Monday, February 26, 2018

Hurry, Hurry


Time for a friendly reminder!

The Birth Year Reading Challenge sign-up window closes on March 1, 2018.

If you've been getting around to entering officially, that's fine -- but there's nothing like a deadline to make things snap into focus. (Believe me, I know.)

If you're really "all in" on this challenge, NOW is the time.

Sign up here.

Friday, February 23, 2018

A Story for the Times


Surprising. Funny. Serious. Contemporary. Varied. Talky. Engrossing.

These are a few of the adjectives that apply to Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behavior. We first meet Dellarobia Turnbow stuggling along a forest path, dressed inappropriately and wishing desperately for a cigarette, to begin an affair with her latest crush. She is desperate to escape her not-good-enough domestic scene: the steady but dull husband she had to marry because she was pregnant and the truncated parameters of stay-at-home wifedom with two small children and overbearing in-laws. Little does she know that when she stumbles upon the winter gathering place of millions of monarch butterflies, her life will change as dramatically as if she'd seen a Biblical burning bush.

Kingsolver weaves issues of family, place, marriage, faith, science, culture, and personal fulfillment into her story, portraying these individual concerns in the context of the causes and effects of climate change, with the butterflies and their (fictional) locale as the primary example. Dellarobia is blessed with a sharp mind, a dormant ambition, and a clever best friend, so her story moves briskly along. It bogs down somewhat when its educational message is delivered in conversations with scientist and monarch expert Ovid Byron. Overall, though, Kingsolver rises to the challenge of presenting scientific information in story form and in a way that's sympathetic to varying opinions. 

Dellarobia's conversation and thoughts are sprinkled generously with sharp--sometimes caustic--commentary, lightening the mood and highlighting her abilities. Kingsolver can turn a phrase, and for the most part does so successfully, although in a few instances one suspects that she conjured or overheard a particularly clever comment and purposely worked it in. Considering how central environmental gloom and Appalachian poverty are to the story, the jaunty commentary wears a little thin by novel's end.

Despite these glitches, the twists and turns of the plot pull the reader along and keep engagement high. As the wintery death that means extinction looms over the monarchs, Dellarobia moves closer and closer to her own crisis of decision-making. Her moment of choice, when it comes, arrives on a timetable similar to climate change itself: seemingly sudden, but long in the making.   

Excerpt:

Today [Dellarobia's best friend] Dovey made her a deal. She would make the grocery run for the party when she got off work at three, while Dellarobia dug around in the junk drawers of her former valor, trying to locate the nerve. Somewhere between outrage and giving up, that was where she found it. She was sick of begging for ornaments to hang on a tree, as part of some year-end conspiracy of alleged joy and goodwill arriving from heaven with no hard currency as backup. Fed up with stories about poor people with good hearts raising their damn cups of kindness. Sick of needing permission to throw a party in her own home, and not asking, because she was too proud to beg favors in this family. That's how the simple folk lived, in her particular Christmas story. It was overdue for a rewrite.

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (blue) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.         

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Eerie and Strange (In a Good Way)


I can hardly begin to say how other-worldly Don DeLillo's novella, The Body Artist, is. At any moment I expected it to fold in on itself, revealing that its plot and characters are only a reverie of the mind, or perhaps a dream. Amidst this trance of disbelief, the plot unrolls smoothly and steadily, adding strangeness upon strangeness.

Lauren the performance artist and Rey the painter talk past each other in the kitchen of the house they share, gauzy somehow with a premonition of trouble to come. A newspaper article, reproduced, tells of Rey's suicide. Lauren stays in the house and soon discovers that she and the house are both haunted by a mysterious young man she calls Mr. Tuttle. He lives upstairs somehow, whether by guile, desocialization, or escape from a mental institution, it's impossible to say. Grieving the death of her husband, losing track of time, Lauren become obsessed with Mr. Tuttle, his quirky distance from everything that passes for normal life, and his uncanny ability to hear and parrot conversations from her own past, bringing them into the present. Ultimately, she pours the experience into her art.

That's an unusual plot but fairly easily described. What's more difficult to convey is the atmosphere DeLillo creates, sparely contorting his language to create vignettes that move, in which every detail seems significant, every variation exquisite. With pauses and repetitions, his economical prose makes every word count.

Lauren's body is her artwork and she shapes it to her will. Her life is her artwork, too, while she transitions from wife to widow to whatever comes next, adopting what she will need in the future and paring away the rest.

Excerpt:

In the morning she heard the noise. It had the same sort of distinctness she'd noted the first time, about three months ago, when she and Rey had gone upstairs to investigate. He said it was a squirrel or a raccoon trapped somewhere. She thought it was a calculated stealth. It had a certain measured quality. She didn't think it was an animal noise. . . .

She found him the next day in a small bedroom off the large empty room at the far end of the hall on the third floor. He was smallish and fine-boned and at first she thought he was a kid, sandy-haired and roused from a deep sleep, or medicated maybe.

He sat on the edge of the bed in his underwear. In the first seconds she thought he was inevitable. She felt her way back in time to the earlier indications that there was someone in the house and she arrived at this instant, unerringly, with her perceptions all sorted and endorsed.

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (brown) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.                   

Monday, February 19, 2018

Along for the Ride


I found Nina Lyon's book, Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man, utterly delightful. It blends the author's scholarship on the Green Man, a fairly common medieval architectural, folk/cultural, and literary motif with a mysterious meaning (and a particular interest of mine), with the story of how she went about her research. That makes it not only the kind of book I love to read, but also the kind of book I'd like to write someday: adventuresome, personal, and scholarly, all rolled into one.

The result of this successful blend is a memoir, more or less, of time spent traveling around England and parts of Europe attending festivals, dabbling in modern pagan practices, exploring architecturally significant buildings, interviewing learned folks, and walking in various wild locales. We hear not only the informational results of Lyon's interview with so-and-so, but also what sort of cafe they met in and what they each had to eat or drink during their talk. It works very well.   

The author's viewpoint is alternatively erudite, personally revealing, and droll, with a playfully dry wit prominently on display. I would have loved to travel along with Lyon as she tracked down the Green Man, and thanks to this book, I feel that I have. We would probably have gotten on splendidly, having our interest in the Green Man to bind us together on the journey.

The Green Man himself retains a good deal of his mystery, despite sincere attempts to suss him out. Whether he's a pagan nature figure, a semi-demonic representation of earthy influences that the Church tried to squelch, or the guardian spirit of ecology, he retains his ability to shape-shift and reach any audience. He and Lyon make a very engaging pair and thanks to this chronicle, I've been on his trail as well. 

Excerpt:         

I needed to notice trees in a way that was not dependent on taking photos of them as a visual notepad. I needed to notice them in a being way. It occurred to me that a lesson from a professional tree-communicator might be just the thing.

I found myself shopping for shamans online, which seemed a little perverse, and was therefore enjoyable for it.There was a man called Michael Harner, the Colonel Saunders of the shamanic training scene, who seemed to have a number of affiliated organisations who trademarked their courses. I don't know how trademarking shamanic guides went down with their spirit guides. Maybe the Upper Realm is more like our own than we think.

Note: This book counts toward Ethereal 2018 and also toward the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Ethereal 2018 - My Sign-Up


It seems appropriate that I'm going to recycle two books from my 2017 reading list for this challenge, as I've chosen for my "theme within a theme" my favorite archetype, the nature spirit called the Green Man.

The Green Man hearkens back to the god Pan in Greek mythology, although instead of being half goat he's half (or more) vegetation. Numerous medieval churches and cathedrals include his image and I've always been fascinated by their presence, which remains the subject of much theorizing among cultural historians. Sometimes exuberant, sometimes comic, sometimes gruesome, the Green Man echoes the contrasts of the natural world.

This fun challenge, hosted with enthusiasm by Carolyn of Riedel Fascination, is the perfect nudge for me to read more about him. Learn more about it here, and please note that it runs February 1, 2018, through January 31, 2019, providing a nice offset with other challenges that stick to the calendar year. 

My list:

Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man - Nine Lyon (2/16/18) (review coming soon)
The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles - Carolyne Larrington
new: The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama - Lord Raglan (husband of Lady Raglan, who first researched the Green Man, and the Joseph Campbell of his day)

If I can find and read more books on this topic, I will. For now, I'm happy to keep the bar pretty low.