Tuesday, August 23, 2016
paperback, 274 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
The best way for me to represent this unusual memoir would be with a mind map. A visual representation would be an appropriate response to this very original and complex book. There are repeated images patterns, and themes, interwoven in a complex and deeply absorbing meditation on life as experienced by one woman.
Christine Hale has chosen an interesting approach to telling her story: instead of presenting a chronological narrative, she presents her life as a series of moments or vignettes, weaving back and forth in time, and coming back again and again to the repeated patterns and themes of her life.
A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice explores a woman's life from the perspective of her relationships and roles in the lives of others; Hale is presented in her roles as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and in each role she grasps at intimacy and the desire for something in return. Whether she is talking about her embattled and enmeshed relationship with her abusive mother, or her longing for an elusive love, Hale addresses her "beloved" love object as "You" throughout the book, further emphasizing the repetition of patterns of clinging, suffocation, and loss.
Images, emblems, themes and patterns are repeated throughout the narrative: the "You" (an ever-changing object of love, obsession, and even anger); desire, abuse; depression, dreams; writing; and Buddhist practice. One story-line that helps weave the many moments together is a story involving tattoos that the author and her two children receive--tattoos that symbolically and physically connect the family and the pieces of the story.
In some ways Hale's story is a very ordinary tale of an ordinary life. What makes this memoir engaging and unique is the way the author weaves together the insights she has gleaned from her life; she presents her mistakes, her pain, and her shame in a subdued and calm tone that aims more for understanding and enlightenment than drama.
Hale seems never to try to make herself seem either better or worse than she really is. A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice is a poetic meditation, the storm of emotion recollected in a state of calm. Because of the psychological insight and emphasis on Buddhist practice, I think this memoir would especially appeal to Buddhist practitioners, spiritual seekers, and those in recovery from abuse or depression. Hale brings a mature wisdom and spiritually insightful perspective to her meditation on her life, a story that many women will relate to--or at least find extremely compelling.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
The Middlemarch #EliotAlong is hosted by Bex at An Armchair by the Sea
Week Four: Chapters 43-56
The idea of summarizing or discussing all that takes place in this section of Middlemarch is daunting. At this point I absolutely didn't want to put this book down, and was completely captivated by the intelligence, depth, and compassion of the author.
My copy of Middlemarch is filled with underlined sections, scribbled marginalia, and long statements like this one: This is one of my favorite chapters. Eliot enters into each of her characters so completely. Casaubon is monstrous without knowing it, wanting to imprison Dorothea even after his death...And the chapter is gripped with morbidity.
I scrawled that note at the top of chapter 48.With Casaubon and Bulstrode, Eliot creates characters who are hiding weaknesses, and deep, dark sins against others. But the author avoids an overly simplistic, externalized version of her characters. Instead she delves deeply into their souls, and the reader enters into the most private thoughts of Casaubon and Bulstrode (not always pleasant). Eliot delicately articulates the rationalization and extensive self-deceit that allows these characters to continue to sin against others, while trying to appear virtuous.
Characters such as Dorothea, Lydgate, Farebrother, Caleb Garth, Mary Garth, and even Fred Vincy, are to some degree unselfish, caring more for the happiness (and goodness) of others than for their own happiness. Eliot makes it clear that such virtue is not necessarily rewarded by happiness.
I'm making that sound so much more boring and moralistic than it is. The experience of reading Middlemarch is intense. The reader is in the hands of a brilliant writer, and is carried away by intensity of emotion and identification with the characters.
At the same time, Eliot is giving the reader an entertaining lesson in: village life, social climbing and elitism, the caustic power of gossip, and the reluctance of most people to adjust to change and progress. I'm struck by how relevant some of this is: in Victorian England rising industrialism was changing people's lives, and for some that change was devastating. It's not that different from the rise of technology and the loss of manufacturing jobs here in the United States. There was political upheaval going on too, and Eliot manages to get it all into this panoramic novel.
There are so many themes to talk about in this novel, but one that I think is really interesting is the idea of the importance of work or vocation. Dorothea is searching for something to do, something to give some purpose to her life. Fred Vincy needs to find a respectable profession so he can live a life of purpose (and marry Mary). Will keeps casting about for something useful to do. And Caleb Garth seems to epitomize the perfect balance, as someone who has found true happiness in his work. He wants nothing more than to be useful, and his most perfect happiness is found in his family and his work. One of my very favorite passages in Middlemarch is one where Caleb speaks to Fred Vincy about his reverence and respect for work:
"You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think that it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying , There's this and there's that -- if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is -- I wouldn't give twopence for him" -- here Caleb's mouth looked bitter , and he snapped his fingers -- "whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do." Chapter 56 (562)That's just one example of Eliot's ability to articulate her characters' deepest and most profound feelings (whether those feelings are shameful or beautiful). Middlemarch is a book that a reader can go back to again and again, it is such a deeply human story.
Feedback please! Are you reading Middlemarch now, or have you read it in the past? What are your thoughts on this incredible novel?
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
1. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winning novelist, lives and writes in Turkey. This multi-layered, evocative novel is set in the provincial city of Kars (also the Turkish word for snow). A beautiful book.
2. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. This wildly inventive and immersive novel goes back and forth in time, and is set in England, Iceland, and Ireland.
3. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. An eerie and disturbing novel set in a dystopian version of Sweden.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This stunning fantasy trilogy is set in a parallel universe that is very similar to Oxford, England.
5. Red Rising by Pierce Brown. My students could not put down this fast-paced YA novel set on Mars.
6. The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. If you haven't read this biopunk science fiction novel set in Thailand, you owe it to yourself to do so. Weird and wonderful.
7. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Another wholly original work of fantasy that creates a world like no other.
8. Arcadia by Iain Pears. Partially set in a recognizable England, partially set in a possible future (maybe parallel) universe, partially set within a created world.
9. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I heard/saw people talking about this book for the longest time, then finally took the bait. This book has everything: witches, Oxford, vampires, the Bodlieian Library, timewalking, history. Perfect.
10. Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. Two fantastic novels that have so many layers of meaning and beauty--set in Japan.
What books have you liked or loved that are set in other countries--or other universes?
Monday, July 18, 2016
paperback, 194 pages
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
Lynne Hugo is a sensitive writer with a feel for character and the way real people can let themselves and others down. I had read and very much liked a previous novel of hers, A Matter of Mercy, so I was pretty sure I would like Remember My Beauties, and I wasn't wrong.
Remember My Beauties is a slim novel that most readers can probably finish in a couple of days, but the story is pretty hard to put down. It took me a little while to become fully immersed in this book, but once the story got going, I found myself caught up in the pain and sorrow of Jewel, one of those women who is trying to be everything to everyone. She is married for the second time, and her husband Eddie is specializing in getting on her nerves. She has a drug-addicted daughter she keeps trying to rescue, aging parents she is caring for, and a job on top of it all.
Jewel's parents are struggling: her father is blind, her mother, Louetta, needs constant care due to rheumatoid arthritis; not only that, but there are the horses to think of. Jewel's father, Hack, a former horse breeder and trainer, can't stand the thought of letting go of his "beauties"--the horses who require as much care as Hack and Louetta.
It's exhausting just thinking about it.
I think many readers will relate to the highly imperfect life that Jewel is living. She is an ordinary woman called on to do heroic tasks every day, and no one thanks her for it. When Hack and Louetta tell Jewel that her estranged brother, Cal, is coming for a visit, Jewel is ready to quit. What happens next is sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and always involving for the reader. Hugo creates gritty, realistic characters and shows the compassionate and surprisingly redemptive power of family love.
One thing that really stands out in this novel is the depiction of the interactions between humans and horses. Hugo brings to life the beauty of the relationship between people and horses. This slim novel is just the thing for readers who like stories that realistically show the pain and humor of family life.
This week's chapters follow several distinct narrative subplots: the relationship of Rosamund Vincy and Tertius Lydgate; the final illness of Mr. Peter Featherstone; and the character of Mr. Casaubon (Eliot goes very deep) and the marriage of Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon.
Rosamund is an interesting creature: I think Eliot uses her as a foil to Dorothea, both to show the dangers of the kind of shallow education that focuses on a girl's manners, beauty, and "accomplishments" (meaning embroidery, singing, and playing the piano) to the exclusion of any kind of moral foundation or intellectual learning.
Rosamund reminds me of a darling kitten with sharpened claws. She is entirely cunning and selfish, and she relies on manipulation and emotional trickery and deceit to get what she wants. Lydgate is manipulated into proposing marriage, even though he doesn't have an adequate income, and Rosamund cares nothing for his profession or his goals.
The dominant theme here seems to be the ways in which people deceive each other and themselves. Casaubon is a very dark character, so much darker than the reader could have ever guessed. He cares nothing at all for Dorothea--he only seems to see her as an extension of himself, or a tool for getting the admiration and respect he thinks he deserves. But Casaubon secretly knows his life task has been mostly a dusty waste of effort. His greatest fear is that people will find out. He is singularly focused on avoiding his own awareness or recognition that he is not the great man he would like to be, and somehow salvaging his reputation in the world. If he has to bury Dorothea alive in a dark library for the rest of her living days, he doesn't care: he seems to think he can somehow enjoy fame and control his wife's life even after death.
Peter Featherstone is another character who doesn't seem to recognize how little post-mortem joy there will be in torturing his family from beyond the grave. He is a small, mean, avaricious man, and Mary Garth is much better to him than he deserves.
Dorothea, of course, is better than anyone in the novel (sometimes annoyingly so), and better to virtually everyone than they deserve, especially Mr. Casaubon. Her overly sacrificial, overly pious attitude has grated on me. But this is a novel where the majority of the characters try to seem good when they really are not good, they are hiding some kind of private vice or sin. Dorothea has the virtue of actually being good, and wanting to do good, even when her actions don't always have the desired consequence. Here's a passage I love from chapter 39--it's a little long, but worth coming back to. Casaubon has been weakened by illness, and Will and Dorothea meet by accident at her uncle's house:
"....I should like not to have so much more than my share without doing anything for others. But I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me."
"What is that?" said Will, rather jealous of the belief.
"That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil -- widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."
"That is a beautiful mysticism -- it is a --"
"Please not to call it by any name," said Dorothea, putting out her hands entreatingly. "You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl. I used to pray so much -- now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have desires merely for myself, because they may not be good for others, and I have too much already. I only told you, that you might know quite well how my days go at Lowick."
"God bless you for telling me!" said Will, ardently and rather wondering at himself. They were looking at each other like two fond children who were talking confidentially of birds. (391-392)This passage is so lovely! I think it captures Dorothea's innocence and her essential goodness. And that thought--that she tries not to have desires merely for herself, because they may not be good for others--I love that! Most of the secondary characters in Middlemarch cause harm to others through selfish desires that overwhelm any natural desire to do good. And don't you just love that last sentence, about Dorothea and Will being like two fond children talking confidentially of birds? That's one of my favorite sentences in the novel.
So: Middlemarch is a great novel, a panoramic novel, and it is filled with a never-ending richness. Almost everything you can dream of or imagine about human character and human behavior is in this novel. Seen from the outside, the characters are as ordinary as anyone you might meet in your daily life; inside, each character is fighting wars. I love it.
I hope other Middlemarch #EliotAlong readers will comment. I'm so anxious to hear the thoughts of other readers.
Sunday, July 17, 2016
My husband needed to pick something up from Lowe's today.
This is a frequent occurrence. Sunday afternoons mean walking the aisles of building supply stores in search of tiny screws, bolts, or obscure and cataclysmically important pieces of hardware. It is a given that the more critical and important the hardware it is, the longer it will take to find it in the little bins and drawers that line the aisles.
So I pulled out my book while my husband looked for the thingamajiggy. And I think I got a couple of chapters in (Middlemarch, if you must know).
A little later, my husband and I were inspecting something pretty exciting (did you know that they make tool backpacks?). And one of the store employees came up to me and stated asking: How many books do you read a month, what kind of books do you like to read?
My new friend reads on her her break, and whenever else she can. She has an e-reader but prefers a physical book. She gives her grandchildren books, and more books.
I love book people.
Friday, July 15, 2016
hosted by Bex at An Armchair by the Sea
Last week one of those Facebook Memories popped up for me, and I had to laugh. It was from 2012, and guess what book I was reading? Then, this morning, it happened again! It seems that in July 2009 I was posting about Middlemarch on Facebook. I wonder what page I was on?
No matter how many times I read Middlemarch, I am newly enthralled with every reading.
This time around I am writing more in the margins, especially since I am now way ahead of the read along schedule. I honestly can't stop reading.
Chapter 15 properly introduces the overarching metaphor of the web. In constructing Middlemarch as a panoramic narrative, Eliot pays attention to numerous intersecting lives and fortunes, introducing multiple characters, each with their own subplot. But there are parallels; questions of love and marriage, and finding the perfect mate; questions of work and vocation, finding the work that will fulfill the worker and contribute something to the larger world. Here is the narrator speaking directly to the reader about her purpose:
I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.But of course, the reader will have noticed, Middlemarch is compelling in part because it is universal, Eliot seems to be able to see directly into the human heart, and she does so with compassion and humor.
So: poor Tertius Lydgate! He has come to Middlemarch to do important work and to escape the distractions of London and London society! Ha! He has walked directly into the web of the most adorable spider in Middlemarch. Rosamund Vincy has one purpose: to capture husband who is somewhat above her circle of admirers in Middlemarch, and in walks Tertius Lydgate, nephew to a Baronet! He is exactly what Rosamund thinks she wants. And Lydgate sees in Rosamund a rest from the cares of the world, a adorable and adoring beauty who will soothe him at the end of a long day.
Did anyone else think that Lydgate and Dorothea would have been remarkably well-suited?
I know, I know: you're all team Will!
Dorothea is paying dearly for her bad decision in accepting Mr. Casaubon's marriage proposal. He's ghastly! She's married to a mummy and living in a mausoleum.
Casaubon is beastly. He is devastatingly selfish, and doesn't know it. He is punishing, harsh, vindictive, and has no soul. It is so painful to contemplate Dorothea's future life as his partner. At times I get frustrated with Dorothea's self-abnegating, sacrificial approach to life with Casaubon. She is beginning to understand who and what Casaubon is, but she's still willing to sacrifice her every pleasure and every joy to his "work". But she's beginning to resent him for it: how can she not?
I hope other readers are getting as much pleasure out of Middlemarch as I am. I'm eager to hear what you're thinking!