October 31, 2012

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

I keep being astounded at how many good books there are in the world. I got this biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay from the library after a friend sent me this snippet of verse by her :

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
I thought it sounded a bit arrogant and began to wonder what sort of woman had written it. I had always pictured Edna St. Vincent Millay as an emotional and slightly chubby older woman, I guess because of "God's World," which I liked but which seemed old-fashioned to me. Millay was actually barely 20 when she wrote that poem, an undergraduate at Vassar, wild and crazy, wafer-thin, hauntingly beautiful (according to admirers although the pictures don't exactly bear that out) and already famous at that age.

At 512 densely written and heavily researched pages, the book took me over a week to read, but I could hardly wait to get to it every night. This is the same author who wrote the wildly successful Zelda in the 1970s about that other famous "flapper." The writing is a densely stitched patchwork of letters, first person interviews, news clippings of the day and family memories. One of the best things about it is that many whole poems are included, in the context of when and why and how they were written.

My thoughts about the writing being old-fashioned weren't entirely off base. Millay did write in styles - sonnets, epics, ballads, plays - that harkened back to an earlier era, while many of her contemporaries, T.S. Eliot, e.e.cummings, et al, had gone on to more modern forms.

Millay's life was, by most standards, an unbelievably chaotic one. I will not say more in case you want to read more about her. Savage Beauty is a mesmerizing story of one woman's fame, utter disinterest in most social conventions, and extreme dedication to her craft.

Dave Cooks the Turkey by Stuart McLean

I got this 20-minute read from the library as a tiny red hardcover: apparently lots of people want to have a copy to read at Christmas. Personally I think the end of October is a fine time to read it - I wouldn't want to cast a pall over Christmas Day with this hilarious but almost dystopian story.

Dave and Morley, the familiar couple from the Vinyl Cafe, have agreed that Dave will take charge of the turkey for Christmas dinner. Belatedly he realizes that this includes buying the turkey. On a wild goose (turkey) chase in the wee hours of Christmas morning, he finally scores a dubious-looking bird at a convenience store and it gets a lot worse from there.

For me the funniest part of the story is Morley's diatribe in which she compares a mother's holiday duties to a runaway train. I can relate to that. Even though the desire for elaborate holidays may have long faded for the rest of the family, I can still feel that runaway train bearing down on me as every holiday approaches, especially Christmas. I alternately laughed and cringed as I read this story.

October 23, 2012

A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson

This book is subtitled "Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman," a record of a year in which the author separated from her husband and lived in their cottage on Cape Cod.

While it's not an outstanding book, it was close enough to home for me to find it really interesting. Anderson writes honestly about the issues that matter to a lot of women: what she wants from her husband, how to make ends meet, how to get her weight down, how to relate well to her adult children. She also wrestles with deeper issues, like who she is and what she wants out of life.

There's a great underlying sadness, but also beautiful passages describing swimming, sunsets, times at the seashore, and time alone. Anderson writes unromanticized descriptions of the nearby fishing village, and the jobs she takes there, at the fish market, clamming, especially when her hot water heater breaks and she doesn't have the 20% down that her plumber needs to do the installation.

She doesn't pull any punches regarding her relationship with her husband. The foreword says he read all the chapters as they were written and offered advice, and if so, he's a brave man.

The book got me reflecting about the importance of taking time to think, to be separate, regroup. Some good friends (and sisters) have been talking to me about finding my own truth, and this is really what the author's retreat year was about. I haven't figured out how I might do this, but maybe I've made a few small steps. The book shows me that although it might be lonely and inconvenient, it could also be immensely rewarding to offer yourself this gift of time to ponder life, rediscover who you are and just rest.

North Shore Celtic Ensemble

We walked out of our first community concert of the season with big smiles and light hearts. The North Shore Celtic Ensemble is a group of young (teenagers, maybe 16 - 18) musicians from North Vancouver, mostly fiddlers, who showcased a lot of talent but also a lot of joy.

The Ensemble consisted of about 22 violins, a flute (or something like that) drums, and keyboard. The music was complex and lively, mostly Celtic style, and much of it composed or arranged by Ensemble leaders.

The Ensemble's purpose is to "inspire kids to explore who they are as musicians, to push themselves artistically and to come into their own as socially conscious and community-minded individuals." Mission statements often sound like well-meaning words, but from watching these kids, I felt this one was really coming true. They looked inspired, confident, and happy, and they got their audience feeling that way too. While very much individuals, moving and responding to the music in different ways, they still produced music that was completely unified, and they played the entire two-hour concert without sheet music. The informal atmosphere, solos, and a little bit of singing and dancing made the whole evening more like a ceilidh than a concert. What fun.   

The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber

This novel has everything I like in a good read - a little bit of history, lots of art, fine writing and a great plot. Besides which it's quite long so it lasts a few nights.

The premise is that the artist participates in a scientific study that unexpectedly sends him back to the 17th century or at least puts him into the body or mind of the famous painter Velazquez. He begins to paint like Velazquez. His family life is chaos, and he gets involved with shady dealings. You're never quite sure exactly what's happening in what dimension, but it's a really good uncertainty that keeps you guessing and reading. I highly recommend this for quality escapist entertainment!