In the High Peaks

Monday, May 31, 2010

Back to Harper Lee & Truman Capote!

I know I blogged very recently about Truman Capote, his "nonfiction novel" classic In Cold Blood, and the two movies, both released in 2006, which told the story of those times in Capote's life.

The direction of my reading often follows the path of my unanswered questions. Viewing the movie Infamous and remembering the movie Capote, has once again beckoned me to follow in the footsteps of Capote and Nelle Harper Lee back to Kansas, to the time of their research into the Clutter Family murders in 1959.

On this long Memorial Day Weekend, I've been captivated by Charles Shields's biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Before I saw the movie Capote, I never connected him with Harper Lee. And even after seeing the film I thought they were just writer friends who became acquainted in New York City, their mutual home. Boy, am I dumb.

As it turns out, Harper Lee, the author of the #1 classic of mid-20th-century American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird, grew up with Truman Capote as her next-door neighbor in Monroeville, Alabama! They became writers together the day that Nelle's father gave them both a typewriter, when they were about eight or nine years old.

In any case, I dug up the bio Mockingbird at Crandall Library because I have always had many, many questions about Harper Lee. Why did she never write another book? How much of To Kill a Mockingbird was fiction, and how much was based on fact? Why did she sacrifice her own writing time and energy to help Truman with his project and why did he never give her the credit she was due?

I'm getting the answers to these questions, and no one I know is interested in talking with me about it. Oh, dear. How I do pity myself that--sometimes there is no one to talk to when these literary headlines come pounding into my brain.

I hope that someday, a really savvy biographer with impeccable research skills ferrets out what happened to Truman Capote after he wrote In Cold Blood. It's a literary mystery. The movie Capote tries to answer the question, suggesting it was a crisis of conscience that Truman failed and could never get over, but that's conjecture, though I believe that explanation was part of what haunted him for the rest of his life. I'm sure there's more to it--I can feel it in my bones.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

What an arresting title! When I discovered Allison Hoover Bartlett's book on one of the "Best Books of 2009" lists, I immediately entered it in my "WannaRead" file on my computer.

I would describe The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession as a thoroughly delightful, yet cautionary romp through the world of rare books.

I've always enjoyed reading about rare book collectors and dealers. Although I own hundreds of books, less than a handful would be considered "rare" by book dealers. And that's fine with me.

That said, I do, however, have a fascination for books that reveal the mysterious and eccentric world that rare book aficionados inhabit. Another universe, indeed!

Bartlett provides a marvelous travelogue of her journey to this world and describes how it operates and its players. In addition to the background, she focuses on the story of one elusive book thief, John Gilkey, including his methods, his history, and the fact that despite multiple imprisonments, he's unrepentent and out there continuing his "lifestyle" today.

A Moody End of May

Caution to my fellow bibliophiles: This post is not about books and is not a fun topic. As soon as I publish this, I'm going to write the books entry I meant to write yesterday.

I must begin this post by saying that I'm sorrier than I can be about the billions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. That region will never be the same again. It's a tragedy of such massive proportions that no one realizes yet just how catastrophic it is. And I weep over it. And I weep for the people who live there and who love their land and sea and wildlife the way I do "my" Adirondack mountains, forests, lakes, and animals.

What a horror it is to realize that this is happening because we're digging much, much deeper in the oceans than we have the technology to manage--all because we're running out of oil. Who knew that the companies drilling the oil had gone way beyond their depth?

I have a saying that I've used for decades to refer to irreversible environmental damage: "The canary died a long time ago." Of course, I'm referring to the canaries that coal miners used to bring deep down into the mines with them to warn them of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and methane. So, what I mean by this saying is that the planet Earth's canary has been dead for years and years. We're a dying planet. One can only hope to save parts of it, as much as we can.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Armchair Book Expo America

It was 93 degrees yesterday in this northern mountain world and it set a record. In fact, it's never been this hot in any month during our five years here.

By not posting yesterday, my pledge to Armchair BEA went down the proverbial drain. At least I have a good excuse! (No, not the heat, silly. Scroll down to the bottom of this entry.)

Today's BEA book report: The Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann. This novel is getting rave reviews all over. And I'm very excited for Hamann. She self-published the book years ago via Vernacular Press, a firm she co-owned with her ex-husband. I tried to read the book in its original format and found it inaccessible at times. So, I'm extremely delighted to report that she's completely revised it, put loads of work into it, and evidentlyl, she's now got a bestseller-to-be in her hands. Can't wait to see a copy!

My excuse for copping out yesterday: I hurt my back and the pain precluded the sane writing of a blog entry yesterday. I injured it bushwhacking down Eleventh Mountain squeezing and contorting my body through narrow ledge passages. I shouldn't be surprised. I come from a family of bad backs on both sides and I consider myself *extremely* fortunate to have survived this long without a major back event. It's a miracle, really.

The good news: My problem is totally fixable. And I have an excellent chiropractor. But for the first time in my life, a medical practitioner actually told me I need to take it easy. This amazed me! No doctor has ever told me to do that.

Laying back isn't so hard; the big problem is it's very hard to read books with a bad back. No comfy chair or bed is comfy. I would have preferred a severe cold. But doctors never tell you to take it easy with a bad cold, or with pneumonia, for that matter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

BEA: Library Journal's "Hot" Galley for September

Blogger has not done this to me in years. Can you believe it? It ate my entire post about the new book by Daphne Kalotay, whose debut novel Russian Winter will be out early this fall. It's being translated into 16 languages and I am definitely going to buy a first edition.

This post would have been longer and more detailed, but I lost it all in that Blogger Wipeout. More tomorrow!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Gathering Night

Margaret Elphinstone, the Scottish writer, kept me spellbound with her novel The Gathering Night, which I read for the Scottish Literature Challenge. I paid a lot for the paperback and when I opened the book, I realized why. It's not published in the U.S. but in Canada.

In any event, the read was well worth it. Elphinstone cast a spell over me. She creates a vibrant world during the time of Mesolithic Scotland, back when the country's inhabitants lived close to the sea and were hunter-gatherers living in tribal clans. What I loved most about her rendering was the society of the Auk people and how they lived so closely, so in tune, to every living and non-living thing in the natural world.

Now, as I walk in the woods around me, I find myself spiritually in tune with Haizea, Amets, Kemen, and Nekane, a few of the main characters. The Animal Spirits. The Grandmother Mountain spirits. The whole concept of the Go-Between, who were very special people that traveled between the spirit world and the world of the living.

I also enjoyed the intricate details of the Auk People's hunting and food gathering. It seems such a good life in Elphinstone's telling that one wonders why people ever settled down to one place and took up agriculture. Supposedly, according to historians, it was a more stable and secure lifestyle, but I don't think it was, not really. Your thoughts?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stieg Larsson Bio/Article

First, a News Flash!
A lengthy article/bio of Stieg Larsson is available on The New York Times website if you're a registered user. If you're not, this article is a great reason to sign up. The article is being published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, but, of course, it's online now, all in preparation for the release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Reading Problems on Board:
Ever since I started looking for a part-time job, during the first week of May, my reading has gone to hell.

In the mornings, I sit on the couch with a cup of coffee. That's normal. But instead of reading, I think. That's not normal. In fact, I find it worrying that I can think like this for at least 30-45 minutes. I strategize my job search tasks.

I demand of myself that I change this behavior. I can think at other times, not during my reading time. Sunday morning on couch, with book in hand, and coffee in the other, and READ!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Will Truman Capote Wake Me Up?

I'm posting because it's high time I did, but I have absolutely nothing to say this afternoon. I've had two cups of darjeeling and I can't stop yawning. Oh, help!

Ken and I are hopping out in the next half-hour for The Black Mountain's Friday Night Fish Fry. When we get home, we're going to watch the film Infamous, about Truman Capote and his fascination with the Kansas murder case that prompted him to write his classic "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood.

Much more tomorrow, with links, I promise!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

About "Beach Reads"

Every spring the publishing industry goes on a binge, marketing all the "beach reads" for the summer book market. Now tell me, how many Americans actually spend time at a beach in the summer, let alone read there?

I've had summers where I've spent time reading on beaches. I'll acknowledge that and I loved doing it. I spent my three high-school summers babysitting for a family who owned a beach house on Nantucket Sound, on Cape Cod, and boy, did I ever read my way through those summers!

These days, the closest I come to beach reading is while floating in my Hornbeck boat on an Adirondack lake.

I must confess I like to read at least one Elin Hilderbrand novel in the summertime. Light as her books may be, I enjoy strolling on the Nantucket Island beaches with her characters.

I've stashed a copy of Barefoot on my summer reading shelf.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Carol Goodman & Arcadia Falls & Gothics!

I dove into Carol Goodman's debut novel Lake of Dead Languages years ago. Compelling, mysterious, a deep, psychological tale of teachers and students at a girl's prep school in the Adirondack Mountains. Although I never hesitated in seeing the book through to the last page, I was disappointed by the ending; in particular, the dark creepiness of the morally frail and faulty adults revealed by the conclusion. I have a bias: I like my dark, creepy tales to have just a bit of hope and redemption at the end. But I still recommend it--Carol Goodman's Lake of Dead Languages is definitely a modern Gothic novel, if you need one for your Gothic Challenge as hosted by Bibliophilic Book Blog.

And Publishers' Weekly has deemed Goodman's newly published Arcadia Falls, a gothic novel. And guess what? As I write this, it is being shipped to my library. So I am going to be finally reading a gothic novel for the Challenge I've taken on.

I'm also considering rereading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the Gothic Challenge. If you haven't read it, read it and don't be put off by the title and all the 20th-century silliness that transformed Frankenstein into a ridiculous creature Shelley would never have recognized.

I first read Shelley's novel as a scared-stiff, last-semester-of-college senior and I didn't know when I'd read anything better. The class, The English Novel, taught by the wonderful Miss Jane Corsa, mesmermized me and saved my life that semester. I couldn't bear being thrust into the wide world after graduation. My escape for those last few precious months was the English novel--an enlightened re-reading of Jane Eyre, discovering Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and on it went! Thank you, Miss Corsa!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Those Blasts from the Distant Past

I have never met a devout reader who didn't love to talk about the books he or she most cherished as a child.

Have you ever had the fun of rereading and rethinking the specific reasons why you adored the books you did? I'm talking about the deep emotional reasons. It can be a startling process, but in a good way.

Case in point: When my hands took Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle off the school library's bookshelf way back when, I hustled it home,flopped down on my bed, and did not stop reading until my mother called me to dinner 3 hours later. I was an outdoorsy girl, and my unusual behavior puzzled me. I read it repeatedly before I finally returned it.

At the time I knew what I loved about it, but I didn't know why, and that bothered me. Years later, as a young sixth-grade teacher, I read it again. Only then did I understand my obsession for this book. The warm scenes of family life, and the difficulties surmounted by both parents' loving care, was something I lacked and yearned for. I especially loved the chapter in which Vicki has a fight with her sick brother. In a rage, she takes off on her bike in the dark and has a bad accident that lands her in the hospital. She's lovingly cared for afterwards, and with the help of her parents, she realizes where she went wrong that day.

It's fascinating to realize that L'Engle didn't write the book from her own family experience. She acknowledges that she was a very lonely, only child, and that she was shuttled from boarding school to boarding school. And from that dry and dusty wellspring burst the Austin family.

And here's another: Did you ever read North to Freedom by Anne Holm, the Danish writer? I am David, and later, David, were the book's UK titles.

I didn't reread this compulsive favorite until I was in my mid-30s. Wow! The book resonated with me almost as strongly as it had when I read it in junior high.

At the beginning of the novel, David is confined to a post-World War II camp in Eastern Europe. (Many reviewers refer to the camp as a concentration camp, but this is an anachronistic use of the term, and was more likely a detention camp.) He follows the advice of an adult inmate and escapes. His destination is freedom in Denmark. Yet as his troubled journey begins, it's his search for a home, security, trust, and love that are paramount. From time to time, he allows himself to stay with a family, but the peace lasts briefly because he fears that he will be rounded up and confined again in a loveless environment. **I highly recommend this title for adults.

And here's an unforgettable read from age 14 that I haven't reread. But I must. When Jays Fly to Barbmo by Margaret Balderson. I didn't realize until today that Balderson is an Australian writer, which is striking because she wrote so convincingly about northernmost Norway. As I discovered, Balderson spent two years living and traveling throughout Norway, so no wonder she knows the Norwegian landscape. Amidst the background of World War II, Ingeborg, who is half-Sami, goes on a personal journey to search for her identity. It's a title that's hard to find these days. But since it was so meaningful to me, I'll track it down somewhere online and add it to my collection.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Children's Book Week & Daphne's Birthday

Today is Daphne DuMaurier's birthday, I recently discovered on Book-a-rama. I would like to read one of DuMaurier's short stories this evening to celebrate. Something from Don't Look Now, I think. The problem is, can I locate the book?

And I had no idea it was Children's Book Week! It's Thursday already, and I almost missed it! I'll pen a tribute tomorrow.

Just a brief, sad note: My part-time job search seems to be inhibiting my reading. I've done all the job work I can do this week, so I predict Friday and the weekend will see me reading more, probably making up for lost time. Let's hope!

Soldiers' Books Post Revised

Just wanted to let my loyal readers know that this morning I revised my previous post of last evening. I apologize for last night's entry being too, too much "over the top." I'm satisfied with the way the discussion reads now. Thanks for bearing with me! I'll be posting later today. Keep reading!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vietnam Must Be Revisited: Matterhorn

I may be a woman, and I may be gray-haired, but that doesn't mean I'm blind. Not yet, not by a long shot. I grew up during the Vietnam era; I remember each time a friend's brother was killed. I was not so young that I was not permitted to hear the agonies these soldiers suffered when they died of burns from explosions, and their families all gathered at their kin's deathbed in a Texas military hospital. Oh, I remember, all right. Maybe I remember too much. After all, I was thirteen to fifteen years old at the time, a very impressionable age.

All my life I've studied dozens of soldier's narratives, from the U.S. Civil War to World War I to World War II to Vietnam to the Iraq War, I've read them. I know what the soldiers say. If only more Americans would read them.

If people would allow themselves to hear and read the voices of soldiers--the new novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque, and the dozens of similar soldier narratives, this war madness would stop.

I drove today to take my dog to a vet appointment, another long drive to Glens Falls. And on the way I listened to an in-depth discussion of the War (yes, War) in Afghanistan on NPR. Onward now, Americans, let's battle to build a nation state in a tribal country, one speaker said.

How many young people in their late teens and very early twenties are we going to sacrifice to that? (Don't tell me they're adults and happy to serve their country. I heard that lecture in other wars when they were slaughtered.)

People's lives are destroyed in combat. Read the literature--both the fiction, the autobiographies, and the psychiatric literature. The military hospitals are full of the suffering. Just for a change, let's try building this country instead of spending billions and killing thousands to build them in distant corners of the world.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Visiting Yorkshire

Not really, of course. But I'm very keen on the concept of Virtual Travel.

Today I had the good fortune to drive to Glens Falls so I could download Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte onto my Kindle. The damn machine even managed to cooperate a bit so I didn't have to curse in front of the dentist and his assistants! (How I wish I could put the proper two dots on top of the letter e in Bronte!)

I'm joining the All about the Brontes Challenge 2010 hosted by Laura's Reviews.

I visited a huge bookstore to drop off a job application and resume, and was so overwhelmed by the vast selection, I had to run out the door! Has this ever happened to you? Too many books that look too luscious for words?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Snowy Doings

Last Sunday at this time it was 80 degrees F. Right now, at 5pm, it's 36 degrees. It's been snowing and sleeting a bit off and on since last night. I loathe the heat so I don't mind the chill at all.

After 2 1/2 hours of reading (and loving) every word of Elphinstone's The Gathering Night this morning, I got to thinking about Anne Bronte, the youngest of all the Brontes. (This was one of those odd, nonsequitor kind of thoughts). I read just a bit about her online and was alarmed to discover she died at age 29 of tuberculosis.

My older brother died at the same age, and I have often thought that people only begin to realize their potential in their twenties. A death at 29 is so tragic because there is no time for the thirties and forties to bring those possibilities to full fruition.

I'm looking forward to reading The Tenant at Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, a book I bought recently, but this was her second novel! I didn't know that. I feel compelled to read her first novel first, Agnes Grey, based on her experiences as a governess.

I discovered that it's available for 95 cents on the Kindle. Maybe I'll try that, though my Kindle's battery has been going through delirium tremens for over a week now, in spite of all the Amazon-authorized cants I've chanted over it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Janet Malcolm & Sylvia Plath

Today: My Home Book Tour. (See Friday's post.) I knocked over a pile of CDs in the process, but quickly latched onto the "Grab Me and Read Me Now!" book to get me back to reading books again.

The book is The Gathering Night, the one by Margaret Elphinstone that I purchased for my Scottish Literature challenge. Early this morning, the temperature outdoors a mere 40 degrees F, I snuggled into the couch in front of the gas fire with Elphinstone's tale of Mesolithic Scotland--an era set between the end of the last Ice Age and the advent of the agricultural revolution, sometime between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. I have much to say about it, but today it suffices to say I'm back in the saddle, as engaged in a book as ever.

Janet Malcolm: As I wrote yesterday, she is an incredibly skilled writer and, if I may say so, a mesmerizingly manipulative journalist. But she is so good at what she does! That's what I admire about her work. She is tough and unyielding, and holds fast to her odd analyses and conclusions, without a care about anybody else. If I had to choose one adjective, I'd call her writing "provocative" with a capital P.

This week I devoured Malcolm's latest article, a very long manifesto in The New Yorker issue of May 3, 2010, entitled "The Iphigeneia of Forest Hills," the true story of a murder trial in Queens that pitted two warring Burkhan Jewish families against each other, and which exposed the injustices of our criminal justice and social welfare systems.

All week, I remembered Malcolm's 1994 book, a combo of biography and literary criticism (sounds dull, but it's HOT), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. When I read it in 1995, Malcolm's work provoked me to rage on multiple occasions; so much so, that I composed many venomous letters to her in my head.

You see, I grew up in the town where Plath grew up, close to Boston. I attended the same high school she did, the high-school English teacher she wrote about in The Bell Jar was my English teacher, Plath's mother and my mother were members of the same Unitarian Universalist congregation, a close friend of mine from both high school and college wrote a biography of Plath that was picked up by Little, Brown. This friend told me EVERYTHING she uncovered about Hughes & Plath over the course of two years traveling around England. [Little, Brown tried for many years to publish the book, but Hughes threatened to sue if it were. LB attorneys tried for years to negotiate, to no avail, and the book was never published.]

So, I was not a neutral reader on the subject, not by a long shot. But I admired the way Malcolm skewered Plath (ouch!) and Hughes and especially his sister, Olwyn. What a great piece of writing! I had never read a writer who could press so many buttons and do it so well. She wields an uncanny scalpel.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Setting Books Aside: No Guilt, No Self-Blame

Some free time tomorrow! Coming up: My take on the brilliant journalist and author Janet Malcolm, whose work I adore, even when she is provoking me to spout furious diatribes. &%*$!

Tonight, a word about my struggles getting into Sue Miller's new novel, Lake Shore Limited (2010).

I have a theory: When one has been regularly reading one book after another, and then dives into a new book, only to hit one's head on the proverbial swimming pool bottom, the problem is with the book, not the reader. People blame themselves unnecessarily for these "falling outs," and it's a shame, really. Such a stalemate can leave you not reading for days, as you try to figure out what's wrong with you and this book.

My advice to my fellow readers? Set aside the book that has you stuck. Do not over-analyze the problem.

1. Take a book tour of your home from top to bottom. A cup of tea in hand, a cookie, or a wee glass of wine can be comforting in such difficult circumstances.

2. Search for a book that leaps out at you lovingly and shouts, "Read me!"

3. Stroll amongst all of your piles of books--on the floor, beside the desk, (watch out for your ankles and don't stub a toe!), the side-tables, and even on the bookshelves, if you're lucky enough to own some. I guarantee you, a book that you are dying to read will fall into your hands.

4. Grab it and read it immediately.

This week I started Lake Shore Limited and stopped dead at page 33. Why? I kept asking myself for several days as I substituted The New Yorker magazine for a book. Finally, yesterday, I told myself that Miller's characters are not compelling--by page 33 they are still FLAT. I can't go on in this state. So, farewell to Lake Shore Limited.

Too bad--I loved Miller's While I Was Gone. Now that is a stellar read. Check out the link for an interview with Miller.

Stay tuned to the report of my Home Book Tour--Saturday!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

American Wife & the Laura Bush Memoir

Hordes of reviewers have disagreed with me and more have relegated Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife to the garbage cans of our nation, but all of that was knee-jerk, hysterical nonsense. (The book's longevity on the bestseller list was proof of this. And yes, the New York Times had the good sense to make it a Notable Book for 2008.)

I have never been a conservative nor will I ever be, nor was I a fan of Laura Bush when I decided to read American Wife in 2008. Yet, from the first chapter, I knew a great, compelling read once I plunged into it.

I had felt so lukewarm (perhaps tepid is a better descriptor) about Prep, Sittenfeld's first book, another big bestseller. But American Wife was so well done in comparison, so completely different, that I had a hard time reminding myself that the author of Prep wrote it. Prep was trivial, American Wife walked onto the grand stage of life.

I will admit, however, that American Wife's greatness ended when Charlie (the George Bush character) enters the White House. The last part of the book is anti-climactic and quite dreadful, but it lasts for much less than 100 pages out of a huge book.

It's worthwhile to remind potential readers that the book has nothing to do with Charlie or George Bush. This is Alice Blackwell's story. In fact, much more than half the book transpires before Alice even meets Charlie.

American Wife is about a lost, serious girl, an only child of equally serious parents, who causes a tragedy in a very small town--the death of a close friend, a high-school student. Sittenfeld is so skilled, she handles the central event of Laura's young life with enormous empathy, and it is a heart-rending tale.

Exactly how did Laura Bush end up married to George? We need only look to the enormity of the tragedy in her teens to explain her overwhelming need to help and to heal lost people.

So, what can we say about Spoken from the Heart, Laura Bush's memoir appearing in bookstores this week? Whatever will be said about it, Laura must want to set the record straight about her life. I can't imagine anything more dreadful than a novelist writing a bestseller about my oh so personal past. I hope that Laura, for her sake, gets the last word.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Back to Fiction Tomorrow!

Taken too many days to blog about science and nature writing. Back to fiction (or memoir) tomorrow!

Spring Has Been My Undoing

That's true as far as my blogging is concerned. The past weekend brought a tremendous influx of migratory songbirds and it was hard to stay inside. Cindy was around, so that meant lots of walking and exploring. [Yes, all this drivel is leading to a book.] Wildflowers are everywhere, too, so I'm never sure whether I should be looking down or gazing up into the trees.

This afternoon my fingers trembled over the keyboard when I purchased yet another nature book to add to my collection, a relatively new title by my favorite nature writer, Bernd Heinrich. This 2009 book, Summer World: A Season of Bounty, will be shipped to me tomorrow.[Scroll way, way down on the Amazon listing for an interview with Heinrich. Cool!]

I had a library copy for several weeks, and realized that once again, like Winter World (sensational!), The Trees in My Forest (an essential reference!), A Year in the Maine Woods (loads of fun!), and all his other books, a single reading never suffices. I continually refer to these books, over and over again. So I need Summer World, the way a writer needs a thesaurus or a dictionary, or a beauty queen needs cosmetics.