Acquainted with the Night

March 26, 2010 - Leave a Response

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost
26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Cue the Shirley Bassey tape

May 23, 2009 - One Response

Let me be clear from the offing, I love me some James Bond.

GoldfingerI find Ian Fleming’s colorful lead character consistently compelling, notwithstanding the fact that he’s sexist, racist, condescending, narcissistic, and sometimes a bit cruel. Despite his flaws, or perhaps because of them, Bond always seems very human to me. He doesn’t always make the smart decision. He sometimes gets tripped up, either by a wily foe or by his own shortsightedness. He falls in love, quite regularly.  He gets the ever-living-hell beat out of him, quite regularly. Yet he always manages to come out on top, by relying on his wits, his training, or just plain dumb luck.

*Beware of Spoilers*
One of the things I appreciate about the Bond books is that the storylines don’t usually depend on ridiculously cartoonish plots or characters. In Goldfinger, Bond is up against Auric Goldfinger, a crafty gold smuggler who is using precious English gold to help finance SMERSH (the Russian syndicate dedicated to the eradication of spies like James) AND has a diabolical plan to rob Fort Knox. Okay, when you put it like that it DOES sound a bit outlandish, but it’s a tribute to Fleming’s storytelling abilities that the story feels almost plausible. True, Goldfinger is a bit larger than life, and his plan is pretty daring in its scope. But as Fleming explains it:

To Bond there was nothing fantastic, nothing impossible about Goldfinger since he had heard the details of Operation Grand Slam. The theft of a Stratocruiser, as Goldfinger explained it, was preposterous, but no more so than his methods of smuggling gold, his purchase of an atomic warhead. When one explained these things, while they had a touch of magic, of genius even, they were logical exercises. They were bizarre only in their magnitude.

That, to me, is part of the reason why the books are so much better than the movies (although, those are good, as well). At the core of each book is generally a very ordinary crime or theme (smuggling, gambling, larceny, code breaking, counterintelligence, etc.) that has been pushed to the extreme level of plausibility. And, thankfully, there are very few gadgets or gizmos, almost no lasers or missiles (aside from Moonraker), and no corny puns or zingers.

And then, there are the women. In Goldfinger, I was exceedingly amused to discover that the female leads, damsel-in-distress Tilly Masterson and tough-as-nail crime boss Pussy Galore, were BOTH lesbians. I actually cackled out loud. What a great plot twist! Poor, old, lovelorn James! Of course, my initial glee was ruptured in the last few chapters. After Tilly’s untimely demise at the hands of Oddjob, Bond’s reaction is “Poor little bitch. She didn’t think much of men.” That line could very well be the lowest point for me in all the Bond books I’ve read thus far. I thought it encapsulated the very worst in Bond (see those traits listed earlier). I mean, WTF? A bitch? Why? Because she had the gall not to trust the man she (perhaps rightly) blames for the death of her beloved sister? Or perchance it was more because she had no interest in Bond’s legendary lovemaking skills? Either way, I thought it was harsh and very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the book. Still, there’s Pussy right? Nope. Turns out that, in the end, James’ powerful alpha-maleness was more than enough to convince Pussy to give up both her life of crime and her sexual orientation. *sigh* Not the old “all a lesbian needs is a good man” trope! How disappointing.

So, in the end, Goldfinger was much as I expected it to be: a thoroughly entertaining, though nonetheless flawed, secret agent escapade. I only wish it had been a little less predictable. But then, it IS Bond.

P.S. Did I mention the play-by-play account of Bond and Goldfinger’s golf game? It was quite possibly the longest chapter I have ever read. It felt like I was reading it for daaaays. Merciful heavens, how I hate golf.

Why do I do this to myself?

February 18, 2009 - One Response

I really don’t want to waste any time writing a coherent review of New Moon. So, here are my thoughts, in no particular order. There might be some spoilers below, but I think most of us know all the sordid details by now anyway.

  • I don’t like obsessive love. People too often use it as an excuse to be immature, selfish, and cruel. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Bella and Edward.
  • For someone who is supposed to be markedly smarter and more mature than your average teen, Bella has to be one of the most juvenile, dim-witted characters I’ve ever encountered.
  • Bella seems so determined to be a member of the Cullen family that she completely disregards and disrespects her real family. Remember when she claimed waaay back in Twilight that Renee was her best friend? Doesn’t really act like it, does she?
  • Note to authors: Suicide is not romantic. Please stop trying to make it so.
  • The story of Romeo and Juliet is also not romantic. It’s morose and disastrous and depressing. That’s why the correct title is The TRAGEDY of Romeo and Juliet. Plus, Juliet is THIRTEEN. And the entire life span of R&J’s love is FOUR days. That’s right, met on Sunday, died on Wednesday. And this is your model for everlasting love?
  • As far as epiphanies go, Bella’s was laaame. “I hear Edward’s voice in my head. That means he really loves me!” Okaaay.
  • After 400 pages of SLOW buildup (Bella’s in pain, terrible, terrible pain, therefore she must cradle herself strangely and rebel in cliched ways and string along a friend in an attempt to soothe her hurt soul, because she’s in Pain), the final 150 pages or so seemed weirdly slap-dash and tacked on. A crazy race against the clock in sunny Italy featuring Certain Death and an eeeeevil vampire cabal? Where the hell did that come from?
  • I tried to find something positive to say about New Moon, I honestly did, but I just came away from it thinking Bella’s not a particularly nice person. And I have yet to see anything in this series that looks like true, enduring love.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have put my name on the waiting list for Eclipse. I just have to see where this goes. I mean, how much more ridiculous can it get?

P.S. If you must use references to R&J ad nauseum, how about throwing out this bit of wisdom:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in its own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

Holy Merde

January 27, 2009 - Leave a Response

Must. Have.
Please let this not be a joke.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This dose of awesomeness brought to you by Bookshelves of Doom.

I’ll take Brisbane over Heathcliff any day

January 21, 2009 - Leave a Response

When I saw the ARC for Silent on the Moor in the Readers’ Advisory office I literally squealed like a little girl. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I adore Raybourn’s Silent series and was dreading the three-month wait for the next one (I can be terribly impatient sometimes). But then, there it was, just sitting there, waiting for me to pick it up and make it my first read of 2009. Squeeeeee!!!!Silent on the Moor

The third (and final??) installment of the Silent series has our heroine, Lady Julia Grey, haring off to the Yorkshire moors to confront her sometime partner/sometime lover, Nicholas Brisabane. Julia knows she loves Brisbane, and she knows Brisbane loves her, and she knows that he knows these things. So, she’s decided to take the bull by the horns, follow him to the manor house he’s just purchased, and get these affairs of the heart settled once and for all. But, of course, all is not right at Grimsgrave Manor, and evil doings are afoot.

As in the second installment, the setting for this book is an archetype of gothic mystery/romances. Here is the dark, decrepit manor house isolated on the beautiful but harsh moors, inhabited by the remnants of a once-great family brought low through their own vanity and self-enforced isolation. Add to this a gypsy who lives on the edge of the moor, ghostly bells that presage death, and a secret chamber disgorging deathly secrets. All handled so deftly by Raybourn that the well-worn paths of the genre never once felt trite or tedious.

To be sure, there were some parts that were less than stellar. The resolution of Brisbane’s financial problems, for instance, seemed a little too pat for my taste. (I won’t say anything further on that score so as not to spoil the ending.) In addition, the final, shocking solution to the mystery was so obvious it practically announced its presence with trumpeting fanfare about 2/3 of the way through the book (or maybe my mind is just sick enough to automatically guess this squicky plot twist). Nevertheless, these complaints are minor, minor, minor and in no way diminished my enjoyment of the book.

As always, the characterization was superb, the dialogue was delightful, and the romance was swoon-tastic. What I particularly like about all three of the Silent books is that the characters seem genuine and human, flawed but likeable, and capable of personal growth. There is also a real sense of believability; not all loose ends are tidied, not everyone gets a happy ending.

I highly recommend Silent on the Moor, as well as the two preceding books, Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary. To learn more about Deanna Raybourn, check out her blog a go-go.

A far cry from Bram Stoker

January 13, 2009 - 2 Responses

And now, for part two of my “What I read on Christmas vacation” report: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.

TwilightTwilight reads as if written by a precocious teenager. In fact, if it had been, I would probably have been pretty impressed. Alas, it is not. The writing is unsophisticated and transparent (that’s either good or bad depending on your point of view), and the plotline is nothing short of predictable. That being said, there is something mesmerizing and slightly addictive about Twilight. It’s almost like the literary equivalent of Tomacco. I admit to breezing through its 500+ pages in just a few days. When Buki asked me if I’d liked it, I couldn’t honestly answer yes or no. Instead, I could only say that I understand completely what the appeal of it is.

I can definitely appreciate why it is fascinating to a certain segment of the population (mainly of the young, XX variety). The strong, protective alpha male who is nonetheless completely enthralled by the heroine is a common enough plot device and shows up frequently in both YA and adult literature. He’s dangerous but not bad (a stellar little bit of hair-splitting) and is able to overcome his dark, base nature for the love of the right (and righteous) girl. So, to those readers who feel that breaking into a girl’s home to watch her sleep is creepy and stalker-ish, I have to remind you that there are those who feel it to be swoon-tastically romantic and a sign of the intensity (and therefore quality) of his love.

As to the adolescent nature of the writing, I have to say that, though sometimes extremely annoying and repetitive, it is also appropriately indicative of the age and maturity of the narrator. Let’s not forget that our steadfast heroine is only seventeen after all. So, I think we can forgive her for her sometimes angsty and overwrought prose, such as the rather trite comparison of her lover to Adonis. The plot device I have the hardest time swallowing is, well…the SPARKLING. I would possibly have had an easier time with it if the author had been more scientific about it, stressing the properties by which Edward’s skin reflects or manipulates light. But to simply say that he *sparkled* is so twee it almost hurts. Again, this is really an adjective that a love-struck teenager may use to describe the effect, but in this case that doesn’t help me much. I at least have to give Meyer credit for trying to think outside the normal vampire mythology. Still…sparkles?

So, what made me finish Twilight and, furthermore, put my name on the reserve list for New Moon? Well, a book doesn’t need to be high art to be entertaining. Heck, it need not even be very good, so long as it resonates with you in some fashion. For me, Twilight made me oddly nostalgic for my high school years. That’s saying quite a bit considering there isn’t much that I would ever miss about that time in my life, aside from a handful of spectacular friends and a complete lack of adult responsibilities.

In the end, Twilight is nothing more or less than a romance fantasy. While I wasn’t over the moon about it, I certainly wouldn’t give anybody else a hard time for loving it to little tiny pieces. After all, I know there are many who would shudder with horror at some of my reading choices (Shell Scott, you say? Oh, yeah.). Of course, I fully reserve the right to snark to my heart’s content if the next book contains one or more of the following: angsty “I love you but I shouldn’t but I do anyway” dialogue; repeated use of hackneyed phrases; numerous situations involving Certain Death; repeated references to Edward’s marble-like physique, cold (yet arousing?) lips, golden/black eyes, or speedy Volvo.

Come in! and know me better, man!

January 9, 2009 - 3 Responses

Come in! and know me better, man!During my weeklong Christmas break, amidst the festivities and family dinners and hockey and gallivanting in our nation’s capital, I somehow manage to polish off two books. The first of those, admittedly, should probably not count, since I’ve read it so many times I could doubtless recite it verbatim if I tried. (Okay, maybe not the whole thing, but definitely stretches of it.) I’m talking about my perennial Christmas favorite, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Dickens in general (although, I do intend to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days), but I have to say that A Christmas Carol is, quite simply, one of the finest stories ever written. Every sentence, every character, every scene is letter perfect.

This, for instance, may be one of the best character descriptions in literature:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

The prose practically sings, and, in fact, I often find myself overcome with the desire to read it aloud. I’m gushing, you say? Yes, yes, I know, but I can’t help it. I love this story so much that I honestly read it every year. It has just a dash of everything, love, hate, cruelty, kindness, regret, redemption, horror, and humor, all in the space of barely 100 pages.

We all know the story of A Christmas Carol so well, and it has so permeated our collective consciousness, that I think we tend to simply overlook it (or just watch one of the eleventy billion movie versions). But I sincerely urge everyone to give it a read and a few minutes of reflection. It is truly a beautiful tale, poignant and stirring with a lovely, hopeful message. That it is never too late to change your life. That each of us has the power to affect our fellow man, for good or ill. That we all need to take the time to examine our lives. That there is beauty and love everywhere, even in the poorest home by the most meager of fires.Fezziwigs' Dance

To read A Christmas Carol online for free at Project Gutenberg, click here.

As for the second book I read, well, let’s talk about that tomorrow.

Sacrilicious

April 11, 2008 - One Response

Art by Brian Dettmer
LISNEWS had an article a few days ago about artist Brian Dettmer, who carves old books into pieces of art. You can see more of his work at the Packer Schopf Gallery. Incidentally, this Gallery also features art by Clive Barker (“Ah, the suffering. The sweet suffering.”) and Peggy Macnamara, artist in residence of Chicago’s Field Museum.

Recycled book art is not, of course, unknown. It crops up every so often. Most recently, I’ve seen it from artists like Su Blackwell and Thomas Allen.




Blackwell’s pieces tend to have an otherworldly feel about them. Not surprising, really, given that several of them are based on classic fairy tales and childrens books. This one, entitled Wild Flowers, is simply stunning:
Art by Su Blackwell

Thomas Allen’s, though, are probably my favorite due mostly to their pulpy goodness. Behold, Hindsight:

 Thomas Allen

My reaction to seeing book sculptures is always the same. First, there’s the immediate visceral reaction of “NOOOOO! How dare you defile a book, you heathen!” Which invariably mellows into “Damn, that’s cool.” Not all orphaned books can live happily on someone’s bookshelves (although Buki can attest to my ardent attempt to rescue as many as possible). Metamorphosing into something beautiful and thought-provoking is a far better fate than mouldering on a landfill.

And, because I enjoy them so, here’s another of Allen’s, entitled Chemistry:
Thomas Allen

You who never arrived in my arms…

April 9, 2008 - Leave a Response

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me – the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods -
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house -, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon, -
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And, sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…

-Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Happy Poetry Month, all!

To receive a poem a day in your inbox, travel on over to Knopf Poetry.
For more info on RMR, try Poets.org.

Sweetly Gruesome or Gruesomely Sweet?

February 20, 2008 - Leave a Response

I don’t think it’s any secret that I am a fan of books with a touch of the surreal and/or fantastical. No surprise then that I enjoyed K. M. Grant’s How the Hangman Lost His Heart. It’s a fun little romp with a healthy dose of the absurd. The premise alone gave me a good chuckle: after witnessing the execution of her beloved Uncle Frank, high-born Alice decides to steal his head from Temple Bar (where it’s been put on display as a lesson to other traitors) and reunite it with his body. In doing so, she enlists the aid of Dan Skinslicer, the very executioner who took off poor Uncle Frank’s head. Unfortunately, no sooner have they made off with the head than they mislay it. Hijinks ensue as Uncle Frank’s head bounces around London pursued by Alice and Dan, who are in turn pursued by the King’s Light Dragoons. Along the way, they encounter a host of odd characters such as the dashing Capt. Hew Ffrench, nutty Faraway Granny, villainous Major Slavering, and weak-willed Lord Chief Justice Peckersniff.

Grant was able to pack quite a bit into a scant 244 pages, and the book is surprisingly rich in historic detail. The carnival-like atmosphere that accompanied 18th century executions, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the battle of Culloden, the English justice system, military life, and the Catholic/Protestant clash are peppered throughout the book, giving it just enough substance to offset the silliness of the plot. It was just the sort of breezy, engaging read I expected. What actually caught me off-guard, though, was how sweetly and genuinely touching I found the ending. I even shed a tear or two (the it’s-so-sad-but-somehow-beautiful kind, not the everyone-is-miserable-why-did-I-read-this-horrible-book kind).

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The UK branch of the Puffin Books site has an excerpt available here.

Now off you go. Visit your local library’s YA department.

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