Bookstore of Babel

I had a surreal experience today. After my Spanish lesson, I stopped at Wallace Books in Sellwood. (Yes, yes — I know I’ve complained about them in the past, but the fact is they’re the only real used bookstore around, so I’ll take what I can get.) I wanted to pick up A Game of Thrones and some sort of Spanish-language reading.

Turns out Wallace has a handful of Spanish-language books, but they’re mixed together with all of the other languages. As usual, there’s no rhyme or reason to the way the books are filed. No worries. There were only two or three shelves of foreign-language books, so I just browsed them all.

But as I did, something strange happened. In my mind, all of the languages I know morphed into one. And one language — Portuguese — that I don’t know!

So, I’d come across a French book with a promising title, pull it down, and leaf through it only to realize that while the title made sense, I couldn’t read anything else really. Or I’d grab a Portuguese or an Italian book, glance through it, and only realize I wasn’t looking at Spanish after about thirty seconds. (No joke!)

This went on for about twenty minutes, and it was strange. It was as if all of the bits and pieces of the languages that I’ve learned had united to form some sort of super-language in my head, allowing me to parse any of the Romanic languages. (I didn’t really ever get the German stuff confused with the Italian/Spanish/Portuguese/French — it’s too different.)

Fun, but very confusing. When it came time to leave, I had to put back three books from my to-buy stack because they weren’t actually Spanish, but some other language. In the end, the only Spanish book I came home with was Como agua para chocolate, which is a bit above my reading level. (Though it’s nowhere near as tough as Cien años de soledad. “I can only understand the first sentence of that,” I told Aly today, “and that’s because I’ve already read the book in English.”)

Bonus trivia: Wallace has a big display of the new book from Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. I was admiring it, so the clerk and I talked a bit about the band and its members. “You know he used to work here, right?” she told me. “No way!” I said. “Yes,” she said. “And Jenny too.” Well, there you go. Maybe I’ll have to give Wallace more cred in the future.

A Vegetable Preoccupation

It’s been a long time since we read a classic for book group. Kris and I have been suffering in silence as we slog through tedious book after book of poplit. Sure, some of this stuff can be fun, but very little of it is actually good, you know? And much of it is downright awful.

What a delight, then, to have two classics coming up in the rotation. Well, one classic and one book that is on its way to be coming one.

This month, we’re reading True Grit, my love of which I documented in December. This is a fantastic book, and I’m eager to re-read it.

Next month, we’re reading The Woman in White, published in 1859 by Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White is considered one of the first-ever mystery novels. And because it’s from the Victorian era, I have no doubt that I’ll love it. (I love British books from that time.)

Because I know True Grit so well, and because I want to listen to the audio version when we drive to Bend and back in a couple of weeks, I’m actually reading The Woman in White first. I’m about a tenth of the way through it, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Collins is an excellent (if melodramatic) writer. I particularly like the way he sketches his characters. Sometimes they feel almost Dickensian.

Here, for instance, is a passage describing a former governess. There’s nothing like this in the crap we’ve been reading for book group in recent months. This is awesome. (Bolding is mine.)

When I entered the room, I found Miss Halcombe and an elderly lady seated at the luncheon-table.

The elderly lady, when I was presented to her, proved to be Miss Fairlie’s former governess, Mrs. Vesey, who had been briefly described to me by my lively companion at the breakfast-table, as possessed of “all the cardinal virtues, and counting for nothing.” I can do little more than offer my humble testimony to the truthfulness of Miss Halcombe’s sketch of the old lady’s character.

Mrs. Vesey looked the personification of human composure and female amiability. A calm enjoyment of a calm existence beamed in drowsy smiles on her plump, placid face. Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life. Sat in the house, early and late; sat in the garden; sat in unexpected window-seats in passages; sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking; sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything, before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question — always with the same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-attentive turn of the head, the same snugly-comfortable position of her hands and arms, under every possible change of domestic circumstances.

A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth. Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

“Now, Mrs. Vesey,” said Miss Halcombe, looking brighter, sharper, and readier than ever, by contrast with the undemonstrative old lady at her side, “what will you have? A cutlet?”

Mrs. Vesey crossed her dimpled hands on the edge of the table, smiled placidly, and said, “Yes, dear.”

“What is that opposite Mr. Hartright? Boiled chicken, is it not? I thought you liked boiled chicken better than cutlet, Mrs. Vesey?”

Mrs. Vesey took her dimpled hands off the edge of the table and crossed them on her lap instead; nodded contemplatively at the boiled chicken, and said, “Yes, dear.”

“Well, but which will you have, to-day? Shall Mr. Hartright give you some chicken? or shall I give you some cutlet?”

Mrs. Vesey put one of her dimpled hands back again on the edge of the table; hesitated drowsily, and said, “Which you please, dear.”

“Mercy on me! it’s a question for your taste, my good lady, not for mine. Suppose you have a little of both? and suppose you begin with the chicken, because Mr. Hartright looks devoured by anxiety to carve for you.”

Mrs. Vesey put the other dimpled hand back on the edge of the table; brightened dimly one moment; went out again the next; bowed obediently, and said, “If you please, sir.”

Surely a mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady! But enough, perhaps, for the present, of Mrs. Vesey.

Love it! Ah, if only everything we read could be like this. (Or Proust.)

True Grit

When I was a boy, VCRs did not exist. You couldn’t watch old movies in the comfort of your living room. (Well, you could, but to do so was prohibitively expensive.)

Instead, there was a thriving industry of second-run movie theaters. And not just second-run theaters (which still exist today), but theaters that only showed old movies. Old movies were a going concern.

I can remember my parents taking us to a handful of these theaters to watch old movies, such as The Wizard of Oz and The Incredible Shrinking Man (which may be the source of my brother Jeff’s fear of spiders, actually) — and westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and True Grit.

I don’t actually recall much about the John Wayne version of True Grit. I remember John Wayne with the patch over one eye, and I remember the girl who wouldn’t be bossed around, but that’s about it. The film was released in 1969, and I must have seen it in 1975 or 1976. Still, I have fond memories of the movie.

So, when it came time to decide which movie we were going to see this year on Christmas Day, there was no doubt in my mind: We were going to see the new version of True Grit.

Note: I’m not sure when Kris and I started our annual tradition of seeing movies on Thanksgiving and Christmas — Schindler’s List in 1993? — but it’s deeply entrenched now. Lately, Tiffany (Kris’ sister) and Paul have been joining us. And in the evening, we gorge ourselves on Chinese food at Sungari downtown. It’s a fine, fine day.

For those unfamiliar, True Grit was a 1968 novel from Charles Portis. It tells the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas. Her father has been shot down in cold blood by a farmhand named Tom Chaney, and Mattie wants revenge. She travels to nearby Forth Smith (on the edge of the Oklahoma Territory, which is Indian country) to settle her father’s affairs and to prod the law to bring Chaney to justice.

The law is reluctant to help. There are plenty of outlaws that need hanging, and Chaney is but one more. Mattie takes matters into her own hands, hiring a drunk and violent U.S. Marshal called Rooster Cogburn. Together — and with the help of a Texas Ranger — they pursue Chaney and the gang he’s fallen in with.

True Grit is one of those remarkable novels featuring a clarity of voice and vision that makes every page a joy to read. Portis, of whom I’d never heard before last weekend, carves the characters through their speech and actions. And every little scene is a delight in some way.

I knew before we saw the new True Grit on Saturday that I would love it. And I did. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in many years. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, you might rightly be concerned the film would be quirky and ironic. It’s not. Instead, as Kris said when the film was finished, it’s a good old-fashioned film, the sort they don’t make anymore.

Note: Before the movie, we sat through eight previews, each one stupider than the last. Transformers on the moon! Boxing robots! Johnny Depp as an animated lizard! Yet another Pirates of the Caribbean film! (Because the last two weren’t bad enough.) This menu of monstrosities is a clear example of how low Hollywood filmmaking has sunk. It’s all a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. So, to then be treated to a good, old-fashioned movie like True Grit was a pleasant surprise.

I enjoyed the Coen’s True Grit that yesterday I watched the 1969 version. Much to my surprise, it holds up well. I prefer the modern version, but John Wayne and his cohorts do a great job of telling this wonderful story. In fact, I was so impressed, that I immediately downloaded the audio book. I listened to it for an hour before bed last night, and then again an hour this morning.

True Grit is a fantastic book.

Here’s the first paragraph. This alone should tell you whether the book would interest you, and should tell you immediately why the films are so good:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

Why are both versions of the movie so good? Because the book is so good. Through the first quarter of the story (up until Mattie rolls Cogburn’s cigarette outside the courtroom), both films are remarkably true to the book. Both films pick and choose things to include or leave out, but neither takes gross liberties.

I’m dying to know now: Are there other overlooked books like this that I ought to know about? I’d especially like to discover books that served as the basis for well-respected films. I have Cool Hand Luke and To Kill a Mockingbird, and these are exactly the sorts of books I’m after. If you know of any, please let me know. I want to find other books with sand.