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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Conglomeration of Bits of Book News

No, this post will not contain news of huge chains emerging or submerging or publishing houses being taken over by Hollywood studios or anything like that—just some stray tidbits from my current book life as evidence that I am still alive and reading, despite the remodeling uproar at home. First, however, one news item from the larger world, the cancellation of the Cairo Book Fair. For years the largest literary event in the Arab world, this year the CBF has fallen apart, a victim to protests, unrest, curfews and all the rest of what’s going in Egypt this week. Okay, I know it’s just a book fair. Seeing these women behind a table stacked with books brings it home, though, reminding me that every large, cataclysmic, world-historical event is connected to many smaller upsets and disappointments in the lives of ordinary people. Let’s hope the consequences of the present upheaval in Egypt will bring about a better future.

Back to Leelanau County, the group I still think of as “our Ulysses group” got together last night for the second of four meetings to discuss Anna Karenina. Last night was Parts III and IV, in three weeks we will cover Parts V and VI, and for our last official conversation on this book, along with Parts VII and VIII, we will have a Russian potluck dinner. Herring, anyone? Discussion of Tolstoy's novel has been more free in form than organized but feels productive to all of us, as we argue over each character's virtues and vices and try to see them in the context of Russian history at that time. Did Tolstoy judge his characters? Specifically, did he condemn Anna? And in the unsettled times of the novel's setting, was there a single happy character?

Since the Leelanau Township Library is closed for the month of February (wall paint and carpeting from 1968 crying out to be replaced), the library book discussion group is slated to meet at Dog Ears Books to talk over The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, so wildly successful in its original hardcover version that the paperback (echoing the history of Dan Brown's best-selling Da Vinci Code) , first scheduled for January 2011 publication, has been pushed back until April. I’m not sure what I think of the novel or of the publishing decision, but I’m several chapters in now and curious where the various characters will go.

Meanwhile, The Wild Marsh, by Rick Bass, is waiting patiently and calling my name from one of the home shelves, while here at the Leland Public Library today I was distracted from blogging by rows and rows of books within easy reach. Uncle Tungsten, by Oliver Sacks, was one I selected to take home, along with Roy Reed’s Looking for Hogeye. In general, memoirs are speaking very directly to me lately.

Along those lines, I loved Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s An Accidental Autiobiography for many reasons. One, though I’ve never been a big sports fan, was her writing about Red Barber:
...You could smell the hot dogs and the sweet green grass.

...You could see the game better when Red Barber was broadcasting it on radio than you can see it now on television....

I devoured her stories of India, appreciating the way an exotic present can transport one back to one’s particular domestic past:
I take leave of my surroundings and find myself back in my childhood. I feel a strong and sudden yearning for a Brooklyn neighborhood, a frame house. . . . Of course! It is the smell of elephants. The smell of elephants is the smell of the Prospect Park Zoo. I see myself quite clearly, a little girl in a pink pinafore holding her father’s hand, standing in front of he elephant cages. And it is in that moment that a herd of elephants appears in our headlights (I think drowning must be like this). Peacocks and jungle fowl agitate the tall grass.

In the chapter called “Men and God(s),” I could not help a few small black dots in the margins, such as the one next to this sentence: “Grief does not end and love does not die and nothing fills its graven place.”

She continues:
With grace, pain is transmuted into the gold of wisdom and compassion and the lesser coin of mute sadness and resignation; but something leaden of it remains, to become the kernel around which more pain accretes (a black pearl): one pain becomes every other pain....

Friends who have known me for decades (I’ve calmed down a little over the years) will not be surprised that this sentence spoke to me: “My love for him always had a religious fervor and intensity (and sometimes an edgy religious hysteria).

I also loved the way this author quoted repeatedly from the work of Gaston Bachelard, one of the only philosophers my beloved artist husband can bear to read—indeed, a philosopher whose words and thoughts he has come to love.
Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms,” we learn to “abide” within ourselves. . . . Come what may, the house helps us to say: I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world. – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

The world can be difficult, but it is our home. Again and again I come back to this. Home.

The big snowstorm passed over Leelanau County, but we have plenty of clean snow on all sides. Today we had bright sunshine, blue skies and white, white scenery.


Gerry said...

I followed the link to the Cairo Book Fair and was astonished. Two million visitors each year? Food for thought.

I'm astonished, too, that you're able to keep several books going at once, and that you finished nine of them in January--only two of them fiction. Well, I just stopped to count and I guess I've gone through that many, too, but, um, a higher proportion of mine were somewhat lighter fare . . .

P. J. Grath said...

Good morning, Gerry. Were you really up at 5 a.m.? I wish I could get myself on that schedule this winter....

Fiction lighter? Actually, I find it easier to pick up and put down nonfiction and to move between NF books, whereas with a novel I want more sustained reading. When I start a novel, it usually means I won't be reading much else until it's done--except with the Tolstoy, which our group has broken into four large pieces for meeting and discussion purposes.