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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Books Opened in Unsettled Transition Days

This week is that of the Great Upheaval, doing everything that must be done before we leave and getting everything ready that we will be taking with us. It’s impossible to settle down to read a book from start to finish. Well, not completely impossible, as I did race through Secret Son, by Laila Lalami, in two days (Jan. 1-2), mesmerized by the fictional story of a young Morrocan slum-dweller whose mother tells him she is a widow, his father was a teacher, and that he, Youssef, will have a good future if only he applies himself in his university studies. His mother, we gradually learn, has woven a well-intentioned but incredibly tangled web of deceptions. But Youssef never has the feeling of belonging anywhere, and he particularly misses the rich family life of his friends, even those in poor Hay An Najat. He envies boys from large, noisy families. He seeks escape from his life in movies and an identity for himself in fantasies of becoming a movie star. When Youssef discovers the identity of his real father, a wealthy man living right in Casablanca, the plot wheels are set in relentless motion. No, that was not a book I could put down, once I had begun it!

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson, on the other hand, began so horrifically right out of the gate that the question was whether or not I could go on to read another page. The story begins with an automobile accident. The driver, the book’s narrator, plunges over a cliff and is burned almost to death, and the reader is spared no detail of the event or of the subsequent anguish of treatment in a hospital burn ward. Surprisingly, the story takes a turn into what may or may not be fantasy—too soon to say yet—when the burn patient is befriended by a psychiatric patient who claims to have lived for 700 years. I’ll let you know more if I stick with this one. By noon on Tuesday I had read over a hundred pages but still found myself putting the book aside again and again. It isn’t so much the horrors of the burn ward, either, but one of my little reading prejudices. We all have them, don’t we? Myself, I enjoy reading historical studies of the Middle Ages but am always put off by modern fiction, especially fantasy, set in medieval times. Don’t know why, but there it is. We’ll see if this book gets past what I think of as my Hobbit Barrier.

On New Year’s Day I picked up Richard Taylor’s With Heart and Mind: A Philosopher Looks at Nature, Love and Death but found that one difficult to stick with, also. A page or two at a time felt like a helpful meditation; several chapters in rapid sequence began to seem repetitious and annoyingly preachy. I’d do better with this book (and I'm sorry if this makes me sound pitifully shallow) if it were divided into 365 sections, one for every day of the year.

Then there is The Lynne Truss Treasury: Columns and Three Comic Novels by the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. There’s no danger of my getting through this book of over 600 pages in a week so full of other activities (tasks is more like it) competing with reading for my time, but it will be a great one for reading aloud to David on the road, and if he tires of it, if it’s too girly for him, I’ll have in reserve Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies: Legend and Legacy in the American West, by Paul Schullery, which I haven’t even started.

The truth is, I should be saving new books to begin next week, post-packing, post-departure, on the road. It’s very hard for me, though, not to dive into new books (new to me, at least) with the start of a new year, especially since my bookstore is closed and my daily schedule flexible, if not exactly open.

Spiderweb, a novel by Penelope Lively, looked light and entertaining: A 65-year-old single woman buys a cottage in the west of England after an academic career a social anthropologist. Simple, right? What need she do but adjust to retirement? The setting as described at the end of the first chapter even sounded a bit like Leelanau County (recently cited in a short interview accompanying an article in the New York Times as one of the interviewee’s two favorite places in the world, along with the Dordogne region of France):
You might think that the entire place is given over to the purveying of leisure activities. This is not so. Rural life continues here, beneath the surface gloss of brown signs [ours are blue here in northern Michigan] inviting a departure from the main roads carrying glittery lines of cars which slice their way through the green quilt of fields and hills. People are still growing things and selling them and providing one another with services and necessities. Most of them spend much of their time in one place, contemplating the same view, locked in communion with those they see every day. For some, this is a stranglehold; others are more fortunate. It all depends on perspective.

Already in the first three chapters there are hints that the literary scenery of this novel will not all be pretty. Still, for after-movie, pre-sleep reading, it should not be conducive to nightmares. And who knows what the story may hold?

Images today are from Le Naro in Lake Leelanau. The tavern once known as the Poor House (distinguished from the other tavern in town, the Pour House), then transformed into Key to the County before its reincarnation as Le Naro Pub, is now open again for business and was cozy as can be on Tuesday evening when we took Bruce and Judy Balas for the annual Dog Ears Books Bookstore Helper (Bruce!) Appreciation Dinner. (I didn’t photograph people at tables, but there was quite a respectable crowd.) Comfortable booth seating, great warm lighting, delicious food. (I should have photographed the food. Major oversight. Too intent on eating! Cajun jumbalaya and cheesecake!) My advice? Whatever you order at Le Naro, don’t skip dessert!


Karen said...

Ha! Hobbit Barrier. I have the same affliction. Loved your About Me, is that new or did I not notice before? It reminds me of an old poem of mine:

How Busy Am I?

Herds of dust bunnies galloping in plain sight busy/
write your name on top of the dresser busy/
make a wig from bathtub hair busy/
climb blue bagged newspapers like stairs busy/
scuffed shirts, stained shoes and
unwashed dishes under the bed busy/
alien creatures in a beer-less fridge/
volcano of laundry erupting from basement busy.

You say, Cleanliness is Next to Godliness./
I say, How Many Books Have You Read Today?

(sorry about format)

P. J. Grath said...

No, Karen, the "About Me" is not new. Thank you for the dust bunny poem! I'm going to send it to a friend who doesn't believe what I say about my housekeeping. Need I add that she has not been to my house in years?

Anonymous said...

Whenever I have lots to do or feel stressed I either read or clean.
Maybe it's odd that I do both.

I love your images of lights and especially the ones of frost from earlier posts. They're so beautiful. Just think of all the beauty you'll be missing when you're down south ;)

P. J. Grath said...

Reading and cleaning combined is my favorite way to clean, Amy-Lynn! It works best when I'm alone in the house.

When we are elsewhere, we'll be seeing what's there. There will be a lot of tedious road miles (I am resigned to the fact that we'll be on a lot of big, boring roads rather than fascinating little two-lanes), but the scenery of wherever I find myself is what captivates me, and when I'm in Florida there's no lack of intriguing sights. You will see!