Archive for the ‘books I’ve loved’ Category

On Chesil Beach

December 23, 2008

I’ve been reading a few pages of On Chesil Beach tonight, a novella by Ian McEwan that I have come to cherish. My beloved sister-in-law recommended it, championing its tragic beauty and insisting that I would certainly appreciate it. I’d read Atonement, so I was familiar with Ian McEwan, and there is nothing nicer than reading something that a family member or friend was impressed or touched by. Not the most uplifting story, in fact, On Chesil Beach is downright depressing. It’s the briefest of stories, essentially describing the first evening spent between a newly married couple and its shocking, sudden end. I almost feel silly writing a brief synopsis, because there really aren’t appropriate words to adequately express the aching poignancy that pervades the novella. It makes my heart hurt. I’m going to include several passages, some that are quite long, but I just couldn’t eliminate any of them.

The first passage is the one that nestled in my mind immediately, and even when I haven’t picked up the book in a while, I remember it with amazing clarity. It’s such a lovely depiction of innocent first love, that time in the earliest days of a new and exciting romance when you’re not quite sure what the other is thinking. You only know that your mind is completely absorbed and enamored by them, and that you can’t quite reveal all of yourself yet.

…he found Florence waiting for him in the shadow of the pavilion. She knew his hours, and had taken an early train and walked from Henley toward the Stonor Valley, with a one-inch-to-the-mile map in her hand and a couple of oranges in a canvas satchel. For half an hour she had been watching him as he marked out the far boundary. Loving him from a distance, she said when they kissed. This was one of the exquisite moments of their early love, when they went slowly, arm in arm, back up the glorious avenue, walking in the center of the lane to take full possession. Now that it was inevitable, the prospect of her encounter with his mother and the cottage no longer seemed important. The shadows the lime trees cast were so deep they appeared bluish black in the brilliant light, and the heath was thick with fresh grasses and wildflowers. He showed off his knowledge of their country names and even found, by luck, by the roadside, a clump of Chiltern gentians. They picked just one. They saw a yellow jackhammer, a green finch, and then a sparrowhawk flashed by, cutting a narrow angle around a blackthorn tree. She did not know the names even of common birds like these, but she said she was determined to learn. She was exultant from the beauty of her walk and the clever route she had chosen, leaving the Stonor Valley to go along the narrow farm track into lonely Bix Bottom, past the ruined ivy-covered church of St. James, up the wooded slopes to the common at Maidensgrove, where she discovered an immense expanse of wildflowers, then through the beech woods to Pishill Bank, where a little brick-and-flint church and its churchyard were poised so beautifully on the side of the hill. As she described each place-and he knew them all so well-he imagined her there, on her own, walking toward him for hours, stopping only to frown at her map. All for him. What a gift! And he had never seen her so happy, or so pretty. She had tied back her hair with a scrap of black velvet, she wore black jeans and plimsolls, and a white shirt, through a buttonhole of which she had threaded a rakish dandelion. As they walked toward the cottage she kept tugging on his grass-stained arm for another kiss, though of the lightest sort, and for once he happily, or at least calmly, accepted that they would go no further. After she peeled her remaining orange for them to share along the way, her hand was sticky in his. They were innocently thrilled by her clever surprise, and their lives seemed hilarious and free, and the whole weekend lay before them.

The next few passages are small, just little bits that immediately resonated with me during my first reading.

He drew her closer, until their noses were almost touching and their faces went dark. He said, ‘So did you think then it was love at first sight?’ His tone was lighthearted and mocking, but she decided to take him seriously. The anxieties she would face were still far off, though occasionally she wondered what it was she was heading toward. A month ago they had told each other they were in love, and that was both a thrill and afterward, for her, a cause of one night of half waking, of vague dread that she had been impetuous and let go of something important, given something away that was not really hers to give. But it was too interesting, too new, too flattering, too deeply comforting to resist, it was a liberation to be in love and say so, and she could only let herself go deeper.

It is shaming sometimes, how the body will not, or cannot, lie about emotion. Who, for decorum’s sake, has ever slowed his heart, or muted a blush?

When the reader is given the history of Edward, the earnest groom, we learn of the tragic event that befell his mother. The passage describing her accident is a perfect example of the expertise of the writer.

There is a certain kind of confident traveler who likes to open the carriage door just before the train has stopped in order to step out into the platform with a little running skip. Perhaps by leaving the train before its journey has ended, he asserts his independence-he is no passive lump of freight. Perhaps he invigorates a memory of youthfulness, or is simply in such a hurry that every second matters. The train braked, possibly a little harder than usual, and the door swung out from this traveler’s grasp. The heavy metal edge struck Marjorie Mayhew’s forehead with sufficient force to fracture her skull and dislocate in an instant her personality, intelligence, and memory. Her coma lasted just under a week. The traveler, described by eyewitnesses as a distinguished-looking City gent in his sixties, with bowler, rolled umbrella and newspaper, scuttled away from the scene-the young woman, pregnant with twins, sprawled on the ground among a few scattered toys-and disappeared forever into the streets of Wycombe, with all his guilt intact, or so Lionel said he hoped.

“…with all his guilt intact.”-Those words, and that passage, while very well written, cause me to cringe and twist with sadness.

Finally, the last lines of the novella…I’m not going to write the entire last page, because I would hope anyone who reads my post who hasn’t read the book might be tempted to read it. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t make perfectly clear that the story is about two conflicted characters who each have burdens to bear. In other words, they have issues! Particularly Florence! While that fact hangs over the novella like a thick grey cloud, I want to illuminate the beautifully written passages, which certain apply to life and love, no matter the context.

Even in his sixties, a large, stout man with receding white hair and a pink, healthy face, he kept up the long hikes. His daily walk still took in the avenue of limes, and in good weather he would take a circular route to look at the wildflowers on the common at Maidensgrove or the butterflies in the nature reserve in Bix Bottom, returning through the beech woods to Pishill church, where, he thought, he too would one day be buried. Occasionally, he would come to a forking of the paths deep in a beech wood and idly think that this was where she must have paused to consult her map that morning in August, and he would imagine her vividly, only a few feet and forty years away, intent on finding him. Or he would pause by a view over the Stoner Valley and wonder whether this was where she stopped to eat her orange. At last he could admit to himself that he had never met anyone he loved as much, that he had never found anyone, man or woman, who matched her seriousness. Perhaps if he had stayed with her, he would have been more focused and ambitious about his own life, he might have written those history books. It was not his kind of thing at all, but he knew that the Ennismore Quartet was eminent, and was still a revered feather of the classical music scene. He would never attend the concerts, or buy, or even look at, the boxed sets of Beethoven or Schubert. He did not want to see her photograph and discover what the years had wrought, or hear about the details of her life. He preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories, with the dandelion in her buttonhole and the piece of velvet in her hair, the canvas bag across her shoulder, and the beautiful strong-boned face with its wide and artless smile. When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience-if only he had had them both at once-would surely have seen them both through.

Those words are hard to follow, so I won’t even try..

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At home…

December 2, 2008

I have a “home for the holidays” routine that inevitably exasperates my mother. I always find my way back to what we call “the reloading room”-a spot where my dad used to actually reload the bullets for his rifle-which has since become a storeroom of sorts, in the same way one would use an attic. There are countless boxes of keepsakes, books, letters, and other odd items that have belonged to me at some point. I try my very best not to be a pack rat, and I have improved in the past few years, but I do struggle with determining exactly how valuable or memorable an object really is, and I’ve probably stored much more than necessary. Needless to say, I decided to try to help my mom out by sorting through a few of my boxes, and I was delighted by some of the things I found. Most of the happy surprises were books, which I piled surreptitiously in a corner of my old bedroom, knowing my mom wouldn’t be that thrilled to see that I had indeed brought out a pile of books that certainly won’t fit in my luggage. I also found an old notebook of mine, the first one to contain handwritten quotes and passages from books I’d read. A secret thrill always overcomes me when I reread words that have touched my heart, and I couldn’t resist writing a post about them. After all, my blog is a very neat and tidy way to document memorable things, right?

The first, and best, passage comes from The Quotable Lewis, a wonderful selection of C.S. Lewis quotes that I received many Christmases ago. I love C.S. Lewis-not only was he an incredible man of faith, he was extremely intelligent, a combination of qualities that I value very much. The book has quotes referencing all sorts of topics, but of course the one that I remember most is about love.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

What I found in my notebook were a few hastily scribbled lines from Love in the Time of Cholera, the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that I have actually not finished. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I actually don’t remember at all what might have kept me from it. Thus, I cannot truly speak for the story and whether or not it is quite all it’s supposed to be. I’ve heard mixed reviews. All I know is that this speech, declared by Florentino to Fermina, made a strong and immediate impression on me.

But before she could thank him for the visit, he placed his hat over his heart, tremulous and dignified, and the abscess that had sustained his life finally burst. “Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”

My last find was a mere scrap of paper, stuck in one of my notebooks from school. It was from a class on American Literature, and we had been reading the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I vaguely remember “Rappaccini’s Daughter”-I have a foggy sense that it might be about a strange Italian scientist and some sort of venomous plant he created-so I’m not sure of the context of the small quote I’ll include here. There is something about the way that Hawthorne pinpointed that unwavering, sometimes nonsensical quality of love.

Oh, how stubbornly does love-or even that cunning semblance of love which flourishes in the imagination, but strikes no depth of root into the heart-how stubbornly does it hold its faith, until the moment comes, when it is doomed to vanish into thin mist!

Clearly, I’m all about the love tonight! What I should really be focusing on is the Aeneid and wondering how I’ll be able to churn out a successful paper in one day, but I just can’t stay away from the blog. Hopefully, more cooking and pleasure reading will be coming up for me soon-I clearly need more material.

Gilead

October 3, 2008

Gilead is a novel that I read more than two years ago, and though I don’t remember all of its details, I can remember how profoundly touched I was as I slowly made my way through the last pages. Though it falls squarely in the category of serious, Pulitzer-Prize winning novels that I often proudly profess having read, it is more than just a highly acclaimed success. To even refer to it in that way gives me a bad, blasphemous feeling. Not a whole lot “happens” throughout the story-no big action sequences or dramatic events. It is essentially a letter, written by a reverend to his young son, an attempt to share a family history marked by work in the evangelical churches of rural Kansas as well as the contentious yet loving relationships between fathers and sons. The experience of reading the book is truly indescribable. It’s as though you don’t realize that the words, simple yet beautiful and nuanced, are quietly seeping into your soul, making a deep impression. I found my eyes welling with tears as I finished, and at that moment I didn’t quite know why. I suppose it’s because it’s much more than a letter to a son, but almost more like a prayer of gratefulness for a life that has been difficult, but tremendously rewarding, as any life should be. The following excerpt marks the moment that my tears began, as I sat in a sunny seat on a New Jersey Transit train bound for the city (I always love it when I’m able to remember where I was at the moment of finishing a great book).

I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world-your mother excepted, of course-and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.

My eyes fill once more as I read the sweet words again…

my One True Thing

September 4, 2008

To write, or read, about the loss of a parent, especially a mother, must seem an impossible thing to many. It’s something that all of us must inevitably go through, but there is a stark difference between a natural, composed ending to a life and an abbreviated, painful suffering conclusion. No one wants to watch a loved one in pain, but for the caretaking role to be reversed, and the thought of shouldering the burden for your mother…it’s enough to take your breath away.

My own mother suggested Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing to me this summer, as she had recently read it and been thoroughly affected by its painfully poignant subject matter. My mom has always been a big advocate of “when you’re ready” to read this novel, or watch this film, or discuss this topic. She thinks in order to appreciate, understand, and value things, you have to be at the right point in your life. Reading this book was something else I had to be “ready” for, which doesn’t necessarily imply maturity or new depths of life experience, just a degree of readiness, according to Mom.

As usual, the wisdom of this book recommendation was immediately evident to me, as I treasured the story immensely. It wasn’t an easy read, but I won’t easily forget it.

Some of my favorite moments:

Ellen, finally unable to restrain herself on the topic of her father’s infidelities:

“Mama, I can’t talk to you about this.”
“Ellen,” she said, struggling to turn toward me, her hands like pale claws on the railing of the bed, her legs scissoring away the white sheets, “listen to me because I will only say this once and I shouldn’t say it at all. There is nothing you know about your father that I don’t know, too.”
The two of us stared silently into one another’s eyes, and I think that after a moment she gave a little nod and then lay back.
“And understand better,” she added.
“All right,” I said.
“You make concessions when you’re married a long time that you don’t believe you’ll ever make when you’re beginning,” she said. “You say to yourself when you’re young, oh, I wouldn’t tolerate this or that or the other thing, you say love is the most important thing in the world and there’s only one kind of love and it makes you feel different than you feel the rest of the time, like you’re all lit up. But time goes by and you’ve slept together a thousand nights and smelled like spit-up when babies are sick and seen your body droop and get soft. And some nights you say to yourself, it’s not enough, I won’t put up with it another minute. And then the next morning you wake up and the kitchen smells like coffee and the children have their hair all brushed and the birds are eating out of the feeder and you look at your husband and he’s not the person you used to think he was but he’s your life. The house and the children and so much of what you do is built around him and your life, too, your history. If you take him out it’s like cutting his face out of all the pictures, there’s a big hole and it’s ugly. It would ruin everything. It’s more than love, it’s more important than love.”

During Ellen’s trial, when she responds to a question about whether she loved her mother:

“The easy answer is yes. But it’s too easy just to say that when you’re talking about your mother. It’s so much more than love-it’s, it’s everything, isn’t it?” as though somehow they would all nod. “When someone asks you where you come from, the answer is your mother.” My hands were crossed on my chest now, and the woman in the blue suit turned her rings. “When your mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past. It’s so much more than love. Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life. I did love my mother, but I didn’t know how much until she was gone.”

And finally, in the epilogue:

We made her simpler after she was dead. No, that’s not true, either. We’d made her simpler all her life, simpler than her real self. We’d made her what we needed her to be. We’d made her ours, our one true thing.

Pally Thompson

October 31, 2007

Well, I certainly didn’t think I’d be THIS slow with my posts. I felt sure that I would be posting with a much greater frequency. I’ve been meaning to write for quite some time now with regards to an EXCELLENT book that I read over the summer, “Bobby Rex’s Greatest Hit.” My mom recommended it to me, and, as usual, her recommendation was absolutely sublime. Bobby Rex was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and certainly the highlight over the summer, despite my delving into the quality literature that was required for my literature course. I had to blog about it, including my favorite quotes. You know, the kind of quotes that seize your heart and wrench it a bit, but in a good way, because you know you’ve felt exactly what was described and you understand the feeling that the character is feeling COMPLETELY.

“Bobby Rex’s Greatest Hit” tells the story of Pally Thompson, a small-town Southern girl who has never quite let go of the desire for something more, even though she’s not too keen on departing from the comfortable happiness of the familiar North Carolina hamlet where she resides. Bobby Rex, of the pithy title, is the stereotypical high school hunk who is destined for greater things, namely, stardom in the country-western music world. When Bobby Rex releases a risque chart topper entitled “Pally Thompson”, Pally is instantly plunged back into her memories of high school, introducing us to the good ol’ boy boyfriend and the wild, spirited best friend (with an unusual Southern name, of course), all while building up the suspense about Bobby Rex-why would he write such a song if nothing ever happened between them? Whether the reader is left satisfied or wishing that Pally truly had found something greater in her life, you just can’t help to appreciate the book, for the warmth and pathos that emanate throughout. Everyone can relate to Pally. To quote a recent movie preview for a chick flick that undoubtedly suffered in the box office, “High school is never over!”

One of my favorite parts of the book comes from a conversation that Pally has with her mother. Pally’s father, Speedy, died an tragic, immature death, but Pally’s mother has always allowed him to LIVE in the stories that she shared with her daughter. Here she shares with Pally her sentiments about Orfax (the North Carolina hamlet I mentioned previously) and why she hasn’t left.

“Anyway-” She took a deep breath. “You could hear the train coming for miles: the Southern Crescent. First a low-down rumbling in the earth. The willow trees seemed to stop swishing. The crickets hushed up. The approach of that train was a serious event. The air was black and serious and still. It had a weight to it, then the faintest sort of tremble. When it began to smell sparky, we held our breaths in order to hear the train better. And always Speedy would whisper in my ear: “Hey, girl, let’s hop it.”

Sometimes I knew he wasn’t joking. And the insistence in his voice gave me gooseflesh. “We’d have a big time.” And he’d hug me so tight I’d feel winded.

“Where does the train go?” I recall asking him once.

“Oh, D.C., Baltimore, New York City, Boston-take your pick.”

“What will we do when we get where we’re going, Speedy?” I’d ask him, making a game.

He’d sweep a hand through his dark hair as if the gesture stirred up better thoughts. “Oh,” he’d say, “we’ll find us a first-class hotel and have them send us supper on a tray with lots and lots of pink champagne. Then, after we eat, if you’re not too tired, we’ll go dancing.”

“But if we hop a train tonight, this very minute,” I said, “I won’t have my red high heels, the ones I like best for dancing. You know the shoes I mean.”

Then, he’d consider everything we’d said, for a moment, and say, “Well, then we’ll just have to find us some place that’s got sawdust floors like Woody’s Danceland. You don’t need shoes to dance in sawdust. You don’t even WANT shoes. And there’s bound to be a place like Woody’s in a great big town like New York or Boston. A place where everybody dances barefoot.

“Well,” I’d say, “if we’re going to ride the Southern Crescent all that distance just to scare up a place exactly like Woody’s, why bother? Why not stay right here?”

And Speedy, who was nearly always agreeable, would hug me half to death and say, “Okay, we’ll stay this time. But NEXT time we come to the depot, be sure to wear your red high heels.”

Then the train would roar past like a solid wall of thunder and, in a way, I’d feel we’d barely escaped going. I’d say, “Whew!” and cling to Speedy, because there was something almost too thrilling about the Crescent plowing through all that sleepy farmland, something so full of risk that I felt lucky to have been spared.

Isn’t that just beautiful, somehow? Next time, be sure to wear your red high heels? I love it. And here, another moment, after Bobby Rex finally hits the road and leaves Orfax behind.

I felt like I was in mourning. I sat on the stone-cold radiator in the bathroom and cried my eyes out. Now I knew he was impossible. Now the phone would never ring. Bobby Rex Moseley was one chance gone from my life, and it seemed that as you got older, what you lost, one by one, were chances. People talked about losing your youth, your health, your friends, love. But it all boiled down to losing the chances for those things.

I loved this book, can feel my heart warming as I reread the words…Mom really does know best!!!