Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

blackberrywine

Perennial, 2001. ISBN 0-380-81592-3

Summary, from cover:

As a boy, writer Jay Mackintosh spent three golden summers in the ramshackle home of “Jackapple Joe” Cox. A lonely child, he found solace in Old Joe’s simple wisdom and folk charms. The magic was lost, however, when Joe disappeared without warning one fall.

Years later, Jay’s life is stalled with regret and ennui. His bestselling novel, Jackapple Joe, was published ten years earlier and he has written nothing since. Impulsively, he decides to leave his urban life in London and, sight unseen, purchases a farmhouse in the remote French village of Lansquenet. There, in that strange and yet strangely familiar place, Jay hopes to re-create the magic of those golden childhood summers. And while the spirit of Joe is calling to him, it is actually a similarly haunted, reclusive woman who will ultimately help Jay find himself again.

My thoughts:

This review will not be as in-depth or well planned as my previous ones have been. I picked Blackberry Wine up at the AAUW book sale because I liked Chocolat, which is also by Joanne Harris. This book began quite dry, but as the story progressed, it picked up pace. Yet, it lost any realism that it had in favor of imaginative twists that did not fit the story.

The characters broke the story. I did not believe Marise’s reasoning for staying at the farm to be believable. Kerry also a shoddy character, lacking any conceivable realism at the end. I wanted to reach into the story and smack her across the face. Jay himself had no depth, and his later scene with Marise made me cringe. Jay is a directionless lead, especially as the “Specials” lose their hold as the most interesting characters in the story.

Flashbacks work well for many stories, but they did not work completely for this book. Alternating every other chapter worked well for the first half, but the second half seemed to be missing something. That something was the flashbacks- and the scene with Kerry at Pog Hill felt out of place. Yes, it set Kerry up for who she becomes at the end of the story, but it did not belong to the theme.

Even though there is much to complain about regarding this book, there are highlights. A revisit to Lansquenet is very appreciated, as well as Josephine, one of my favorite characters from Chocolat. The flavor of Chocolat was not lost upon Blackberry Wine. The exposition involving Lansquenet was delectable. I could easily and vividly imagine every setting.

In the end, I was disappointed by Blackberry Wine. I expected another stunner like Chocolat, but the mix of luxurious settings and poorly defined characters made for a haphazard story. The story felt fettered and disorganized with Jay leading rather than the “Specials.” The first half, while dry, made more sense than the second half- which managed to be as twisty as the streets of Lansquenet.

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Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver

swan

Beacon Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8070-6914-1

Summary, from cover:

“Joy is not made to be a crumb,” writes Mary Oliver, and certainly joy abounds in her new book of poetry and prose poems. Swan, her twentieth volume, shows us that, though we may be “made out of the dust of stars,” we are of the world she captures here so vividly. Swan is Oliver’s tribute to “the mortal way” of desiring and living in the world, to which the poet is renowned for having always been “totally loyal.”

My thoughts:

I am an ardent fan of Mary Oliver. Since reading Upstream in 2016, I have been on a rampage to read every book she has written. Out of them all, I have enjoyed Swan the most. Even though my favorite poem, “Wild Geese,” is not in this collection, I found many new favorites. Swan is a tight knit collection that is a stellar addition to her repertoire.

My most favorite in this collection was the prose-poem “How I Go to the Woods.” The very last line, “If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much” is what brought tears to my eyes. I am the same way- unless I am doing field work for my research project, I go to the woods alone. It is easier that way, as I can fade into the woods and be invisible. I do not have to keep track of someone, only myself and my own breathing. If I were to take someone into the woods with me, they would have to be the most loved person in my life. Mary Oliver describes the quiet love for nature and others that I want to have with “How I Go to the Woods.”

“Swan,” the namesake for this collection, was my second favorite. Mary Oliver often writes poems that are composed only questions, and “Swan” is one. I like the poems she does this way, as they challenge me to think about life rather than absorb the poem. As with “How I Go to the Woods,” the last three lines were the ones that brought the whole poem to my attention. Her subject swiftly changed from questioning what I saw to what I perceived. Mary Oliver gets in your face this way: do you see it? do you see the beauty in the world around you? and forces the reader to stop and think.

My last favorite from the collection is “Passing the Unworked Field.” I enjoy all flowers, and one I especially like is Queen Anne’s Lace. There used to be a great patch of Queen Anne’s Lace behind my house, and when I was younger, I would pick them to bring in. More than once, I got in trouble for dragging in the little bugs that lived in the center. This poem reminded me of the long summer days and the heat on my back as I picked flowers.

I definitely consider Swan as my favorite Mary Oliver work. There were many wonderful poems in this collection, and three of them have become new favorites. Oliver’s work manages to gently remind the reader of all the beauty around you, and how to see it. I know I will be going back to this volume to read over and over again.

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

thephantomoftheopera

Puffin Classics, 1994. ISBN 0-14-036813-2

Summary, from cover:

The legendary rumours of an ‘opera ghost’ take on a terrifying reality when the beautiful young singer, Christine Daaé, suddenly disappears after her triumphant performance. An ever increasing pattern of fear and violence pervades the dim backstage areas of the Opera House, as the phantom threatens to strike once more.

My thoughts:

I was so excited to read this book- when I found it at the AAUW book sale in May, I danced in my spot. Eureka! The book I had been waiting for. After reading, I was disappointed with the whole story. The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most boring and dry works I have ever read… and that is coming from someone who thought Jane Eyre was dry. This book was drier than dry, this book makes the Sahara desert an oasis.

In the first twenty pages, nothing remarkable happens. In the first hundred pages, nothing remarkable happens. In the last fifty pages is all the action. There is so much exposition that it drowns out the actual story. Who gives a flying cow how the directors needed a safety pin? Why do we read so much about Madame Giry? Who cares?! I am reading this book for the hideous love story between the Phantom and Christine! I want romance! I want action! The first twenty chapters is akin to a joke without a punchline. I kept waiting for something to happen, but was let down every five pages.

The bad writing culminates in the booby scene in chapter 21. The Persian is going after Christine, but is stopped by the Phantom. The ensuing battle of wits is circular and full of half-hearted jabs at each other’s wit. Why would a villain call someone a great booby over and over again? I know this alludes to the stupidity of a bird species, but it’s a genius villain resorting to a childish phrase. I read this part at 11pm and I reread it the next morning in complete astonishment. It’s pulp rather than literature… there was no point to this scene aside from showing that the Persian knows who the Phantom is.

The description of the Phantom’s torture chamber is confusing. I couldn’t imagine the scene in my mind at all. I later Google’d the chamber, and the drawings helped make sense from the poor description in the book. The torture chamber actually is a fantastic contraption, which is the only true evidence to the Phantom’s genius. Throwing a man into a hall of mirrors to become stark raving mad and to hang himself is right up the Phantom’s masochistic alley. It’s a shame that when exposition was necessary, there was none at all!

If you want to know about The Phantom of the Opera, watch the musical. This is a rare moment when the movie is better than the book. The Phantom of the Opera is not a major literary work- if it even is a real literary work at all. An imaginative premise was destroyed with too much shallow exposition and cheap writing tactics. I would not recommend this book to anyone, and I would rather hand a friend a copy of the musical than a copy of the book.

a dedication

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
-John Keats, To Autumn

 

Growing up, I always felt that this poem was dedicated to me. I adored it in its entirety, every gorgeous word and flowing stanza twirled in my life as falling leaves do. Keats was the writer that introduced me to poetry and the ensuing obsession- years later- for the written word.

 

For a long time, I have wanted to write. It was always hanging at the end of internet biographies- Autumn: geologist, reader, writer. However, I kept my words to myself in journals, diaries, and occasional anonymous postings on the internet. Here is my place to share. It is time to bring the things I have written out of their hiding places and into the light of day.