Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mortal Love and Italian Shoes

I know almost everyone is elbow deep in turkey preparations for Thanksgiving. At least, not our foreign correspondents, but all of us here in the US. Except I'm not because my Irish sister-in-law has the honor of hosting our extended family for Thanksgiving and she always goes overboard and makes far too much food so I'm probably going to make some rolls and pecan pie in the morning before we head over but otherwise I've been shirking holiday preparations and instead have been hunkering down with books. At least when the kids let me, which honestly isn't very often. Lately I've been longing for those single days when I could spend an entire day in bed with a book and only have to get up to eat. I tried to do that today but it was raining out and the children, seeing me sitting in one place, kept bringing me picture books to read to them. Still, I managed to finish Mortal Love this afternoon by locking myself in the bathroom during the boys' nap time. And now I'm trying to think what I think about it and what I can possibly say. But I thought I'd just jump in and say something to get the ball rolling and see if anyone else wanted to jump in with something that is a bit more substantial.

First, a greater contrast between this and the book I finished immediately prior to it I don't think I can imagine. Italian Shoes (I wrote more about it on my blog and incidentally I'd highly recommend it as a good, quick read that would be worthwhile discussing as a group. I thought there was some real meat to chew on and some interesting themes) is so stark, bleak --Spartan really-- while Mortal Love is so lush and overwrought, with a kind of hothouse quality. Italian Shoes opens with the narrator, a solitary hermit, on an ice-bound island off or Sweden who has had minimal human contact for the past dozen years. The cast of characters is small and the action minimalist. Mortal Love is bewildering in its operatic cast. I often forgot who was who as it shifted from the Victorian to the contemporary, from the coast of Maine to New York from London to Cornwall and back again. It's an interesting study in contrasts both in subject matter and narrative style.

I didn't dislike Mortal Love; but I'm not sure it was the book I wanted to read just now. I spent the first two thirds of the book feeling rather lost and unsure whether I really wanted to continue. I thought it pulled together by the end but am still not sure I'm satisfied by the ending. I didn't think that anything in the narrative really prepared me for the role that Valentine was going to play at the climax. It felt a bit deus ex machina. But maybe I was just being a sloppy reader and missed some major textual flags. That happens sometimes.

For me the novel does raise one interesting question. It posits that human creativity is mainly the result of the fact that we are mortal and finite. If we lived forever like the fairy-folk, it suggests, our drive to create art, music, poetry would disappear. It's not a new idea for me; but as I read it here suddenly it seemed like a false idea. I'm not sure I agree that mortality is the root of creativity. I think that rather it is because we are made in the image and likeness of God and one aspect of that likeness is that we share in God's creativity. I suppose you could argue that the fairy folk being soulless beings are not made in God's image and thus do not share in the divine gift of creativity. But then you're actually arguing that creativity goes along with having an immortal soul not with a finite being. Anyway, the novel's worldview is pretty pagan so I'm not sure I'm being fair by trying to read it with a Catholic sensibility.

One gripe... it kept knocking me out of the narrative because it was so jarring. The word "refractory" kept appearing where I'm pretty sure the author actually meant "refectory" as a room in the big English manor house. I kept wondering what the heck a "refractory room" was and it wasn't meant to be an important detail at all. It wasn't just once or twice and I can't think why the copy editor didn't catch it. More, I'm not even sure from context that the author realized that a "refectory" is a dining room since in one instance the list of rooms included both "refractory" and "dining room".

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.
From the Prelude to Middlemarch. As far as I've read. Couldn't find the Elizabeth Hand book at the library, although I knew a girl by that name, so in the meantime...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Invitation and a Book Suggestion

As we all know, Otepoti resides in the ass-end of the world, while most of us (with some notable exceptions) appear to reside in the Rust Belt. And, as you all know, Otepoti made a memorable trip to my notch of the Rust Belt last spring. Well, guess what? She's coming back.

As some of you know, we recently got our Letter of Approval from China to adopt Jude, who's now nineteen months old; it came, in fact, exactly a year to the day that we first learned about him. And those of you who know my older son know that it would be something of a disaster, and not a little one, for him if I were to go to China for two weeks and leave him behind (which is why I bring him with me on my out-of-town gigs). So my husband will be making this long journey on his own.

But not entirely on his own. Otepoti has offered, with a generosity beyond any generosity I've ever known, to meet up with him in China and bring Jude back with him. And then she'll be hanging out with us again for a couple of weeks at least.

This will be sometime probably in late January - early February. If any of youse (if I may lapse into the Mutterspräche) are free to make a road trip then, you will have another chance to meet our awesome sister in Christ, and, if I can plan it all, to attend Jude's baptism. All are welcome.

On to the book suggestion. It may be a bomb. Is anyone interested in reading Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand? It's a sort of quasi-fantasy that involves time travel, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Robert Graves's White Goddess, and also sex and drugs. Elizabeth Hand an Irishwoman from Yonkers, my former neck of the woods. It may not be interesting to anyone else but me, and that's completely all right, but I thought I'd toss it in.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Review of Amy Welborn's new Memoir: Wish You Were Here

by Melanie Bettinelli
(I went ahead and turned this comment into a post, because why not?--BD)

I'm trying not to be all gushy and fangirl about Wish You Were Here. Amy's was one of the first ever blogs I read and I've always felt she was sort of a kindred spirit. And I remember reading what she wrote at the time of Michael's death and her blog posts about Sicily so I sort of feel like I'm approaching the book with a very strong predisposition to love it. And maybe there are funny echoes in it for me in that I've never really wanted to go to Sicily very much until I married a man who is half Sicilian and then we discussed it as our dream honeymoon but couldn't actually afford to go. So there is that layer of the emotions from my own marriage weaving throughout.

All that said, I do think its a magical (I've not read Didion's book; but I can already tell you this is completely different) sort of mash up of travel memoir and a very Catholic exploration of grief. She does both genres so well but the way she slips seamlessly from one to the other is sort of breathtaking. (See, I'm gushing.) Just to do a reality check I read a chapter to my sister this evening while we were making dinner. Oh even better than I thought. The prose is lyrical but down to earth. The imagery doesn't beat you over the head but somehow the details of every tourist stop are marshaled so that you are constantly staring death in the face. Most of all what strikes me is how faith informs everything. It doesn't make death and grief easy, doesn't make it go away. Just that it is the medium in which they happen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ready to Read

Otepoti has threatened to remove her wonderful conversion posts if we don't start talking about books again soon. I'm here to remedy the problem by:

A) publicly imploring Otepoti to leave her posts up
B.) getting the ball rolling on another book
C) talking about my own reading.

With A accomplished, I now ask of you, "Believers in Reading," would you like to read a book together? And if so, who would like to choose one? I believe that Melanie, Dorian, Pentimento or Otepoti would be the likeliest choices for choosing, so if any of you are reading something interesting and would like company, please, speak up.

Alternately, I could tell you that I have picked up my first non-Walker Percy book in about six months, and it's A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower. I love the way Byatt writes, even though she's anti-Christian by her own self-description. She seems to have an accomplished sense of the Christian mentality regardless. I'm only about one relatively thick chapter into the book though, so not entrenched enough to recommend or the opposite.

I enjoyed an interview with Joan Didion in the most recent Poets and Writers magazine (the link is not the actual interview to which I'm referring). Notable in that Didion made a name for herself as an essayist, but never felt like an accomplished writer until she had written a novel. She's just put out another memoir (following the Year of Magical Thinking) concerning the death of her daughter, which deals with her sense of failure as a mother. Should be a lighthearted read. Heh.

I tried reading a short by Ursula le Guin recently and didn't finish. I keep trying to make myself like fantasy writing--and it never works out. This is how I have made it through thirty six years of my life with four male children and have never read any Tolkien. If anyone has fantasical writing that I might like in mind, please recommend. Of course, I could just call it quits on trying to read fantasy, and stick to my memoir-reading.

I'm feeling the urge to delve into a classic right now. I would like to A) make sure I still have the concentration for great literary works, and B) Not have to worry about whether or not the book is worthy of my investment. Anyone in the mood for Middlemarch?