I enjoy the “By the Book” author interviews in the New York Times Book Review. In a recent column writer Ali Smith was asked the following question: “What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?” Her answer:
A first edition of Plath’s (or Victoria Lucas’s) “The Bell Jar.” It’s been well loved in its life, it’s fairly barreled and slopy, and there are the remnants of what looks like Chinese takeaway on some of the pages. But opening that package and finding it there was the closest I suspect I’ll ever come to being given a sports car or a pony.
I really appreciate “finding it there was the closest I suspect I’ll ever come to being given a sports car or a pony.” I might not feel that way about that specific title but there are books about which I might have such a reaction.
I think Ali has her priorities straight.
The Marriage Plot: A Novel
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 11, 2011), 417 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $10.62
I am a sucker for college novels, and I loved this one.
The story takes place in the 1980’s, and for the most part is set on the East Coast. The three main characters are students at Brown University. Madeleine is an English major. Mitchell is a religious studies student. Leonard studies philosophy. Mitchell is the good guy who goes on a Razor’s Edge sort of quest after graduation. Leonard is the bad boy, neurotic or perhaps psychotic, and is medicated with Lithium by his doctors.
The novel opens with Madeleine’s father logically laying out the options for him and Madeleine’s mother to attend her graduation ceremony. Close to the end he logically presents presents Madeleine with her options regarding her apparently failed marriage to Leonard. In between the author writes in the third person but gives us the perspectives of each of the three main characters. He jumps backward and forward in time, but in a manner that is engaging and not distracting.
The ending is not a “happily ever after” one but one which makes perfect sense in the context of the novel.
A good read to be sure.
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky
Vintage, reprint edition (November 26, 2008), 338 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $13.63
Ellen Meloy, when she is known at all, is known for her writing about the Southwest. I knew nothing of her until I listened to a course on writing essays from The Great Courses. It is a shame that she is not better known, and it is a shame that she died all to early in 2004 at age 59. Meloy knew how to vividly describe the Southwest and she knew how to style an evocative sentence. In one essay she writes about her childhood:
Although I am certain I swam with my brothers or with friends, I recall instead a solitary, private world of sun and turquoise, leaving behind the sultry summer air, the lulling chorus of cicadas, and an interminable girl-boy geekiness to slip beneath the surface and stroke along the silent bottom of the pool—agile and fearless in water honeycombed with light.
The present volume is a collection of essays. While she writes about the Southwest, she also touches on other topics, including the Caribbean and her discovery of her ancestors there as well as the sex life of flowers.
The Southwest, however, is what she really knows. If you appreciate the Southwest you will enjoy Meloy’s writing.
A thought on this day of sadness, depression, and despair:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
That is the truth. It is the best we can do for now.
Thanks to my good friend Tahoe Mom for the reminder of this passage.
Gerald Durrell wrote three books about his childhood in Corfu. The first was My Family and Other Animals, first published in 1956. I read that book as a diversion when I was in college in the 1970’s. The second was Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, published in 1969. Garden of the Gods was originally published in 1978. When it popped up for $2.99 as an Early Bird books sale I grabbed it.
You may have noticed that PBS ran the British series The Durrells of Corfu last fall. The series was based on this trilogy, although with a number of liberties taken. The present book is, for the most part, lighthearted. There are some grim moments, to be sure, but Durrell writes through the eyes of his thirteen year-old self and never takes himself very seriously.
The trilogy is built around the context of Durrell’s widowed mother taking him along with his two brothers and one sister from England to live on the Greek island of Corfu. Young Durrell was a budding naturalist even before leaving England and was quite in his element in Corfu. The episodes describe the family, the residents of the island, and Durrell’s forays into collecting animals for his menagerie.
Like My Family and Other Animals, Garden of the Gods is an enjoyable diversion.
Understanding History and Other Essays
Philosophical Library/Open Road (December 2, 2014), 124 pages
Kindle edition $9.95, Amazon hardcover $12.95
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99
This book is something of a time capsule. The essays were written in 1943 according to the Amazon description. That means he was writing in the middle of World War II and the outcome of the war was not yet known. Much of the book reflects the perspective of that snapshot in time.
The title essay takes up forty percent of the book, according to my Kindle iPad app. Russell has some interesting perspectives. He points out that when you become familiar with the larger framework of some aspect of history, the bits of trivia that can be gleaned from sources such as the letters of key figures become all the more interesting. He talks about the interactions between individuals and how you might expect a pair to like each other when they really didn’t and vice versa. (Beethoven didn’t like Goethe because Goethe tried to to teach Beethoven how to act before royalty, something in which Beethoven was not interested.)
The ultimate value of culture is to suggest standards of good and evil which science alone cannot supply, and this should be remembered in all our study of culture in the past and in the present.
These essays reflect that this is a core belief of Russell’s. At the same time he has no use for religion. While he has disparaging comments about both Protestantism and Anglicanism, he goes out of his was to discredit Catholicism. That is unfortunate because from the perspective of the second decade of the twenty-first century such vitriol undermines his laudable arguments about standards and values.
Understanding History is an interesting snapshot of a great twentieth century philosopher writing at a pivotal time in history. I’m sot sure that it is worth $9.95, but it was definitely worth the $2.99 that I paid.
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
A. O. Scott
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon paperback $17.00
Penguin Press (February 9, 2016), 283 pages
ebook borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System
I was looking for my next book to read, and I wanted to avoid spending any more money at Amazon for the time being, given that the bulk of our Christmas present dollars went to that fine firm. Therefore I visited the ebook section of the Santa Clara County Library System web site. To avoid the aggravation of seeing all be recent books I wanted to read being checked out I selected the “Currently Available” option. That is where I found this book.
I was familiar with A.O. Scott both in his role a movie critic for the New York Times and for his multiple stints as host on the late, lamented movie review television program At the Movies. It seemed worth a go, especially since the price was right.
The book is, to my mind, somewhat uneven. Some parts are so abstract as to be almost meaningless. On the other hand, I found his discussion of the ancient Greeks and their use of criticism engaging. Scott has an encyclopedic grasp of Western civilization, and his knowledge ranging from Renaissance art to nineteenth century literature is impressive.
Scott intersperses his commentary with a kind of Platonic dialog between himself and a sort of alter ego. I’m not sure that this adds a lot to the book, but at least this convention lets us know that Scott doesn’t take himself terribly seriously.
Is the book worth reading? I would say that there is a lot of nonfiction out there that is probably a better use of your time.