Saturday, April 30, 2005

"America's Finest News Source" on the well-read man

Via Rake's Progress: Our favorite news source (after The Daily Show, of course), The Onion, has a feature on a truly literate man, who reads only the classics. Of course, only the first hundred pages or so:

"Listen, I'm no book snob," said Seward, settled into his favorite reading chair and running his hand over a nearly half-well-thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice. "It's just that I love cracking the binding on a truly good book and reading until I drift off. I'd say it's something I do two or three times a week."
This did remind me of Ian McEwan's assertion to that he reads only about twenty pages (or so) of the contemporary novels that reach his doorstep by the hundreds...

Friday, April 29, 2005

Just Read: Quality of Care by Elizabeth Letts

Quality of Care is a thought-provoking and entertaining novel that just pulls you along -- it's so readable that you forgive the too convenient coincidences that sometimes drive the plot (like protagonist Clara picking up a dog in the middle of the road and turning up an unmarked road to look for the dog's owner, who turns out to be the woman she went back to California to find, and who also just happens to be needing a stable girl and hires Clara on the spot...).

The premise of Quality of Care is irresistible: what happens when your college lover and his pregnant wife (who is your childhood best friend) turn up one night at the hospital where you are the OB-GYN on duty? What if within an hour this woman who once saved your life is dead, and her premature baby is barely alive? And what if you still feel pulled to this man, whom you once lived with and walked out on?

These questions are what drive the novel, and keep the reader turning the pages. We follow along as Clara has her privileges suspended by the hospital and her partner suggests a vacation. Suddenly barred from obstetrics (if only temporarily), Clara is cut off from her passion, and forced to confront the demons that drive her perfectionism, her obsessive need to avoid making any mistakes. So she runs away from her current life and returns to California to search for answers about her father's death. But running away doesn't bring the expected relief; Clara just can't forget: "My practice, my patients, my partner, my mother, the flickering candle of a frail baby, and the ghost of a person who everybody assumed I had forgotten had once saved my life. They had all come along with me here, my ghostly entourage" (p80).

Her California interlude at the horse ranch does help Clara figure out her life (I'll leave that for you to find out for yourself -- I wouldn't want to spoil it!), but Quality of Life is never maudlin or sentimental (even if the cover is emblazoned with the NAL Accent motto: "Fiction for the Way We Live" -- yuck!). I do have some qualms with the novel, but they are minor and didn't affect my enjoyment:

  • Those coincidences. Yes, they are handled well by Letts, so it's not manipulative, but still...
  • Unnecessary secondary characters that add absolutely nothing, and actually detract from the story. Prime example: Veterinarian Franny Baker (a childhood acquaintance of Clara's) is a red-headed red herring. It's annoying and distracting to keep mentioning her at the edges of the narrative when her involvement will never amount to much. Clara's frequent mentions of her are just unnecessary distractions.
For more information:
  • Elizabeth Letts's website. She includes an interesting discussion of some of her favorite books, "My Life in Books".
Letts, a practicing certified nurse-midwife has a keen eye for detail — both technical and physical. Her knowledge of horses and obstetrics makes the descriptions ring with authority, yet without ever burdening the reader with unnecessary terms or lingo. She is at her best when describing the coastal scenery (“The hillsides were variegated, some fields of tall grass scattered profusely with goldenrod, others a harmonious blend of dense low-lying chaparral, bluish green to grey, like a natural patchwork”) as well as in flashbacks to Clara’s developing relationship with the brilliantly-drawn Gordon (“I was drowning in him, plunging somewhere deep and fast — on that same speedy trajectory that a car would take when the land beneath it disappeared, or an icy airplane that decided to drop from the sky”). These stirring, evocative and sensuous flashbacks with their undercurrents of grief and mystery kept me reading, hungry to stay inside the story.

Letts delivers her story, much like the nurse-midwife she is — with deft hands, coaxing the reader on with absorbing dialogue and narration; providing them with a protagonist who never succumbs to excessive sentimentality...
  • An interview with Elizabeth Letts (contains some of the same passages as the author interview at back of Quality of Care:
When writing Quality of Care, it was the situation, or premise that came first — it’s virtually impossible to work in obstetrics without thinking about the what-if possibility that something terrible might occur on your watch . . . so I think the premise was incredibly compelling. Then I thought about a real worst case scenario — what if that patient had a special relationship of trust with you?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Oprah to announce Book Club Summer Selection in late May/early June

Oprah will name a summer selection for her book club in about a month. According to her announcement, posted today in her website, "we are breaking new ground and doing something we haven't done before." I wonder what that could be... maybe a nonfiction title? Several books in a series?

If it is a classic, I would bet on Don Quixote. It's the 400th anniversary, it's a big juicy book, and the paperback edition of the Edith Grossman translation is just coming out. That would be my choice.

What would you choose?

[In the meantime, Oprah has a reading recommendation: "if you need a book right away for your reading groups, I highly recommend the Pulitzer prize winning novel The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It is a masterfully written gem, and I am certain you will not be disappointed."]

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

It's Turn-Off TV Week...

... so why am I staring at the blasted thing? And the program is just a newsmagazine pastiche of pieces I'd already seen. And yet, I don't turn it off. Why?

I could be doing so many other more useful things, like

  • grading that stack of journals about King Arthur and company from my Brit lit students

  • reorganizing the piles of books colonizing my bedroom

  • taking yesterday's four Amazon boxes to the trash
or more pleasurable things, like diving into any of the books I am currently reading (honestly, I'm reading all of them at the same time!):
  • Pride & Prejudice ("Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." -- Mmm... Darcy... Why are all the good ones fictional?)

  • Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March -- coincidentally, this week's New Yorker has some interesting things that Bellow wrote to Philip Roth about some of his early novels, including Augie March. I'm planning to post something about this later on...

  • Quality of Care by Elizabeth Letts - a debut novel by a midwife which does remind me a little of Midwives, the Oprah Book Club Selection by Chris Bohjalian. I expect I'll breeze through it -- it's really well written and well-plotted, and I really want to find out what happens to the protagonist, an OB-GYN who is stunned when her college sweetheart and the girl who once saved her life turn up married and pregnant at her hospital...

  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler - Since I'm rereading P&P I finally decided to read this novel and have been pleasantly surprised so far...

  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson -- I loved Housekeeping and am enjoying Gilead, though a little goes a long way. The novel is meant as a dying old man's letters/diary for his young son, and as such, there are no chapter divisions, just small breaks... it's interesting but exhausting reading. Plus some Civil War references (as well as biblical references, since the narrator is a reverend) are beyond me...
But now I'm strangely fascinated by NBC's Revelations... I think I need an intervention!

Is your blogging suffering?

Are you dreading posting? Never fear -- Paperback Writer has some suggestions on how to enliven your blog. What amazes me though, is that Paperback Writer has published 28 books in 5 genres under 5 different pen names... and still has time to blog!

(Can I blame my woeful lack of quantifiable achievements on chronic depression and eight years wasted on a cheating (ex-)husband?)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Rereading Pride & Prejudice

I have been rereading Pride & Prejudice with my British lit students; we already made it through Beowulf, Grendel, Le Morte d'Arthur, and Hamlet (I was pleasantly surprised by how good Ethan Hawke and Mel Gibson were as Hamlet, diametrically opposed Hamlets that they are). I enjoy P&P more each time I read it, though I admit I have trouble keeping the A&E visuals away now. Jane Austen is just so pleasant to read -- her language is impeccable, and her use of details to depict that particularly British, eighteenth-century, aristocratic way of life seems more inspired with each rereading.

And of course, P&P has arguably the very best first sentence ever: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." But how to convey the sublime pleasure of this line to students? Especially when they look at me like I'm nuts for being so enthused about these books we're reading...

Anyway, it all reminds me of how Katherine, the narrator of Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack, dives into Emma whenever in need of a little literary pick-me-up. As a dutiful wife she tries to get into her husband's first novel: "Jonathan's novel was actually more than I could cope with during pregnancy, being a spirited if macabre four hundred page satirical hallucination... I had promised myself to read it properly while I breast fed, if it didn't have the effect of curdling the milk" (p216). As I said, she tries, but: "I tried reading Jonathan's novel as I fed her, but gave it up in favour of Emma, which is still my favourite" (p219). Hey, who can blame her? Austen trumps hubby every time!

For me, that comfort read is undoubtedly Pride & Prejudice. What's yours?

Cancer Vixen gets $250,000

Publishers Weekly is reporting that "[c]artoonist, newlywed and self-described "Cancer Vixen" Marisa Acocella Marchetto has signed a deal to pen an autobiographical graphic novel for Knopf/Pantheon in which she will write about her struggle with breast cancer and her life among the fashionable New Yorkers who frequent her husband Silvano Marchetto's restaurant, Da Silvano."

The PW article continues:

Sonny Mehta bought North American rights for $250,000 in a five-way auction. Robin Desser will edit the book, for which no pub date has been set. Publishers began competing for Marchetto's story following an April 14 New York Times article about a six-page cartoon spread that appears in this month's issue of Glamour, in which Marchetto chronicles her year-long bout with cancer.

The Knopf title, Cancer Vixen, will expand on the story, which is about more than fighting a disease, said Marchetto's agent, Elizabeth Sheinkman. "It is also a story of New York fabulous life from the inside and from the outside," Sheinkman said, adding that Silvano Marchetto's appearance "makes this brave tale a love story."

A year ago, Marchetto, 44, signed with Sheinkman to work on a different book project. Then, in May, a month before her wedding, she got her diagnosis. She kept working, though the subject changed, as she kept a kind of diary about her battle with cancer. "To me it was like the healthiest thing I could do, to get it all out on paper," Marchetto said.

Good for her. Though I did read the Cancer Vixen feature in Glamour and wasn't particularly impressed. Of course, cancer does hit a nerve, because my dad died of it two and a half years ago. I just didn't see much that I hadn't seen before in the Cancer Vixen strip...

More info:

Monday, April 25, 2005

Bet you didn't know...

... that libraries are hotbeds of terrorist activity. But, don't you fret, Deroy Murdock over at the National Review is here to set the record straight on those pernicious libraries. He has quite a list of transgressive activities by library patrons who only seemed harmless... I guess hindsight is really 20-20, at least for Mr. Murdock, who concludes his article this way:

No square inch of this country should be a safe harbor where terrorists calmly can schedule the slaughter of defenseless civilians. Whether fueled by sincere civil libertarianism or malignant Bushophobia, those who thwart probes of Islamo-fascist library patrons have the same impact: They make it easier — not harder — for terrorists to kill you.

If I didn't know better, I would think that the entire article was satirical. (No such luck.)

Via Pages Turned.

Highly recommended: Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

This weekend I read a wonderful novel about a thirty-something under-employed guy who sees dead people. It's a Perfect Cicle by Sean Stewart.

Don't be put off by the subtitle ("a novel about Texas, ghosts, and perfect pop songs") or by the fish hooks on the cover -- this is really a gem of a novel: funny, intelligent, surprising, thought-provoking...

Will "Dead" Kennedy has always seen in both color and black & white (and divided people "living and dead -- into five groups: 1) Buddhas, 2) Tell-Tale Hearts, 3) Cobains, 4) (Jack the) Rippers, and 5) Zombies" p25). The living are in full color; the dead he sees in black and white -- that's how he can tell them apart. Of course, it's complicated at night, which is why Will decided to stop driving -- he kept braking for people who weren't really there. Now in his thirties, he still carries a torch for the ex-wife who left him to marry an ex-Marine, he has just been fired from his low-paying Petco job for eating cat food, and he has a 12-year-old daughter who calls the ex-Marine dad (after all, it's the other guy's name on his daughter's birth certificate). But things get even worse when desperation entices Will to take $1,000 to exorcise a ghost from (distant) cousin Hanlon's garage...

I won't ruin the surprises by revealing anything else. Suffice it to say that Will's visit to his cousin's garage has many unexpected consequences, for him and for the narrative.

But Perfect Circle is not merely a story about ghosts, or Texas, or family. This is what Will says, and it encapsulates the essence of this novel perfectly:

There are so many different ways lives work out, so many stories, and every one of them is precious: full of joy and heartbreak, and a fair amount of situation comedy. Every life is a movie that starts in color. They just all end in black and white.

I really urge you to try this novel. You won't regret it!

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