Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mr. Ives Christmas

As spring starts (at least in South Carolina!) to show signs of coming, here I am writing about a Christmas novel for a slightly embrarassing reason.  I started it in the fall, got about 3/4ths of the way through, life intervened, then I rediscovered and finished it.  Then writing it about took some real and lengthy consideration.

Mr. Ives' Christmas is about grieving and faith.  The topic drew me first.   The writing held me.

I tend to find other reviews before I write my own, probably to keep from embarassing myself by making some off-the-wall declaration, but despite the fact that I have some weird things to say about the book, things nobody else has hinted about, I'm going to say them anyway:

In a way, it made me think Slaughterhouse-Five meets the Book of Job.

First, for the Slaughterhouse-Five likeness, nothing deep, just a structural likeness.  Just as Vonnegut's Billy is "unstuck in time" and we bounce around his life at different points, so Ives' life comes to us in short non-sequential chapters and often memories, driven by what's on his mind and heart at the moment. Some critics disliked the patchy recanting of Ives' life events, but it seemed to me to be simply the way we remember, and the way we make sense of the present, with whatever pieces of the past our minds connect to.

Some critics say Edward Ives is too Good, but really, he's a believable good man, not a perfect one.  If Hijuelos intended a parallel to Job, Ives would have to be essentially blameless and yet have a gut-wrenching loss visited on him.  And he would be perfectly entitled to question, be baffled by God and "whys." He'd have to feel tormented and damaged.

And he is, both.  But in saying Ives is too good, I think some reviewers miss the very plausible fact that some people turn outward with pain and grief, but some turn inward.  From his unknown birth parents, to the kind, but somewhat emotionally distant, nature of his adoptive father, to, possibly, Ives' innate nature, Ives is clearly drawn all through his life to be one who turns pain inward.

He tries to forgive the killer of his son, and yet tries to keep that at an intellectual level, writing to the kid in prison, sending him books and encouraging him to change the path he was on, but resisting any meeting.  And when the meeting finally happens, he is quite believably untouched by it.  Ives is trying to find redemption through his support of the young man, and it works.  The man does turn his life around, and so Ives has succeeded at making some good come out of the tragic shooting, but it's done with the mind, and isn't a real solution to his pain.

His inner torment over the senseless death of his son manifests in troubled dreams in which he tears at and bruises his own skin.  Healing comes from a dream of his son -- who appears at the age he would have been, 43, not the 17 he was when he died -- questioning him: "Why are you doing this to yourself?" and pouring water on his arms. Ives awakes to find all the damage healed.

The power of God, the existence of the soul and afterlife, are concepts well-supported by the plot, but Hijuelos is way too good a writer to answer the question of faith with a bumper sticker (God did it and that settles it!).  Rather, when faith itself helps to heal, any reader can insist on this being the power of mind.  Whatever.

It's not Ives' only mystical experience, or the only one felt by several other characters.  In fact, his earlier, pre-tragedy, vision of God's loving presence in the world remains undeniable even during the decades that Ives remains emotionally numb over his son's murder.

This novel is not comfortable.  Characters are complex.  Answers are ambiguous.

What makes a novel wonderful?  Different things, to different people, but to me, those ambiguities are what let a varied audience of readers intersect with the characters and with the story, some in very different ways and at different points than do others.  I'm kind of in awe of the power a novel can have to be a place where some people together who otherwise never would, and am more thankful for fiction that grows from someone's soul, than I can quite put into words.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Profit-Driven Life

I know I'm not the only person who hasn't read The Purpose-Driven Life, though its sales have topped 30,000,000 copies. This is phenomenal for any book.
Those of us who've skipped it so far may simply be non-readers, or may be indifferent to Christian self-help, and some would rather be hung by their toes and fed Ex-Lax than read Christian self-help.

As for me and my house, it's fiction.  Or history.  Hell, I think I'd generally rather read High School Algebra 4U!  than any self-help book, and most Christian self-helpers I've tried said nothing deep, complex or...well....helpful.  To me.

But I'm a Book Person and feel both the need to know something about a book so huge-selling, and a personal curiosity as to what it might have to offer. So, armed with TWO delightful B&N gift cards received this Christmas, I thought, Hey, I could get an e-reader copy. And not pay any of my own money!

I've tried e-reading and still prefer real books, but e-reading can be great, especially in the dark of an insomniac night.  If I'm going to read self-help at all it will be then, deep in a sleepless night.

Come to find out that, though the book is years old, there's no lower-price this-has-been-around-awhile e-reader version for under 15 bucks.  Kindle's version is only slightly lower at almost $13, and I don't have a Kindle anyway, I have a Nook app.

I see many decade-old or older books that have come out in e-formats at mid-price range, $5-8 or so.  Not The Purpose-Driven Life.  Well, OK, it has too -- if I could read Spanish.  Spanish e-readers can have it for almost half of the English version's price, at 7.99.

If you're thinking this is either an anti-Spanish "We all pay more so fer-uh-ners can pay less!" rant, or a complaint about free market selling, you'd be wrong.

As a bookseller, I sell Bibles and Christian books for profit, and so I (grudgingly) have to allow publishers their right to do what I do.   Apparently, the publisher has priced the e-version at what they think they can get, and they seem to think they can get $8 from Spanish readers, but $15 from English readers.  They have a right to try.  I'd love to see sales plummet and see them shrug and say, OK, we screwed THAT up, and drop the price to something I have to call much more reasonable, considering that the e-version costs the publisher vastly less in materials, manufacture, storage or shipping.

The ball is in their court when they decide on a price.  Then it's in ours.

Any consumer can, and should say, "That's a rip-off" when they think it is one.  And I do.  It's OK, because this is a commodity for which I have options, like, it's not critical care medication, so I can live without it, and I actually can get it cheap if I change  formats and go to Goodwill for a hard copy instead.  The book shows up there fairly regularly, for 50 cents.

But I will point out those whose publishers offer reasonable prices on e-book versions, whether it's out of customer love or just what they think the market will bear:

Philip Yancey's Where Is God When it Hurts? is excellent and 5 bucks.

A Year with C. S. Lewis for 3.99 (as of this writing)

The Courage For Truth by Thomas Merton is geared particularly to writers, but there's a BUNCH of Merton available in e-format, priced from 7.99 to 9.99.

If these prices are good enough for Merton, Lewis and Yancey, it's hard to know why Warren is so much more costly, but hey, if people pay it, they're welcome to do that.

Monday, March 19, 2012

But wait! There's more Jane Whitefield!

Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield mystery/thrillers have a solid fan base and publishers will probably offer them gladly as long as Perry wants to write them, but they've never become the mega-sellers that some other thriller series have become.

Curious.  They are dark but so are Dennis Lehane's books among many others.  They are violent but so are Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" books.

The "problem" -- if it is a problem -- might be the character of Jane, who's complex and troubled, emotionally strong but still undergoing her own learning process.

That's what I love about the books, but when Jane meditates on the life she's chosen, her parents and the ways they influenced her, what she wants her life to be, maybe some readers get too impatient.

If anybody wants to try this series, I strongly recommend reading the second book.  Either read the first but keep on for one more, before you judge the series.  Or skip right to Book Two.  It was the game changer for Perry.

The first book, Vanishing Act, introduces Jane and it's one smashing good, tense read.  Jane lives alone in her childhood home in an old and quiet town in upstate New York.  But her underground life is one of helping innocent people who have run out of options.

She calls herself a Guide. She helps them disappear and start new lives under new identities.  She provides first quality identity documents and often-frustrating lessons for the victims in how to stay safe in their new lives, resettles each one, and sometimes has to escape or kill the bad guys who are after them.

The novels give a lot of detail about the process of disappearing.  Jane herself has to use multiple identities as she crosses the country to prepare her client's new home, teach him how vital it is to avoid old haunts, old contacts, and old habits.  She's a martial arts expert.  She also, in this first novel, has to win a battle to the death in the forest using strength and cunning.

I loved it.  Another friend didn't.  She said Jane was too unbelievable and perfect.

The author seemed to agree because he developed Jane's character in an unusual new direction in Book Two, Dance for the Dead.  The Jane of Book One was a Lone Ranger.  She had a rather unrealistic willingness to live a solitary life with few close relationships.

In Book Two, she's in love.  And Perry decided to let her have a personal life and a marriage.

It was risky idea if he wanted to keep a series going, since life as a surgeon's wife, mother, and Hospital Ladies Auxiliary member is highly incompatible with vanishing under assumed identities at unpredictable intervals, to remain away for weeks as she preps someone for a new life.  Not to mention having to sometimes kill or be killed, an eternal risk.

Perry developed the relationship between Jane and love-interest/husband Carey slowly through a couple more thrillers.  She had to tell Carey about her secret life.  She had to discuss with him the risks of what she did, and she had to come to a willingness to leave that dangerous life, if she wanted a family and community life. Carey had to understand that winding down her Guide business will take time and that it could intrude on their life together while that process occurs.

This still left Perry with a few missions he could take Jane through, even after her marriage.  He came up with a couple good ones, notably one in which Carey's elderly mentor is the one who needs to vanish, and Carey reluctantly requests Jane's help, and plays a role in the mission.

After Book Five, Perry wisely had Jane -- and himself -- take a break.   Extricating herself from the life of helping desperate people escape had to be a slow process, since they hear about and seek her out only through a grapevine that's impossible to shut down quickly, but there was plausibly a stretch during which she was untroubled by runners looking for her.

Runner returns to Jane and Carey several years after the previous book.  She has settled into a serenely ordinary life, but the underground network through which runners hear about her hasn't gone totally silent, and a young pregnant woman comes to her for help.

The mystery and the difficulty of helping this girl make for a white-knuckle read.  Perry has never been satisfied with preserving Jane in amber, though.  She's on her own life's journey, and we have to hear her thoughts about the personal dilemma she's in.

I noticed some reviewers criticizing the way Perry handled the aspect of the plot that involved Jane's personal life, and they have a point.  Here's Jane, in great health and married to a physician, for crying out loud, so why is she bemoaning her inability to get pregnant?  If fertility treatment with a high likelihood of success is available to anybody on earth, it oughta be available to this couple.

I understand that criticism, but I saw it differently.  Jane herself wonders if her constant honing of her body to stay in fighting shape isn't reducing her fertility as it does some female athletes.

And she wonders if she's kept herself in such athletic shape because she unconsciously couldn't give up being a guide.

Perry doesn't settle for easily answering that question because Jane has a deeper dilemma, and a pretty dark one.

She began acting as a guide when she was pretty young, still in college.  Now she realizes that it might have been a lifetime commitment, and that she made it without knowing that once she got into the Guide business, she might never be able to get out.

Is she unconsciously staying childless because she really doesn't want a family...or is it because of a cold knowledge that this door might be closed?

Here's this frightened and endangered girl, who has followed a word-of-mouth trail to Jane that's years old. Will the grapevine ever go silent?  Does what Jane wants even matter?  Did she close off the family-life option as a young and naive woman, without even knowing she was doing so?

A new Jane Whitefield  is on its way!  It came out 3 days ago and my copy is in the mail, but I wanted to post this entry about the previous titles, before I read it.  Pre-pub reviewers are already calling it somewhat disturbing.

It was clear in the last book that Perry has decided to escalate the conflict between Jane's two worlds.  It'll make readers uncomfortable.  It'll probably make me uncomfortable.  But for Jane Whitefield to serenely maintain her mental/emotional equilibrium while her outer worlds come into more conflict would make her that paragon that good writers really need to avoid, so I'll see where he takes it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Norwegian Christmas in 1811

Beyond Sing the Woods, and its sequel, The Wind From the Mountains, by Trygve Gulbranssen, were published in the US in the 1930's.  They tell the story of the Björndal family, whose manor dominates a remote mountain province.  

By the time of this excerpt, Chapter XIII from The Wind from the Mountains, we're into the 2nd book and about 50 years into the family's saga.  Adelaide Barre is still a relative newlywed, to "Young" Dag Björndal.   Here is a Björndal Christmas:


There was a grand Christmas at Björndal after this good year.   Major Barre and Aunt Eleanor came and there followed feasting and dancing and voluble speeches at the table and catches and boisterous songs.

Some of the guests found it hard to stomach sitting at the table with all the manor-people on Christmas Eve, and be solemn with Bible and church-candles in the middle of the table, and listen to Dag reading the Christmas text.  It was still worse when the old man broke up and went to bed quite early, giving it out as a decree that every one would be called in the small hours for the drive to the early Christmas service.  What sort of treatment was that for people of position?

They were not at all consoled by being awakened with a dram of spirits and a snack: they dreaded the drive in the night cold and growled angrily.  But the singing of the sleigh bells and the glow of the torches and the solemnity in church worked upon them as on others;  and what was naive and genuine in them responded through the fog of protest which they had believed to be their attitude to life.

Unlike many priests of the time, Pastor Ramer did not mount the pulpit in order to philosophize and excuse for God being possibly--and unfortunately--in existence. He was there to hold a service and he so believed in God that the whole church lived.

Marvelously the sleigh-bells rang out and marvelously the torches flared across the snowy spaces and between the tress of the forest ridge, when they drove home.  Mighty words, suited not only to good fortune and great days, but of value also in days of adversity and death, rang in their ears through the darkness with the song of the bells and flamed in the torchlights, all the way from church to Björndal's tun.

Because of the many guests, they had eaten in the new building hitherto, but when they came home from church, the Christmas table was spread in the inner room of the old house, as in all other years, with abundance of meat and fish and other foods, as was the custom from olden times.

The guests felt something of what Adelaide had once felt at this table: reverence for the living spirit of former times and ancient power, and the genuineness and security pervading everything, from the wall-timbers and the beams in the roof to the handsomely carved chairs and the table-silver.

At the beginning all, as one man, looked at Old Dag.  They knew not how to take him: and Adelaide had to purse her mouth not to smile.  All these worldly, confident people!  After yesterday and the beginning of today, Old Dag's power was over them, too, and they sat respectfully still.  Today he tarried a long while before touching his glass.  Perhaps his ears had caught a little grumbling the evening before, and again this morning--he had keen hearing--and it may be he wanted to let the solemn mood sink well in now.

At last he raised his glass and said the words it was his custom to say at this table.  He thanked them all for coming so far and for respecting the traditions of the gaard, and told them that what was on the table would perhaps put them in mind of the Lord's abundant gifts;  then he smiled gravely, drank skaal--and set his glass down empty.

The meal took its course.  Old Dag put not further restraint upon them, brandy and strong ale made them merry, and laughter and liveliness and mirth filled the room as they had filled it countless times before.

Adelaide had marked what Old Dag said of remembering the Lord's gifts in the abundance of the Christmas table.  All had its ancient purpose here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

It's ... it's like witnessing a murder

How to make a Christmas (or, I guess, any seasonal) wreath out of a recycled book.

And it's clever. It's potentially neat-looking. It's better than throwing old books into landfills. It's ....


Seriously, this lady has a clever and useful idea. Even I throw a book in the trash sometimes, and usually some of its pages are good for a project like this. Damaged, already-dismantled books, GREAT, do it!

But when I watch her use good, sound books, not just the one her dog chewed, but the Peter Devries--

(Haha, you didn't think I caught that nice copy of a respectable author, did you? You tried to hide the book's identity, but my pause button was too clever for you!)

.... and then, when she suggests using a book with sentimental value to your family....!!

It's not her, or the Nature Conservancy's, fault. The simple fact is that run-of-the-mill copies of older books, even good copies, even non-junk authors, are not valued in this society anymore. Neither she nor the Conservancy made it that way, and those books she bought at the library sale and ripped to pieces for this wreath would probably have ended up in the dumpster after a few months of customer disinterest.

This is a better fate for them. I know, I know, OK?

But watching her rip out the pages from a tight, snugly bound and nice vintage paperback was like watching Jack the Ripper dismantle his victims.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How to Avoid Lady Chatterley's Lover

Banned Books Week brings out lists of books whose controversial content doesn't necessarily stop them from being ... well, sort of tedious.

This article, about books that they really oughta ban made me smile.  My first reaction is anti-banning, thought there's some truly sick stuff that kind of should be.  But I err on the side of freedom as a rule.  In this article, she's joking.  Really.  She doesn't want them banned, she just wants them not foisted off on kids who will turn off of reading if presented with them because they are  Good For You.

But it was hard to relate to this article because in my junior high and high schools, which were considered quality schools, we did not read books.

For serious.  We didn't.  We got a fat textbook every year, and in it there was usually a full-length work.  Not always.  Ninth grade had The Odyssey.  High School British lit had an edited Romeo and Juliet with the mildly suggestive jokes snipped out.  Maybe there was a full-length short work in the mega-textbooks for other years but I don't recall them, and I never encountered a Summer Reading List. Kids in the advanced ability-tracks probably read actual books like she's talking about. The high number of them who got National Merit Scholarships gave the school a great reputation for its rigorous academic demands. Us ordinary kids, who cared?  It was thanks to a good elementary school and book-crazy parents that I turned out functionally literate.

So while we think hard about what books to have school kids read, I'd be inclined to say, By the way, DO have them READ SOME.

Meanwhile, I try to read a Famous Banned Book at this time every year, but this year, I had trouble picking one. I haven't started a banned book at all, with the week nearly over. I feel like I've read most of the fun stuff, and I really need to NOT go out and buy more books, so my choices at hand are down to stuff like  Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

Or  Lady Chatterley's Lover.  I'm not joking when I say I'd rather tackle Gibbon.  When I read that intro to the Laura Miller article linked above, saying "some classics are painful enough to ruin reading forever," Lady Chatterley was the first thing that popped into my head.

I've tried FOUR TIMES to endure Chatterley,  and found that when it's not boring me, it's aggravating me.  Lawrence actually got me to like Connie, but the rest of it was unendurable. I can't really review it.  I need to actually get through it before I accuse it of stupid ideas.  I can accuse it of tedium right now, but I can't yet say whether its .... I'm going to go ahead and say it; whether its heart is in the wrong place.  Haha.

This reviewer, however, has read it, and whether he misses its merits or not, his review is laugh-out-loud funny.  His language is also unflinchingly graphic, so be forewarned.

There.  That's what you get from me for Banned Books Week 2011.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Books for sleepless nights

I have an insomnia problem.  My version of insomnia usually cuts the middle out of my night.  I'll sleep for awhile, but that 1 AM to 5 AM stretch could find me spending most of it awake.

I decided awhile ago to just go with it most nights (unless life's demands demand that I take a pill), instead of fighting it with over-the-counter drugs that make me feel lousy in the morning, and that (this is totally unsubstantiated) I suspect of making my dreams more unpleasant.

Insomnia advice often agrees with this.  If you can't sleep, just quit lying there in frustrated knots and do something till you're sleepy.

Reading is one of the best things for occupying a sleepless mind without pumping me up and making the mental hamster-wheel worse.

But I'm finding that not every book that I generally enjoy is right for this time of the night.

Your feelings may differ, but I would call craft and project idea books a no-no.  They are more likely to get me pumped up to take an idea get started on a project, than to lull me to sleep.  But if your mind works differently and finds that an idea to implement tomorrow helps you sleep, they might work for you.

I love mysteries, but they tend to gear my brain up.  I love historical novels, but some are depictions of the worst of human history.  Those will aggravate the hell out of me when I'm already restless, with wishing people hadn't been so violent, so power-mad, so shortsighted and that we'd show more signs of learning from the past.

What works, then?

It will be different for everyone, but here's what I've discovered:

1.  A booklight. I read in the dark with a booklight, EVEN if I don't need to - even if I'm out in the living room and a lamp would not disturb my husband.  The surrounding dark keeps me from shifting into daytime mode and I'm more likely to get drowsy after awhile.

2.   Vintage children's books that soothed me as a kid.  The Secret Garden (that's my childhood copy, above), despite its tragic beginning, is about finding that serene place and letting it heal you, and it makes a great book to revisit in a small circle of reading light in the dark. That's just one example - there are lots of them, from Little House to Daddy-Long-Legs.

3.  Gentle, nostalgic humor.   The Peanuts  comic strips that I read and re-read as a kid return me to that safe happy time in my life.  BUT I stay away from biting, dysfunctional humor like Dilbert (which I love as a daytime read), and from anything political.  Dilbert takes me back to the total frustration of the workplace I used to inhabit, and even politics I agree with send me into that stressed feeling about the state of the world.

4.  Comfort Classics.  This will really vary from person to person, but here's what calms me down, and why:

       Jane Austen.  Emma is a delightful book, but takes concentration.  That's good.  In the middle of the night, I have the quiet around me to let me apply my mind to it.  I avoided this novel for years, until I made it an insomnia book, and found that the whole process of concentrating on it stopped the noise in my mind, and the novel was funny and warm while it did so.

      Robinson Crusoe.  One of my favorite books of all time.  Adventure is generally a bad idea, when it comes to sleep-aid books.  But most of Robinson Crusoe is a quiet journey of solitude and slow building.  Like being alone in the dark, Crusoe spends his time learning what matters and what he values, learning how to best use resources, and, most importantly, learning that the long hours alone are NOT useless time, but time when seeds are growing, and the future is building itself between human plantings and prunings and harvestings.  It's OK for nothing to seem to be happening.  It's OK to be alone with one's thoughts.  And it's OK for a store of grains and goods to grow at a natural pace, not all at once.  Crusoe's life is about making that happen over many years, not about having it in place all at once and then sitting and wondering  Now what do I do with my life?

5.  Poetry.  This one is impossible to make suggestions for, since different poets and types of poetry will speak to different people.  Classic poetry anthologies are good for me.  So are Denise Levertov's The Stream and the Sapphire,  and Mary Oliver's prose and poems, which often bring me serenity.

6.  Certain psalms.  I like the psalms in general, but many are cries of terrible pain and might not help with sleeplessness.  This varies from person to person, and some people might find that the psalms of cries to God really help during difficult life issues.  They certainly help me feel less alone, like others have made it through their own hard times with honest surrender to their need for help.  I prefer peaceful ones like the 23rd, for insomnia help.  I bookmark favorites to turn right to, in the middle of the night.

7.  Nature and science.  Now here's a category that you've really gotta personalize.  If there's some aspect of science and nature that fills you with serenity, a sleepless night is a great time to visit it.  Pictures of mountains?  Herbs and flowers? The vastness of the cosmos?

I love glaciers.  Where ice takes on a life of its own, where time slows to a crawl.  The same photos that might make you feel cold and stressed, make me feel calm.   You may prefer volumes on landscape gardens or penguins or wildflowers.  Find what works!