Book Review: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, by Charles Dickens

I am very intimidated by the prospect of reviewing Charles Dickens, partly because his books are so big and brilliant, partly because, however much I enjoyed the story (very much), I suspect that there are many references and metaphors, etc., that I missed. Layers upon layers, you see. But I'll give my attention mostly to the narrative, because for five-hundred pages, Dickens had me hooked. I could not put the book down.

And I'd already read GREAT EXPECTATIONS in high school ("not for a class, but out of pure nerdliness," my dad is quick to point out), so I knew what happened. I could not be surprised.

But still. Hooked. From beginning to end.

There's the spooky Miss Havisham, for one thing, and then there's cold, cruel Estella. The convict who appears again and again, in small, devasting ways. And our hero, the orphan Pip, raised "by hand" by his sister, who does not miss any chance to remind him "by hand" how grateful he ought to be. And there is Joe Gargery, her husband, a little window of clear, simple goodness.

A certain element of the bizarre works its way into a story of wealth and property and manipulation, so I never could quite make up my mind as to where the line was, as to what couldn't happen. It seemed, for quite a while, as though anything could.

I have not read anything else by Dickens, being always put off by the immense size of his novels, but now that I am reminded that he moves quickly and is not dull, I may have to start in on another. He's brilliant, really.



Book Review: ACCORDIAN CRIMES, by Annie Proulx

You're probably familiar with Annie Proulx's stories, if not her name--after all, she wrote the short story that Brokeback Mountain was based on. She wrote (and won a Pulitzer for) the novel The Shipping News, which has also been made into a movie. Now, before I get into ACCORDIAN CRIMES, I want to say a word or two about The Shipping News, which I read and sort of liked, or didn't really like, or appreciated certain aspects of at certain times, but mostly found depressing in the heaviest, most lead-weight-upon-my-shoulders sort of way, and ultimately would say that Proulx's writing knocked my socks off but goodness, could she please lighten up a little.

ACCORDIAN CRIMES, published something like nine years after The Shipping News (there were other books published in between, but I've yet to read them), took all my favorite aspects of Shipping, polished them up, gave them a fantastic story to tell and let 'em loose.

Following a little green two-row accordian through its arrival in America, in the hands of of its Italian maker, and through all of its successive owners, Proulx offers a lovely framework for telling of America's beginnings through the polkas, waltzes and zydeco tunes of German, Polish, Mexican, Norwegian, Cajun, French, Irish (and more) immigrants. For each culture, the accordian is a rememberance of home, a way of connecting briefly with whatever land the immigrants have left behind.

There are two things about ACCORDIAN CRIMES that stand out to me most:
1) The racism, the blatant hostility that arises between the immigrants (the Germans hate the Irish, the Americans hate everybody and everybody hates the blacks).
2) The wildly creative ways that Proulx comes up with to kill off characters. I began to get a little excited toward the end of each chapter to see how she'd knock off this guy.
Okay, well, really there are 3) things. Proulx's Pulitzer-worthy prose. I loved that.


A reminder

A late reminder, yes, but a reminder nonetheless.

I'm playing at the Public Market today (Friday, Mar. 24) at noon.

Yee ha!


Book Review: STIFF, by Mary Roach

Probably there are only two or three people on the planet that could write a book about cadavers and do it well. Thankfully, Mary Roach is one of these two or three people. In STIFF, she researches what it is, exactly, that happens to our bodies after we're no longer in them, dedicating chapters to organ donation, several different sorts of research, embalming and cremation, the stages of human decay, and the experiemental "water reduction" and composting methods.

Also, there are chapters dedicated to human head transplants, the medicinal uses of corpses and cannebalism.

This is not the sort of book to bring up in discussion at dinner parties, sure, but I think you'd be surprised how quickly the subject ceases to be "gross" and becomes fascinating instead. After a few pages of stomach-churning detail, I felt myself effectively sucked in, and thus was able to read about jellified human remains with a sort of horrified interest that no longer involved any risk of upset stomach.

And I say that Mary Roach is the perfect one to write this book because, well, she is. She's quirky and funny, and just the sort of person you could envision actually watching some of these ghastly procedures and asking odd, slightly inappropriate questions. Roach brings a wonderful mix of humor, history, physics, science and opinion to an offbeat subject, and her engaging tone, plus the fascinating information, left me hard-pressed not to read passages on the medicinal uses of human body fluids in Ancient China/Greece/Rome aloud to my coworkers over lunch, or to hold forth on the amount of time that can elapse between decapitation and actual death (minutes! Whole minutes can pass before a severed head ceases to register expressions and respond to its surroundings. Ew) over dinner with my husband. This did not make me many friends, but honestly, STIFF is a brilliant book, I think, fun to read and fascinating (which I've said about three times so far, "fascinating," but that's the word for it, so I won't apologize).

I am curious what subject Roach will tackle in her next book. Or perhaps I'd rather not know...



Book Review: THE BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN, by Wallace Stegner

Up til a few months ago I'd never even heard of Wallace Stegner. That's criminal, really. THE BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN is an eerie exploration of the good ol' American Dream that somehow hasn't gotten even a fraction of the recognition it deserves, and I'm not sure why--maybe because it's more than a bit depressing, or because a pretty sizable chunk of the book takes place in Canada, I don't know, but it makes me sad that this book isn't more widely read (or perhaps I'm assuming that, because I hadn't heard of it til recently, nobody else knows about it either--maybe this book is widely read, and I just didn't know).

Rogue writes a stupendous summary of MOUNTAIN; I refer to her review. I will say that Stegner is a masterful writer--absolutely masterful--and that his prose stopped me several times midsentence and forced me back to read some phrase, some brilliant arrangement of words over again. Also, Elsa Mason is probably one of the very best characters I've come across lately (excepting, possibly, Seymour Glass).


There really should be more of this:

Spontaneous serenades. Yesterday, while paused at a stop, my bus driver pulled a pan flute out of his pocket and began to play. He postively rocked out on that little pan flute, playing the most beautiful jazzy tune as though there was nobody around to listen--which, possibly, he might have thought was the case, as I was the only passenger, and I'm not sure he knew I was there. But I was glad for the song, and told him so when I got off the bus, much to his delighted dismay.

Sidewalk waltzes. Last night, The Gallus Brothers took a break from playing in a window nook at The Temple Bar, where much foot-stomping and boogeying was underway, and brought the accordian outside where they then played a waltz, which Morgan and I improvised haphazardly until a gentleman (who introduced himself as a ballroom dance instructor, and I believed him--for a big guy, he was quite graceful) offered us a quick waltzing lesson. "Like marching in place!" he said, between "one, two, threes." I felt giddy and grand.


There's nothing like a little self-promotion

In case you were feeling all bad because you don't have plans for St. Paddy's (which is this Friday, by the way, you've been warned) beyond sitting around by yourself drinking Guinness, now you at least have this: Friday night, at seven p.m., I'll be playing my guitar and singing my funky little songs at The Public Market. Shawnee Kilgore will also be playing; the Gallery Walk will be underway. So you can come drink a cup of (highly recommended) old world hot chocolate and hang out and look at the artwork and listen. I can't promise any Guinness, though, unless you go to the Nightlight after to watch the Clumsy Lovers. Which sounds like an awful lot of fun to me.

(Should you miss this show, but feel like catching another, Shawnee and I will be playing at the Market again the following Friday, 3/24, at noon.)


Book Review: GIGI, by Collette

My copy of GIGI is approximately three inches square, and fifty-three pages long. I read it in a single afternoon, as a respite from the violent and creative deaths of E. Annie Proulx's characters (Accordian Crimes) and to give myself a brief bit of distance from Accordian so that I might return refreshed and with a new perspective, and so not miss a single beat of Proulx's stellar prose.

GIGI is a perfect respite. The story moves quickly, regardless of the French drawing room setting, and it is both funny and biting. Each conversation between fifteen-(and a half)-year-old Gilberte and her socially-minded, ladylike aunts is so liberally salted with such critiques on Gilberte's form and mannerisms that it makes me grateful to live in such a blatantly unladylike time period. "Don't gesture," Aunt Alicia reprimands, "it makes you look common." "Don't eat too many almonds; they add weight to the breasts," and so on. They barrage Gilberte relentlessly with lessons in decorum and class, and somehow Gilberte manages to resist, in an innocent, childlike way, their social bullying.

This was my first encounter with Colette, and I enjoyed the book, very much. GIGI is a light read that packs a punch, and now I'm antsy to get back to Accordian Crimes and to the bookstore to purchase another of Colette's books.



Sure, Canada's not perfect, but...

Well, I'm freshly returned from my first ever dental convention. Having grown up in a medically-minded family where my nurse parents would take off on trips to mysterious "conventions" and return with pens, tote bags and foam stress balls in the shape of red blood cells, all boldly emblazoned with drug company logos, this was a bit like a trip into true adulthood for me. I returned with pens, tote bags, etc., to distribute among Mitch and the kitties (the kitties get the bags, and in exchange, we get hours of entertainment watching them play with the bags).

This mysterious convention was in Vancouver, BC, a city I fell increasingly in love with as the fog lifted and the skyline and mountains were gradually, teasingly, exposed. I've eaten more good food in the last 48 hours than I have in the past six months, and my magnificent bosses put us up in a swanky hotel on the seventh floor, from which I could look out over a small courtyard and watch fat flurries of snow fall and fall and fall and melt upon touching the ground.

It was a lovely trip, short and precisely what I needed--a few days outside my Bellingham bubble, a chance to be in the minority as I asked for the restroom and was told that I may find the washroom just down the hall and to the left. A bit of time in a distant country where crossing the border takes under a minute, as opposed to the trip home where we waited and waited and waited and were made to present small volumes of identification before being allowed back into our own country.


What the hell is this?

I work in a dental office, but I have cavities? Seriously, I thought my position granted me some immunity to tooth decay, but I see now that I was dead wrong. Pfff. Silly molars.

Speaking of molars, I am working on perfecting the art of the random subject change. The best example of a topic switch I've heard all week? In a discussion about identity, and how we people tend to define ourselves by clothes, possessions, smarty-pants books, etc., a friend of mine jumped in with, "See, this is exactly why I didn't like jail," and then proceeded with a bizarre anecdote about how he spent one day in jail and hated it. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair, even though the story wasn't particularly funny (cellmates? Bad food and violence? Not funny at all, really). It wasn't until this morning that I realized he never mentioned what he was in jail for.

Which reminds me, if you buy one CD this week, make it Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not, by Arctic Monkeys. Listening to them makes me wish desperately that I had a British accent.