Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo
Knopf, 2009

I recently purchased a Kindle for my birthday in September.  This action was both an act of my youth and my aging.  I had long resisted the e-book format as I love books, the heft of the volume, turning the physical pages, the feel of the paper in my fingers.  However, after I spent an entire afternoon reading (a rare luxury with toddlerdom), I discovered that my eyes are not what they used to be.  My husband suggested I get a Kindle so I could read everything in 14 pt font.  So I did.  And now I’m gobbling up the e-books.  Maybe I look hip and trendy reading my Kindle, but no one needs to know that I’m reading it in large print format.

Amazon recently created an e-book lending program with libraries and I wanted to see how it worked, so I checked an e-book out of the library and had it downloaded directly to my Kindle.  Pretty nifty.  The book I chose was Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.  (I have Russo’s Pulitzer-prize winning Empire Falls sitting unread on my bookshelf, where I have a lot of unread books, thanks to my ailing eyes.)  Now that I am endeavoring to embrace middle-age, That Old Cape Magic turned out to be an appropriate read for me.

Jack Griffin, a 50-something college professor, is about to see his life and marriage unravel.  After a long, successful career writing in the film industry, Griffin snagged his position in academia as a professor of screenwriting.  After all, screenwriting is a young person’s game, Griffin notes, as he made his move out of Hollywood to the tony suburbs of a Connecticut university.  As the only child of neurotic English professors—with whom he has contentious relationships—Griffin seems to have come full circle with academia and he settles into a comfortable existence with his beloved wife in their Connecticut dream home.  This dream home life lasts more than a decade, but the death of Griffin’s father, long divorced from his mother, forces Griffin to face some uncomfortable, unanswered questions.

Much of the novel takes place on Cape Cod, where Griffin’s family spent many summer vacations during his childhood.  Cape Cod signifies his parents’ idyllic dreams, the lazy summers by the sea, the escape from the politics and positioning of academia.  There is the status of having a summer home on the Cape, but the Griffins never owned their summer home.  They always rented a house and bickered over not being able to afford to buy their ideal summer home.  (The ones they could afford they “wouldn’t have as a gift.”)  The Cape was where Griffin and his wife, Joy, honeymooned and dreamed up their life plans together.  Nine months after the death of Griffin’s father, they return to the Cape for the wedding of a family friend, and Griffin has his father’s ashes in the trunk of his sports car (a not-so-subtle cliché of his middle-age crisis).

Russo’s writing is generous to his flawed characters, the kind of people you would like to have over for dinner, but may not know about their inner thoughts.  There are many comedic moments that were both delightful and pushed close to the edge of disbelief.  Griffin’s mother is a piece of work, an arrogant academic who sees herself well above the world and lets the world know it.  She’s a little over the top, calling at the worst times and intruding herself into Griffin’s life.  She is exactly what Griffin does not want to become, but he cannot stop her voice recording in his head.  Mommy issues.  Ah, yes, I know about those.

That Old Cape Magic is not a very “dramatic” novel in the sense that large, dramatic events do not happen, but it is a very human novel.  The crisis that happens in Griffin’s life has been building very slowly over the years, the way a person is formed by the small events that gather throughout one’s life.  This is particularly true of the conflict between Griffin and his wife, Joy, who share over 30 years of marriage that most people would call happy.  While they love each other, they also hurt each other in small, painful, irrevocable ways.  I found this to be an accurate portrayal of “happy” marriage.  That’s as good as it gets—teetering between love and contempt, hope and despair.  Perhaps a good reflection of the tenuous choices we make in life, marriage, and  middle-age.

Middle-aged Mommy and Milo on Cape Cod.

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National Novel Writing Month

On a whim, and with accountability from my friend Lillian, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month for November.  This is despite being 36 weeks pregnant, with all the accompanying discomforts–requiring 10 hours of sleep per day, limited mobility, limited brain capacity, swollen fingers, etc.  The goal of NaNoWriMo is simply to produce 50,000 words in a month.  No plot or character development is generally required, but by the end of the month, hopefully you’ve produced something, some kernel of truth or character or idea or detail that is worth developing further.

Many writers like me and Lillian, well-read and overeducated, stifle themselves when facing the blank page.  We are not satisfied with producing mediocre prose.  We must have truth and meaning and beauty in every sentence.  We must be Virginia Woolf!  NaNoWriMo eliminates that barrier and forces us to essentially free write, which is a valuable exercise.  Free writing can produce a lot of garbage, but also often produces some magic.  As long as we can get our critical, logical selves out of the way, our spiritual subconscious can sometimes shine.

So far, I’ve got 17, 263 words (49.5 pages) of a narrative, very light on plot, following around characters that are thinly veiled versions of me, Hubby, family, and the woman who just joined my pre-natal yoga class who annoys me.


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15 Books

Thought this was an interesting exercise.  Throwing my blog readers a bone because I’ve been swamped with family drama.  Hope to resurface soon.

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. List 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you. They should be the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. 

1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
3. Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
4. Pale Fire, Vladmir Nabokov
5. Friend of My Youth, Alice Munro
6. Lolita, Vladmir Nabokov
7. Sound & Fury, William Faulkner
8. Otherwise, Jane Kenyon
9. Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke
10. Beloved, Toni Morrison
11. Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor
12. Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen
13. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
14. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
15. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

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Packing Books

My friend Zoe came over yesterday afternoon and helped me pack some of my books.  We got through only my fiction collection, but that’s significant.  Still to go: poetry, anthologies (both fiction & poetry), art books, cookbooks, general non-fiction, and Hubby’s geek books.

There are so many books on my shelf that I have yet to read and that I pack with me from place to place.  Perhaps I should face the probability that I will never read them and just give them away.  But it feels comforting somehow to have these books in my collection.  Irrational, perhaps, but comforting.

Most of my books will be in boxes for the next 2-3 months, but I did pull a stack of books from my “to-read” shelf to be more accessible during this hiatus from my personal library.  These books include some favorites or talismans: Alice Munro’s Open Secrets, Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise, Pablo Neruda’s Selected Odes.  And then there are the books I intend to read during this time: Wendell Berry’s Three Short Novels, Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Marilynne Robinson’s Home.  

I will be lucky to finish one of these books during this move and transition, but still, I am comforted by having them available.  You never know what may strike your fancy.

Currently, I am reading Dave Eggers’ What is the What, in honor of Hubby’s Sudan sojourn.  It’s my way of being there with him in spirit.

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