Friday, February 24, 2012

Ruined by Reading - In a good way!

Title: Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books
Author: Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Publisher: Beacon Press
ISBN: 0-8070-7083-1
Pages: 119

I haven't savored a book in a long time; not since last summer when I read Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn. You know what I mean by savoring – the kind of swirling of words around your tongue and mind just because you like the way they sound and what they mean. Like a great wine, a decadent dessert or a creamy coconut curry, you want to ponder the taste before you swallow and go on to the next page. Books to savor are the ones that I write in, comment on, and sticky-note. I return to them like a child who requests the same birthday dinner, because that is her favorite and there is comfort and inspiration in the familiar (tacos and Westhaven cake). This is a savory book!

It is part memoir, part manifesto for readers, and part book-autobiography. Like Sue Bender's  Plain and Simple (another very savory book) there are no chapter titles or section headings, just meanderings through the life of a reader/writer who was drawn to books at an early age, which almost determined her life as a connoisseur of books (not texts, according to Schwartz, as that is too business-like “as if family treasures were being relegated to the distant airless safe-deposit box. Who ever curled up happily to spend the evening with a text?” pg. 108).

Here are some of my favorites, which I'm providing, without commentary, so you can swirl them around on your own tongue and mind.

"Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.”(pg. 3)

"In the midst of such confusion, perhaps at about eight or nine years old, I discovered a book that told me more about who I was than anything before or since. That was A Little Princess....and I read it over and over, as children will do with special books. I still return to it every few years; it draws me, the way a certain piece of music or a certain landscape draws people back every so often. Each time it bestows on me, yet again, some crucial knowledge that is all too easy to lose, that the world seems bent on making us forget." (p.47)

"At bottom, of course, the issue in choosing what to read (and what to do and how to live) is the old conflict, dating from the Garden, of pleasure versus duty: what we want to read versus what we think we ought to read, or think we ought to want to read." (pg. 96)

"Isaiah Berlin, in The Hedgehog and the Fox quotes the Greek poet Archilocus, "the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing" meaning that hedgehogs connect everything to one all-embracing principle, while foxes, "entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal . . . seizing on a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves." (p. 102) (Here is a quick summary of Berlin's article -  Isaiah Berlin's Hedgehogs and Foxes.)

"For here is the essence of true reading: learning to live in another's voice, to speak another's language. Reading is escape—why not admit it?—but not from job or troubles. It is escape from the boundaries of our own voice and idioms." (pp. 111-112)

“We gaze at marks on a page, put there by a machine, recognizable as words. Each one denotes something discrete but we do not, cannot, read them as such, except in the first days of learning how. They offer themselves in groups with wholes greater than the sum of the parts. As in human groups, the individual members behave in relation to their companions: each word presents aspects of itself suited to the ambiance, amplifying some connotations and muting others. Their respective rankings must change too. A word will be key here, play a supporting role there, and in each successive appearance will be weightier and more richly nuanced. All this we register faster than the speed of the light illuminating our page, hardly aware of noting the valence, assessing the role and position, of each word as it flies by, granting it its place in the assemblage.

Still more remarkable, these inky marks generate emotion, even give the illusion of containing emotion, while it is we who contribute the emotion. Yet it was there in advance too, in the writer. What a feat of transmission: the emotive powers of the book, with no local habitation, pass safely from writer to reader, unmangled by printing and binding and shipping, renewed and available whenever we open it.

Semioticists have unraveled these miracles in detail; even to call them miracles sounds ingenuous. After all, most aesthetic experience rests on transference through an inanimate medium. What is painting but oils smeared on canvas, or chamber music but bows drawn across strings? Reading is not the same, though. There is no sense organ that words fit like a glove, as pictures fit the eye or music the ear. Intricate neural transactions take place before words find their elusive target, before the wraith we call the "writer" finds the reader.

For dwelling in the book, however remote in time and space, is this imaginary being, this missing link whom no reader has ever glimpsed. Yes, from the visits of Dickens and Wilde to today’s performances, readers flock to see writers, to meet the person who has given them pleasure; perhaps the right of existence, but never in the flesh of the person bearing her name.

Since the book, too, doesn’t possess an independent or sensory existence but must teased, opened and fathomed, we enjoy the heady power of being necessary to its life. The real book is the prince hidden inside the frog. We open it, and our eyes give the kiss of regeneration. This power is what intoxicates. The thinking of others does not interfere with our own free thinking, but meshes with it in a splendid rite of recovery.

If we make books happen, they make us happen as well. Reading teaches receptivity, Keats’s negative capability. It teaches us to receive, in stillness and attentiveness, a voice possessed temporarily, on loan. The speaker lends herself and we do the same, a mutual and ephemeral exchange, like love. Yet unlike love, reading is a pure activity. It will gain us nothing but enchantment of the heart. And as we grow accustomed to receiving books in stillness and attentiveness, so we can grow to receive the world, also possessed temporarily, also enchanting the heart.

Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts. Not that we will know any better what to do when the time comes, but we will not be taken unawares or in a void. When we are old and have everything stripped away, and grasp the vanity of having had it and of grieving for its loss, yet remain bound in both vanity and grief, hugging the whole rotten package to our hearts in an antic, fierce embrace, we may think, King Lear: this has happened before, I am not in uncharted territory, now is my turn in the great procession." (pp. 116-117)

Now that you've gotten a taste for yourself – go get your own copy so you too can sticky-note, underline and comment.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Red Queen - The Cousin's War Rehashed

Title: The Red Queen: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Touchstone
Pages: 400

Having read The White Queen, it seemed only proper to read the sequel, The Red Queen. However, it seemed like a cross between Twilight and Desperate Housewives. The main character, Margaret, was whiny and unlikable, set in the midst of a power struggle in which the females used whatever assets they had to get their way. In contrast to The White Queen, she was pious and nun-like, hoping people would see her as the next Joan of Arc (which didn't end well) in contrast to the "witch" of the white queen. Since it covered much of the same events as the other book, just from a different view point, it was quite familiar. Margaret didn't hang out in London, which was a huge draw for me in the first book so it lost my interest early on, but I soldiered through, hoping I would get hooked, but I never really did. It ended, as expected, with King Henry taking the throne.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses - Future Regrets vs. In the Present

Title: The Hundred Secret Senses
Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: Random House - Ivy
ISBN: 978-0804111096
Pages: 399

When I was teaching high school English a few years ago, I had the opportunity to introduce my students to The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, mostly because we had copies of it at the school and it was on the AP English list. Since my students tended to straddle multiple cultures, the struggles between the daughters and the mothers seems an appropriate topic. But, for students, it can be a difficult book to understand - there are vignettes, flashbacks, and a constant change in narrator voice. However, most students enjoyed it, as did I. Amy Tan was all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s and received critical and popular acclaim for her first book The Joy Luck Club, but it seems that her work has been eclipse now by other authors of color in the United States. However, it was at that time that I picked up The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) because "everyone" was reading it. But, it sat on my shelf through two moves because I found Tan's work to be intense in its exploration of relationships and the disintegration of them.

LitLovers has some brief discussion questions for the book.
Robert Fletcher provides some study aids or background to the events.

The Hundred Secret Senses is also an exploration of relationships - between two half-sisters and a marriage. Libby, born in America to a Chinese man and American woman, finds she has a Chinese sister who was left behind when her father immigrated to the US. As a young child, when her father dies, her mother promises to find and raise the child. Kwan, 10 years older than Libby, is boisterous and strange in Libby's eyes - a person who says and talks to "yin people", the dead. Sharing a bedroom growing up, Libby is nearly raised by Kwan and is acculturated into the word of Chinese mysticism. Eventually, Libby "tattles" on Kwan and she is sent away to receive shock treatments and returns with frizzy hair but still seeing the yin people.

As Libby goes off to college, she attempts to separate herself from her sister, who continues to interpose herself in Libby's life. When Libby brings home her boyfriend, who can't release the memory of his dead girlfriend, Libby enlists Kwan's help in speaking for the dead girlfriend to help Simon move on with his life. Eventually, Libby and Simon marry, but the specter of the dead girlfriend hangs over Libby and eventually pushes them apart.

However, Kwan persuades Libby, as a photographer, and Simon, a writer, to accompany her to visit her mother and home village in China. Kwan is convinced Libby and Simon are destined to be together. There is a secondary story told throughout the book of Kwan's past life in which she befriended Miss Banner, a missionary, who died waiting to be reunited with her beloved. Kwan believes Libby and Simon are these two people and need to be reconciled - but by using their hundred secret senses, to recognize who they really are.

I was intrigued by the introduction to the book - the blunt description of how Libby struggled with dealing with her "weird" sister who was unconditionally devoted. I think we all have people in our lives who insert themselves in ways we don't appreciate a the time, but over time, we realize who much we needed their "interference." Unfortunately, we don't often get the opportunity to let them know how much their influence impacted us. Tan also documents the fizzling and re-kindling of a romance. The ghost in Simon and Libby's marriage is more of a ghost to Libby, than to Simon. With the petty demands of life - getting a house, career etc - the larger dreams and intimate talks tend to be pushed aside. They no longer "saw" each other for who they really were and stopped growing and changing together. When they went to China, they encountered new ideas, but also re-discovered themselves and in returned, their interest in each other. The typical joke of married life is that the longer you are together, the more you look and act alike. I think there needs to be a continued balance of predictability and novelty. There is comfort in knowing who your spouse will react to situations and things but there is also excitement in discovering new aspects of your spouse. Are people destined to be together? Do we really have "soul mates" that complete us? In Tan's world, yes, and the future regrets prevent one from moving on. In my world, I prefer to live in the present and appreciate what I have in front of me, rather than pining for the past or regretting the future.