"Well, all speaking is difficult, whether peril attends it or not. Sometimes peril to the body, sometimes a more intimate, miniature, invisible peril to the soul. When to speak at all is a betrayal of something, perhaps a something not even identified, hiding inside the chambers of the body like a sacred refugee in a site of war."
Writing can also be difficult when you are left to capture words for something so astoundingly beautiful it takes your breath away. What began as one of my strange and compulsive needs to make my way through some arbitrary list or standard (the Booker short list in this instance) led me to a far different place than expected. I now have a strange and compulsive need to track down everything Sebastian Barry has published. The lilting loveliness and the cadence of the Irish accent has always enchanted me but I credited that to a simple attraction to that indescribable mellifluous quality - ear candy. It is apparent in the The Secret Scripture that the Irish gift for storytelling (and more specifically Barry's gift) goes far beyond simply what you hear because these stark words on paper sing also.
The story is about a 100-year-old mental patient who begins to write her personal history that covers The Irish revolution of the 1920s and the resulting political and religious turmoil that defines so much of modern Irish history. As Roseanne is busy with the pages she keeps hidden under the floorboards in her room, her attending physician, Dr. Grene, is also at work re-constructing Roseanne's somewhat mysterious background as he prepares patients for a move to a new hospital. The two contradictory narratives present the reader with a puzzle that takes in Irish history and Catholicism, and the sometimes skewed, self-serving exercises of power in both.
Luminous. Drop-dead gorgeous.
BOOKS FOR BARACK is the brainchild of novelist Ayelet Waldman, whose impassioned — and expletive-laden — e-mail to politically like-minded writers went, as she put it, "viral." Ayelet's solicitation for signed copies of their books for a fundraiser for Barack Obama's campaign has touched a literary nerve, yielding an outpouring of over 500 750 1,000 books (as of Monday, September 22) from across the country.
Half-way through Sebastian Barry's The Sacred Scripture, and it is a powerful and intriguing book. After coming in from a couple of hours of gardening chores, I was all prepared to return to it. However, it is Sunday, and both my body and my mind felt they needed a rest so I turned to a movie I have seen more than a few times based upon a book that I have read at least three times that I can recall. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is a most-hilarious satirical treatment of the dense delights of doom penned by D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Recently orphaned socialite Flora Poste must find a way to stretch her meager finances so she decides to live with a relative until her great novel comes together. She descends to the deepest Sussex to her distant relations at Cold Comfort Farm and immediately sets about re-ordering (or re-writing) their miserable lives. Have you seen something nasty in the woodshed? Read it. See it. Most satisfying. Just like the Sunday comfort food I am about to prepare. Bless you, day of rest.
I had a chance encounter with some old friends this week - the children of Green Knowe. These were among my favorite books as a child, and I was delighted to be reminded of them especially as my daughter is about the same age now as I was when I enjoyed them. Lucy Boston created these extraordinary children's stories about the magical and ghostly house known as Green Knowe, many of whose inhabitants never leave even after their mortal lives have concluded. She based the series of six books upon her own house, a that she carefully restored for herself and her son who eventually became an architect and illustrator of these books. If I recall correctly, the series traverses eight or nine centuries of history as it chronicles the mishaps and adventures of this splendid, moody, menacing residence.
A word of caution. These books are not for all children. You will find that the publisher recommendation is ages 9-12, but keep in mind that these books were written in the sixties and seventies when we all flourished with a certain amount of benign neglect from our parents. I adore this about the books, but some of you may balk at the notion of quite so much freedom for the wee ones. Also, much like the work of J.K. Rowling, this is not a sugar-coated series of work that assumes a certain delicacy amongst the sensibilities of children. Some children may find the supernatural themes frightening. Additionally, the language is precise and evocative but not necessarily scaled down for the comprehension levels of 9-12 year olds. I would recommend these either for sophisticated young readers or as a family read-aloud or for adults like me. I swear to you these are as compelling a read for adults as they are for children.
As a fun aside, look through these books for similarities to the Potter books. As I leafed through the first one, I was initially struck by arrival of the young boy to his grandmother's house for the first time. There has been a flood and he must approach by boat much like the first-years do at Hogwarts. Kept looking and found quite a few more things but HUSH as I do not want to spoil the fun of the hunt for you.
Someone whose literary taste you implicitly trust offers you a "must-read" novel, and you scoop it up unreservedly. The open front gates featured on the cover beckon you in to the famous Italian garden upon which the dual plot lines of the book revolve. The front, back and interior covers are wallpapered with the praise of respected critics. The book reads quickly. Ultimately though, the book leaves you flat. How do you tell the one who recommended it? Why are you unimpressed with something widely praised? A classical education might lead you to comment "In matters of taste, let there be no dispute," but this will go but a very short distance in trying to please the friend and reader who handed the book off to you so enthusiastically. To what extent do we share books with others to legitimize our own standards of taste, often expecting praise for our choice rather than a dissenting opinion? To what extent do so many of us biblioblog to lend weight to the literary selections we deem worthy thus indirectly confirming our own status as arbiters of taste?
Now it has been a very long week for me, and I look at what I just wrote and believe I might be over-thinking this one just a bit. I believe these to be legitimate questions but the particular novel in question is The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, a simple literary mystery, not a core component of the Western literary canon. In this book, a lazy but promising young academic arrives in Tuscany to research the history of the famous garden at the Villa Docci. As he begins to unravel the murderous mystery of the garden, the more recent mysteries held in the house begin to reveal themselves as well. Is Adam a gifted academic or a pawn in the power struggles of a storied Italian family? Who cares. Many readers will see this ending coming a mile away. The only thing that will keep you reading is Mills' engaging use of language. As you might expect from someone who previously wrote screenplays, Mills paints gorgeous settings for our minds to explore. However,the characters are not fully fleshed out, and Adam, the protagonist, is not a person so much as a vehicle to move the plot. The pacing is odd as well. The protagonist makes grand realizations about himself, those close to him, and the mysteries around him that suggest the weight of extended experience, and then the reader finds out that he has been in Italy all of three days. Odd and convenient leaps of logic also abound. Don't even ask about the startling revelation arrived at by a cursory examination of earlobes. Eeek.
Should I honestly share my opinion of this work with the one who suggested it? I'll decide after a much-needed good night's sleep.