Thursday, December 14, 2017

Gunnar's Daughter

After several weeks, Grant's hold on me slackened, and almost immediately, another book caught my eye: Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset.  Undset is best known for her trilogy of novels about Kristin Lavransdatter, the story of a woman living in 14th century Norway. Gunnar's Daughter was written nearly 20 years earlier, in 1909, and takes place in 11th century Norway and Iceland.

What a great discovery! The title character, Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, is badass. Wrongheaded, but badass. Undset wrote a character that was far ahead of her time, but Vigdis doesn't feel like an anachronism. She is both heroic and human. Strong and wise but flawed. This novel is short, but it packs a punch. It succeeds because Undset's scholarship is strong. Her lifelong study of Norse history is evident, and she obviously worked damned hard to get the language just right. Vocabulary and syntax -- it all shows up as pitch-perfect even in an English translation. My mind boggles as how much better it must be in Norwegian.

Another reason the novel worked so well is because of Vigdis' story. She is the victim of sexual assault. Her assailant is Ljot (pronounced "Yot"), an Icelandic Viking she was strongly attracted to. Vigdis wanted to proceed with courtship carefully and intelligently, but Ljot was childish and churlish. Sadly, he too feels quite modern. After Ljot rapes Vigdis, her rage knows no bounds. Over the course of several days, I went from Gunnar's Daughter to the current headlines and back again. It all felt like one story.

Undset also expertly and subtly adds another layer of tension. The story is set in the Saga Age, where the Vikings had their own gods and beliefs, but Christianity is starting to have some influence, but has not completely taken root yet.

It's difficult to believe how this book has been overlooked and considered merely a warm-up for the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Gunnar's Daughter, in spite of its brevity, deserves just as much respect. It is a novel whose time has come. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Meet The New Post; Same As The Old Post

All of this may sound familiar:

I'm still reading and enjoying Grant by Ron Chernow and excluding all other books from my life until I'm finished.

I'm still doing NaNoWriMo. Now the writing is starting to feel unwieldy and that scares me. Then I remember that it's OK to let it get out of hand this month. Next month I can edit.

 Mom is still in the nursing home. The doctor wants her to stay through Christmas. Maybe it will help to break this crazy cycle of home/hospital/nursing home.

But what's new?

I'm dreaming of a Bonnethead Christmas! No, not the tin cup and the penny this time. Took a run through the local bookstore today and there are so many new and delectable books, fiction and nonfiction, about Laura and her world.

There's a million things I haven't done, but getting a 2018 calendar isn't one of them. Hamilton is going to grace my wall for a second year.  As soon as I saw it, I didn't hesitate; I exhibited no restraint.

After a certain notorious monster died recently, I decided that I'm finally ready after many years to read Helter Skelter. Some other library patron had the same idea, so I'm on the waitlist.

Recently, I discovered the Broadway channel on satellite radio and I am in love. Problem: I'm listening to show tunes during my commutes to work and the nursing home and that's messing with my resolution to always keep an audiobook on the go. I don't know if I'll start another one before the end of the year but if I do, it will be The Nix by Nathan Hill.

Because I am listening to the Broadway channel so much, I am dreaming books into musicals almost every night. A Little Life. Lincoln in the Bardo. Grant. Even my own fledgling...there was a showstopper called Squawk the Squawk. That's all I can remember. Bye-bye, Tony Award!

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Words Fall In, The Words Fall Out

...but they don't play pinochle in my snout. I think. I hope. Where's a mirror? I've always been rather fond of my nostrils.

The words fall in (Part I):

I'm still reading Grant by Ron Chernow. 25% finished. I thought I might mix it up and read Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, but Grant won't let me cheat on him! I feel guilty contemplating other books. I downloaded a biography of James Baldwin that was the special of the day on Amazon, but I haven't opened it yet. Grant, why do you do this to me??? Hamilton and Washington were cool when I wandered off for a month or two or three.

The words fall in (Part II):

I'm still in the first-stage giddiness regarding my crush on The Restricted Section.  Never knew there was so much beer in the world.  Or bookstores and library sales in Springfield. I'm having a great time catching up on all of Megan and Sue's videos.

The words fall out (Part I):

With Mom back in the nursing home and my working 40-plus hours a week, I suddenly had an epiphany that absolutely nothing in my life is conducive to writing a novel. Too late now! I am having fun discovering new characters (a 100-year-old female business tycoon showed up on Wednesday. I was totally charmed) and having my friend choose her own character names. It's true that the words are falling out of me reluctantly, so on those days, I resort to elaborate outlines and Q and As about what I'm truly trying to accomplish in each section. This seems to be the way I go about novel-writing; I recognize some of the same tactics from Even if the Sky Falls Down. One of my characters is trying to take over all of Chicken Diary, so I promised her that she could have her own novel. I worried that I'd be doing both simultaneously (she's that overbearing!) but she's shut up for now.

The words fall out (Part II):

I have a couple of audiobooks I'm ready to pass on to someone else. Both are novels. The first one is The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I shied away from it for years, then it ended up being my favorite of his novels. The other one is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, about which I have so many mixed feelings that I could be in a bartender's recipe book. If you're interested in either or both, let me know and we'll work out the details.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Three Things To Start November

Since it's Daylight Savings Time this weekend, I've got an extra hour. What better way to spend it than blogging?

1. I'm reading Grant by Ron Chernow and I'm really enjoying it. Chernow is at the height of his biographical powers. Ulysses S. Grant seems so much more accessible than Washington. Like Hamilton, he jumps off the page. Hell, he jumps off the cover. Look at him. If you don't have the book, go get a fifty-dollar bill. I'll you see what I mean. He looks modern, all beardly and such. That soulful, forthright gaze. I feel as if I could walk down the streets here in Sedalia, MO and see Grant.  You know who else jumps off the page? General Sherman! He and Grant have a fine bromance. Like many people, I'm imagining a musical. This is a long read and Grant may be my last book for 2017. I hope not, because I was hoping to work in a read of Tess of the D'Urbervilles before the end of the year. If Grant does turn out to be my last book, what a great finish!

2. I haven't participated in NaNoWriMo since 2014, when I took a deep breath and wrote Even If the Sky Falls Down. It was a frustrating, exhausting and exhilarating experience and I want to do it again. So...enter the zygote novel provisionally titled Chicken Diary. I'd forgotten the fun of discovering things about the characters. Maybe I won't make 50,000 words, but I'll get a nice chunk done before the end of the month.

3. I've finally unpacked all my feelings about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was compelling, but not exactly the greatest prose I've ever read. Why was I so attracted? Then it hit me: I like overwrought stories. The Young and the Restless. Taylor Caldwell, my go-to comfort read. (I must do a post about Caldwell's Melissa, a novel I read earlier this year. Yikes.) Also, take away the gay storyline, as well as the edgy elements that make up Jude's past and present life in A Little Life and it's a 1940s "women's picture". There's suffering, but everyone is noble and attractive, apologizes profusely, and it's all done in gorgeous clothing, splendid houses and breathtaking settings. Yanagihara unapologetically lays it on with a king-sized trowel. I love the book. It annoys me, but I absolutely love it.

4. Okay, I know I said "Three Things" in the subhead, so just call it being bad at math or something. I found a new vlog on YouTube that I'm crazy about called The Restricted Section. Two young bookworms candidly discuss their reading and their book hoards and drink craft beer. Best of all, they are practically in my backyard! One hundred miles away, which is nothing. Maybe I'll get to meet them one day. Meanwhile, I eagerly await uploads from Megan and Sue.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What's The Matter Here?

That title has nothing to do with the 10,000 Maniacs song about child abuse. It has everything to do with my neglect of this blog.

What's the matter, Bybee? I asked myself. Don't you want to blog?


Then, BLOG, damnit.

Well, okay, then.


Since I last checked in 6 weeks ago, I've been to Chicago once (almost-almost met Unruly Reader!) and my mom has been in the hospital twice. Now she's back in the nursing home for yet another short convalescence. We are on a crazy carousel ride: Home, hospital, nursing home. She wants to come home soon, but I'm not seeing any real strength built up yet. I say stay a little longer and she tells me tales of my cruelty. Wash, rinse and repeat.

In spite of all this and a mean work schedule, I am still reading. It's the rope ladder I cling to with a bulldog's intensity. Here's what I've completed since we last met and I talked about my reADDing problem:

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles. I wasn't sure about this novel, but I buckled down and finished, and was rewarded for my efforts with the sudden whiffs of Casablanca-like intrigue. Towles' writing is gorgeous in that way that black-and-white movies are -- silvery and shimmery.

See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt. The atmosphere in this book about the Borden family in the days of the infamous murders is so thick you would need a machete to cut it, but take away the atmosphere and all that's left is excellent research and a shell of a story. I wanted to love this novel much more than I did.

I bailed on Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. Just wasn't feeling it.

A Good Marriage - Stephen King. This novella about a wife who finds out who and what her husband really is after almost 30 years is a trifle, a mere whisper of King's real narrative power. I enjoyed it as an audiobook.

Harriet Tubman - Kem Knapp Sawyer. A biography from the D-K series written for young adult readers. Very well done, although some of the material added for breadth and to put Harriet's world in perspective sometimes seems tangential. I am so glad that Harriet Tubman is going to be put on the $20 bill. I want to see her face nearly every day and rejoice in her bravery and badassery.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me - Sherman Alexie. Alexie's memoir of his mother isn't just about her, but he circles and circles and comes back continually. His wife commented that the book is pieced together like a quilt, which is an apt observation. It has a raw and improvised feel until you start to perceive its patterns. I'm always excited to see triangulation in memoirs. Both funny and heartbreaking. Recommended.

I'll Be Damned - Eric Braeden. I'm a longtime fan of The Young and the Restless and Victor Newman is my favorite character. I'd love to experience this memoir as an audiobook with Braeden doing the honors, of course.

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara. There is so much wrong with this book, yet I'm still thinking about it every single day. It's awkward, it's overwritten and under-edited and yet I was compelled to finish. I read it everywhere: the hospital, drive-in, cafeteria at work, in bed at night and in the mornings, in the car. It was intense and remorseless. I wanted to scream. Still sitting here staring down at a huge box of feelings in my lap.

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis - Ed Sikov. My favorite parts of the book were the ones in which Sikov discussed Bette Davis' films at great length. He has a witty, acerbic style that matches his subject almost perfectly. When I finished the book, I longed to see a marathon of Bette Davis movies. I still do. Pass the popcorn.

A few days ago, I DNF'ed The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. The premise -- that we have too much choice with everything and it doesn't add to our happiness -- was interesting, but I felt bogged down with dull writing as well as all the research and studies that seemed to act as padding for the book.

Annie Oakley - Chuck Wills. Another in the D-K biographies for young readers. This time, when the author added some breadth for context, it didn't feel so much like he had to struggle to bring it back to Annie. Lovely photographs. The soundtrack in my head has played Annie Get Your Gun for days, although the real Annie wasn't much like Ethel Merman.

My current read is Unf*ck Your Habitat by Rachel Hoffman. I'm such a sucker for decluttering books. Hoffman is not as charming as Marie Kondo, but she's effective. I haven't finished UfYH yet, but I suspect that her influence led me here to unf*ck my blog. Will it stay unf*cked? Stay tuned.

P.S. It's my Spawn's birthday. Born in 1984, (no, I didn't plan that) he's a kickass bookworm in his own right. He's reading Carry On by Rainbow Rowell.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Twelve Books on the Go?!

I finished two books in quick succession (a Taylor Caldwell novel and a juvenile biography of The Three Stooges) at the end of August, but during these first few days of September, I seem to be in one of those unfortunate cycles in which I can't finish anything and keep adding new reads. As of today, I have 12 books on the go. One dozen! I'm in various stages with each of them.  Some are barely begun, some are nearly finished, but I cannot seem to get the bookmark to move all the way to the end. Nothing qualifies as a DNF, partly because I'm interested in finishing and partly stubbornness.

Here are the twelve books currently languishing on my currently-reading shelf:

1. Washington: A Life. I've been working on this biography of our first president for nearly a year. It's not you, George. It's me. I cannot tell a lie. Also: I'm sorry, Ron Chernow! You know how I loved the hell out of Alexander Hamilton.

2. Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon - Leonard S. Marcus. I really disliked the execution of the new Brown biography published earlier this year, so I bought this earlier bio in a fit of pique. After reading a few pages, I felt my annoyance and interest ebbing away. Since this is a real book, as opposed to a digital one, I want to finish it and move it along.

3. A Taste for War: A Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray - William C. Davis. Food. History. What's not to like? A Taste of War is a slim volume, but so far, it's stiff academic reading. Starchy, if I may use a food simile. I can't quit though because, well, food! Recipes! I've never quit on a food book. Never. This book will not be my Appomattox.

4. The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt. I am really ashamed of myself about this one. I got 150 pages in and I stalled. Could not read another word. The book went back onto my Pulitzer shelf where it sits, reproaching me. I must go on because, well, Pulitzer fiction!!!

5. Heads in Beds - Jacob Tomsky. I was enjoying this witty, insider look at the hospitality industry. The small, fat paperback copy fits nicely in my purse. I need to put in back in there for all those dull blank moments in which I'm stranded somewhere without a book.

6. Clockers - Richard Price. A rich, complex novel that reminds me very much of The Wire. Alternating chapters tell of drug dealers and the cops who work that beat. I got stalled when the POV shifted. I will return to Clockers; it's too good to set aside permanently.

7. A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles. I am almost through with this novel. I didn't love it the way I loved Towles' previous effort, Rules of Civility, but it's pretty good. I wish I hadn't gotten sidetracked.

8. Buried Child - Sam Shepherd. I am having to accustom myself, after many years, to reading in play form again. All those stage directions and blocky blocks of dialogue.

9. See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt. A novel based on the Lizzie Borden case. Schmidt relies heavily on atmosphere, and my nerves felt jangly after a while. Needed a break at the halfway mark.

10. The Cooler King - Patrick Bishop.  The true story of William Ash, the pilot who was "the greatest escaper" from WWII German POW camps. Steve McQueen's character in The Great Escape was based on Ash's experiences. I've only just started this book, but I can see that it's well-written and the style engaging.

11. Confederates in the Attic - Tony Horwitz. My son and I are both reading this book at the same time! I do love a good, impromptu mother/son book club.

12. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis - Ed Sikov. A fun, gossipy read. I'm hoping that it will be a nice balance of discussion about Bette Davis's life and an intelligent examination of her film roles.

So there you have it. Someone please scold me and send me to my room with my books and strict orders not to come out until I've completed a few.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Revisiting a Childhood Favorite: Patricia's Secret

A couple of months ago, I reread an elementary school favorite, Patricia's Secret by Ruth Daggett Leinhauser, originally published in 1956. This book was one of the first "chapter books" I read. I was eight.

I found my copy again while cleaning out my mother's garage. I had to reread it to see why I loved it then and what it might mean to me now.

Easy to see why eight-year-old me loved Patricia's Secret. the story of a ten-year-old motherless girl whose Air Force officer father has finally come to pluck her from her helicopter maiden aunts in a small town in Iowa to live with him on a military base in California. Patricia hasn't seen her father since she was three, so she is, in effect, going off with a stranger. The secret of the title refers to her plan to be so naughty that her father will banish her back to Iowa.

The father is perfect. Handsome, patient, kind, nice. He reminded me so much of my own father, also a military man (non-comissioned). The military base setting was familiar and attractive. I thought Patricia was definitely wrong-headed, and when her father gave her the puppy for her birthday...oh my! Stop calling him "Father"! Call him "Daddy"! Can't you see that wistful look, you dimwit? I wanted to jump into the book and give Pat some much-needed counsel. It was pleasing to be smarter than a ten-year-old (she turns eleven during the course of the novel). The last chapter scared the crap out of me. I thought Patricia's father might be in peril. Imagine my relief when he comes up the walk. Sorry about the spoiler.

I'm still crushing on the father, but for different reasons. He is a little bit too good to be true, and his perfect grammar makes for somewhat stilted conversational prose. I still love the military base setting, and all the adults on Officer's Row that do their best to make Patricia feel at home. Patricia's "naughtiness" seems funny now as well as her efforts to adjust and it's obvious that her father fully sees her homesickness and confusion about the startling change. The aunts in Iowa hover so much, they seem almost like modern parents. Now, like then, I couldn't imagine why Patricia would prefer life with them to her new adventure. As for the last chapter, I could see clearly as an adult that it was set up to showcase Patricia's dramatic change of heart.

This double-vision exercise was fun. I'll have to find a copy of my very first novel, Ginnie and the New Girl and try it again.

My brother and me, about the time I read Patricia's Secret