Sunday, February 22, 2009

Into the Hundred Acre Wood

I always think it's a bit funny how everyone has books that were absolutely crucial parts of their childhoods, and they are always completely horrified when they realize that other people never read them at all. I feel this way about all the Little House on the Prairie books most of all, because those were an absolutely enormous part of my childhood, and I would feel this way about Swallows and Amazons had I not always been aware that very few people I knew read them. I've recently acquired a friend who did read them (and even got to learn to sail, too, which I'm vastly envious of), and I was completely gleeful when I happened to make a reference to them (to Swallowdale in particular) and he happened to be around to get the reference.

Hand in hand with this, there are various children's books that I never read as a child, that even I am somewhat shocked I never read. I was, for example, rather surprised to realize that I had never read Winnie-the-Pooh. Whenever I go through those list of 100 best books, or books to read before you die, or whatever, I always hesitate over marking Winnie-the-Pooh, because I'm sure I must have read it, hasn't everyone?, but I don't actually remember reading it. I even own the book. But I was ferreting for something to read the other day, and I pulled out Winnie-the-Pooh and realized, no, actually, I haven't read this.

I read one of A.A. Milne's plays a while ago, Mr. Pim Passes By, which I liked very much, and talked about here. After reading Winnie-the-Pooh, I rather wonder why no one ever remembers his plays but everyone assumes they read Winnie-the-Pooh at some point. I think I've probably lost out by not reading it as a child, as it's definitely a children's book, rather than a book just about children. It succumbs to that occasional plague of children's books of being just a little bit patronizing, although it's not too bad here. I found Pooh stupider than I expected, and Eeyore far more depressing, and really I don't think I'd want to live with any of the animals. Despite all this, it's still rather a pleasant book, and even if I never actually read it as a child, I definitely watched all the films, so it's still got a firm place in my list of books crucial to childhood.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Camomile in Cornwall

Yesterday I finished reading The Camomile Lawn, by Mary Wesley, another in my series of war/post-war books. There's a miniseries adaptation of it, which I saw first, and then I wanted to read the book so much I got it interlibrary-loaned. Having now read it, I find that the film is extraordinarily faithful to the book. There were some points where the dialogue was so much the same that it seemed ever so slightly pointless to read the book at all, but writing was so lovely that this feeling never lasted long.
The book begins in 1939, in Cornwall, where Helena and Richard Cuthbertson live with their niece, Sophy. Every summer all their other nieces and nephews--Polly, Calypso, Walter, and Oliver--come to stay, and this summer all of them except Sophy, who is 10, are on the verge of adulthood. Add to this mix of characters the twins, Paul and David, sons of the town Rector, two Austrian refugees, Max and Monika Erstweiler, and the various other people who attach themselves to the group throughout the story. We follow them through the war, as th
ey all grow up, have sex, fall in love, and enjoy themselves immensely despite the air raids. As we get further on through the book, more and more glimpses of the characters 40 years later appear, on their way to the funeral of one of the central members of their group.

The writing always has a certain quality of memory, in the way some things can only be described by vague, skirting words that talk about the thing without saying so. The dialogue is often quite hilarious and snappy, and sometimes very, very blunt, and the characters are a lovely mix of reality and very real ridiculousness, and all of them very individual. It was for some reason a really addictive book, even though I knew exactly how it would end.

Monday, February 16, 2009

War and Post-War and Background War

My reading seems to be hovering around the '40s and '50s, lately. I'm not sure how that happened. I'm still working on Someone at a Distance, which is set in the '50s, I think, and also The Dud Avocado, '50s. Yesterday, not being in the mood to read either, I started The Story of a Marriage, set in 1953, and then The Camomile Lawn came home from the library, and that's set during World War II, and of course I had to start that too, so here I am, lurking about in England, France, and San Francisco with air raids, rations, and the ends of them.

I just finished The Story of a Marriage, which is by Andrew Sean Greer. It was one of the books in Dovegreyreader's Christmastime book draws, which I entered, and at some point late in December or possibly early in January it came in the mail, all the way from England. It took me a while to get around to it, but now that I have I love it totally. I think this is one of those books that I just so happened to read at the perfect time, where I felt in reading it as though I could insert my own muddled thoughts into the story and they would not be amiss.

It's set in San Francisco in 1953, and that's another way in which this is well timed--I was in San Francisco briefly six months ago, and it was a city that made a strange impression on me, and it helped me see the backdrop of the story perfectly. Even had I not known what it looked like I think the book would have provided the feel, but it was doubly clear (or foggy, as the case may be in that city by the sea) having been there. It's not one of those stories where the setting is it's own character, but it is a story that would be vastly different had it taken place somewhere else.

Pearlie Cook is a wife and a mother, and she begins her story by saying, "We think we know the ones we love." She spends the rest of her story discovering how much she doesn't know them and they don't know her, although she doesn't always find out entirely what she doesn't know. It is a book full of very powerful images and associations, the kind of book that can, with a sentence, bring to mind a strong feeling of something, even though it is an indescribable and inexplicable feeling that cannot possibly be summed up in just one sentence.

The book didn't just bring up those kinds of associations though--though it is definitely its own book and quite an individual one, it reminded me a lot of other authors in certain places. In the beginning, the characters sounded a lot like characters Sam Starbuck would write, something in their speech patterns or their personalities. He's a writer who is currently only self-published, mostly online, whose writing I love vastly. His original novels live here. Later on in the book, I stopped being reminded of him, and began to be reminded for completely inexplicable reasons of Geek Love. Something about the mood, I think. Sunlight.

Anyway, I'm very glad this book came my way; it's lovely.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Thursday Next

I was at a friend's house last weekend and needed a book to read, so I borrowed her copy of Lost in a Good Book, which is the sequel to The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde.... Only to discover that I'd already read two-thirds of the thing. I mean, I knew I'd started it, but I had no idea I'd read that much of it, and I can't figure out why I would have put it down when I was so close to finishing it. Especially since this time around, I started it Saturday morning and finished it Monday on the way to school.

This series (of which there are at least two more that I have yet to read) is about an alternate universe in which the Crimean War lasted about 120 years longer than it did here, in which World War II didn't end in 1945 and Britain was occupied by Germany, in which neanderthals, dodos, and mammoths have all been resurrected, and in which it is possible to hop into the pages of a book. In fact, books in general have a far greater importance in this world than they do here, to the point where England needs a Special Ops force (SpecOps-27) to police faked Shakespeare plays and the like, and people name themselves after literary characters and authors.

It's all that, and then it's a bit chicklit. It's also the sort of book that you spend looking for literary allusions, puns in people's names (the main character is Thursday Next, her husband is Landen Parke-Laine, his parents are Billden and Houson), and characters you recognize from literature. Miss Havisham makes rather a loud appearance. In all, it's really rather fabulous.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reading the OED: a review

Since I finished Reading the OED last weekend, I figured I'd write a bit about it. It was pretty entertaining, although there was not enough substance to it for it to be particularly lovable. The book is organized into 26 chapters (plus forward and afterward), one for every letter of the alphabet. Each chapter has a story about reading this particular letter, about something that happened at the time, or just plain musings on the OED and dictionaries in general. He talks about his dictionary-induced health problems, his search for the perfect reading place, his dictionary-induced insanity, attending a conference of lexicographers, the history of the OED, an excess of coffee, and other things besides. He's an entertaining writer. Each little story is followed by a list of his favourite words from that letter, with definitions and his rather entertaining and snarky comments on them and their uses.

Since I knew that there would be words in here that I would spend years trying to remember if I didn't write them down, I started making a list. Here are a couple of my favourites.
Curtain-lecture - "A reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed."

Resistentialism - "The seemingly aggressive behaviour of inanimate objects."

Sanscullotic - "Clothed inadequately."

Unbepissed - "Having not been urinated on."

Apricity - "The warmth of the sun in winter."

The fact that Firefox's spellchecker recognizes none of these words is mildly entertaining, but then, it doesn't know "snarky" either.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A rediscovery

I was reading Reading the OED over breakfast this morning, and I had this strange sort of half-epiphany, half-remembrance, and I found it fascinating. I rediscovered the fact that I have always wanted to build a staircase out of books. Stack them up, wedge them in, and build a staircase. I have no clear memories of thinking about this, but I know that this was quite an adamant desire when I was small. It's not a concept I've thought of for years and years, so it was very strange to rediscover it. It is still a very pleasing idea.

Does anyone else read during meals? I hear it's supposed to be bad for your digestion, but eating for me feels so often like a waste of time that I always like to be doing something else simultaneously.

I finished Mansfield Park yesterday evening, and I continue to marvel over Jane Austen's ability to make her main characters, no matter their faults, completely sympathetic.


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