On my Bedside Table

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Librarians of Alexandria

by Alessandra Lavagnino

Is it too late to add a New Year's resolution? I really have to work at picking up more fiction -- I want to resolve to read a novel a month. So here's one for August. I don't know what it is with me and fiction -- I didn't even really start this one until it was almost due back at the library. So I had to renew it when I was about two-thirds of the way through it.

The girl that renewed it for me asked me what I thought about it. I was having a hard time getting into it. Usually I reach a point by 50 or 75 pages in where the story starts to pull me along, but with this one I was about 150 pages in before it stopped feeling like work.

She agreed that it did feel like work to read -- for her it was because it kept jumping from family to family and by the time a character reappeared it was hard to pick up the thread again.

I had to admit with some embarrassment that I was having trouble keeping the names straight -- it was like reading Russian literature or something, I had to really work at figuring out who we were talking about. Didn't think I'd have that problem with Italian names.

I picked this one up because I'd heard that the author really captures a sense of place well, bringing it to life with her details. And indeed, the setting were beautiful, but I can't really vouch for how well she captured them, because I've never been to Alexandria, or Rome, or Palermo.

So that's where things stood when I renewed it -- then I turned the corner into where she isn't jumping from family to family, but ties them all together around one broken marriage, viewed through the eyes of the couple's 10-year-old daughter. And again, she uses layers and layers of detail to capture a character and her reactions this time rather than the setting. And this is a place I have been to, so I can say it's uncanny how real it is on the page.

Everything this girl thinks, all her responses and actions, they're all true. I remember it being exactly that way. That sense of no longer being your authentic self, because you are forced to constantly play a role based on what's expected of you or what those close to you want to hear. All the people and places familiar to you are still there, but forever changed by what's happened -- they're given back to you broken. How this all makes you a different person than you were before.

I don't know how she wrote this. I didn't remember it until I read it -- I can't take myself back to my 10-year-old self. How did she do it?

Not easy to read, the last part, but I couldn't stop. Ugh. Now I feel like I've been on a therapist's couch for the two days it took me to finish the book.

One final note -- the thing that interests me most about the author is that she was "a biologist and professor of parasitology at the University of Palermo until her retirement, she is also the author of more than 50 papers on tropical diseases." Cool!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Virgin of Bennington

by Kathleen Norris

I picked this one up on the strength of The Cloister Walk, which I read a few years back, and I guess I was expecting it to be more of the same. It took me a while to get into it because the early chapters talk about the type of person she was when she first went away to college at Bennington in the late 60’s – she was a very sheltered Midwestern girl, very unprepared for the scene she was immersed in. In fact, she seemed to be quite unprepared for any sort of experience at all – everything seemed to be somehow much more difficult and stressful for her than it needed to be. All this was rather exasperating to read, but it was saved by the fact that she didn’t seem to have any self-pity in reflecting on that time in her life. It seemed that she was giving an honest appraisal of herself.

I enjoyed the book much more once she got to describing her experiences at work at the Academy of American Poets. The book stops being about her and becomes a memoriam to her mentor and employer, Betty Kray. Betty Kray is like NYC’s version of Sylvia Beach, but the champion of poets rather than ex-pat authors; the midwife of 20th century American poetry. I love books that make me realize how little I know – I’d never heard of Betty Kray, but after reading this I’m so glad to have learned something about her.

The other thing I enjoyed about the book was its portrayal of the NYC literary scene, and what a small world it seemed – the irony of a huge city is that it supports microcosms – as Norris puts it: a “small town” of people with shared interests, with a small-town atmosphere of connections and support as well as small-town politics and power issues.

There was a lot of name dropping going on in the NYC section of the book and it impressed me how the literary world intersected with other groups and things going on in the city. There was a nice mix of high culture and pop culture going on in Norris’ life –poets and their work for her day job and nights partying in the realm of Bob Dylan, Warhol, and the Velvet Underground.

Overall rating – not a waste of time, learned something worthwhile.