Tuesday, March 31, 2009

B is for Betrayal

On my weekend trip to the library I swore I wouldn't take out any more books until I finished the ones in my stack at home. My husband was doing research for a school paper and my son is addicted to the CD collections, and I told myself I would browse the magazines. Let's just say, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

Saturday's foray found me in the Bs. I finished two of the books thus far, and it's been pretty hit and miss.

I started with "The Great Betrayal" by Millenia Black (ISBN 9780451219534). The jacket teased a novel about a seemingly perfect family and the secrets that are coming home to roost.

I was intrigued. The story didn't quite connect though.

It opens with a prologue detailing a woman shocked to discover a couple in bed together.

In chapter one Black introduces a young couple expecting their first child. Tragedy strikes and the partner left behind struggles to rebuild a life.

It's all very plot-driven. I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know who the couple in the prologue was ... what exactly was the great betrayal.

My desire to have those questions answered kept me going despite characters I never really got to know, conversation that was stilted, and a subplot that came out of nowhere.

This is Black's second novel, one I can very easily see turned in to a movie of the week (that I would watch).

And I have to say, I would read more of her work. It's fast-paced, mind candy, escapism.

Tomorrow: "The Gifted"

- Tricia Ambrose

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Quotable Blog Presents: Culture

I’m back.

Forgive the hiatus. Deadlines make unreliable bloggers of us all.

To salve the wounds my absence caused, I present another in my series of quotable blogs. Last time we focused on relationships. This time, we study the arts:

Personally, I love opera. I think life would be more exciting if everybody sang everything. Someone could tell me that my house burned and wife left me as long they had the proper verbrato. But if some stuffed shirt is explaining to you why Bizet is better than The Rolling Stones, tell him, “Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” (Ed Gardner)

If the bore persists, say, “There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor.” (Oscar Wilde)

Perhaps, you will have the misfortune of speaking with a singer some day. Should this occur, I advise you steer the conversation toward anything but singing. Here are some approved responses should a singer mention music, singing or any other subject that can be easily related to their profession.

1. It sure has been cold lately. (This statement can be modified to reflect any recent weather trend.)

2. These little crab things are delicious. (You can still use this if there are no ‘little crab things’ present. It will confuse them and give you time to escape.)

3. “All singers have this fault: If asked to sing among friends, they are never so inclined; if unasked, they never leave off.” (Horace)

If someone has the arrogance to quote Horace at you, tell them stop speaking Latin and sit down. (Arthur Wellesley)

Finally, you may have the misfortune to speak with a writer in your lifetime. All writers — whether novelists, reporters or bloggers — are egotists. If trapped between a writer and a hard place, choose the hard place. Hold your breath until you pass out. Do whatever it takes to escape.

Do not bother asking them about themselves. There will be no need. By the time you have introduced yourself, they have told you they are a writer, how they feel about national politics and why your favorite writer is a hack compared to Marcel Proust.

As David Brin said, “If you believe you can make a living as a writer, you already have enough ego.”

The only thing worse than talking about literature with a writer is talking about anything else.

For example, “If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.” (Aaron Copland)

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Extraordinary love story

"After You've Gone" by Jeffrey Lent (ISBN 9780871138941) bills itself as an "extraordinary love story." And I suppose that's true ... except, I'm not sure who the extraordinary love of the main character's life is.

Maybe that's the point.

The novel follows the journey of Henry Dorn, a recently widowed middle age professor in the post-World War I world. Lent does a marvelous job of revealing Dorn, bit by bit, throughout the novel. His characterization of Dorn's marriage is vivid and believable, as is his depiction of Dorn's new relationship.

So which is the extraordinary love? His wife? His new romance? His son? His uncle?

I like to think it's all of them.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, March 16, 2009

The NH Presents "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier

It’s been a long time...

I apologize for the unscheduled hiatus, but an uncommon cold and heavy workload conspired against posting anything last week.

However, we are back and back with a bang!

Tricia and I proudly present the inaugural book blog discussion. As promised two weeks earlier, this post will be about Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.”

We are trying to turn this blog into a proper book club. Of course, that depends on participation from the viewing audience.

Consider yourself warned. If you haven’t finished “Rebecca,” do not continue unless you want to read a major spoiler. I mean it.

So, without further ado, I give you “Rebecca.”

We can debate “great” works of literature all day long.

I’ll admit, I don’t understand the fascination with some of them. Whatever happened to enjoyment? Isn’t literature supposed to be entertaining? Back in the day (waaaaay before my time) reading was the only game in town. No movies. No TV. No www.anything.com. People did this for fun.

And so what makes “Rebecca” a great work of literature for me is that I find it entertaining. I was in grade school the first time I read it, and after re-reading for the who-knows-how-many-times time this weekend, I still enjoyed it.

I’ll just focus on a few of the reasons why.

It’s that first sentence. It draws me in every time. From the get-go, I am at Manderley. Daphne du Maurier sets that scene so well that sentence by sentence as you wind up the drive, she pulls you in even more. How did it get that way? What tragedy befell its inhabitants? I can’t turn the pages fast enough.

It’s the main character. du Maurier cleverly does not name her main character. How much easier that makes it to identify with her. Her feelings of inadequacy, first as the paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, then as the second wife to wealthy, attractive, widowed Maxim de Winter, are my own. Her plainness, her desire to please, her averageness is so much more universal when not burdened by her name.
And yet, despite those feelings, when the chips are down, it is she who has the real strength. It is not the incomparable Rebecca or the dashing Maxim or the, I’ll say it, creepy Mrs. Danvers. It is the woman who quietly tried to do the right thing, even as those around her do not. How can you not love that??!

It’s in the pacing. Each event reveals just a little bit more about the goings-on at Manderley and its inhabitants. At first the older Maxim de Winter seems so strong, so sure of himself and in control. But events reveal that to be a facade. It is the women around him, his sister, his wives, even his housekeeper, who have the power. And at first you almost feel sorry for the narrator. How can she compete? But as the costume ball proves, she shouldn’t even try. At first, Manderley seems perfect, it’s gorgeous, it’s massive and it comes with a staff. But it’s also cold and unforgiving.

It’s the plot. Yeah, at first glance, it might seem a bit Harlequin Romance. Poor young girl meets wealthy older man. There’s an obstacle. They overcome it and wed. But, this is so much more.

There is a depth here not found in those novels.

So what did you think?

Hold up, wait.

Maxim de Winter admits that he shot and killed his first wife, Rebecca. And instead of being horrified, his new wife, Mrs. de Winter II: The Sequel, only thinks, “Good, he loves me more.”

Before, I get into the language, characterization or setting of “Rebecca,” we need to address the moral. And that moral is, “It’s OK to shoot your wife as long as she cheated on you and was otherwise a jerk.”

Moreover, if someone accuses you of murdering your wife — just because you shot her and sunk her body in the sea to hide it — they’re a stupid drunk.

I understand that Daphne du Maurier wrote “Rebecca” pre-woman’s lib, but I’m pretty sure divorce would have been the better option.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system. Let’s talk characters.

For me, any book lives or hangs by its characters. If the characters are interesting, I’ll tolerate predictable plotting. The contrary is rarely true. I can split de Maurier’s characters down the gender line. Her female characters are brilliant. The men? Sometimes likable, always forgettable.

(It’s OK. A lot of good authors can’t write across the gender line. Name the great Ernest Hemingway heroine.)

Mrs. de Winter II (henceforth, known as MDW II) is an interesting choice for narrator. She’s deliberately plain. (She’s supposed to contrast with the vivacious Rebecca.) MDW II is a bundle of neuroses — too poor, too plain and too podunk to keep pace in her husband’s social circle, she feels. Even the servants tease her.

Her growth from housegirl to lady occurs in gradual steps and never feels forced or unnatural. She’s the best developed character, which is only natural because we spend the entire book in her head.

Maxim de Winter, however, is not a real character. He is a prop the other characters act around. He lacks the depth of his dead wife, who never makes a true appearance in this book. His emotions seem arbitrary, at best, and manipulative, at worst. He only tells MDW II that he loves her after he confesses to murder.

No satisfactory reason is given for his mood swings or aloofness, except plot convenience. If Maxim de Winter is taken at face value, then he is an impulsive man who fails to learn from his mistakes. du Maurier tries to convince us that he’s the victim because he was in an unhappy marriage and too proud to get divorced.

It doesn’t work. I spent the final third of this book wondering why I was supposed to root for the dork.

Rebecca, however, is six flavors of awesome with sprinkles of spectacular. Du Maurier makes Rebecca the most interesting character in the book, and she’s dead before it starts. Every anecdote adds to her mythical stature, whether it be flattering, horrible or salacious. Consequently, MDW II’s inferiority complex is understandable.

Du Maurier deliberately shifts our perception of Rebecca without cheating. In books with “surprises,” authors tend to telegraph the twist too obviously or cheat by pulling an unhinted surprise out of their crevice. du Maurier layers Rebecca. When she wants to reveal a new facet to the audience, she removes another layer.

Du Maurier’s plot is a trifle. “Rebecca” is a romance with a murder thrown in for spice. This would be a Lifetime movie if du Maurier were a worse author. But it is well-written, if unnecessarily verbose. (MDW II repeats herself, sometimes within the same paragraph. I understand that it is supposed to demonstrate her obsessive nature, but I prefer concise writing. Must be a newswriting tic.)

Like many older writers, du Maurier’s language feels unnatural at first, because it’s different from daily dialect. But you acclimate to it eventually.

Du Maurier reserves her best work for when she sets a scene. Manderley is as much a character as MDW II (and more so than Maxim de Winter.) Du Maurier creates locations carefully. Her details will tell more about the characters than the dialogue. The obscene rhododendrons, the crashing waves, the smell of azaleas — they all mean more in context.

So let’s cut to the chase. Did I like “Rebecca?” It’s treacle, a romance, a postcard for the English coastline — that’s it. Don’t let Tricia tell you, otherwise.

But, yeah, I did enjoy it — in the same way I can enjoy a Gwyneth Paltrow movie. It’s a simple story, but it has depth if you feel like looking for it.

Still though, he killed her... Are we supposed to be OK with that?

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Short and sweet

I must confess I am not a reader of short stories.

I enjoy the ones I've read immensely, but I'm always left wanting so much more.

I recently reread "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I thought I was preparing to see the movie, but that hasn't happened yet. That's OK. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors, so it was a pleasure to reread this story.

Although ... Benjamin is born as an old man and the other characters merely treat that as an oddity ... what??? No investigation. No hand-wringing wonder. Nothing.

That spoils the rest of it for me.

It is an interesting concept, raising all sorts of questions about what would it really be like to be youthful with all the knowledge of age. (Notice how few ponder the reverse.)

Perhaps this story just tries to tackle too much in its short format.

As I said I read few short stories, but my two favorites have stuck with me for more than 30 years.

"All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury is the story of a group of 9-year-olds on a Venus where the sun shines and the rain stops only one hour every seven years. One of the kids moved to Venus when she was 5 and so remembers what the sun was like. This sets her apart from the other children. And they don't like that.

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald tells the story of one cousin visiting another and stealing her thunder with talk of bobbing her hair. Her cousin is jealous and exacts her revenge. But Bernice gets the last word.

I've never really thought about the similar themes of these two tales. Both look at how cruel we can be to one another.

Where I think these two work as short stories is in their singular focus.

And, while I'm not ready to give up my novel reading, I would like to add a few short stories to the mix.

Any suggestions?

- Tricia Ambrose

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Why people read biographies, a thesis

I can only think of three reasons to read a biography.

One, you admire or revile the subject. (Admiration or disgust work the same way, just in opposite directions.) For example, people read Nelson Mandela and Hitler biographies for the same reason. They want to know how a “normal” person became a world-changing figure.

This category also applies to people who read historical biographies like David McCullough’s “John Adams.” They are fascinated by a certain period of time.

Whether it be Neil Simon, Rocky Marciano or Idi Amin, people want to get a glimpse of their heroes (and villains.)

Two, sometimes people read a biography for the theme. This only applies to the rare biography that functions as literature. Recent NH Book Club selection “Black Boy” qualifies. The book told the story of Richard Wright’s life, but people don’t read it for Wright. They read it for a tale of isolation and racism in the south. The book would function the same way if it were fiction.

Another examples: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Living to tell the Tale.”

Finally, people read biographies so they can see themselves in someone else. Every now and then, a relative nobody releases a biography. They didn’t break the color line in baseball or conquer Europe or release a multiplatinum genre-smashing album.

They just lived an unusual life and wrote about it.

We read their stories so we can see how we are alike. You may live in Tehran and I may live in Cleveland, but we feel the same way when a parent dies. You may be 68 and I may be 24, but we feel the same uncertainty and excitement when a beautiful woman enters the room.

I reviewed Deanna R. Adams’s “Confessions of a Not-So-Good Catholic Girl” for this Sunday’s “The News-Herald.”

I don’t suspect many people would read “Confessions” because they revile her. And, with all due respect to Ms. Adams, I don’t think she’s earned global admiration yet either.

No, most people will read Adams, a Lake County native, to find a little piece of themselves.

Her story of a young girl-gone-greaser/gone-mod/gone-hippie/gone-from-Ohio/came-back/got-married/got-divorced/got-married-again will strike a chord with baby boomer women.

If you want to find out why, specifically, you’ll have to buy a copy of Sunday’s paper.

What? I can’t give it all away online.

Leave me alone. It’s Friday.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com


Thursday, March 5, 2009

And now, with some participation from the audience...

Tricia and I are making that leap. After two months of dancing around it, we’ve decided to take the next obvious step for us.

We’re turning this blog into a proper book club. At least, that’s what we want to do.

The Monday after next (March 16), Tricia and I will both post our reviews of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” We encourage both of our readers to participate. Read the book. Discuss with us. Let Tricia know why she’s wrong.

If it’s a success (read: if people comment), we’ll set up a biweekly book club.

We selected “Rebecca” as our inaugural book for one reason. Tricia loves it, craves it, and can’t be without it. When people bother her with boring stories, she subtitles them with passages from the book.

Don’t be flattered if you see a smile flutter across her lips as you tell her about your latest boating trip in the Carolinas. She’s in Manderley.

I have not read it yet; and I’m trying to avoid a predisposition even though Tricia and I have never agreed about anything, ever. I had to switch my opinion on puppies just to maintain our constant bickering. (Now, I like them.)

“Rebecca” is a love story between the Maxim de Winter and his shy, young second wife. However, the former mistress of the home, Rebecca de Winter, still posthumously overshadows their home. Rebecca’s satanic curse paralyzes the Maxim de Winter’s love and something must be done to shatter her spell. (Or so I have gleaned from the back cover.)

Copies of “Rebecca” (ISBN 671-75387-8) should be readily available at any area library. (We wouldn’t ask you guys to spend money. It’s a recession.)

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. “Biweekly” means once every two weeks, right? Not twice a week. Because that’s what we mean. If it’s a success, we’re setting up a once-every-two-weeks-ly book club.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jason Lea is for the children

I guess nobody wanted to Seuss-abrate yesterday.

That’s OK. If there is a casbah in heaven, I’m sure Dr. Seuss is rocking it.

People have two reactions to children’s literature. Either we marginalize it — “oh, that’s a kid’s book — or christen it with nostalgia — “I loved that book as a kid.”

I enjoy the occasional kid’s book for two reasons. One, I have the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, a poorly adjusted one. Two, sometimes an easy read cleans the palate after wading through a 700-page epic.

I don’t have the endurance to follow “The Brothers Karamazov” with a John Milton chaser. I need a glass of water in between. When I finished “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the next book I read was Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.” (Granted, those were the only books I had on the airplane.)

Sometimes, people don’t want soliloquies or gravitas. They want a love story or a fairy tale, a hero beating a villain and an obvious moral. They want a wise-cracking sidekick in a sidecar or a scary story that can be forgotten by the next morning.

“Coraline” reads like a bedtime story. It’s kid’s stuff, but the kind of kid’s stuff that’s meant to linger in your subconscious for awhile.

If I had to describe Gaiman in a word, it would be oneiric. He grabbed the attention of the American public by writing about an entity who was Dream personified in the “Sandman” comic book. It was an ideal marriage of man and subject matter. Even a decade after he stopped writing “Sandman,” his work still has the hazy, vaguely threatening, implausible but wholly believable tone of a dream.

His lighter fare — “Stardust,” for example — is a daydream. “Coraline” is a nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong, “Coraline” is kid’s fare — the type of story an adult will appreciate, but a child will understand. But it could frighten the young’ns.

It has a lot in common with “Alice in Wonderland.” Plucky underage heroine, check. Inexplicable descent into a dreamworld, check. Funny cat, check. Dire consequences nipping at the edges of frivolity, check. Tea, check.

Coraline is a precocious, curious girl. (I don’t think are any books dedicated to stupid, ambivalent children.) She’s bored by her busy, indifferent parents. She finds a secret door that takes her to a flat like her own, except her parents are fun... and their eyes have been replaced with black buttons... and they want to replace her eyes with black buttons... and cats talk... and annoying but innocuous neighbors are transformed into gooey monsters.

“Coraline” follows a familiar path. Girl wishes she had more excitement; girl finds more excitement; girl fights disembodied extremity; girl learns important life lesson.

It’s uncomplicated, but that’s the whole point of fairy tales.

I could rank “Coraline” on a scale from one to five, but then I wouldn’t get to use my new, superwonderful ranking system.

Jason Lea Ranking System:
5 - Wu-Tang Clan
4 - Delonte West YouTube interviews
3 - Celebrity guest appearances on sitcoms
2 - Olive Garden commercials
1 - New York Yankees (hate Yankees...)

As an adult reading “Coraline,” I would rank it with celebrity guest appearances on sitcoms. In other words, it’s good, but I wouldn’t call it special or lasting. It has a novelty that won’t last longer than sweeps week.

However, I suspect precocious, curious children (especially girls) would enjoy this as much as I enjoy Delonte West YouTube interviews... which is, to say, they’ll love it.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. OK, I'm done writing about kid's books for awhile. I mean it.

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Monday, March 2, 2009


It’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday!
The day to pronounce his worthday!
A day of joy and mirthday!

Dr. Seuss — or Theodore Geisel, if you insist — taught me more than Shakespeare or Rousseau or Kant. Dr. Seuss taught me that if I stand on enough of my coworkers, I can be the king of Willoughby; and just because I hear a Who, doesn’t mean I’m crazy; or that I didn’t need that thneed.

Seuss taught young girls that they only needed one tail feather. That tart Lolla-Lee-Lou may have two, but one can be enough for you.

Seuss taught me the value of nurture over nature. Mayzie may have laid that egg, but Horton raised it into the elephant-bird thing it is today.

A lot of people want to intellectualize Dr. Seuss. It’s easy to do, if only because the guy was smart. But sometimes a wocket is just a wocket. Sure, a megalomaniacal turtle may end up king of the mud, but that doesn’t make Yertle an allegory for Hitler. Isn’t it enough that he be Yertle?

Just because everyone’s telling Marvin K. Mooney — the single most reviled figure in the history of the written word — to leave, doesn’t make him Richard Nixon.

I’m not saying he never used subtext — for example, it took a butter battle to make some people realize the silliness of Cold War posturing — but it never mattered more than the story.

Simple morals, that’s why Seuss matters. If an eastgoing thing meets a westgoing thing, some thing has got to give.

Nobody knows the places you’ll go.

Don’t be afraid to indulge your imagination. Just have it cleaned up before your mother gets home.

Most importantly, words don’t need to exist for them to rhyme.

So tomorrow I can return to pontificating about the importance of translators or the supremacy of Thomas Hardy, but today’s a day to appreciate the Seuss.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m out like Marvin K. Mooney.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Question raiser

Is it better to know or to live in blissful ignorance?

That's just one of the questions raised in "Love and Other Natural Disasters" by Holly Shumas (ISBN 9780446504775). Among the others: Is an emotional affair "better" or more forgivable? Does one wrong justify another? What would you do?

The novel opens on Thanksgiving Day with a very pregnant Eve enjoying the traditional meal with her husband Jonathan, their son, her mother and mother-in-law, and friends. When her husband doesn't return from answering the phone for several minutes, she follows. What she overhears devastates.

For more than a year, Jonathan has been engaging in a relationship with another woman. He initially maintains that because it hadn't turn physical, it wasn't quite cheating.

Eve questions much of her marriage. If he could lie to her for more than a year, how could she believe anything he'd ever said. But do his actions justify those of hers that follow.

She wanted the life she (thought she) had, but there was no going back.

I was reminded of the scene in Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca" when Maxim says his startling revelation has killed the funny lost look in his wife's eyes. For them there would be no return to the relationship they'd had. Once his wife knew the truth about Maxim and Rebecca, she couldn't un-know it. And that changes everything that comes after.

With the issues it raises, "Love and Other Natural Disasters" makes for a great book club selection.

- Tricia Ambrose

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