Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a part of Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - F is for Fitzgerald (and Flower, and Fritz, and ...)

Fritz, son of an pious, proud and poor nobleman in late 18th century Germany, is clearly destined to be a poet, though he tries to force himself into a more practical, and pecuniary, profession. From the start, the reader realizes Fritz is flighty and pensive, even if his thoughts are rather impentrable. The opening chapter introduces us to Fritz's family on laundry day, when their underclothes are billowing in the air as a friend comes to visit. Fritz admonishes his friend, "Gentlemen! Look at that washbasket! Let your thought be the washbasket! Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!"

I have no idea what he means by that. I can guess, though, what Fitzgerald means it to reveal about her character - that he seeks the essence of the universe in individual things, that his thoughts do not often untangle themself well when aired to others. The richness of the personal interior is one of the key themes of the book, which has a relatively simple plot. I hate to write this, as it doesn't happen until nearly a third into the book, but it's on the back flap ... Fritz falls in love with the young (12!) Sophie, and the rest of the book is an examination of his love as he waits for her to age, to catch up. This strange love is confusing to those around him, some of whom regard Sophie as a halfwit, although there are others who become equally caught in her spell.

The crux of the book, though, is not Sophie but a story Fritz has written about a blue flower. A young man remembers a blue flower a stranger showed him, and he says, "I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world." After reading the story to a young woman who is in love with him, though Fritz is ignorant of it, he asks her, "What is the meaning of the blue flower?" It is a question that haunts the reader for the rest of the book.

Overall, this is a quiet, strange story. It is written in a romantic style reminiscent of Goethe, who haunts the edges of the story as a character himself. I suppose it's better to think of it as a poem, one that Fritz would eventually write when he fulfills his destiny, with a lovely collection of images, people and feeling that reveals meaning after contemplation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Great Gatsby - the Ballet?

This might end up being like either a spork, a liger (see illustration, via Napoleon Dynamite), or a mule. (Respectively: Fabulous combination, A great idea but fails in execution, or Stubborn and sterile.) But, in anticipation, I'm very excited. The Washington Ballet is world-premiering The Great Gatsby at the Kennedy Center - the book turned into an original, full-length ballet. Since part of the appeal of The Great Gatsby is the brilliant use of language and the specific, pithy insights into human nature, I'm not sure it will translate. But I'm quite willing to give it a try! And in the meantime, I get to reread the book (which I have - ack - never actually finished), which is most enjoyable in and of itself. If you're in Washington, check it out! And who knows, if this succeeds, perhaps they'll take it on the road.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What is it with England?

I can feel the addiction building, lingering at the edge of my vision and threatening to pounce on me. It's an addiction that seems to take nearly every white American (and many others) who are interested in history - that fascination with England, and particularly medieval/Elizabethan England. (Am I wrong here? Is my addiction already so full-blown that I'm seeing legions of fellow addicts when really we are few?)

Part of this is timing - I am planning, in the future, to set one my my next books in medieval England. (Ack, another book on mud and knights and kings? I can't help myself ...) But part of it is the particular cultural diet I've had recently. First, the Shakespeare Theatre's incredible, stunning, and strangely sexy Henry V. If you're in DC, check it out. Second, I'm reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, and in addition to being among the most unique reading experiences I've had, it's getting me hooked on Henry VIII. (Yes, different time frames, but I think romantically they are all linked.) Next, I bought Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt today. I'm slipping down the hill!

Now, I have not yet sewn a Renaissance Festival dress. I swear I will not go that far! I swear! (Though I would probably cave if I could shoot a recurve bow, or even a longbow. Man, I want one of those.)

A note - I just came upon this wonderful Database of the Soldier in Medieval England. You can search by name! I searched for Bell, my mother's mother's family, and found many Bells. Who were archers. Hmm.
A second, completely tangential note - For anyone else interested in the moral value/role of fiction, something I've written on in the past, D.G. Myers does a much more eloquent job than I in examining some recent thoughts on the topic.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On a book with a great title and distinct voice

The snow machine currently whirring over the DC area has given me a number of things, not least of which is time to sit home reading and writing. The first book to succumb to my snow-induced reading crusade was Brigid Pasulka's A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True. I'm not going to write up each book I read, but I wanted to highlight this one for two reasons: one, it was really good; two, it has a tremendous voice.

Voice, as writers know, is that often-elusive, ever-touted sense that the words on the page come together with a certain personality. Pasulka's book is a great example because she has two distinct voices alternating. One is a sort of magical realism tale-teller's omniscient POV voice, and the other is the first-person voice of a twenty-something single woman languishing on the edge of Poland's new, post-Soviet modernity. The first sparkles with fairy tale glitter, even when it's diving into the bloody horrors of war, and the second resonates with the repressed hope of a serious young woman unwilling to recognize her dreams, much less embrace them. I strongly recommend reading it just for the interesting study in contrasts.

That said, it's also a really good story. Not necessarily a page-turning, thrilling adventure, but still an engrossing depiction of love, sacrifice, and the search for meaning. Yes, that sounds cliche, but I'm trying not to spoil anything. And, distilled, just about any life-affirming story sounds cliche (even calling it "life-affirming" is cliche). Maybe it's better to phrase the question in the way the first-person narrator does - is she on the shelf, put away from life, or off the shelf, circulating? Get to know her, and her answer might surprise you.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The ALF in my house

Maybe it's the result of being cooped up in the apartment for four and a half days (tomorrow makes that five and a half). Maybe it's that I over-think things (just ask the husband :) ). But I can't stop staring at the cats and thinking What alien life form are you and why are you living in my house?

Really, why do we let these small creatures with their impenetrable thoughts in our homes? Ok, yes, I love them to pieces, but I'm convinced that it's some sort of spell they cast on me. I am certain that the female kitty (K1, for those who recall) regards me as simply a giant walking lap that once a day pours food into the bowl. When the lap is sitting, it must be sat upon. When the lap is standing, it must be begged for treats.

I feel so used.

Yet, I love them! Can't get enough of them! Just want to snuggle my face into their furry little bodies til I sneeze from all the fur up my nozzle. And anyways, I'm just guessing that's that what she thinks. Because, unlike with dogs and husbands and houseguests, cats usually keep their thoughts to themselves. (Why are you sitting in that cardboard box even though it's too small for your bottom? Why is the appearance of a laptop bag cause for intense investigation and much chewing of zipper?)

Maybe this is some sort of alien reality TV show ... I wonder how I could leverage that for 15 minutes of Xordox fame.

Or maybe I should stop staring at the cats and get back to writing that novel.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Flame Spirit's Choice

Each night the company performed, which was at least thrice a week when times were good, the little flame spirit crept from her lantern to watch. She left a fire spell, mirroring her own energy to cast light upon the magical stage, so no one would notice her absence. It was a risk, she knew, flitting from her hanging lantern like a loose spark to fall upon the stage. If she weren't careful, she could set the whole beautiful theatre ablaze. But she was careful, for she loved the plays.

Her favorite was Shakespeare. The playwright's words seemed channeled from her deepest essence, grown into a bonfire or condensed into smoldering ashes upon the stage. Crouched lightly, dimly, on the edge of the stage, she folded her little knees upon herself and drank in the words.

Henry V: We must bear all. O hard condition, Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath Of every fool whose sense no more can feel But his own wringing ...

She remembered little of her life before the theatre, although dimly she knew it to have been long. She supposed she had been born from the death of an old flame spirit, grown so great in his power that he splintered like a log burning, shedding dozens of sparks that would become her brothers and sisters. Such is the balance of the world, and she knew that was her fate too, so she had tried to keep herself modest, her feelings limited. That was how she remembered so little, for she had truly experienced very little.

But the theatre tested this. The actors conjured a broad world, igniting a passion within, and it was all she could do to constrain herself, to keep from inhaling the contagious passions and releasing them, doubled in strength.

Lear: Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones! Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever.

She did once, it was true, singe a curtain. Fortunately a stage hand glimpsed the smoke and tossed a bit of water upon it - the flame spirit was out of range of the splash, happily. But the blackened curtain, which the company could not afford to replace, just as they could not repaint the cracking gilt upon the walls or reupholster the worn velvet seats, reminded her of her choice. That she had decided to live, to experience the magic that this stage produced, reflecting - she guessed - the magic of the world, even if that choice, that life, meant that her own was eventually to end. She revelled in her choice as she crouched at the edge of the stage, watching, the dim flicker of her light reflected in eyes of the theatre's patrons, who leaned forward, absorbed in the drama.

Image is of the Princess Theatre in Dunadin, 1876, courtesy of Down Under in the 19th Century.

The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. E is for Edwidge!

A brief note: I drafted this review before the earthquake in Haiti, and now it seems even more important to advocate for this fabulous book. In a testament to the power of fiction (and perhaps the weakness of the human mind), reading the story Edwidge Danticat unfolds makes Haiti's current tragedy a little more real, as her tale grants Haiti just a bit more human depth for those who live so far away. Or at least for me!

This book is beautiful. Stunning. It's a simple story - a woman on the wrong side of a border, at the wrong time in history. But Edwidge Danticat tells the tale of Amabelle, a Haitian orphan working in the Dominican Republic, with such intricate beauty and passion, that it's a page-turning thriller you wish you could slow down to enjoy but can't, not quite. There are a number of themes and motifs that make reading a discovery, a delicious uncovering of meaning and beauty.

The book opens with Amabelle's description of her lover and how he brushes away her nightmares. It's a touching scene, with the vulnerability of her naked body foretelling the danger that lurks, but also promising an amulet of protection. From there Danticat alternates between chapters where Amabelle tells her harrowing story and chapters where she touches her dream world - worlds that, almost inevitably it seems, begin to converge by the end.

The story takes place in 1937 but it doesn't feel that distant - unfortunately, I suppose. The passions and violence that fly into the characters' lives feel too much like something we could read about in the news today. But that is part of the book's appeal. Are we reading about something dead and buried, or a living cowardice? And how do we bequeath the knowledge we have?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Because there's nothing more satisfying than confirming your own conclusion

I work in a place where we (hold on, this is shocking) have to make decisions. Then we sit back and see if those decisions were correct. (Completely fictional example: "Yes, I think unicorns will be widespread this year, so I think we ought to buy unicorn-protection gear for our people." Six months later, "Wow, did you see Bob survive that unicorn attack? I'm glad we got him that unicorn-proof umbrella.")

So, as many of you can likely affirm, finding information that proves you're right is incredibly satisfying. The risk, of course, is that you search for corroborating information and ignore dissonant information. But, disregard that, because I'd like to share a lovely little tidbit that made me feel even more secure in the conviction expressed in my last post! (Quick recap: Reading fiction makes you a better human.)

My current living-in-the-purse book is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick. It is a fictionalized letter from the Emperor Hadrian that's ostensibly about his life but is really a series of beautiful philosophical musings. (So does it count as fiction? Of course!) It's great bus reading, sucking me away from the humdrum existence of public transit. Today I reached this gem:

"Grammar, with its mixture of logical rule and arbitrary usage, proposes to a young mind a foretaste of what will be offered to him later on by law and ethics, those sciences of human conduct, and by all the systems wherein man has codified his instinctive experience."

I love it! It got me thinking about other tidbits that have reaffirmed my conviction (remember, we're ignoring dissonant information today). Anyone out there have good examples of your own?

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma