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broodings from the burrow

September 8, 2008

into the stacks 20.1
posted by soe 11:54 pm

So… the book reviews. I realize that if I put all of the books from this summer into one post that although it would be thorough, it would also be unreadable. Instead, I’ve decided to do a few each night with the hopes you’ll read through them and find a new story to love.

Tonight, the first three:

Blandings Castle, by P.G. Wodehouse

From the jacket: “Clarence, the ninth Earl of Emsworth, is master of the pleasant seat of Blandings Castle. Happy to potter through the flowerbeds, kept immaculately by McAllister the stern Scotch head-gardener, or to ogle the perfect form (for a Berkshire sow) of the prize Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth’s life is under constant threat of disruption by, among disasters, his offspring, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood.”

My take: P.G. Wodehouse was a funny man. He was a keen observer of human behavior and saw just how to convey the humor that bubbles just below the surface of most situations. Come up with the most ridiculous scenario you can think of and populate it (generally) with self-involved, affluent folk and their hired help. Then double it and you have a peek at what sorts of things Wodehouse writes. But he does it without ever removing the humanity of those he is (gently) mocking, so while you’re snickering at the situations Lord Emsworth finds himself in — fingered for trying to steal tulips from Covent Garden, held at gunpoint as a mistaken burglar in his daughter-in-law’s hotel flat, repeatedly having his life saved while trying to go for a swim in his own pond — you still feel for him for the very real confusion he experiences as he tries to sort things out.

In addition to the half dozen or so Blandings Castle stories, the book also includes a few that take place in Hollywood, related by a man at a bar to others identified only by their drink of choice, as well as one about an American publisher’s visit to a wealthy author’s British home.

I picked this volume up at a library sale up in Connecticut in June and must remember to see what sort of Wodehouse selection our own library carries. I wouldn’t want to find myself in dire need of a laugh without some of his work nearby. A quick cure for certain!

Pages: 255

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

From the jacket: “In this stunning sequel to The Golden Compass, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in a shimmering, haunted otherworld — Cittàgazze, where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies: twelve-year-old Will Parry, fleeing for his life after taking another’s, has also stumbled into this strange realm. On a perilous journey from world to world, Lyra and Will uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. And with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat — and the shattering truth of their own destiny.”

My take: I read The Golden Compass some years ago and immediately went out in search of the sequel. I remember taking it to Falcon Ridge with me and reading it while sitting on a hot hillside while listening to the music. I also remember reaching a certain point in the book, a point that I found far too stressful to keep reading past in such a bucolic setting that I put the book down in favor of something else. I’d pick it back up again, I told myself, when I got home.

Time passed (years — the bookmark in it is a card addressed to our Middletown address) and instead of being able to pick it up again where I’d left off, I had to start over again — all the while knowing that that moment would come again. And you know what? When I reached it, it wasn’t all that stressful or scary. Totally could have kept going…

If you’re unfamiliar with the first story, Lyra lives in long-ago Oxford, raised by the bishops of her church and generally being allowed to do what she wants. In this version of the world, humans each have a daemon, an animal iteration of their soul, if you will. There’s a schism between the church and scientists and Lyra somehow finds herself at the very center of it and what amounts to a civil war.

In this volume, Lyra meets up with Will, a boy from the Oxford of our ken, when he flees after accidentally killing a man who has broken into Will’s house after threatening his ailing mother. This man is seeking information about Will’s father, who disappeared twelve years before, so Will decides to look for some answers himself. Lyra starts out trying to find out more about the “dust” that the scientists of her world are so excited about, but after ending them in a few scrapes, she joins Will in his quest.

Add to this that the police and the government are looking for Will in his world, the church and Lyra’s psycho evil mother are hunting for her, and adults in the world in between are being attacked by Specters and left as zombies, and you are left with a tense story that demands you read on to the concluding tome, The Amber Spyglass.

Pages: 326

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

From the jacket: “It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found. But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.”

My take: You think, when you pick up a book about growing up in Hitler-era Germany, that it’s going to be depressing. When you discover, upon opening to the first page, that it’s narrated by Death himself, you know it’s going to be. And when he tells you that characters — main characters — are doomed not to survive his telling, well, it’s about as much as you can do to keep turning the pages.

But then, as you keep reading, you get used to Death’s unusual narrative style. You read the heaviness of his words and help to bear the weight of all the souls he must dispense. You find that he is compassionate and that he sees the beauty in the human soul in ways, perhaps, that people are too close to see for themselves.

And you see that although the lower-class street in the outskirts of Munich are populated by Germans of the time, that most of them are so busy trying to exist that they really can’t be bothered with actually supporting the war. Yes, there are Nazis, but mostly it’s just people who are being trampled on by life.

Add to that an extraordinary couple who take in a little girl whose mother must leave her behind. The woman is coarse, but her love runs so deep that it almost is buried. The man is kind — and his remembrance of others’ kindnesses toward him help him to keep offering them to others, even when it puts him at odds with his neighbors, his country, and his well-being.

And center the story around a little girl whose grief haunts her until she slowly begins to fill in all those empty places inside with the written word — and the multitudinous offers of escape they hold. The words help to make her whole — and to help her community heal.

Add these things together, and you end up with a story that is heart-breakingly beautiful. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve read in years. I hope that schools will teach it as a companion piece with Anne Frank’s diary, as I think that they would complement each other.

(I will admit that this book was another one that I had to put down. I stopped at the last possible place I thought I was likely to leave the majority of the main characters in a safe place and then couldn’t bear to force them out from their havens to act out their destinies. Ultimately, it was rewarding, but I cried buckets over the final hundred pages. Regardless, I recommend it without reserve for anyone over the age of ten.)

Pages: 552

Stay tuned to tomorrow for three more books!

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monday morning music: melody and slung-lo
posted by soe 7:13 am

There seem to be no videos from Erin McKeown’s performance last week (Bootleggers, where are you? C’mon, cell phone videobloggers!), so I offer you two past performances: “Melody” performed at Amoeba Records out in the Bay area and “Slung-lo” from her Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour performance in 2006.

You can download the album version of the song here for free.

Erin McKeown “Slung-lo”

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