Sunday, September 21, 2014

Functional Jewels

One of Columbia's little quirks is that it's home to the National Watch & Clock Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate with a huge collection of time-telling inventions.  Yesterday, my watch aficionado cousin and his wife were in town for a visit, so of course this was on our itinerary.  Here's a small collection of watch faces.  The colors and varied designs caught my eye.

But mostly, I found myself drawn to the pocket watches.  Small but full of detail, functional but beautiful designs.  Sandy asked me which one I'd choose, if I had to pick one.  She was joking, but I actually had an answer, it's this one!

Or this one, or the next one, or maybe the one after that.  Really, any of them would be fine :)

I can't say that I'm particularly interested in watches over any other subject matter, but I love antiques and these definitely qualify under that clause :)  I really do enjoy the craftsmanship and ornate styles - they just don't make them like this anymore.    

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Shipping News

I veered off-challenge for my last read, and stayed off for this one.  As I've said before, I need some lighter reading right now than what a lot of my 2014 Challenge books can offer, so I picked this out of one of my many book piles because it's a self-proclaimed "literary page turner."


Really, this is an odd duck.  (Might one say, a gammy bird?!?)  The beginning, set in the northeastern United States, is very different from the remaining 85%, set in Newfoundland.  I enjoyed the conceit of relating the chapters to different kinds of knots, Proulx doesn't seem to take it too seriously and that's good.

The hearts and souls of the story are the tough Newfoundlanders that Quoyle meets - and eventually becomes one of.  The lifestyle is already hard, and economic opportunity is dwindling.  Traditional skills are dying along with the fisheries.  The physical environment is unforgiving, dreary, astoundingly beautiful, and violent in turns.  The setting and atmosphere is a knockout.

Proulx's writing style here is unique.  It's not 100% grounded in realism.  People are named Petal and Bunny and Wavey.  Houses become symbols and highly unlikely things that verge on the supernatural occur.  The sentences are choppy and may be meant to mimic the speech patterns of the locals.  Her way of turning a phrase is fantastic.  There is a lot of out and out humor, but also more than a few heart-breaking tales.

I was a little disenchanted, close to the end, with the way the story was heading.  Nothing seemed to resolve.  Then, in the last 50 pages or so, it won my heart over.  Really, you just want to spend more time with the characters, listen to them talk.  I love books like this, ones that look at a rural or folk culture and see its depth and soul, along with the warts, and ones that look at what people can do when even a smidge of kindness is shown to them.

Final Call:

This is probably actually a four and a half, but what the hey.  The book's spirit and style tips it up to five.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Midnight Crossroads

Oh, Charlaine.  We have a long history and I do still like you, but this book is just off.  Midnight Crossroad is the first in a new trilogy.  I knew it was part of a series, but not one so short, so I expected more of a full arc in this installment.

Midnight is a small town in Texas, and every one of the dozen or so folks who live there has something strange going on.  Manfred, the main character, is from the Harper Connolly books, and we soon find out that Bobo has connections to Harris's Shakespeare books.  And there's a vampire and possibly a shapeshifter.  So there is a lot going for Midnight Crossroad.  

But it ended up being messy.  Manfred's psychic skills are very much a minor factor, and it feels like a missed opportunity.  The story doesn't go where you think it will.  It really doesn't go anywhere.  The "big" climax deflates and doesn't resolve in this book.  It also has nothing to do with the murder that drives the plot.  The killer is revealed, though, and his fate leaves you feeling morally antsy.  I'm not even going to get into the cat.  

The writing itself seemed super-simplistic.  The last half of the book was marginally better, but the first chapters read like they were written for ESL students or adults just learning to read.  Fiji crossed the street.  Like usual, there was no traffic.  She was wearing a brown skirt.  She opened the door to the restaurant.  See Spot run.  Look at Jane go.  Just very basic sentence structures and characterizations.

And the names, Good Lord, the names.  Manfred, Bobo, Creek, Fiji. Lemuel. Madonna.Teacher.  So many were so hokey that they detracted from the story for me.  Although, there are Lemuels in my family tree, so I'm okay if one makes a come back!    

Then every once in a while, Charlaine would sneak in a sharp observation or a crafty little sentence that reminded me why I enjoy her books in the first place.  She's great at writing regular folks, even if she does use one-dimensional thugs and white supremacists for her bad guys.  But I'm not sure the pain is worth the gain in Midnight Crossroad.   

Final Call:
If you like Charlaine Harris, this might be worth the few hours it will take for you to read it.  Otherwise, eh.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters ended up with three books in this year's challenge, and I have already read Fingersmith.  Because she is one of the most readable authors left, and so much of my mental energy is being diverted, and my time for pleasure reading is virtually nil,  I picked up The Little Stranger.


This isn't Victorian-era Sarah Waters, but it is still very much rooted in her strengths.  Emotional tension, uncomfortable moments, plots that will never work out happily ever after, ambivalence about absolutely every character.  Not a single one is completely sympathetic, and there is no obvious bad guy.

You have the actual horrors of the time period.  The great halls of England falling to pieces as the great families don't have the money for upkeep and servants.  The awkwardness of upper class families  trying to maintain their social status while selling off their land and possessions to survive.  The trauma the World Wars inflicted on England.  And then pair those real, historical problems with the horrors of a house that seems to want to kill its residents - a family who is far from perfect but doesn't deserve their fates.

In a lot of reviews I saw, people were angry because the ending is ambiguous.  But, it isn't, at least I don't think so.  Throughout the book, you try to work out the root of the "evil" happenings in Hundreds Hall, and you really aren't sure.  But by the end, there's only one source left, and he shares his name with the father of electromagnetism.  At that point, it's holy obvious poltergeist, Batman.

Other people complained that it wasn't very scary.  I think that depends on how you like your horror.  I found very little gore, but plenty of out and out creepiness. I tend to think the best horror comes out of authors like this, who weave it subtly in to everyday life.  Particularly at the beginning, where everything seems mundane, and then insanity emerges in small doses and doesn't let go.

Final Call:
Waters is just a great author and you should read this.  Maybe around Halloween, I wish I had waited.  It's the perfect mood for a dreary fall day.

Whirlwind Labor Day

Soooooooo, I'm studying hard for a big test in November, and that has cut down on my blogging time.  But I am popping in to share some pictures from our Labor Day weekend getaway.

We decided to explore Pennsylvania's northern tier of counties: Tioga, Potter, and McKean, and even a smidge of Warren.  Our first stop was PA's "Grand Canyon," the Pine Creek Gorge.  This is a view from Leonard Harrison State Park.  We hiked the Turkey Path down to the bottom of the gorge, where a nice rail trail runs.

Despite some rain early on, we decided the next day to go ahead and try to see for Kinzua Bridge.  The rain stopped right as we parked!  Kinzua was one of the tallest railroad bridges in the nation, until a tornado destroyed two thirds of it in 2003.  Now you can walk out on the remaining part, where they have installed glass panels in the bridge decking.

I'm really glad we got to see this.  You don't normally encounter destruction on that scale.  Something we read said that when the bridge was rebuilt with steel in the 1900s, the engineers kept the 1800s-era iron bolts that held the bridge to the concrete supports.  It's the bolts that failed.

We camped at a place called Austin Dam Memorial Park.  It's a quirky place completely run by volunteers and I am blown away by how much they have been able to accomplish.  The story of the place is sad.  In 1909, a lumber mill constructed a large dam to power their works.  Two years later, after heavy rain, the dam gave way and destroyed the mill and most of the town of Austin.  At least 78 people died, often whole families.  The park memorializes the disaster and contains the ruined pieces of the dam.  This picture doesn't do justice to their size.

On our way home on Monday, we stopped at Stevenson Dam State Park for one amazing view, and then at Hyner View State Park for another:

Hangliders use Hyner View as a take-off spot, and we were fortunate to get there right before one took the plunge.  The river below is the West Branch of the Susquehanna.