Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Marriage Plot (which I did not finish) by Jeffrey Eugenides

I never did write an end of the year wrap-up post for 2011 or a post outlining my reading plans for 2012, but one goal I have for this year is to blog about every book that I read and here's the first one of the year that I did not finish. Generally, I'll give a book 50-100 pages before I let it go. I used to feel the need to finish every book that I started, but those days are long gone.

The Marriage Plot was one of the big books of last fall. You've probably seen it on the best-seller display at your favorite bookstore or library. I contemplated reading it, but then it dropped further down on my "maybe" list and I eventually forgot about it until the new book group that I joined this year chose it as our second book. (Our first book was A Discovery of Witches, which I read and loved last spring.)

So I gave The Marriage Plot the old college try. At first I enjoyed it, but pretty quickly started losing interest. I liked the writing, but the characters (and plot) didn't interest me and that's pretty much a must for me. I don't have to like the characters, but they do have to be compelling for some reason, any reason, to keep me reading. The characters in this novel lacked blood. I just couldn't force myself to keep reading and threw in the towel.

The novel had some good moments, such as the scene when, after a semiotics class, Madeleine runs into the library and pulls a literary classic off the shelf "to restore herself to sanity.” The passage goes on,
How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.
After suffering through literary theory classes myself in the early 90s, I could relate.

The other members of my book group gave it a 3/5 rating: they admired the writing, but the story and/or characters didn't grab them either.

Let me end by sharing with you a revealing detail about the particular library copy I was reading. I was struck by the number of dog-eared pages in this edition, particularly considering this is still a hot title with a lengthy waiting list at the library and not a book that's been around for decades or even a few years:
  • Between pages 3-82 there are 11 dog-eared pages. The book starts on page 3.
  • Between pages 83-406 there are exactly 0 dog-eared pages.
So, either people found bookmarks to use or I can safely take it as a sign that I'm not the only one who gave up on this one.

Have you read The Marriage Plot? What did you think?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Library: 3 in Freeport, IL

This post covers three library related buildings in Freeport, IL

1. Freeport Carnegie Library
314 W Stephenson St
Freeport, IL 61032

Grant date: February 21, 1901
Grant amount: $30,000
Architects: Patton & Miller (they also designed the Ida Public Library in Belvidere, IL)
Style: Classical Revival
Current holdings: 105,849 volumes
Annual Circulation: 274,148 items
Serves: 26,443 residents

Freeport's Carnegie library is the oldest Carnegie library in Illinois. It is no longer in use as a library and there's actually a court battle going on over who owns the building. (See here and here.) Whatever the resolution of that case, I hope the building will be saved and maintained.

Front entrance.
Close-up of the thank you to Mr. Carnegie.
A view through the front door. The interior from this vantage point doesn't appear to be original.
Two Greek statues flank the library.
Close-up of statue on the left, as you face the library.
Close-up of the statue on the right. She's now partially hidden among the bushes.
Beautiful lines and contrast.
The back of the library. Don't know if this was original or a later addition.

Window detail.

2. City Hall
230 West Stephenson Street
Freeport IL 61032

Built: 1899

There are several beautiful buildings along Stephen Street. Directly across from the Carnegie Library is a massive Masonic Temple, but the building that caught my eye is one with the names of authors engraved on the cornice. On the side of the building facing me as I walked over from the Carnegie Library are Dante, Shakespeare, Spencer, and Chaucer. Interesting order, I thought, but none of these names seemed particularly surprising choices (but now as I write this I do think Spencer a bit of an odd choice).

The side: Dante, Shakespeare, Spencer, Chaucer.

The front: Homer, Uhland, Regelais, Emerson, Milton, Addison, and Newton.
At first I thought this building was perhaps an older library, but then I noticed there were also a couple signs for the police department on the side. When I got around to the front of the building I saw that it was the City Hall. That made sense, as City Hall often housed the town library prior to Mr. Carnegie's philanthropy changing the library landscape of the country. The author names on the front were, however, rather surprising: Homer, Uhland, Regelais, Emerson, Milton, Addison, and Newton.  Uhland, Regalais, and Addison? I'd think Longfellow, Thoreau, and Stowe may have been more apropos for the period. At least Dickens. What an interesting mix, I thought, but then didn't think anything more about it until I ran across this fabulous explanation: 
When the cornerstone for the new city hall building was designed the architect, D.S. Schureman, asked that his name be inscribed on it. City Officials refused his request. He later suggested that since the new City Hall Building would also house the public library, it would be appropriate to inscribe the cornice with names of famous writers and scientists. City Officials liked the idea and agreed to it, oblivious to the architect's motivation for choosing such a random selection of names. After the work was completed, however, City Officials learned the method to Schureman's madness. The first letters of the names inscribed on the frieze spell D.S. Schureman (Dante, Shakespeare, Spencer, Chaucer, Homer, Uhland, Regelais, Emerson, Milton, Addison, and Newton). [source link]
Love it. Apparently D.S. Schureman was a man who got what he wanted.

3. Freeport Public Library
100 E Douglas Street
Freeport, IL 60132

After spending time walking around the Carnegie Library and City Hall, we drove over to check out the new library. Below are a few pictures. This library is very bright and open, but I prefer older architecture. There were many cool features inside--such as airplanes hanging from the ceiling in the children's section and a statue of Abe Lincoln reading to his son--but patron's faces are too clear in the photos to post here.
The new Freeport Public Library is a short drive from the Carnegie Library.
The side entrance. Monumental scale.
Walking through the doors was a surprise. You don't walk directly into the library, but into a lobby. One of the treats inside was this cool looking cafe. Pardon the fuzziness of the picture, but I wanted to show the stained glass.

Here's the entrance to the library.
I like these endcaps with the built in display shelves. The only other library I've seen these in so far is the Guilford, CT library's children's section.

Cather on the shelf.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Author Event: Anne Laughlin

Last night I attended the book launch for Anne Laughlin's new novel, Runaway. Anne was a 2008 attendee of the Lambda Literary Foundation's Emerging LGBT Voices writers retreat and studied under Australian mystery writer extraordinaire Claire McNab (Pen name for Clarie Carmichael). The book launch had a solid turn-out. At least thirty people crowded into the event space at Women and Children First.

Fellow Chicago writer Kathie Berquist was the opening act. While Anne and Kathie are both from Chicago, they first met in LA at the writers retreat mentioned above. Kathie read from a funny short story of hers before introducing the main event.

Anne took the stage and talked a little about what's been going on with her so far this year. She pointed out that the lack of hair poking out from underneath the cap she wore was due to being in the midst of treatment for the cancer with which she was diagnosed in January. No hair, but a styling cap.

Anne then read the the Prologue and Chapter One of Runaway. I had been fighting the clock to finish the book and arrived at the bookstore with about ten pages to go. Runaway is a solid page-turner of a mystery/thriller in the lesbian tradition, which means there is at least one blush-worthy sex scene. I enjoyed Laughin's writing and think she presented an original plot with a good balance between the thrilling action and the obligatory drama-filled budding lesbian relationship. (Personally, I wanted more thriller and less romance, but that's not the book she wrote.)

Runaway is primarily about Jan Roberts, a Chicago PI who escaped from her father's Idaho militia camp when she was 16. For the last twenty years Jan has been living her life under the new identity she created. Just as Jan and her partner take on a new case tracking down a runaway teen, the firm they work for is purchased by a British company. The new boss is a hot British women with MI6 in her background. Sparks fly between the new boss and Jan. The runaway teen ends up leading Jan back to the militia lifestyle she fled, first to Michigan and then to Idaho.

Laughlin has a great sense of humor, but doesn't overdo it. Here are two bits that made me laugh:
Catherine appeared to be in her mid-forties, but her breasts appeared to be in their mid-twenties. Jan wondered if she'd have the opportunity to examine whether that was the result of good genes, good lingerie, or good plastic surgery.
And then this from when Maddy, the young runaway, is participating in a militia training exercise in Michigan before her group moves to Idaho:
Maddy and Kristin were teamed up to learn about stealth movement and sensory awareness in the woods, which Maddy took to mean walking quietly with her headphones off.

I plan on reading more books from Laughlin and look forward to seeing where she takes her writing in the future. Below are some pictures from last night's event.

Kathie Bergquist

Anne Laughlin starting her reading.
Close up.

Anne Laughlin
Bold Stokes Books, March 2012
Format read: ebook
Source: bought it

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Library: Carnegie-Stout Public, Dubuque, Iowa

Henry L. Stout (bio)
Carnegie-Stout Public Library
360 W. 11th Street
Dubuque, IA 52001

Carnegie grant date: January 12, 1901
Grant amount: $60,000
Library opened to public: October 20, 1902
Architects: Williamson & Spencer
Style: Neo-Classical Revivalist
Addition built: 1981
Current holdings: 270,000 volumes; 600 periodicals & newspapers

The Carnegie-Stout library is the largest Carnegie library in Iowa that's still in use. Some of the early Carnegie grant libraries haven't survived because they were either poorly designed or not well-maintained (or they've been re-purposed), so it's a testament to Dubuque's generations of book lovers that this library still stands so proudly and serves its citizens.

According to the Encyclopedia Dubuque, it's also the first public library in the Midwest to achieve LEED green building status and the only public library in the country which is also on the National Register of Historic Places to achieve this status.

Here's a brief description of the library interior from the City of Dubuque's website:
The interior is elaborated with classical plaster denticulation, ornate copper railing and light fixtures, marble flooring and varnished white oak woodwork. An elaborate central rotunda with a 13-foot diameter light well in the dome facilitates circulation in the building. There are eight circular Corinthian columns with frieze and cornice ornamentation on the second floor of the rotunda area. 
Visiting the Carnegie library of Dubuque wasn't on our agenda when we took a daylong, mini-roadtrip earlier this month. We'd planned to have dinner in Galena, IL, but the weather was so unseasonably warm that the town was over-crowded with tourists, so we drove on to Dubuque in search of food. While driving around downtown Dubuque, we spotted the library (who wouldn't notice this huge, gorgeous building?) and had to stop and visit it (naturally, of course).

Just after I snapped a picture of the front of the library, a steady stream of people started coming out of the new addition. It was then that I noticed it was the dreaded hour of 5pm, the time when most libraries close on Saturday. I made it to the front door, but only in time for the nice librarian inside to wave at me and tell me they were, indeed, closed for the day. So close!

This is one library that I'll go back to visit. For one, it's an early Carnegie library. For two, I really want to see the interior details. For three, I wouldn't mind another dinner at Timmerman's Supper Club.

View from across the street. The original front doors are no longer the entrance.

The new addition on the left.

Andrew Carnegie did not stipulate that his name be used in or on the libraries built with his money, but I've read that it was common practice for earlier Carnegie grant libraries to use his name or have a plaque next to the front entrance.

Hooray for the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966! National Register

Column detail.

I love iron gates like this on libraries--it gives them a dangerous, potentially haunted edginess.

More architectural detail.
The entire library. New & old living in harmony.

Interior picture from Library Journal. (source link)
This interior shot from the library's Facebook page. (source link)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Song of the Lark: Thoughts and Comments

How's everyone doing with this novel? I haven't heard from many people about whether they're reading this one or not. I was happy to re-read it, but must say it was a challenge to get through at times.

My Thoughts
I fell in love with The Song of the Lark the first time I read it about twenty years ago. I was in my twenties and read it for a graduate seminar. As a budding feminist, I was captivated by the depiction of a young girl who has talent and passion and who pursues her dreams into adulthood, eventually achieving great success in her field. She didn't give it all up to get married or die tragically young. I admired how Cather slowed the action down to detail the influences in Thea's younger life, her hard work, and the sacrifices that she made for her art. My favorite part of the book remains Part IV: The Ancient People. I think it's one of the most beautiful and unusual pieces in American literature and I've often re-read that section just for the pleasure of it.

With this reading I was blown away by the character of the tramp. It's not that he commits suicide by drowning himself in the well and contaminating the town water supply with typhoid that captured my imagination, but the fact that he performs as a clown. As someone who used my high school math classes back in the early 80s as time to read the latest Stephen King novel, I can't believe I didn't pick up on the utter creepiness of the tramp as clown in my earlier reading. From the first scene where Thea watches him walk into town and can smell him from the safety of her porch, it's pretty unsettling. You know he's a bad omen. But then Thea catches his smell and covers her nose with her handkerchief: "A moment later she was sorry, for she knew that he had noticed it." The tramps notices her disgust, looks away, "and shuffled a little faster" past her house. In a horror novel, Thea would have been a marked woman. A few days later Thea sees him performing in front of one of the saloons: "his bony body grotesquely attired in a clown's suit, his face shaved and painted white,--the sweat trickling through the paint and washing it away,--and his eyes wild and feverish."  Part of me feels compassion for the man, but I also hear horror music screeching in the background. Cather so gracefully creates a powerful, yet subtle aura of horror with this character. It makes me wish she would have tried her hand at the ghost story.
More interested than ever to see this.

Overall, however, I admit that it was hard for me to get through The Song of the Lark this time. Part of the problem was I started reading it in ebook format and that was just not a good fit for me with this novel. Once I switched over to a hard copy the reading went a bit better, but the book still wore me out at times. I'm still pondering whether that's due to the variety of literary styles and imagery Cather used or whether it boils down to the fact that I no longer admire the myth or archetype of the Great Artist who gives up their humanity for their art.

One of the big discussions that I recall from the seminar where I first encountered Thea, was whether or not Thea is selfish, and whether we'd even ask such a question if the story were about a man. From my twenty-something perspective, I did not think Thea was selfish. I thought her drive and self-discipline was admirable. I was excited by her commitment to her passion and figured her mom understood why Thea did not come home to visit when she was on her deathbed. And it's not like she's begging Dr. Archie and Ottenburg to flutter about like they do. With this reading I saw the older Thea not so much as selfish, but as heartless and cold.

In her preface to the Autograph Edition in 1937 Cather wrote that she was portraying one type of artist, the type whose "personal life becomes paler as the imaginative life becomes richer." I was relieved to read this because it means that perhaps there are healthier and happier ways to be an artist. One doesn't have to end up a washed-up alcoholic like Wunsch, or be driven periodically insane by one's passion like Spanish Johnny, or live in emotional isolation like Thea. Or--shudder--end up completely mad like the clown.

Questions to Ponder
  • Is Thea simply dedicated or selfish? Or worse, a narcissist?
  • Is Thea racist?
  • Other than Thea's mother, why is it only men who see her talent and potential?
  • Do women have to give up love and friendship in order to pursue their dreams?

Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about reading The Song of the Lark, even if it's just a sentence. Also, has anyone seen the PBS film version and care to share your thoughts about it?

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Goebbles Gobbles Maugham

Mystery Scene is a magazine about mystery, crime & suspense books. Have you heard of it? If not and you're a mystery fan, you might want to check it out. Here's their website if you're interested. I've subscribed to it for several years now and enjoy the feature interviews with authors, reviews, and especially the smaller tidbits about books and writers. Some Barnes & Noble locations carry it.

In the latest issue (Number 123) a brief piece in the Mystery Scene Miscellany section, written by Louis Phillips, caught my eye: "Goebbels Gobbles Up a Story by Somerset Maugham." Who can resist the alliteration and connotation of Goebbels Gobbles? Anyway, it's just a brief, two paragraph piece and I hope Mystery Scene won't mind me sharing it with you here:
In 1941, Doubleday Doran and Company, Inc. reissued W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden: Or The British Agent, a 1928 collection of espionage stories based in part on Maugham's work for British Intelligence during WWI.
In the preface to the book, Maugham wrote: Though twenty years have passed since these stories were written I cannot think they are entirely out of date, since till quite recently, I am told, they have been required reading for persons entering the Department, and early in this war Dr. Goebbles, speaking over the air, taking one of them as a literal statement of recent facts, gave it as example of British cynicism and brutality.
Did Goebbles actually read the book or did someone just bring it to his attention as a useful example for his propaganda? The Wikipedia entry for the book claims it as an archetype of the espionage novel.

There have also been two screen adaptations based on some of the stories. In 1991 the BBC did a four-part mini-series directed by Christopher Morahan with the same title (Ashenden) and in 1936 Alfred Hitchcock directed a movie, Secret Agent, that was based on two of the stories, "The Traitor" and "The Hairless Mexican."

I'd never heard of the book, but all of the above has certainly stoked my curiosity. I put in an inter-library loan request for it yesterday and plan on reading it for the WWI reading challenge that I'm participating in this year hosted by Savy Wit & Verse.

Have you read Ashenden or seen either of these adaptations?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Part 4 (The Statesman): Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Bust of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon
I've let Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life languish for almost a year. I vowed to finish this book in January, then February, and now it's March. I'll aim to finish it . . . this spring.

 As I've said in earlier posts, this really is a good book. I've never put down a book for this long and come back to it. Not one that I still consider myself “to be reading.” I think one of the challenges is that I'm reading it in eBook format and don't have the reminder of a physical book sitting there and whispering read me! But this is an easy book to read in chunks as it's broken into parts that cover significant periods of Washington's life, so it's easy to pick it up again after having left off at the end of a section.

Part 4 covers the years between Washington’s return to Mount Vernon after his service during the Revolutionary War and leaving it again to serve as president. After the war Washington intended on retiring to private life, but due to his world-wide fame as the man who lead the new country to freedom, he was bombarded with correspondence, requests for appearances, and regular visits to his home. Due to the custom of the time, Washington's status, and his own sense of societal rank, he was obliged host these guests. As a result, his home had the feeling of a busy inn, with people constantly coming and going.

It seems that Washington had a temper when it came to money issues, and this section emphasizes his life-long challenges with money. Washington was “Habituated to profligate spending and a baronial lifestyle.” Even after the war to end British political oppression, he loved and followed British fashion and maintained "his old aristocratic habits” such as engraving his coat of arms on his new silverware. He behaved much differently among different people: merry and convivial with some, or silent and morose with those for whom he didn't care. Such behavior has made it challenging for historians to form a coherent portrait of his personality.

Washington’s finances rested on his plantation, and the management of the five farms that made up his plantation had suffered in his absence. He set about righting things, but there were hard years due to insect attacks, drought, and some rough winters, so that by the time he was voted president, he had to take out loans, pester a widow to pay up on her debts, and threaten some of his long-time servants with dismissal if they didn't perform at higher levels. I imagine his slaves had it much rougher during these times as well. Washington is considered a pioneer in agriculture. He experimented with crops, crop rotation, various types of barns and mills, and is even known as the Father of the American Mule.

During this time Washington was “a far more voracious reader than is generally recognized.” He wasn’t a Renaissance man of the level of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but he did have a broad range of interests, from agricultural treatises to biography to literary writers such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, and Oliver Goldsmith. In 1783 he ordered copies of Voltaire’s Letters to Several of His Friends, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also ordered biographies of Charles XII of Sweden, Louis XV of France, and Peter the Great of Russia. In 1785 he entertained Catharine Macaulay Graham for ten days. Graham was a well-know British historian and the two engaged in serious political discussions during her visit.

On the issue of slavery, Washington may have complained about slavery privately, but he didn’t have “the courage to broadcast his views or act on them publicly.” He spoke and wrote of slavery as a system that needed to end, but did so in a way that made it seem like the system was a burden to HIM, rather than a burden to the human beings that he enslaved. His take was that he couldn't afford to hire more help and so he relied on slaves, and slaves not only reproduced and created more slaves, they needed to be clothed and fed and attended to medically when necessary. Indeed, he considered slavery a “fair economic exchange: he clothed and fed his workers and ‘in return, I expect such labor as they ought to render.’” 

I know it serves little purpose to judge the past by contemporary standards, but I still find it mind-boggling that men who were so revolutionary in their thinking about freedom and equality maintained the institution of slavery (as well as other forms of discrimation). As Chernow writes on the matter, “talk was cheap.” Chernow writes some wonderfully direct statements on the issue: “The idea that abolition could be deferred to some future date when it would be carried out by cleanly incremental legislative steps was a common fantasy among the founders, since it shifted the burden onto later generations.”

And that burden ended up costing a lot of lives in the Civil War. Here are some stats:
  • Revolutionary War: 200,000 men fought and 25,000 died in battle, which was about 1% of the population.
  • Civil War: 3,000,000 men fought and 600,000 died in battle, which was about 2% of the population.

Chernow presents a detailed picture of how Washington carefully constructed his public persona against the backdrop of a new country that had found a hero during the war, one that they didn't want to let go of during peace time. Washington may have claimed that he’d rather “glide gently down the stream of life, leaving it to posterity to think and say what they please of me, than by an act of mine to have vanity or ostentation impute to me,” but Chernow doesn't mince words when he writes, “For all of Washington’s professions of modesty, the thought of his high destined niche in history was never far from his mind. Few historical figures have so lovingly tended their image.”

Part 5 is the big one: it's all about Washington's presidency.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Library: Ida Public Libary, Belvidere, IL

Ida Fuller Hovey (1859-1888)
Ida Public Library
320 N. State Street
Belvidere, IL 61008-3299
Boone County

The Ida Public Library was named after Ida Fuller Hovey whose father, General Allen Fuller, donated $5,000 to the city in 1883 to establish a library in her name. A Carnegie library grant of $17,500 was awarded on April 8, 1910 and the building was completed in 1912. An addition was added in 1987 that tripled the library's space to 15,000 square feet. New expansion plans are on hold until the economy picks up. I've come to anticipate Carnegie libraries to be in the Classical Revival style, but was pleasantly surprised to see that the Ida Public Library was designed in the Prairie style (with Classical Revival columns).

Built: 1912
Carnegie grant: $17,500
Designed by Patton &Miller

Addition completed: 1987
Collection: 75,942 volumes
Annual circulation: 169,988 items
Serves 20,820 residents

View from across the street. The original front doors are no longer in use. Front entrance is now on the right-hand side of the building.

The corner stone.

View from the original front entrance.
Plaque to the right of the original inner front doorway honoring Boone County citizens who died in World War I.

In the center of the original library, looking north.

In the center of the original library, looking south.
The clean lines of the Prairie style.

Window detail.

As always, I checked out the Cather selection.

A nice touch is the framed art posters atop the bookshelves. Above is Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.

A view of the 1987 addition. They did a nice job of tying in design elements to match the original section.

I agree!

Close-up of the original front entrance.
A thank you to Mr. Carnegie.
Classical meets Prairie.
Here's a view of the new addition. As you can see, the new front entrance is between the original library and the new addition.

Wheel chair access and lower level entrace. The children's department is on the lower level along with classrooms and staff offices.
A thank you to the Ida Public Library for 125 years of service. Presented by the Friends of the Ida Library in 2008.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...