In the High Peaks

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Early Morning Reading on the Couch Goes Kaput?

Tomorrow the temperature in my northern world is supposed to top off at 65 degrees. Because Sophie, my golden retriever, wilts in "heat" above 50 degrees, I'll need to walk her EARLY.

And that's why I'm screaming, "Help!" I'm not ready to give up my early morning reading habit yet. It's only March 31st! I live just a couple of hours from Canada! We're usually buried in snow until mid-April. Okay...enough whining. (I'm not the hot-weather type.)

Onward...I'm more than halfway through Paul Auster's 2008 novel Man in the Dark. First I'll confess I'm a devoted follower of Auster. His work defies categorization, genre stereotyping, and all critics' attempts to fit him into a round hole. His novels are completely original and they usually blow my mind, to use a hackneyed cliche. Auster bends universes and creates casts of characters that exist in multiple worlds. And his novels are, without exception, intriguing stories, simply told, in simple language, that stretch the limits of the mind. I find them deeply affecting. I'm not going to even try to delineate the plot, but instead I'm providing a link that will do the job. But, whatever you do, do not rely on a plot description. Pick up an Auster novel and discover him for yourself.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Testimony, The Novel, and The Real Story

Anita Shreve is not one of my favorite authors, but over the years from time to time, I've been drawn to read more than a handful of her novels. I agree that she's been pigeon-holed to stand outside of the realm of "literary fiction." And it's true that sometimes her work appears deceptively easy. But I've never been fooled by those who have looked down on her writing. Shreve may not be great, but she's a good, solid writer.

I picked up Testimony (2008) last Saturday because it received far better reviews than her latest effort, A Change in Altitude. When Testimony first appeared, I didn't want to touch it. I was annoyed that Shreve had based the novel on a sex scandal that rocked the posh prep school Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, back in 2005. (Shreve is a Massachusetts resident, and so was I at the time of the incident.) When the story broke in The Boston Globe, it appeared just below the fold on page one. Everybody talked about it. One 15-year-old girl servicing five sport-star upperclassmen? You're kidding, right? Who was the victim? Who the perps? Were they all equally innocent or equally guilty? The debate raged.

I grew tired of the media mash by its second week and shut out the details of the rest of the case, but I do recall that the five male students were expelled. I don't recall the consequences for the female student.

Back to Testimony. Shreve's signature is her focus on a devastating life incident and its effects on the lives of all her characters. In other words, she examines how one event triggers many actions and reactions, leading to a locomotive gone wild off the tracks to a disastrous collision. Each character is affected according to their life history, relationships, personality, and individual character.

She has come close to perfecting this gaze in Testimony, a novel well worthy of a reader's time. Of course, the novel does not take place in Massachusetts, but at an imaginary prep school in Vermont.

If you're looking for two journalists' and former alumnae's take on the real story at Milton Academy, check out Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley (2007).

Oh, by the way, my Shreve fave? Resistance is far and away one of her best.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reading In Between Seasons

Neither winter nor spring are here. Snowshoeing and skiing are over, but hiking and paddling are weeks away. Mud season is an apt descriptor, especially after a rain, but today was sunny and wintry cold, just the way Sophie (my golden retriever) and I like it. Road walking is the only viable outdoor activity, and so we did that, past the beaver pond, past the Kibby Creek waterfall, to the freshwater marshes overlooking Eleventh Mountain.

Reading, and thinking about reading, has taken center stage. After two weeks working on taxes and finances, I crave immersion in foreign worlds. And this afternoon I've given myself permission to do nothing but explore literature.

I just found out that I have access to The New Yorker full text, via the library's Academic Premier database. The issue that hit the stands Monday is not available, but I'll be able to read it this coming Monday, the 29th. A month ago, I subscribed to it via the Kindle, but that costs $2.99/month. Reading the magazine on the laptop is just as convenient for me and costs nothing.

Books: As noted, I thoroughly enjoyed A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill (1993). I was hoping, because of its title, that Hamill would examine and analyze his relationship with alcohol and its impact on his life. He mentions the drinking and its effects, the phrase "got drunk" is on nearly every page, but, with the exception of his father's drinking, he never allows himself to stare at his own reflection in the glass. When he decides to quit, he goes cold turkey, and despite decades of hard drinking, suffers little or no withdrawal. He never goes to AA, and he never says why, but I wonder if it's because when he quit, he didn't want to analyze, he wanted only to be done with it.

So why did I enjoy A Drinking Life? It may not be a recovery memoir, but it is a fascinating, intricately detailed story of an Irish boyhood and young adulthood in Brooklyn from World War II through the 1960s.

I've a list of titles to seek out at Crandall Library on Saturday or Sunday, whichever day I decide to drive the 36 miles it takes to get there. Crandall is way to the south, in the "city" of Glens Falls, and is an excellent library, more than I hoped for when I moved north.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

No One Reads My Blog, & That's a Good Thing

Starting a blog, or reviving an old blog, is clumsy work. A lack of focus and precise writing, grotesque experimentation, and general floundering prevail. This is to be expected. The problems can be hammered out to lie flat and crawl away. There's time. Because no matter what the experts tell you, no one reads a new blog, as long as you keep your head out of the line of fire until you're ready.

I'm puzzled by all the "reading challenges" many book bloggers take on. I find the behavior and the challenges vaguely interesting, but I'm not sure the efforts themselves make for good blog reading.

Maintaining a reading habit is challenge enough in the wilderness. Outdoor activities constantly beckon. This past winter I'd have to be out the door no later than 8am if I wanted to be on perfectly groomed ski trails by 8:30am. When I'd get home around 1pm, the dog would need a good snowshoe trip and off we'd go on our trails for an hour or two. And after that, I'd try to find time to write and then cook dinner before collapsing on the couch before bed.

So, back to what Reader in the Wilderness to focus on:
One Focus: I'm interested in blogging about the experience of reading a particular book or author or poem or essay. I want to get at the barebones gestalt of reading.

One Focus Reconsidered: So many bloggers write about book news. This is fine, but unless you have something novel to say, why report it? Most recently, for example, the Long List for the Orange Prize appeared on dozens of blogs. What is the point, unless your brain and your experiences can interact with that list and say something startling new about it?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Drinking Memoirs

Yes, I'm consumed by drinking memoirs this month. First Lit by Mary Karr and currently The Drinking Life by Pete Hamill. I've displayed a ravenous appetite for both books and have been intrigued by both writers' relationships with alcohol.

Yes, I'm captivated because I'm exploring my own "relationship" with alcohol, wine in particular. My wine consumption has changed since we've lived here and is different from my city habit. But, then, lots of things have turned on their heads since we arrived here. We're puzzled that we find ourselves so much more relaxed, and much of the time, just plain happier. We find we need less and less to make ourselves happy. Nature is enough for us, but, as an extra bonus we were never expecting, we have Dish Network TV, Netflix, and MOST IMPORTANT, an INCREDIBLE library system. Oh, yeah. Thank goodness, we didn't choose to live in the Northern Adirondacks.

But, back to drinking memoirs. I have to face the fact with my reading public that I was indeed disappointed when Mary Karr confessed in Lit that she converted to Catholicism to help her attain spiritual fulfillment and help. Yes, I'm glad for her that she found something that she says sustains her. But I'm not sure I'm going to enjoy her future writings, because the last quarter of Lit, about her conversion, and her newfound focus, was so...well, I'm sorry, but it put me to sleep. What could she possibly write now but Catholic poetry?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reader in Wilderness, No Wilderness Reading

I moved (with my husband and dog) to the Adirondack wilderness of northern New York in December 2005. That's right, in the middle of December, on the verge of deep winter. And that was our intention. The morning our movers arrived here from our home in Boston, it was minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature that day barely rose above zero and our movers, dressed in hooded sweatshirts and cotton pants, donned every piece of down clothing we heaped on them.

Though there is much more to the story of our embrace of the wild North Country, the subject of this blog is READING. We've weathered five winters here now, and have loved each and every one. This past winter of 2009-2010 was the mildest by far. We hit -15 degrees on only one late night, and that's the coldest it got. Last year we bottomed out at -22 degrees on one night and had numerous days that barely reached zero. Not this winter. And now we're faced with the earliest spring we've encountered since leaving Boston.

I loved keeping a book blog in Boston. (Musings from Redwing Marsh). Now I'm determined to begin anew.

During the past few weeks, I've been mesmerized by memoir. I just finished Lit by Mary Karr. And now I'm halfway through A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill.

Prior to this, in late February to early March, I pushed myself into a wheelbarrow, legs hanging over the sides, through a reading of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. The book started with a bang but had the longest sagging middle I've ever encountered, one that never ended, right through the final page. Once again I must realize, a serious reader must know when to kick a book out the door!!! When a sagging middle doesn't rise, beat that book until it crawls back to the library on its own steam.

I'm cooking a Beef Stroganoff at the moment, so I must go, for the moment. I will return to pump things up.