Completed: Gone Girl

Cover: Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnGone Girl
Gillian Flynn
2012, U.S.

Here expect mild spoilers…

Ah, Gone Girl. An ugly book populated by ugly characters. So, so, ugly.

In truth I was disappointed. Not because of any hype surrounding it. But because I really felt that it could have gone in so many interesting directions–it touched up against some of them–and still been a solid thriller. There was so much opportunity–within the framework of a missing wife/suspected husband–for a deeper look at the economics of the late 2000s and its impact on everyday people. (And I think even maintaining the responsible party for the disappearance.) Instead Flynn opted for the salacious, eschewing the realistic for the sensational. Yet it is reality that is truly more frightening.

I was disappointed, too, at how easy it was to see the story coming. I knew the first twist twenty pages in. The general outcome was basically expected. As for that last twist? Well, I don’t know if I would have predicted it (I read the end before I had finished the first part), but quite frankly I found it ridiculous. This is not to say I didn’t find the book well written. As far as I can tell (granted, sometimes I doubt my own judgement), it IS well written. Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I also think Flynn has the Midwest spot-on. I may have involuntarily shuddered at her descriptions of certain typical Midwestern potluck-style cuisine:

Most of them are out of work from the mall closings, or their husbands are out of work from the mall closings, so they all offer me recipes for “cheap and easy eats” that usually involved a casserole made from canned soup, butter, and a snack chip. (120)

…complimenting women on ambrosia salads and crab dibs and pickle slices wrapped in cream cheese wrapped in salami. (121)

Ambrosia salad! Shudder! So not my thing! Thank goodness not all of us cook that way.

Of course, getting back to those twists–the tendency towards the overly sensational does have a long literary history:

‘Are you, indeed? How delightful? Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are you not wild to know?’ (Northanger Abbey, ch. 6)

We do like our “sensations.” But perhaps my tastes run more to the parody–and social commentary–of Austen.

Anyone for a Hound of the Baskervilles RAL?

A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again. (Ch.  7)

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition Cover

One of the most loved–and well-known–of the Sherlock Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an atmospheric tale of horror, suspense, and mystery. Just the thing for October reading. Late last year when I posted about The Hound of the Baskervilles, several people commented that they might be interested in a RAL this October. I’m willing to host if anyone is still interested. So I’m asking now, anyone in?

Reading Ohio, Completed: The People Could Fly

Cover: The People Could FlyThe People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
told by: Virginia Hamilton
illustrated by: Leo and Diane Dillon
(1985, U.S.)

A few months back I came across a guest post on Book Riot, “We Need Diverse Books to Build Character Through Characters,” written by Maya Payne Smart, a writer, and more importantly for my purposes, a reader. After I moved past my bout of nostalgia–the first book she mentions is Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, a title I remember fondly from Reading Rainbow (and who wouldn’t remember a picture book narrated by James Earl Jones [YouTube] fondly?)–I finished the article and immediately requested her other childhood favorite from the library. The timing was perfect. I had recently finished reading The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, stories in the vein of folklore, though I believe (not certain) they are more creations of Chesnutt rather than actual retellings. Continuing the theme was appealing, especially as I had come to realize that I have very little familiarity with African American folklore, and if I’m going to continue reading novels by African American writers it seems a good idea to familiarize myself with tales they may have grown up with. (Just as knowing European fairy tales can sometimes prove helpful when reading stories by European/European-descendant writers.) An added bonus: the stories of The People Could Fly are told by Virginia Hamilton, a children’s writer who spent most of her life in Ohio.*

I was surprised to find that some of the stories in the collection were familiar. Somewhere along the line, I’d been exposed to a variation of “Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby,” and “The Two Johns” seemed very much like something I might have encountered in Anderson or Grimm. Indeed, Hamilton’s notes at the end of this last story indicate it is “black Portuguese,” suggesting European influences. To what extent, I wonder, are these folktales a mish-mash of African, European, and Native American storytelling?

Hamilton divides the tales into four sections: Animal Tales; Tales of the Real, Extravagant, and Fanciful; Tales of the Supernatural; and Slave Tales of Freedom. While most are completely fanciful, some of the “Slave Tales of Freedom” are true stories, or inspired by true stories. The true tale, “Carrying the Running-Aways” introduced me for the first time to John Rankin, a southern-born minister whose abolitionist beliefs led him to Ripley, Ohio, where he used his riverfront house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton’s retelling is from perspective of a slave who ferried others across the Ohio River to Rankin’s house; Rankin would light a lantern to let them know it was safe to cross.

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for "A Wolf and Little Daughter" in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for “A Wolf and Little Daughter” in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

Each story ends with a brief note on the “type” of tale it is, including region of origin and other variations that might be found. Each is also accompanied by the black and white illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon, images as full of wonder as the tales themselves. The stories themselves are told in the colloquial, with the dropping of g’s and the use of non-standard constructions. While not nearly as difficult to read as Chesnutt’s dialect–nor could it be in a children’s book!–I found it far more effective in conveying the sound of a hypothetical speaker. I could “hear” these stories being told, in a way I could not with Chesnutt’s, preoccupied as I was by basic understanding. Hamilton also included tales that used Gullah words (with translation provided), a creole language made of elements of English and West and Central African languages, still spoken in parts of the coastal south.

Despite the inclusion of background information on each story–suggestive of an academic text rather than a storybook–(and a useful bibliography at the end for further exploration), The People Could Fly is very much a book of stories, stories of great variety and imagination. I only wish I had found it back in elementary school when I was devouring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books–it would have made an excellent companion.

*Hamilton was raised–and spent much of her adult life–in Yellow Springs, Ohio (home to Antioch College), and is best known for M.C. Higgins, the Great and The House of Dies Drear, the former of which won both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. In 1992 she won the international Hans Christian Anderson Award for lifetime achievement in children’s literature.  Source: Ohio Reading Road Trip, Virginia Hamilton page.

Week’s End Notes (17)

Black-eyed Susan and Purple Coneflower

  • With the arrival of August I always feel as if summer is nearly over. Even though, technically, it runs well into September. I suppose this has something to do with so many years on school schedules. Even now that I’m out of school, I have coworkers that teach classes at the local university and others with kids, so the reminder of school seasons still remains.
  • But today feels like a proper lazy summer afternoon. I’ve been reading–finishing two books, actually–, sipping hot tea (is it un-American of me to admit I can’t stand the iced variety?), enjoying the rustle of the wind in the trees, the hum of insects, the slightly heavy air of a warm summer’s day.  I’ve my favorite summer playlist on, a mix of classic and contemporary jazz vocalists, with some Beach Boys thrown in for good measure. (Because what is more summer than Beach Boys?) It is still early afternoon, and I somehow feel that summer could go on forever, today.
  • It’s not been an overly busy summer, which is nice, I think. Work was a bit crazy in June, the deadlines!, and in July we started learning/transitioning to new software (not to mention adding new staff to train), so that’s been…interesting . Most importantly though, I finally finished up all the requirements/paperwork and am now a licensed architect. (As opposed to the vague zone that I was in prior–law dictates that one can’t call oneself “architect” of any variety unless licensed, but the term the registration boards use, “intern,” isn’t accurate to the usage of “intern” elsewhere.) But in August though, I think we’re mostly settled back to our normal work routine.
  • I half feel my reading summer has been lacking, despite the non-busyness. But that’s not really true, it’s just my blogging that’s behind. Somehow given the choice, the reading always comes first. Doubtless the same will hold true in August (lazy days of August), though I do hope to catch up on writing about the books I’ve finished recently before the end of the month.
  • I still have one July-started book to finish, The Shadow of the Wind. I started it as a Spanish Lit Month read (and to take a title off my TBR pile), but despite an extension of the “month” into August, I doubt I will finish it before the official end date. Which is okay as I’m not sure I will have much to say about it except that I’m finding it a purely enjoyable read, a world I can just sink into. Sometimes it’s nice to have those sorts of reads.
  • The rest of August is intended as a little bit of a reading “break”–I’m going to return to my Ohio project (and some non-Ohio reads as well) via comics. This should be fun! I have some definites on my list, but there are a fair number of options to pick from.
  • I’m also starting to look forward to fall (autumn). Not only is it my favorite season, but it always seems the season for mystery reading, and I’ve been looking forward to mysteries especially this year. This is probably NPR’s fault, what with their ongoing “Crime in the City” series. I’m also looking forward to what seems to be my annual visit with one of the volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories.
  • But that’s skipping ahead. There’s no need to hurry summer away just yet. Not as lovely as it’s been this year. All in good season.
  • Happy reading!

Completed: Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Spanish Lit Month)

Cover: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia MarquezChronicle of a Death Foretold
Gabriel García Márquez
(1981, Colombia)
Translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

She had watched him from the same hammock and in the same position in which I found her prostrated by the last lights of old age when I returned to this forgotten village, trying to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards. (6)

I confess that I’ve been avoiding writing this post for some time now, at first simply because I couldn’t bear to write anything after a tragic event just outside the office where I work, and later because this very book brings back to mind that tragedy. Not, fortunately, a premeditated murder, but a hit-skip accident, killing a man getting in (or out of?) his–legally–parked car. In the novella, an unnamed narrator is looking back on events of twenty-seven years previous, trying to understand how his friend came to be killed on that day so many years ago while so many bystanders seemingly knew it was coming yet did nothing to stop it. So too, my coworkers and I gleaned every piece of information we could–and in a small town everyone seems to know someone who knows something–as we tried to understand this tragedy, knowing that it could have been any one of us.

At the distance I am now from my initial reading, and as I am now understanding Chronicle of a Death Foretold in a way I didn’t before the accident, I can’t be certain I am remembering it entirely correctly, but if I am, there seem to be two recurrent threads underpinning the novella: piecing a story together bit by bit and the elusivity of accurate memory. The second thread is the one I noticed as I read: the recurrence over and over again of conflicting memories: it was nice that day, no it was raining; they had met this way, no they had not. The suggestion is not just that our memories are malleable or fickle, but that we may not recognize the significance of any given event until well after the fact, at a great enough distance that we can’t trust that we are recalling the correct event, or that the enormity of the event may overwhelm our capacity for memory.

I had a very confused memory of the festival before I decided to rescue it piece by piece from the memory of others. (23)

In the days after the accident, with little released from official news sources, limited by a slow-developing police investigation, we too were left to piece the story together. Everyone seemed to know a different piece, to have heard something from a different source. It was then that I began to see in Chronicle what Márquez, who started his career as a journalist, would have known well–that a story does not come from just one person, one vantage. There are many viewpoints that make it up, and each is important in relation to understanding the whole. And yet, is any tragedy ever understandable?

For years we couldn’t talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety. The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren’t doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate. (96)

I read this for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu of Winstons dad’s blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos. Thankfully, they’ve extended the month a bit into August!

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