, unlike any other mystery novel from this period I've read so far in my long mystery/crime-fiction reading career.  It has a psychological aspect to it that is just downright chilling, but one which I can't explore by writing about it since basically it would give away the entire show all at once.  It's a book where I ended up with nothing but total sympathy for the murderer, something that rarely happens and as I noted on the crime page, just felt right to me. There is a lot of craziness in this novel that masks what ultimately turns out to be a downright heartbreaking story where justice just might have been served in its own way.  

This book is #3 in my ongoing quest to read obscure crime-fiction novels written by unknown or forgotten women authors, and so far, I've had extremely good luck.  They Rang Up the Police is another English country house mystery, and my favorite so far.  Trust me. Even if you think you've read them all, there are still some surprises to be found in this genre.  It also ain't Agatha Christie by any stretch of the imagination.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

captain's log: reading Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy

I should make it very clear at the outset that this is not a review of this book, nor is it a post where someone looking for any sort of revelations about Judge Holden, the Kid, or what McCarthy's saying here will discover anything at all.

Instead, it's about two and a half moleskine notebooks (large size) being filled  with close-reading notes, with observations, vocabulary, googled references to Shakespeare, the Bible and other sources,  lightbulb moments, a bazillion questions, and pink and blue highlighting over the course of a couple of weeks.  It's about getting stuck in a world that is difficult to leave, even when you've left it. It's about getting one chapter shy of the end and wondering if I can take any more that day because I was just too depressed to move on.

It's just that kind of book.  And I loved it.

As I made my way through it, I started posting status updates about it on Goodreads.  I started it on 11/19 and immediately realized this wasn't going to be something I could just mark with my little sticky tabbies on the page edges and come back to later.  Each and every paragraph had something in it that made reading it pretty much line by line a necessity.  First real entry, 11/28 with

page 44: 13% -- "Loving every slow second of this book."

page 84: 24% -- "I don't remember the last time I read something this intense. Going slow to get the most from it."
 -- In truth I was really barely crawling through this book, making very s-l-o-w progress. On the home front, Larry was actually here that day (not traveling), and I told an online friend I planned to read all day if he didn't need me. In my head, it was a pretty safe bet that he wouldn't -- as I said to her, "he's pretty busy with writing a speech for work so hopefully that will corral him for a while."  Not four hours later I wrote her that "he's out of his corral.  There may be "Evening Redness in the East" if I keep having to listen to his speech after every addition."

12/01: -- I noted "Super progress today - this book gets darker and darker, but better and better with every chapter."
-- In the real world, I had read up to page 124.  Then at around 4:00 that day, since I'd just been sitting there reading the entire time, Larry comes downstairs and says, "do you know you're wearing the same clothes you had on yesterday? The pants are inside out."  I was absolutely horrified but then I just started laughing. He looks at the table where I'm sitting and I could almost read his mind. There was the coffee cup I'd used that morning, still half full; my half-eaten lunch quesadilla still on a plate on the placemat to the right, a bunched-up paper napkin with dried-up tangerine peels on top of it just sitting there, and the Neilsen tv diaries (most days marked "no viewing")  I was supposed to have mailed 2 days earlier. Oh well. Nothing I can do about that now.  Actually he made me feel like one of those world of warcraft addicts that sits in front of a computer screen all day, and I didn't blame him at all. I just took a shower and changed my clothes.

12/02: -- Page 152, and "Oops. I got so wrapped up I forgot it was my turn to cook today."

Holy crap. How does someone forget to make dinner? Blame it on the book. I was really wrapped up in the novel that day and did not want to stop. Larry came downstairs took a look at the once-again world-of-warcraft station (the breakfast room table) and says "where are we eating tonight?"  In my house that's a serious question because where we live you have pretty much no choices - eating at a decent place requires a minimum 20-minute drive. I was in no condition to leave the house. I had my hair in a scrunchie on the top of my head with strands leaking out every which way; I was wearing a pair of comfy yoga pants that Larry keeps telling me to throw away because the elastic has been pretty much dead for a year and at that point, the thought of going upstairs to put on any kind of makeup and real clothes was just too much work.   We used to go to the neighborhood Italian for pizza when we were desperate, but they closed because the manager's such a cow and had huge staff turnover. There's another smaller little pizza place that smells like cheese the minute you walk in and they don't deliver so you have to go in and face the cheese smell if you want to eat, so that's out. Then there's one nearby Chinese restaurant where you have to be pretty desperate to eat since they give you yesterday's grey, stringy pork in today's pork fried rice and their eggroll drips with so much grease that you take one look at the paper it's wrapped in and just want to puke -- so that was out too. I'm getting desperate  because he's hungry and I'm feeling guilty, so we call the one place left where you won't die if you eat the food. Next day I had to give up reading to atone and made homemade pasta.

12/04: -- by now I've read to page 232, and my status update said: "109 pages until the end. My brain hurts." Well, evidently my brain wasn't even functioning at that time, because there are 351 pages in my book so I was off by like 10 pages. I wasn't joking though. My brain really did hurt.  By now I also started feeling like the South Park kids in that episode where they're all playing world of warcraft and can't leave their computers so they get really fat (of course, while I'm reading this intently, my regular exercise has become a freakin' chore I just don't want to do).  I'm also neglecting things again.  Larry came down at one point during the day and asked me when the dogs had gone out last and I swear I couldn't remember.

 I'd looked in on the group at the end of the day to see how everyone was progressing, and the discussion about what the letters branded on one of the character's face meant had come to a close. My friend in the group says something along the lines of "well, we can all sleep soundly knowing that we've answered a few questions today," and I figured that she's so right -- not because I was thinking about questions answered, but because I was just exhausted from spending my days so focused on reading this novel. I mean, this is NOT the easiest book to read because it's pretty philosophical and you absolutely must pay attention to language use in this novel, and on top of that, it's emotionally draining to get through scenes of scalping, wanton violence and murder, etc.

12/05 -- no updates, but  as it happened, I reported back to the group that morning in response to the "sleep soundly" post,  that
"I'm giving the book a pass today. I didn't sleep soundly -- I was dreaming of being in Texas in the desert and seeing St. Elmo's fire, so I think I need to walk away for a day."
It was true. Instead of a horse, though, I was in a car and on the side of the car was a huge red white and blue logo in the shape of the state of Texas and as I was being driven through, all kinds of horrible stuff was going on all around.

I also noted that
"I can't remember a book that has so gotten under my skin that it reproduces itself in nightmares. And it wasn't even the violence -- I've been thinking about it all morning and it was more my ongoing idea as I've been reading that the landscape in this book reminds me of hell. I'm not religious at all, but dreaming of being in hell is never a good thing. "
Let's just say that I've read books that were so creepy that I couldn't get to sleep -- but this nightmare thing was new.

The weekend comes along now, and so I actually need to spend time with my spousal unit who has to leave Monday for a week, so I read a little but not until Sunday. That night I had to go to a neighborhood Christmas party and that day I realized just how far I'd let myself go being stuck in this book for so long -- I went to the grocery store and bought Nestle's pre-made refrigerator cookies, stuck them all on 2 baking sheets and threw them in the oven. That was my contribution. I love to cook, but I had absolutely zero energy ... I just wanted to read.  I went for an hour or so -- thankfully they put desserts in the back room so I didn't have to claim ownership. The store-bought cookies remained anonymous.  So - at the same party, someone asked me what I was reading and I opened my mouth to say Blood Meridian but I was afraid she would ask me what it was about and I didn't want to go there.

12/08 --
My coffee pot died this morning.  My faithful workhorse grind-and-brew Capresso coffee maker just quit working after seven years, so now I'm down to the pod machine. That is not real coffee by any stretch of the imagination.  The day started out poorly. I made a note about it on Facebook because my friends and family know that coffee for me is the elixir of life. Yes. A first-world problem, but still.  I need coffee when I read.

I shouldn't have spent the entire day reading with no one here to give me a reality check. Larry left in the morning, but not before telling me that a guy from A-1 leak detection is coming on Thursday to take a look at our pool to see if he can find and fix the leak, and that I needed to fill it on Wednesday.  I knew deep down that I would totally forget and the guy would show up so I actually had to write down on the calendar for Wednesday that I needed to fill the pool and at what time.  Otherwise, and I swear this is true -- he would have shown up Thursday probably to a completely empty swimming pool.  Also, to prove that I could actually get away from the book and do what needed doing around here, I threw a load of laundry in the washing machine. It was still there when I went to bed that night. Ah, but that was the day when I started the dreaded chapter 22, which was so disheartening I had trouble sleeping that night. Laundry getting moldy in my washing machine was nothing in comparison. I forgot to eat today.

12/9 -- Today's evening update entry reads
"Today chapter XXII damn near did me in. I have to say, this book is so incredibly outstanding - but probably the most emotionally pulverizing."
 I wake up and remember after wondering where the hell's my coffee maker that it no longer exists. I walk to the pod machine (it's in this little niche where there used to be a wonderful huge pantry, but no, the former owners of this house decided to make it a stupid and useless butler's pantry) and open the coffee pod drawer and it's filled with Larry's latte pods, some decaf espresso and then paydirt -- "real" espresso so I fix that. Gross. I can't take the coffee situation any longer so I decide to do something about it. . Like getting takeout, that's easier said than done where I live.  The only place to buy a coffee maker without driving 20 minutes is the local grocery store. Have you ever seen the selection of coffee makers at your local grocery store? I hadn't either.  My choice was Mr. Coffee 4-cup brew or the 12-cup model.  So I decide on the 12-cup and put it in the basket. Taking it out of the cart to put it up onto the checkout counter thingie I twisted my back somehow and it was all I could do to get home and throw on a heat wrap so I can make it through the day. I was supposed to go to lunch with my friends but now I'm sort of stuck at home.  So instead of feeling really awful about missing lunch, I think "oh cool. I can finish the book today!"  which is terrible, because the purpose of the lunch was to help cheer up a woman whose  very young son had just passed away.

That final chapter was just so draining and downright depressing that at some point during the day, I posted to the group

"Can we read like "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" or its equal next?"

 By the end of the day I only have 4 pages to go ... but I can't take any more so I have to stop reading.

12/10: "marked as read."

Up at 4:30 a.m. and enjoying my coffee, although I must say that Starbucks Rwanda Rift Valley is less than perfect  through a Mr. Coffee machine. I look over at the table (which once again, now that Larry's not here. looks like the good old world of warcraft station) and the book is beckoning.  I can't do it. I haven't had enough coffee yet to get through the horrors of those last four pages.  Later I go out and turn on the hose to fill the pool, setting the timer on the microwave so that I won't forget to turn off the water in my reading haze because I would have.  I finally have enough guts to get started on the book and I finish the last chapter. Then I puzzle through the epilogue, filling more pages in my notebook, and  adding even more questions I want to bring to the group.  I must say, I would have done a happy dance after having finished it but a) it's not that kind of book and b) if you've read it, the words "happy" and "dance" just don't sit well together, especially in the last chapter.

I'm glad it's over, but now I'm sort of feeling like I'm suffering from book-related PTSD. I can't explain it any better than that. The killer part is that reading it was the easy part -- now I have to go through and put things together in my head and relive it all over again.  But it's well worth it. It turned out to be the epitome of book excellence.