Saturday, June 27, 2009

Canterbury Tales

My online book club read The Canterbury Tales. (original-spelling Middle English edition) I got started late due to inertia, grading, and packing, but I did get started. I was daunted by the bulk of my edition - over 800 pages.

But once I discovered that this edition by Barnes & Noble had the Middle English on the left and a modern version on the right, I became more enthused.

I had read the Canterbury Tales in high school and in college (twice) and I do appreciate the humor and how groundbreaking it was to write in English rather than French, the language of the court. Yet this time around I wasn't in the mood. I read the Prologue and thought, "Yes, these characters are funny and Chaucer is poking fun at them, but they're all rather one dimensional. Shakespeare would give them more complexity." Perhaps that's not fair, but it's what I thought.

I did enjoy listening to BBC 4's In Our Time: Chaucer, which is my new find on unlocking philosophy and culture, etc.

As I got into the Knight's Tale my mind drifted often. I did remind myself that there is an alternative interpretation of the staid, good guy knight but Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. When in college, I read his Chaucer's Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary which contends that we just don't get the allusions and satire directed at this character. If one's more familiar with the history and culture of the day, you'd view it as a portrait and tale of a hypocrite. Warning: when I mentioned this book in my survey of English literature class the professor got incensed. He would not consider this thesis and immediately deemed me a trouble maker, rather than a student with a curious mind who went the extra mile. My grade suffered as a result. I vividly remember that class when I shared this alternative view and got eviscerated for it.

In the end, I learned to shut up. I did write to Jones and got a rather encouraging letter about how it takes a long time for new ideas to percolated throughout the halls of the academy. That was a thrill.

Anyway our discussions' come and gone. I chimed in with some thoughts, but no one else in the online group read it, so I will but it aside till the fall. One thing that is cool about the book, or maybe just distracting is the language. For example Chaucer doesn't use "go" he uses "wend" as they did in that day. Doesn't wend make more sense since "went" is the past tense? For some reason we pretty much abandoned "wend" (seems only rivers "wend" now) for "go" which had no past tense. Makes no sense to me.

Fifteen Books

The meme is to choose fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose . . .

1. D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri & Edgar Parin d'Aulaire
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
3. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
4. Our Bodies, Ourselves by The Boston Women's Health Book Collective
5. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
6. 1000 White Women by Jim Fergus
7. Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
8. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
9. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
10. A Story that Stands Like a Dam by Russell Martin
11. Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner
12. Native Son by Richard Wright
13. The Color Complex by Midge Wilson, Kathy Russell and Ronald Hall
14. Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase Riboud
15. Divided Sisters by Midge Wilson and Kathy Russell

In no particular order! I'm sure I've left more momentous books out which I will think of as soon as I post this. Many of the books, especially the older ones, I've included because of the lasting impact they had on me, either by virtue of the book itself or because of where I was in my life when I read it.

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Since I really enjoyed the movie version of Witches of Eastwick, I decided to read Widows of Eastwick. But I couldn't read Widows of Eastwick without having read Witches of Eastwick first.

The book and movie are vastly dissimilar. That I found this surprising is surprising. I mean, I've read enough books after seeing the movie adaptations to be well acquainted with the fact that the book and the movie are often vastly dissimilar. But I was surprised.

What I also found surprising is how intriguing I found Updike's prose. I read novels for plot. I skim the extraneous details, the superfluous descriptions. If it doesn't move the plot forward, it doesn't hold my attention.

And yet, Updike's prose grabbed me in spite of myself. Yes, even the ridiculously lengthy recitation of Jane's middle of the night cello concert kept me, if not engrossed, at least paying attention.

I enjoyed the story told by the movie better, especially the end but on a more superficial level. I found the book's story deeper, more conflicted, more unapologetic about its main characters' amorality.

Now, on to the Widows . . .

Friday, June 26, 2009

I just finished reading Susan Isaac's funny, insightful Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir. The book chronicles Isaac's ups and downs as she tries to make sense of the confusion and disappointment that she encounters in her life. She'd been told to consider God as her spouse and takes that imagery seriously so she goes off to couples therapy with God. (She lived in California at the time so finding a therapist to go along with that was possible.) The memoir is very funny, honest and insightful. I could feel for her as she copes with all kinds of disappointments and doesn't get why things are not working out for her.

She's got her own style, but does remind me of Anne Lamott. Isaacs is on the Act One faculty, which is how I learned of her.

Friday, June 19, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks uses the true story of an ancient Jewish book saved by a Muslim museum curator during the Bosnian war as a jumping off point to take the reader on a sweeping, if fitful, journey through the centuries.

In the spirit of novels which imagine the realities behind works of art such as Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring, Brooks uses clues found in the binding of the ancient work to fashion a creation story, one that unblinkingly exposes the reader to the separate and intertwined struggles of Jews and Muslims, especially as they attempted to navigate a harsh Christian world.

A bit choppy as it jumps back and forth between present day and days past, the novel also has a disingenuous foray into romance which hits a false note.

But, when it's focused on its primary mission, that of detailing the past, the book finds its groove.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris

A pleasant enough read.

While I have read another Joanne Harris novel, it was not Chocolat. That one I saw as a movie. I mean who can pass up a movie adaptation with Johnny Depp? Usually, if I hadn't already read the book, I would read it as a follow up to the movie but with this one did not do so.

So, while I picked up this book because of my familiarity with its characters, I'm unsure as to whether the book version and the movie version of the characters are all that similar, although it does occur to me that since Harris wrote this sequel after the movie, she could very well have smoothed out any discrepancies.

I was never enthralled but the book kept my interest well enough. Because Harris makes no bones about Zozie's amorality, a sense of impending doom hangs over the entire novel which frustrated me but also kept me invested enough to see how it all played out.

The novel is rife with identity issues and morals about the perils of not being true to one's self.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Let me just start by saying that I highly recommend this book.

Just as I was beginning it, a friend forwarded me a rather snarky analysis of Kearns Goodwin's thesis or, I should say, thesis as he imagined it. I'm still not clear on whether he actually read the book or was just reacting to the press about it but, thankfully, I stopped reading about two lines in when his condescension became clear. Suffice it say that he believes that there was nothing remarkable about Lincoln's cabinet since all presidents up to that time culled their governments from their rivals.

Thankfully, Kearns Goodwin analysis of Lincoln is far more nuanced. While she clearly has a love affair going on with our 16th president, she persuasively shares Lincoln's qualities with her readers. As painted by Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln was a remarkable, ambitious but not egotistical, pragmatist. His ability to look past his rivals' personal slights and to see the strengths that they could bring to bear coupled with his innate diplomacy allowed him to cobble together a government during this country's most trying times.

Would that Lincoln's abilities had been equally as successful in his choices of generals. The most frustrating part of reading this book was the repetitiousness of the struggles Lincoln experienced with his parade of incompetent generals. More than once I found myself exclaiming out loud in frustration as Kearns Goodwin related yet another ridiculous episode with this general or that one.

Kearns Goodwin is obviously enamored of her subject and successfully persuades the reader that this admiration is well placed.