I have a habit of devouring books a little too readily so in an attempt to slow down I'm make notes about what I like or dislike about the books I read. I'll start with my first exposure to historical fiction, Mantel's Wolf Hall.
Winning a Booker prize for each of the first two volumes in a trilogy is no mean feat, but Hillary Mantel pulled it off. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are volumes one and two of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy -- volume three has yet to be published.
Thomas Cromwell, born in 1485, served King Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540. Wolf Hall covers Cromwell’s rise from lower-class ruffian to Henry's queen-replacement strategist. By the end of its 600 pages, Cromwell is successful: with the creation of a new church (with Henry at its head) and a few tortures and executions along the way, Katherine is gone and Anne is the new queen.
Volume two, the darkly-titled but less violent Bring Up the Bodies, is one-third shorter and is easier to read because the author has addressed Wolf Hall's confusing usage of the word "he." In Wolf Hall the author seems to shift subject, often in mid-paragraph, causing the reader to pause in wonder as to who "he" is. (Keep this in mind: he is almost always Cromwell). In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel replaces "he" with the awkward "he, Cromwell".
Despite its length and odd third-person usage, Wolf Hall is far more satisfying. My copy is peppered with pencil markings, something I can’t say for Bring Up the Bodies. Wolf Hall is funny and trenchant and shocking. Unfortunately Mantel seems to have exhausted her store of observations about life in the time of Henry by the end of the first volume. Plus, Henry's battle with the pope and his minions to annul the marriage provides much of the interesting material in the story of Henry and his wives.
But volume two still has plenty to keep the reader's interest. For example, shortly before her death, Katherine reportedly confides that she may have made a mistake by not acceding to Henry’s desire. Imagine how history would have taken a different path, how many lives would have been saved, from commoners to bishops to members of the court. Henry didn't hesitate to torture and then kill those who opposed his marriage to Anne. How different would England be now had it not broken with Rome?
The books are largely written as discussions between Cromwell and his circle, which includes everyone from King Henry to the cook and the jester. He has friends but he also has enemies. Again and again he is faced with small and large decisions, and Cromwell always decides based on what is best for Henry. Because if Henry is happy, Cromwell is happy.
Both books are wonderful immersions into the life of a historical figure. But if you can only spare the time for one, read Wolf Hall.
In between watering plants and testing a new wide-angle lens (more on that in a subsequent post) and re-writing this blog's software (almost done), I've been reading Michel Faber's "The Book of Strange New Things." It's a love story with a little sci-fi and philosophizing thrown in. Faber uses science fiction but doesn’t dwell on it. The story invokes yet-to-be-developed transportation and communication technologies, but neither is important to the story. Peter could be in Antarctica and the story would still work. He includes just enough description for me. Some of the settings are familiar, such as USIC’s corporate outpost, and some are odd, such as the green water and the shimmery, refractive air that moves with a water-like thickness.
Peter and Bev are a British couple in their mid-thirties. He is a preacher with a checkered past and she is a nurse he met while under her care. They’ve applied to USIC, an opaque multinational corporation, to work as Christian missionaries at USIC’s outpost on a far-away planet. Unfortunately, only Peter gets the green light. They decide he should go. The story begins with the couple driving to Heathrow where they say goodbye. Given that inter-planetary travel is involved - even in the future it's riskier than a commercial flight over the pond - this may be the last time they see each other.
So Peter goes alone. He makes the physics-defying jump to a far-away planet. I envision a ride in a space-shuttle-like vehicle with warp-drive thrills followed by an exotic landscape populated by skinny green aliens, but the reality is more mundane. The trip itself isn’t notable aside from the unpleasant sedation process and the intense hangover felt upon being waken on arrival. And USIC’s outpost resembles a nondescript office park in San Jose. The natives aren't terribly exotic, either. They are small and low-energy and distinguished by their different-colored robes. They live in simple stone dwellings. The Christian natives have odd names, Jesus Lover One on up to Jesus Lover Ninety-something.
Peter was not hired by USIC to convert the natives. He was hired to serve a native population that has already discovered the bible and latched onto it as their sacred book, which they call "the book of strange new things”. There is a lot of biblical verse in Faber's book, but it's spread light enough to not be oppressive.
Faber's book revolves around the separation of Peter and Bev and how their relationship evolves. As Peter settles in to his missionary work and Bev remains in England they no longer share experiences so the focus of their attention diverges. Faber observes the evolution of Peter’s beliefs as he lives with the natives and his USIC co-workers and as he struggles to communicate with his far-away wife.
To recap: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they marry, and then they get separated. And here the book starts, asking the question: will Peter and Bev get back together given the very different paths their lives are following? And will Peter's beliefs survive experience? It's a good book.
My first lens purchase - separate from the one that came with the camera body - was Nikon's 10.5 mm fisheye. This was when the D70 was a new camera. I loved the lens then and I still love it today because it captures the full 180° view of what my eyes see. Yes it lacks the brain's ability to de-fish and yes you can de-fish in software but it doesn't look any good if you ask me. I shoot assuming what i see is what I'll get. Not only is it wide, it's the closest focusing lens I own.
The accompanying photo is an example of what I use the fisheye for: to capture the inside of a room. In this case the room is my greenhouse and I'm using a Sigma 15mm, a full-frame fisheye. My initial impression is that, just like the Nikon, the Sigma's output doesn't need much sharpening. But I found my exteriors blown out so I'm using some negative exposure comp. For example, this is second-darkest of a exposure-bracketed set of five.
Today, Bloomsday, I added Ulysses to my audible collection. After an hour of listening, while I transplanted basil seedlings, it struck me that Ulysses needs more attention so I'll listen when I can give it full focus. Perhaps this will be the year I finish this book.
Dualingo French progress: I'm on a 12-day streak, up to People lesson 2. Damn further than I ever got to with Dualingo's Spanish and Italian. I feel like I'm getting through the lessons faster, a lot faster, but don't know if I'm actually retaining stuff or maybe it's an illusion as you can't fail a lesson anymore.
The berries in the picture are Albion strawberries from my greenhouse. I don't have a lot of success growing fruits and vegetables so I celebrate when I get something edible, and these are very edible. I started with a box of dry-rooted plants a few years ago and by the second year they were producing beautiful red berries like crazy. Not as sweet as the Quinault and Ever Sweet I added this year but boy these Albions are prettier. I thought they were done for this year, they looked tired and the few berries were devoured by pill bugs, but suddenly the bugs went away and the plants took off.
Along with pondering ways of eating strawberries I've been listening to two deliveries of Ulysses. I started the audible.com Ulysses read by Jim Norton on June 16. Soon afterwards I added Frank Delaney's re: Joyce podcast. Five weeks and 48 podcasts later I'm approaching the end of chapter one. So far Joyce has maintained my interest. At this pace I don't know how long it will take to complete the book but at least I am getting to know Joyce's stand in Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, the Englishman Haines, and a bit of Irish history, especially vis-a-vis the Brits.
I'm also working my way through Duolingo. No, I'm not doing Irish, I'm doing French and Spanish - I'm on a 50-day streak - and occasionally I do a lesson in Portuguese or Dutch. I hesitated to jump into two languages at once but I've found it not as confusing as I feared.
Adios and au revoir.
Overcoming adversity is a theme we encounter again and again, in history, in the news, and in stories told by individuals. In each case I wonder why some turn their lives around and others do not. And where would I fall.
Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is a 700-page novel about recovering from a childhood of almost non-stop physical and mental abuse. It is a downer of a story, and that recovery is only partially attained is even more of a downer. It's a dark tale of how horrible people can be to one another and how the results can linger for a lifetime.
But the book is balanced with people who are good to each other, in fact this is what makes the book readable and emotional. It isnt the tales of abuse, the descriptions of the awful cutting, but the kindnesses and love the characters have for each other that stuck with me when I wasn't reading.
The only weakness is the over-the-top good fortunes enjoyed by several of the characters; their successes, their homes, and their travels seem unbelievable. But that is my only criticism. It's a long book that pulled me in from the first page. Not a read-in-one-sitting novel, it is too long and too sad. At times I could only read a few pages and then I needed a break. But I knew from the first page Id read it to the end. I recommend it because it is well written, it maintained my interest from start to finish, and especially because it captures the inner life of someone burdened with the baggage of early trauma. The silence, the self-loathing, and the chronic pain are captured so well you can feel it.
I recently read Elena Ferrantes four volumes of Neapolitan stories, which are really just one long story about two girls growing up in Naples. I found it totally engrossing; it's War and Peace by Fellini, though instead of Russia versus Napoleon we have female emancipation versus hundreds of years of culture and habit.
Volume one, My Beautiful Friend, starts slowly. There are a lot of characters to meet, some confusingly named. Our narrator, Elena (also called Lenu) and best friend Lila (also called Lina) are young girls, playing with dolls, wandering a dark street in post-war Naples, and by the end of this volume they are young women.
Through three more volumes Ferrante brings us to the present and along the way we get to see many of the seminal moments in the lives of our heroines as well as a glimpse of life in poor urban Naples. And life is vividly and brutally portrayed, it's a violent, patriarchal culture. The story is especially wrenching when the characters transition to young adulthood, where their idealism collides with the inertia of hundreds of years of habit. Highly recommended.
What I'm listening to: Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales by Car Seat Headrest.
My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane. From a David Sipress cartoon
It's all snowy outside, an appropriate time to read a Russian novel, and I just finished one, the Brothers Karamazov. Even though it was first published in 1879 it's modern. It is also long and takes a little dedication at times. Several times I listened ahead then resumed reading where I'd left off. It's got richly-developed characters, a tale that could fill a Netflix series, and endless discussions centered on the existence of god (this is where the dedication comes in). The only other challenge is the myriad of confusingly-named characters.
Since Dostoyevsky wrote in Russian and I read only in English I had to select a translation. I selected the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation because I happened to have read their Tolstoys. But I supplemented it with Audible's Constance Garnet translation (spoken by Constantine Gregory) and while I picked out differences I can't say one is better. The audio book is especially useful for getting a head start into the slow-going parts.
Here are the books I've finished over the past year, in reverse-chronological order. In other words, I just finished the Cather. Those with a * are my favorites.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 1927
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 1866, P&V translation 1992
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson 2002
Old Man's War by John Scalzi 2005
The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich 1950
The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan 2006
Outline by Rachel Cusk 2014
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen 1803
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout 2017
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout 2016
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout 2008
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi 2003
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga 2008
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi 2003
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen 2015
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart 2006
A House in Bali by Colin McPhee 1947
Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple 2013
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky 1880, P&V translation 1990
The Perfection of the Morning by Sharon Butala 2005
J.R.R. Tolkien was born 126 years ago today. His blockbuster trilogy Lord of the Rings introduced the teenage me, who was growing up in Texas suburbia, to the escapism of a well-told story.
I'm showing this photo because it's set in the Italian Alps, called the Dolomites, which is about the closest I've been to a place resembling middle earth. The hiker is Paul. We'd spent the previous night at Rifugio Tissi --- a spectacular place that --- and here we were heading for our last stop, Sebastiano.
The photo is of my first-ever success with lettuce. I've a bumper crop of tasty green leaves. I've so much lettuce, when friends visit I beg them to take some home.
You'd think I'd done this by now. I've mentioned that I grow tomatoes and basil and strawberries. But I've stubbornly insisted on growing lettuce outdoors, refusing to acknowledge that Otter Point, Canada, is just too cold for lettuce. No longer. I planted some in the greenhouse and viola, I've all the salad I can eat.
Speaking of the greenhouse, when I'm in it I'm usually listening to something on my iPhone via a little bluetooth speaker and recently my aural entertainment was Tom Hollander's spot-on reading of A Clockwork Orange. O my brothers, this is an excellent performance.
I'm so inspired by Alex, the main in Clockwork, that I'm listening to a malenky* bit of his fave composer Ludwig van, the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13. As Alex would say, it's horrorshow.
*See the Nadsat dictionary.
Speaking in full frame terms, I feel that we 'sense' in 21 mm, we 'perceive' in 28 mm, we 'see' in 35-40 mm, we 'look at' in 50 mm, and we 'examine' in 75-90 mm. Jim Simmons
I guess I'm examining this flower since it was taken at 105 mm.
I'm listening to Madame Bovary, read by Juliet Stevenson. It's one of those books I picked up just because it's a classic, it's a story I feel I know without having read it. Lolita is another book like this, and boy was the book different from my imagining of the book.
Stevenson has a wonderful voice and, fortunately for me, she has recorded many audio books. Her Mrs Dalloway, for example, is a sublime listen. It feels like it's an examination of consciousness, like a lens pointed on a character, and as the story progresses the lens moves and re-focuses, all so fluidly, as it examines one character then slides over to examine another.
There's a giant fuchsia next to the greenhouse, just outside the fence. It winters in the greenhouse but come spring it's carried by cart to a prominent position, near the front door. It's vulnerable situated here outside the deer fence, and since it's covered with flowers it should be attracting deer, but it doesn't; perhaps it's the dog who likes to bark at all things animal, even the birds flying overhead.
Speaking of fuchsias, Proust mentions the flower (a purple one, mine is more light pink) while he is in the midst of a description of the town of Chambray, a discussion that focuses on the church and the steeple of Saint-Hilaire. I like this sentence, and I include it to contrast the Moncrieff translation and the more recent Davis translation.
In vain might Mme. Loiseau deck her window-sills with fuchsias, which developed the bad habit of letting their branches trail at all times and in all directions, head downwards, and whose flowers had no more important business, when they were big enough to taste the joys of life, than to go and cool their purple, congested cheeks against the dark front of the church; to me such conduct sanctified the fuchsias not at all; between the flowers and the blackened stones towards which they leaned, if my eyes could discern no interval, my mind preserved the impression of an abyss. Swann's Way, C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation
Even though Mme Loiseau might have at her window fuchsias which developed the bad habit of forever allowing their branches to run all over with heads lowered, and whose flowers had no business more pressing, when they were large enough, than to go and cool their flushed, violet cheeks against the dark front of the church, for me the fuchsias did not for this reason become holy; between the flowers and the blackened stone against which they leaned, if my eyes perceived no interval, my mind reserved an abyss. The Way by Swann's, Lydia Davis translation
Books I completed last year, in chronological order.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders seems more like a play than a novel, especially as I listened to the beautifully-performed audio book. I so enjoyed listening to it I went back and read the book.
Jesus' Son is by Denis Johnson who writes of sad but real characters.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was a second read for me and was even more enjoyable than the first.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor tracks all things in a British village, month by month, season by season, with a clever use of the paragraph.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and read by Juliet Stevenson who has a wonderful voice.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and read by Tom Holland is a real horrorshow.
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters is a just-before-the-end of the world detective story.
The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton sounds like Conde Nast how to look fabulous but it's not, instead it's thoughts on architecture, van Gogh, the south of France, and other intersections of travel and art. De Botton is interesting even when I'm not sure what to do with the information.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth is about two well-meaning parents who produce a demon daughter. A well-told tale that makes me want to read more Roth.
Maximum Canada is Doug Saunders arguing the world needs more Canadians.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler was made into a famous movie that I saw a long time ago.
The Conformist by Alberto Moravia is a story of love and international intrigue during WWII and is also a famous movie that I saw when I was in college.
The Way by Swann's is Marcel Proust's story of waking up, missing mom's kiss good night, the cookie, and the church steeple with the birds and the fuchsia. While nothing happens the writing is absofucking beautiful once you train your brain to scale his sentences. Lydia Davis' translation is clearer but not as pretty as Moncrieff's.
Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark is a futurist's survey of mankind's prospects and in every scenario the robots rise and kill us all. There, you needn't read it.
Autumn by Ali Smith I'd not recommend though everyone else seems to like it or maybe it's just because there are so many ex-Brits?
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre is a true spy story I read in two maybe three sittings it is so good.
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, 1857, and read by Timothy West is volume two in a soap opera series set among the British religious aristocracy.
On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan is the true story of restoring a house in San Miguel, Mexico.
A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler,1939, is an international murder mystery with the main character a murder-mystery writer. Good if you like that sort of thing.
True Story of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey has Aussie/Irish outlaw Ned Kelly (1854-1880) telling his story in long comma-less dare-I-say Proustian but certainly poetic sentences. His addictive way of speaking tells a sad but inspiring story, and he reveals a bit of ugly history along the way.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is oh-so-preachy, a political essay masquerading as novel.
Milkman by Anna Burns and read by Brid Brennan is an impassioned telling of the life of an 18yo girl in 1970s Ireland. Like fellow-Irishman Ned Kelly she has a hypnotic way of talking.