Monthly Archives: June 2012

A read-along of Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver (II)

Some weeks ago I saw a nest in one of the plants in the yard. The nest was small enough to fit in one hand, and in it, two eggs slightly bigger than my thumbnail. I first noticed it when I saw the bird, more precisely the white around her eyes which made a contrast in the shadow of the plant. Days later, when I looked at the nest again, I saw two chicks, bald and skinny, moving restlessly inside.
It occurred to me at that time that I should take some pictures, but I finally got around to doing it when the third round of chicks had hatched. Well, almost. I took this picture more than a week ago, and after a few days there was one chick who opened her beak soundlessly, then let its head drop on the egg in front if it, as if falling instantly asleep. That got me thinking about Deanna, one of the characters in the book, and how she tried to take care of the little bird family who lived in the eaves of her cabin. Eddie had told her that if someone scared mama bird away at night she won’t come back to the nest because she can’t see in the dark (apparently, most birds can’t), and the hatchlings would die of exposure during the night. That made me wonder why, when I went to check up this morning, the nest was empty. Did I scare mama bird away or were my three dogs responsible with their disappearance? One mystery I’m afraid I won’t find the answer to.


Part 2, Chapters 9 – 18

Chapter 9 starts with Garnett and a little of his family history – how he worked along the years for his dream of restoring the American chestnut to its native soil, and of course, his everlasting feud with Nannie, his next door neighbor. He is stubborn and old-fashioned and she is outspoken and leads her life the way she wants to and their opinions collide every time they meet. Until one day when she helps him and he starts changing his mind.

In the meantime, Lusa is thinking of ways to keep her farm and making money without having to plant tobacco, like it was done before she came to live there. With the help of her relatives she slowly starts to build a life and a future for her farm.

Deanna continues to live in the forest with Eddie, and their relationship seems to grow each day, in the little cabin isolated like a cocoon in the forest. Apart from a boy who comes up to bring her provisions once a month, they are undisturbed and live like some sort of Adam and Eve, forgotten by the world, free to roam the forest and talk about its creatures. There’s an encounter with a snake, a glimpse of a coyote den, more facts about moths and plants. But just like Deanna wants to protect all creatures in the forest, she knows Eddie is a hunter. The tension between them builds slowly and there are hints of what might happen in the future.

Characters’ lives start to merge, when Deanna tells Eddie about Nannie and Lusa is told that Garrett can help with the business idea she wants to implement on her farm. Relationships between Lusa and her husband’s family start to coalesce into something more substantial, when one of her sisters-in-law becomes sick and Lusa offers to take care of her children.

This time I felt more involved in the life of the characters. The author introduces each event so gradually there’s never any feeling of rush while at the same time giving so much detail as to make one fully captivated by the story. I had a feeling of dread reading about Deanna – soon, there’ll be trouble in paradise, I thought, while Lusa’s story brought hope and Garnett and Nannie inserted just the right amount of humor to give the book a perfect balance.

Come by next week for the last post in this read-along…but until then, head over to Vishy’s blog to find out his thoughts on this part of the book.

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A read-along of Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver (I)

One of the places I visited during my trip to Chiang Mai last year was a bookstore in the small town of Pai. Set in a wooden Thai house and filled with books to the brim, this particular bookstore was one of the highlights of my trip. While I was browsing through the books, old and new, my friend Kate brought over Prodigal Summer and said that since I liked The Poisonwood Bible so much, I should give this one a try.

A few months later I asked Vishy if he’d like to join me for a read-along of this book and he agreed, so we decided to do a blog post after the first 8 chapters, and continue with a new installment every weekend until we finish the book. There are some minor spoilers in the story but I’ll try not to give away too much.

Part 1, Chapters 1-8

The beginning of the story brought back to mind The Poisonwood Bible. If I’m not mistaken (unfortunately, I don’t have the book anymore), that book began with a description of a woman walking in a jungle – this one begins with a woman walking in a forest. Deanna, a forest ranger, and Eddie, occupation unknown (at least for now), meet for the first time under the canopy of trees. We learn quite a few things about her but he remains a mystery, coming and going on a whim.
Then there is Lusa, a city girl married to a country boy and living on a farm, reading whenever she gets the chance – mostly books about moths. The descriptive passages made me look up some of the names mentioned in the book – and what a surprise to see a picture of a Luna Moth, as beautiful and gracious as a ballet dancer during a performance!

Deanna didn’t expect she would fall in love with a stranger, not after choosing a solitary life, and certainly not this late in life. As for Lusa, giving up on her education and life in the city to become a farmer’s wife made her realize it’s not exactly what she had wanted to do with her life. That is until tragedy gave her a choice.

While the narrative goes back and forth between the stories of the two women, other characters emerge to add detail to their lives. Garnett Walker is one of them – a retired school teacher, living quietly (or so he hoped) on a farm, spending his days trying to make his dream come true: the restoration of the great American chestnut, a tree that will be resistant to the disease that had killed it in the first place, a tree that would bear his name. His neighbor, Nannie Rawley, is set as his antagonist. Described as an authoritative woman with a non-conformist background, she and Garnett see nature differently and fight amiably on this subject, most of the times through letters. These two characters are connected to Deanna and Lusa in different ways, and as the story progresses is feels like someone is constructing a carefully elaborated web, with almost invisible strands connecting the main protagonists.

Nature plays a big part in the book. References to wildlife – coyotes in particular – but also trees – the disappearance of the American chestnut due to blight, details about the life of moths, all this made it an important character in itself in the telling of the story. I liked the details that connected nature to humans: the Io moth’s wing color which Lusa thinks it reflects the yellow tinges in her hair, even her name, Lusa, which is very similar to the Luna Moth, Deanna’s long hair being compared to a silkworm cocoon, the dead trunk of a big chestnut tree which becomes a “womb”, a safe place for two people to share. The writing is descriptively poetic, rich in detail and color, and charged with eroticism. Sexual attraction, be it human or animal, runs like an undercurrent in the story:

“Lusa sat still and marveled: This is how moths speak to each other. They tell their love across the fields by scent. There is no mouth, the wrong words are impossible, either a mate is there or he’s not, and if so the pair will find each other in the dark.”

“His hands on her bare back, his mouth that drew her in like a nectar guide on a flower – these things of Cole’s she would never have again in her life.”

“In the last full hour of daylight, while lacewings sought solace for their brief lives in the forest’s bright upper air, and the husk of her empty nylon parka lay tangled with his in the mud, their two soft-skinned bodies completed their introductions on the floor of her porch. A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair, but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.”

I look forward to reading the next part for this read-along. So far, my favorite character is Deanna – her solitary life, her love of animals, her past – and I am curious to know more about her and to see what decisions she will make later on in the book. There is, however, one thing that jarred my “reading senses”: her being referred to as a “girl”. I understand that she is tall, lean, has long legs and gorgeous hair, but given her age I think “woman” would have been more appropriate.
I was so impressed by the pictures I saw of the Luna Moth (thank you, Google!) that I decided to try and draw a picture of this beautiful creature. It is but a poor likeness but I felt that my review would not be complete without it. And to my pleasant surprise I also discovered a band called Luna Moth, whose music you can listen to by clicking on this link. Enjoy!

Until next weekend…

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The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

After reading Pulse, and this blog post by writer Andrew Blackman, I was curious enough to try and see what The Sense of an Ending was about.

Told from the point of view of the narrator, Anthony (Tony) Webster, the story is about his life. All through to the end I was under the impression of reading a personal journal – from Tony’s childhood all the way through his late years. It’s about those details that get stuck in our heads without us really knowing why, bits of memories floating on the river of life, resurfacing in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times. And while they might seem like inoffensive bits and pieces, they are actually part of a big puzzle called life. Tony’s life, to be more precise.

Describing himself as an average person who left life “happen” to him rather than make things happen, Tony is an average guy, with average friends and a somewhat ordinary life. Divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, father of a daughter who is herself married and has a family, Tony starts thinking about the past, going all the way back to his childhood and through each story offering the reader more details about himself. From his school days – some funny dialogues come up in this section – to his first girlfriend, Veronica, to his happy gang of friends out of which Adrian, the philosopher, plays a central role, Tony starts putting together the pieces of the puzzle. There’s a suicide and a diary that might explain things. Veronica might explain them even better but after their breakup a long time ago, she’s not keen on meeting up again. All she does, apart from making Tony feel like a real dork, is to say “you don’t get it” to the point of becoming obnoxious. Maybe I felt this way because I didn’t get it either and so I found another reason to sympathize with Tony. What is there to get, what’s the mystery she’s not revealing, the information she’s holding back?
The whole book is a journey to the answer. Because, in the end, the writer does allow us that satisfaction. At first I was taken aback, then, thinking back at certain passages in the book, things started to come together. Those details, those bits floating around are not just debris, they are important, and as the memories change from bits to something more substantial, so does Tony’s understanding of the events.
Time has robbed him of the ability to change anything and it has turned him philosophical. After all, what’s left now after he’s almost reached the end of the road, but to examine his actions, his words, and think about what would have happened if he’d done (or hadn’t done) certain things? Would not sending an angry letter have changed things? Is it better to understand life, the futility of it and give up halfway through? Is it better not to expect too much so the disappointment won’t hurt too badly? These are just a few of the questions I was left with after I turned the last page. Imbued with a melancholy that only increases with each page, this book made me think of how we perceive things that happen to us and how we remember bits from our past and especially how those bits are connected to our present. A small but intense book written in an elegant style, worth spending your time and money on.

*Read in June, 2012

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The Vampire Archives

Vampires…it seems like they’re everywhere these days. Stories, movies, it appears that the living cannot have enough of the dead. I have to say that not all vampire movies are great and the same can be said about stories. There were some novels I stumbled upon on my frequent visits to the bookstore, but to be honest the modern vampires just don’t do it for me. Give me a cape wearing gentleman who lives in a castle or a beautiful woman who comes from an ancient family bearing an even more ancient curse and I’ll take them anytime. Those are the stories I like and there are plenty of them in this big anthology. When I say “big”, I mean over a thousand pages, although a little over a hundred of them are filled with names of authors and books of the same genre. An even bigger thank you to Vishy, who sent me this amazing book – it was a lovely surprise for which I am grateful.

There are 86 stories grouped into 13 sections, with each section having a different name. 45 of those stories I have read before, most of them in two anthologies called Fangs and Blood Suckers, but was happy to read them again. The rest were new and they were also a pleasure to read.
Here are some of my favorites:

Good Lady Ducayne, by M.E. Braddon (the author of Lady Audley’s Secret) – an old aristocratic lady is looking for a companion, and a young and poor girl is looking for a job. But while they seem like a perfect match, things get complicated when a young doctor notices an uncanny transformation in the girl’s appearance and realizes there’s something more to the strange affliction which seems to drain her of energy with each passing day. There is however quite a turn to the story which reminds me of that well known line “everything happens for a reason”.

The Old Portrait, by Hume Nisbet
Who would have thought a portrait could hide such evil…certainly not the protagonist of this story whose passion for old fashioned frames gave him a nasty surprise.

The Horror at Chilton Castle, by Joseph Payne Brennan.
A pleasant European summer spent researching one’s roots. An old castle with a mysterious room whose secrets are the stuff of legend. And a descendant of the once great family who lived in it, whose curiosity is about to be satisfied. Mix them all together, throw in a dark and stormy night and a witch and the result is one of the creepiest stories I have ever read. And I loved it! Probably the most horrific story in the whole book, it’s certainly one that I will remember.

Doctor Porthos, by Basil Cooper
Even if one can’t help but notice the Alexandre Dumas reference, there were no musketeers in this story. Instead, it’s about an inheritance that offers the narrator and his wife the chance of an early retirement. But it comes with a price: the couple must live for five years in a secluded place, in an old house lacking modern amenities like say, electricity. After they move in, the wife falls ill and doctor Porthos is ever at her side, trying to help. Suspicions abound, as the cause of the wife’s illness is loss of blood, and the husband suspects the doctor. The ending provides the answer, and it’s shockingly (un)believable.

Count Magnus, by M. R. James
Old papers found by curious people, a traveler looking for a story and a traumatic experience that will eventually be the reward for a man’s curiosity. The events take place on Swedish soil, where the curious traveler had gone in search of new material for a travel book. What he found was mystery, an ugly portrait and something that scared him for the remainder of his life.

When it was Moonlight, by Manly Wade Wellman
The story starts with a verse from The Raven, the well-known poem by Edgar A. Poe. The famous writer, Poe himself, is described as sitting at his table, trying to write a story that will put food on his table. He’s poor, his wife is sick and his story could do with a bit more detail. So out he goes to try and find out about a rumored tale he’s heard of, of a wife buried which came back from the land of the dead – and in doing so he almost went to that land himself. Inspiration comes at the most unexpected moments, and as Poe works towards extricating himself from the nasty situation he got in, there are references to his other works: he mentioned a black cat, a premature burial, and of course, vampires. Beautifully crafted, the story seems even more believable as it incorporates details from the writer’s life. Being a great admirer of Poe’s work, I’d say this is one story worth shining more light on.

Dracula’s Chair, by Peter Tremayne
No haunted castle this time, but an accursed chair that is so much more than a piece of carved wood from another time. For whoever shall sit it in, life will never be the same again. Acting like some sort of time machine, it brings its occupant to a house and place somewhere in the past, and there immobilized, the man who sat down one evening awakes to meet a horrible creature who wants his blood.

Some of the other writers whose stories were put together in this book include Stephen King, Anne Rice, H.P. Lovecraft, Goethe, Bram Stoker, Lisa Tuttle, D.H. Lawrence, Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy de Maupassant. Many of these stories I’ve read before and I liked some better than others. But what I liked the most was having a book with so many great stories in one place, a book that I will certainly go back to some dark and quiet night, because that’s when vampires are at their best.

*Read in April, 2012

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