Friday, December 31, 2004

Stuff that works

By the time I finish this post, R.'s plane should have landed at LaGuardia and I can switch from worrying about plane crashes to worrying about whether things will go smoothly and safely for her in NY--that's how I intend to spend my New Year's Eve. S. and his buddy have been fed, have their sleeping bags and plentiful snacks for later in the evening, and L. and I will probably both go to bed early since we'll be getting up at 5:45 tomorrow to determine whether the new dvr will come on as programmed or whether it will need a manual nudge. A 12-hour marathon of clean, uncut episodes of Alias Smith and Jones, my all-time favorite show! It will be a very happy New Year, indeed.

Thirty-three years ago today Pete Duel, co-star of Alias Smith and Jones, committed suicide. I can remember how my eyes met those of my friend K. across the Monopoly board when the news came over the radio. She'd spent the night with me the night before so that we could watch the latest episode together. K. was the one who'd decided we couldn't love both Heyes and Curry, the way that I'd been inclined to do, the way that I'd loved Butch and Sundance, but that they had to be divided between us. Thirty-three years ago today, without batting an eye, she betrayed her former chosen one: "I like Kid Curry better."

I've been an unabashed Hannibal Heyes fan ever since.

There's a Guy Clark lyric that goes "Stuff that works/ stuff that holds up /The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall /Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel /The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall" and I've been thinking today about the stuff that's worked for me since childhood, the stuff I've never had to be embarrassed over liking, or outgrowing, or simply having its sheen of magic fade on me:

Farm sets and plastic dinosaurs. Green-feathered parrots. Harriet the Spy and Edie Cares. Alice, in both Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Old Yeller and Little Arliss and Jumper the Mule. Johnny Cash. Alias Smith and Jones. A horse that whinnies with pleasure at the sight of you. A walk in the woods. These have been the constants throughout my life, the childhood pleasures that have had lasting worth, the things that have belonged to me. I love them all dearly.

Sixteen years ago today I was in the hospital because my body had betrayed both me and the baby inside me. Sixteen years ago tomorrow a two pound six ounce baby would be cut from me eight weeks before he was due. Before a week was over he'd have pulled the tube from his nose and begun the task of breathing on his own. Sixteen years later he'll have matured into the type of young man who won't mind when his crazy momma wakes him and his buddy up at the crack of dawn on his birthday to record the show she was obsessed with when she was a kid.

He's even a Hannibal Heyes fan.

You come to this place, midlife. You don't know how you got here, but suddenly you're staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of your curtains, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawer liners. You think of the children you might have had but didn't. When the midwife says, "It's a boy," where does the girl go? When you think you're pregnant, and you're not, what happens to that child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that wouldn't work after the opening lines.

--Hilary Mantel. Giving Up the Ghost

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Snow crystals

"Think of yourself as a 4- or 5-year-old, hurtling through the pointillist magic of a snowstorm, your tongue out to catch as many falling flakes as you can, hearing that these countless bits of frozen fluff have secret lives, that they are all different, never repeated, despite the clear evidence before your eyes that they are identical and undistinguishable. Someone, perhaps your kindergarten teacher, may have opened a book of photographs of the unreplicated beauty hidden in every flurry." (Owen Edwards in Smithsonian)

Autodidact Wilson Bentley, the Vermont farmer who discovered that no two snowflakes are alike, devised a mechanism in the 1880s that combined a microscope with a view camera. He made photographs of thousands of snowflakes using light-sensitive plates, not for profit, but for the sheer joy of doing so. Efforts to give a manuscript and 20 years' worth of photographs to the Smithsonian in 1904 were rebuffed, leading Bentley to sell many of his glass plates to schools and colleges for a nickel apiece. He later wrote an article for National Geographic and collaborated on a book called Snow Crystals that contained 2,500 illustrations.


Sontag quote

In our culture, TV--above all--dominates literacy. The authority of literature--if not the number of readers--has declined. But books need readers as well as publishers and writers. Literacy is a form of authority, it is not just a skill. There are desirable forms of literacy and empty forms. Writers, of course, are readers as well. When I taught creative writing I didn't produce writers, I was really teaching reading.

--Susan Sontag

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


It was a good year for reading. Here's a meandering, uneven look at a stack of the best books I read this year (cobbled together from an earlier reading journal, when necessary):

Cloud Atlas was my hands down favorite. I haven’t been this excited over a book since discovering Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red in the spring of 2003. Both clever and brilliant, funny and heartbreaking, the book left me feeling exhilarated and full of hope—an amazing achievement considering that we’d been through the end of civilization and back again. A couple of the story lines, the contemporary ones, seemed of lighter heft when first introduced, and my attention flagged, but both managed to convince me of their import in their concluding sections.

There are numerous reviews of this one out there, and I particularly enjoy the Byatt and Norfolk (Complete Review), so I’ll not say more here except, oh, how I wish I’d written this book.

------

From its first paragraph:

“Muthengi was fourteen years old when he first saw a column of shining-skinned young Kikuyu warriors swinging along the forest’s edge toward the plains, like a ripple of wind across a field of ripening grain, on the way to war. Afterwards he could not remember the names of the warriors, nor the boasting words they had shouted to his father as they loped past, nor even the designs painted boldly in black and red on their long shields; but from that moment he became a warrior; his spirit marched with theirs, and dreams of battle filled his waking mind. While others of his age were preoccupied with their skill in games, with the herding of goats, or with bird-scaring among the millet, he would practice hurling sticks against the trunk of a banana tree; and in his imagination bronze-limbed Masai warriors surged in full retreat over the millet-fields, and captured Masai cattle flowed in a brown flood over the pastures of his clan.”

To its last:

“He was glad that God had decided to bless his wives with fertility, now that he had been baptized a Christian. The name of the child, he decided should be Aeroplane. His wife, he thought, would never be able to pronounce such a difficult word, but educated people would know, and understand.”

Elspeth Huxley describes the lives of four generations of a family in Kenya, both before and after European settlers—the Red Strangers of the title—move in and transform their way of life. Female circumcision rites are presented. Customs and beliefs and morality are encountered and come to seem more logical to the reader than those substituted by the Europeans.

R. selected this one in Borders three or four years back, although I don’t think she ever got around to reading it. It’s out of print now, but is definitely worth going through the trouble of getting through interlibrary loan.

I’d stuck this note in the back of Red Strangers:

“First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relatism.” –Aime Cesaire

-----

Anne Tyler has been my favorite writer for 25 years now, but she never made me cry until this January. The Amateur Marriage is definitely the best Tyler of recent years although it's no Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Searching for Caleb; although passing reference is made to Ezra's gizzard soup and the private investigator hired by the Pecks, I was happy to note. I didn't like it at first; I read the first three chapters the night my Amazon shipment arrived and was terribly disappointed by how ordinary the characters seemed. But everything clicked for me the next day, and it became a book that I literally didn't want to put down. I teared up several times and wound up crying for an hour after I'd finished it. Realized later that I must have been subconsciously comparing Michael and Pauline's relationship with my parents', and when it eventually veered off on a different course, well, I think my heart broke for four people instead of for two.

-----

William Boyd wears sly boots. Prior to publishing Any Human Heart, which includes cover art by and mention of New York artist Nat Tate, who destroyed most of his work before jumping off the Staten Island Ferry at age 31, he wrote a biography of Tate, in which he claims that he first learned of Nat Tate while editing the collected journals of Logan Mountstuart (the protagonist of Any Human Heart). Tate, of course, is as fictional as LMS himself, but Boyd managed to fool quite a few people who should have known better before it was all revealed as a hoax. I'm only disappointed in that Nat Turner: An American Artist is out of print, because I would enjoy looking for it in bookstores, where, same as with Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, I would probably find it mistakenly shelved with the biographies.

I encountered—briefly-- two or three of the characters from Any Human Heart in Boyd’s The New Confessions later in the year and was happy to see them. Logan Mountstuart, through whose journals readers view both the 20th century and his evolution as a writer, managed to both infuriate me with his actions while making me care deeply about what happened to him.

-----

Not epic in scope like Any Human Heart, but also told through the journals of another infuriating antihero narrator, Kate Christensen’s The Epicure’s Lament was a joy from start to finish. I wound up loving the determinedly unlovable misanthropic Hugo Whittier, whose intentions to read and eat and smoke himself to death go wonderfully askew. I’ve read all Christensen’s novels, but this one is by far the best. I can’t wait to read it again.

-----

From my journal last February:

I ventured out in the early hours of last Thursday's snow storm to pick up Guy Vanderhaeghe's latest, The Last Crossing, at the public library based on a glowing endorsement from a Readervillan with impeccable taste and the fact it'd just been chosen winner of the Canada Reads program. The biggest snow storm of the past 16 years and a book I was most anxious to read--an unbeatable combination.Or so I thought. From Thursday to Saturday, I managed only 40 pages in The Last Crossing. It refused to snare my attention. I'd read Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy back in the fall of '01 and came away with a feeling of "eh," and that's all I was managing with this one. I much preferred watching Season 1 eps of Angel with S. On Sunday I picked it up again and it was good. Very good. By the time I finished it last night I'd decided The Last Crossing is, next to Lonesome Dove, the best western I've read. The ending is probably a little too good to be true, the identity of the murderer a little too underscored, and now that I've looked back on the first 40 pages I'm not sure exactly what my problem was there, except that the book refused to come alive for me until Custis Straw was introduced peeing on the haystack behind the livery and hauled off to jail, so maybe the book should have started there, and all the previous stuff worked in later, or left out altogether? Maybe I just shouldn't expect a book to grab me if I can't manage to give it more than five or ten minutes' worth of attention at a time.

At any rate, The Last Crossing is the story of Victorian brothers Addington and Charles Gaunt, who have been sent to Fort Benton by their domineering father to search for Charles' twin Simon. Simon had earlier gone to America with an insane minister who believes "Red Indians" are the Lost Tribes of Israel, and has not been heard from since. The brothers, evil former military captain Addington and not particularly talented artist Charles, hire a half-breed guide, Jerry Potts, and a sycophant reporter to write a book on Captain Gaunt's hunting adventures. They agree to take along Lucy Stoveall, who pretends to be looking for her brutal husband instead of the men she's sure recently raped and murdered her younger sister. Custis Straw, Civil War veteran and book's true center, takes off after Lucy, whom he loves, and his best friend, saloonkeeper Aloysius Dooley, takes off after Custis. Beautiful descriptive writing, characters with interior lives and individual voices, witty, lively dialogue. Finest kind of book.

-----

C. first introducted me to Kate Atkinson back in ’99 with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and I’ve been a fan since. I had this to say about Not the End of the Story back in January: Totally enchanting mix of contemporary and/or apocalyptic short stories that twist into updated versions of classical myths, liberally sprinkled with references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Made me want to reread Human Croquet for another wallow in the catnip that is Kate.

Case Histories is even better than the story collection.

-----

I wonder how long it'll be before Orhan Pamuk wins the Nobel Prize? I started Snow before the Europe trip and was just blown away. I shouldn't have attempted to read it in Germany since it's a book that deserves more concentration than I could give it there, although I experienced a frisson reading about Ka living in the Turkish sector of Frankfort while we were staying at in an apartment in the Turkish sector of Berlin. I'll be a better reader of this one the next time and I'll read Dostoevsky's Demons before I do. Margaret Atwood wrote the best review I've seen of Snow. (New York Times)

-----

Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. My favorite review comes from Forty-Two: "The past as epic fantasy – with bird watching. A 5,000-page buddy movie (but not the crap Hollywood version). Introvert and extrovert fall in love, go around the world (without violating Article XXIX). Best is #13 – tea with an orangutan atop a volcano."

I haven't reached the orangutan yet, but I love the debauched sloth.

-----

Not available for the photo op:

Anne Tyler was interviewed in the NY Times earlier this month. She said she reads contemporary fiction "nonstop," and that new writers seem "to be starting out at a higher and higher level." She said she was reading "fresh, funny, quirky" The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe. The Sharpe was on the new book cart in the back when I went to work that evening, and since I'd finished the Boyd the day before, started it immediately. Astringent, darkly humorous, ultimately warmhearted, I doubt I would have trusted a book giving the postmodernist treatment to a family dealing with a parent's coma and stroke and subsequent rehab to do anything more than push all my buttons, but Sharpe made it work. I loved the relationship between Chris and his best buddy Frank Dial. (February)

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Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins. I don't know where Wiggins is from, but I doubt it's North Carolina: shortening the name "Foster" to "Fos" works well to underscore the character's interest in phosphorescent light, but it's generally pronounced "Fawster" around these here parts. Otherwise, I loved, loved, loved this book until the end, when the coincidences and Wiggins' desire to set up generational parallels got a little out of hand. I'd like to pick up a used copy of this sometime. (August)

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I luxuriated in Colm Toibin's The Master all of last week, and if it weren't for books I have to read now (because, you know, due dates trump current interest nine times out of ten in my world), I'd let that one chart my course for a good while to come. I should give The Golden Bowl another try. I have a leatherbound edition of James' short fiction that I'll work my way through first, though. And maybe Milly Theale won't make me want to pull my hair out if I read Wings of the Dove again now that I know about Minny Temple. But before I get around to any more Henry James, I want to read Constance Fenimore Woolson, Alice James' diary (I checked it out last week, and two days later someone came in and asked me to help her find it for her women's diary class, and I brought it back in to her), and R.W.B. Lewis' bio of the James family. At the moment I'm reading Oscar Wilde, whose theatrical success came as James' debut resoundingly failed. (September)

Posted by Hello

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

'Prodigious,' said Stephen. 'And yet in a way one might say that the whole of life is a tissue of prodigious coincidences: as for example that at the very moment we attempt to cross the road this particular coach and six should come by; yet though extremely unlikely, it is a fact. And the glabrous face within belongs to Monsieur de Talleyrand-Perigord.' Stephen took off his hat: the glabrous face returned his bow. 'It is a most improbable coincidence that as we enter La Mothe's courtyard, and it is just here, on the right--take care of the excrement, Villiers--some merchant should walk into his counting-house in Stockholm, or that Jack Aubrey should mount his horse to pursue the fox. Though now I come to think of it, Jack would scarcely pursue the innocent fox at this time of the year: yet the principle remains. You may object that the overwhelming majority of these coincidences are undetected, which is eminently true; but they are there for all that, and as I raise this knocker, some man in China breathes his last.'

And

'I am so sorry about the regulator: Charlotte's dormouse got into it, and is having babies."

And

Without the shadow of a doubt this was the Alca impennis of Linnaeus, the Great Auk of some vulgar authors, a bird Stephen had longed to see all his life, a bird grown so rare that none of his correspondents but Corvisart had ever seen a specimen; and Corvisart was somewhat given to lying. 'And have you indeed seen your penguin, sir?' he asked.

'God love you, many and many a time,' said the young man, laughing. 'There is an island up that away,'--nodding towards Newfoundland--'where they breed by wholesale, and my uncle the Blue-Nose used to go there when he was fishing the Grand Bank. I went with him once, and we knocked them on the head by the score. It would have made you laugh, to see them standing there like ninepins, to be bowled over. We cut them up for bait, and ate the eggs."

'Blue-nosed hell-hound,' said Stephen inwardly, 'Goth, Vandal, Hun.' Aloud, and with as much amenity as he could summon, he asked, 'Is there any likelihood of seeing one on this bank?'

--Patrick O'Brian, The Surgeon's Mate

An education of the heart

I bought a copy of Susan Sontag's In America last fall, and the bookmark in my quotes commonplace book opens onto her page, but I've never read a book by her. She died today of leukemia at age 71. (LA Times)

From the obit:

"An early and passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, Sontag was both admired and reviled for her political convictions. In a 1967 Partisan Review symposium, she wrote that 'America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent.'

"In her rage and gloom and growing despair, she concluded that 'the truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.'

She more recently aroused some fury with her New Yorker article following the Sept. 11 attacks:

"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" She added, "In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards."

Her views on the purpose of literature:

" 'A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.' " She was the cartographer of her own literary explorations. Henry James once remarked, 'Nothing is my last word on anything.' For Sontag, as for James, there was always more to be said, more to be felt. "
I thought the state carved out of North Carolina and Tennessee was supposed to be called Franklin, not Frankland, but James Wharton's Frankland sounds like fun. Fortunately, it's being ordered by the library and has gone straight onto my holds list.

Public libraries closed

"Salinas, population 150,000, has always been the working-class soul of Steinbeck country. The author of The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men and other classics grew up here and is buried here. His roots in the fertile Salinas Valley, nicknamed the nation's salad bowl, spawned characters and settings for many of his stories."

Now Salinas is closing all three branches of the public library in order to save $3 million per year in an attempt to help balance the budget. Salinas has also been "forced to close a recreation center, curtail police hiring, cut off paramedic funding, slash maintenance, consolidate services and lay off department heads. It sold a public golf course, and city workers made $1 million in wage concessions. Since 2002, the City Council has cut $15 million, a quarter of the budget."

Citizens could have voted to raise sales taxes half a cent or increase utility taxes on the 60 largest companies in Salinas back in November, but the options failed to receive two-thirds of the votes as state law requires.

Nationally, more than 1,100 libraries have cut hours or laid off workers, the American Library Association reports. Salinas is the only reported case of a city deciding to close all libraries. (USA Today)


Monday, December 27, 2004

I'm trying to convince L. that he ought to read the Patrick O'Brian series but he keeps getting distracted by the prospect of going out to buy cable boosters and things of that nature. We watched Master and Commander on Christmas eve and he seemed interested, so I intend to keep after him. R. bought him Mark Kurlansky's Salt since he enjoyed Cod a few years back, and S. got him an almanac and a hiking guidebook.

S. gave me Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary and I thought about getting it a companion, Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree. But when I was at the mall this morning shopping for S.'s birthday, I decided to save my Christmas money since the skinny little thing was $18. I checked online when I got home and it's supposed to list at $14. I really hate Books-a-Million.

Yesterday I finished To the Lighthouse and read a couple of chapters in The Island at the Center of the World. I was worried I might not actually get it finished until sometime next year, but the end is definitely within sight now. I'm sure the library will be happy to get it back. I started The Surgeon's Mate this morning.

S. and I have read no mythology over the break, but maybe we'll get back on track in a day or two. We've both had colds and many distractions. I can't decide if I want to continue with Apollodorus, though. He's awfully dry compared to Ovid.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Via Katharine Weber (via Readerville), weekly lists of favorite books by writers, politicans, scientists, etc. (The Week)

Friday, December 24, 2004

You don't love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.

--William Faulkner
Just verb selection in the first sentence alone is enough to reveal this reviewer's biases: Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers in The Revealer. Haven't read the book yet, but I did check, after Boyle insinuated Jacoby didn't provide "enough" documentation of source material in the book--page upon page of endnotes and bibliography.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

She heard him. He said the most melancholy things, but she noticed that directly he had said them he always seemed more cheerful than usual. All this phrase-making was a game, she thought, for if she had said half what he said, she would have blown her brains out by now.

--Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I'm rereading To the Lighthouse and having a grand old time.

"Oh, but, Lily would say, there was her father; her home; even had she dared to say it, her painting. But all this seemed so little, so virginal, against the other. Yet, as the night wore on, and white lights parted the curtains, and even now and then some bird chirped in the garden, gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay's simple certainty (and she was childlike now) that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool. Then, she remembered, she had laid her head on Mrs. Ramsay's lap and laughed and laughed and laughed, laughed almost hysterically at the thought of Mrs. Ramsay presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand. There she sat, simple, serious. She had recovered her sense of her now--this was the glove's twisted finger. But into what sanctuary had one penetrated? Lily Briscoe had looked up at last, and there was Mrs. Ramsay, unwitting entirely what had caused her laughter, still presiding, but now with every trace of wilfulness abolished, and in its stead, something clear as the space which the clouds at last uncover--the little space of sky which sleeps beside the moon."

And

"And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? he said. It is not sensible. For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was. Less exposed to human worries--perhaps that was it. He had always his work to fall back on. Not that she herself was 'pessimistic,' as he accused her of being. Only she thought life--and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes--her fifty years. There it was before her--life. Life, she thought--but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were the eternal problems: suffering; death; the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all. To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds). For that reason, knowing what was before them--love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places--she had often the feeling, Why must they grow up and lose it all? And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy. And here she was, she reflected, feeling life rather sinister again, making Minta marry Paul Rayley; because whatever she might feel about her own transaction, she had had experiences which need not happen to every one (she did not name them to herself); she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry; people must have children."

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Santaland Diaries

Listen to David Sedaris--once again--tell the incomparable story of working as an elf at Macy's. (NPR)

And so this is Christmas

. . . or, at least, close enough for some holiday links.

Listen to Dylan Thomas read "A Child's Christmas in Wales. "(Salon)

The not so comfortable aspects of Christmas: putting Herod back into Christmas. (Sojo.Net)

The encyclopedic Christmas. (Wikipedia)

December celebrations from ancient times. (Religious Tolerance)

Pilgrims outlaw Christmas! (Chesebro' Genealogy)

When did we start celebrating what when: Christmas in the U.S., 1700-1900s. (UMKC)

Help the needy. Give livestock for Christmas. (Heifer.org)

Oprah sells books better than anything since, uh, forever

Brigham Young University economics professor Richard Butler, whose findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Publishing Research Quarterly, says Oprah Winfrey's book recommendations sold more books than anything previously seen in literature.

"Using USA Today's weekly 150-item best-seller list, Butler and his team of students went about examining the 45 non-children's titles Winfrey picked from her book club's inception in 1996 until she announced its end in 2002.

"Of those books, only 11 had been on the best-seller list before her recommendation, and none of them had gone beyond No. 25. Of the first 11 books that Winfrey picked, all went to at least No. 4 within a week, Butler said." (New York Times)

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

How to procrastinate wrapping Christmas presents

Board games for bookworms. (CSMonitor)

The top selling books of 2004. (USAToday) I've read 16 of them, but none in 2004. I meant to reread Cold Mountain this year.

Gallup says fifty-one percent of Americans get their news from local television broadcasts. (Editor and Publisher) The poll failed to ask about radio news habits.

Half-Blood Prince, to be published July 16, already sits atop online best seller lists. (Wizard News) Oh, and Harry doesn't die--yet.

Booker International short list to be announced in early 2005 (BBC)

Alan Cheuse's 2004 holiday book picks. (NPR)

A new Edward P. Jones story. (New Yorker)

Hillbilly photography. (Blue Ridge Blog)

Traditional libraries will survive the digital age. (Times)

Henry David Thoreau said, "In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends." (Writer's Almanac)

Iraq Library rising from the ashes

"This had been one of Iraq's greatest treasures: a national library that held ancient works of Arab literature, a vast archive of Ottoman-era grandeur, the papers of the British-sponsored monarchy and latterly the obsessively recorded and often chilling evidence of the past 30 years of Ba'ath party rule. The daylight burning of the library, which the invading US military did not protect, was one of the first costly failures in the post-war chaos of occupation last year.

"Now it is slowly being restored. But in a country where recent history remains bitterly disputed, resurrecting the library and national archive has turned into a remarkably sensitive and political operation. " (Guardian)

Monday, December 20, 2004

How I rewarded myself for finishing my Christmas shopping

Are you prepared to stop calling yourself a writer if you put down a Patrick O'Brian novel because all those seafaring details grate on your nerves and you dislike having to look things up?

--Kaye Gibbons, Oxford American, Winter 2005

Philip Pullman and Merle Haggard

Philip Pullman provides context for statements taken out of context recently: "There are more ways than one of telling the story of Lyra and Will, as anyone knows who's been lucky enough to see Nicholas Hytner's wonderful production at the National Theatre in London. That telling differs from the books in some details, but the script, by Nicholas Wright, is faithful to the spirit of the story as it rethinks it in terms of the stage; and I have every confidence that New Line, and whoever ends up directing the films, will be just as faithful when they rethink it in terms of the screen." (Philip Pullman)

And

Merle Haggard ought to be the new poet laureate of California. (SacBee) I think he'd be a fantastic choice.

Quotes

The greatest thing to be gained from the reading of books is the desire to truly communicate with one's fellow man. To read a book properly is to wake up and live, to acquire a renewed interest in one's neighbors, more especially those who are alien to us in every way.

--Henry Miller

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.

--Joyce Carol Oates

The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one's capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one's relations with the world.

--Arnold Bennett

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Lots of books not seen elsewhere on January Magazine's Best of 2004 list.

And then, before he was ready for them, before he had stood at the top for even a minute, the parrots appeared. David heard a cry answered by a clamor that sounded like a troop of chimps in the trees, and at that moment a dozen or so of the birds flew out of the thicket toward him. They were bright green, and the flock banked together in formation in the sunlight. Their orangish underwings flashed in unison as they headed north toward Fisherman's Wharf. Even at that distance, with no special training as a birder, David recognized them. They were Little Wittgenstein birds, cherry-headed conures.

The sight made David so excited he shouted, "Wait!" at the retreating flock. A man standing nearby on a deck, talking on his cell phone, assumed that David was shouting at him. He put a hand over the receiver and shouted back, "The guy you want to see is down there." He pointed up the street, and following this indication, David found Greenwich Stairs, which dived sharply in several flights into the trees below.

He had not chosen this, David thought. Out of the blue his father had given him a parrot, and this chain of events had begun, which now included finding the birds in the palm tree on Dolores and meeting Henry Peak with his directions and now this stranger with a cell phone virtually ordering him down the stairs. But a sense of fate kept him going. Though more of the same was sure to follow if he went down there, he had to put side any doubts he still had. He had come this far. Who was he to object, if it were fate? David descended the steps into the shade of the trees.

Jim Paul, Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots
Posted by Hello

The Devil's Advice to Story-Tellers

Lest men suspect your tale to be untrue,
Keep probability—some say—in view.
But my advice to story-tellers is:
Weigh out no gross of probabilities,
Nor yet make diligent transcriptions of
Known instances of virtue, crime or love.
To forge a picture that will pass for true,
Do conscientiously what liars do—
Born liars, not the lesser sort that raid
The mouths of others for their stock-in-trade:
Assemble, first, all casual bits and scraps
That may shake down into a world perhaps;
People this world, by chance created so,
With random persons whom you do not know—
The teashop sort, or travelers in a train
Seen once, guessed idly at, not seen again;
Let the erratic course they steer surprise
Their own and your own and your readers' eyes;
Sigh then, or frown, but leave (as in despair)
Motive and end and moral in the air;
Nice contradiction between fact and fact
Will make the whole read human and exact.

--Robert Graves, Collected Poems, 1975

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Science Saturday

"Birds are excellent environmental indicators, and what they are telling us is that there is a fundamental malaise in the way we treat our environment."

Hundreds of bird species are going extinct. (Guardian)

And

"Of all the problems that arise from having an administration that chooses not to believe in reality, the one most likely to have irretrievably disastrous consequences is environmental.

"The Bush solution to global warming is to declare it does not exist. While this solves the problem for him in the short term, global warming is highly unlikely to be impressed by the news that we are now an empire and can change history. "

More sewage in the water and environmental exemptions for the Pentagon? Hey, stuff happens when you're reality challenged. (Molly Ivins)

And

"The two large protected grizzly bear populations that remain in the United States, one in and around Glacier National Park and the other around Yellowstone, were hit hard this year by an unusually high number of deaths caused by humans." (New York Times)

And

Chinese space tomatoes and Jeanette Winterson's plan to send homeopathic remedies to Bosnia to treat HIV: it's time for the Bad Science awards! (Guardian)

And

"Scientific proof that water once flowed on Mars has been voted the breakthrough of the year according to journal Science."

Scientific Breakthrough of the Year awards announced by Science journal. (The Independent)

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Stone Verdict

When he stands in the judgment place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime's speechlessness.

Let it be like the judgment of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist deep in the cairn
Of his apotheosis: maybe a gate-pillar
Or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, 'Here
His spirit lingers," and will have said too much.

--Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern

Still Godless, now without direction

The man who wrote God out of the His Dark Materials film adaption has stepped down as director, but will remain a scriptwriter for the film. (BBC News)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

It's another egg!

I told her she can stop now.
On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points.
--Virginia Woolf

I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I'm stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.
--Carol Shields

About Time!

"American publishers are free to engage in publishing activities with people in Cuba, Iran and Sudan without fear of violating U.S. economic penalties against those countries, the Bush administration said Wednesday.

"The Treasury Department's office that enforces embargoes against those countries issued a rule that lists the permissible activities related to the publishing and marketing of manuscripts, books, journals and newspapers in paper or electronic form.

"U.S. publishers do not need U.S. government permission to go ahead with such ventures, the department said. " (SFGate)

Blue Books

A Daily Kos contingent has created a website, Buy Blue, that tracks the political contributions of major retailers and corporations, and Dennis Loy Johnson at Moby Lives has highlighted the differences between the major booksellers based on the site.

There's enough difference to make me want to change my book buying habits--and I will. The frustrating thing about having such knowledge is learning which companies undercut your own considerations and not having any other viable options--there aren't always blue alternatives for necessities in red states.

I can choose blue for books, however, very easily. I don't have to continue to support Jeff Bezos who is partially responsible for those annoying two per day phone calls I received from the Richard Burr campaign week after week after week.

And I can take R. out for Starbucks to celebrate the end of exams.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


I got tired of printing out pages of the Homeric Hymns from the internet and switched over to Diane Rayor's translation last night. The language is clear and beautiful and Rayor's notes provide context and explanation and many interesting tidbits-Dionysos was premature and twice born; Persephone, certainly not the point of focus in the Demeter hymn, was in the unique position of being able to cross the barriers between the underworld, Olympus, and the earth, and could ensure that the initiates in the Eleusinian Mysteries had both wealth in life and a happy afterlife.

Read about Orpheus in Ovid and Apollo in the Hymns last night and intend to read about Artemis and Niobe and Actaeon in Ovid tonight. I ought to track down the rest of the Apollo myths in Ovid as well, but doubt I can make the time right now. S. is reading the selections as well and is willing to continue over Christmas break, so that means we ought to be able to start the Odyssey in early January. He mentioned earlier in the week that he wanted to read Gilgamesh, so I'm feeling smug about already having it hidden away for him. Only one book for S. and R. this year unless they can come up with some titles on their own.
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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

"To be a Naturalist is better than to be a King."

Favorite naturalist/surgeon/spy Stephen Maturin plays my favorite instrument, the cello, and naturalist William Beebe played my other favorite instrument, the banjo. Does this mean Beebe's slated to be a favorite of mine as well? Cornelia Dean reviews the Carol Grant Gould biography of Beebe, The Remarkable Life of William Beebe, Explorer and Naturalist in the New York Times.

Pandora's Dream

Falling asleep, she saw the lid of the box
Beside her glittering, the unknown dowry
She was forbidden to look at,
But under eyelids heavier than moonlight
She carried that glitter down into a dream.

She was in the dark, in a chamber, touching its walls
And floor and ceiling with pieces of herself,
Some glinting like fireflies, some burnt black and cold,
Odd flapping and squirming pieces, feathered
And furred, bone-pointed, clawed, all wanting out.

But there was nowhere to go, no door, no window,
She was trapped as if in a box. Then with a groan
Of hinges, the ceiling opened,
And there in the widening strip of light, grown huge
And terrible, her own face looked in.

And all those parts of her in a swarm went flying
Upward and outward: maggots with bat wings,
Pink termites, scarlet bees, green wasps in a fury
And moths on fire like twistings of paper
And through them a death-squeaking of black mice.

She became that other holding the lid upraised
And wishing what she'd scattered would return
And shut itself in again to be forgotten,
That the god who'd cursed her with this gift
Would relent and rescue her from a curious heart.

She woke, she stretched, she forgot, she yawned, she saw
Only a box at her bedside, shimmering
With promises she could keep or break by lifting
A single clasp and using her naked eyes.
She rose, still in a dream, and opened it.

--David Wagoner, First Light
A trip to the emergency animal clinic last night to see the avian vet.

Ezra was noticeably weak, a ball of fluffed trembly feathers and there were traces of yellow stain at her still engorged vent. Luckily, the vet determined Ezra did not have a broken second egg inside her, but was instead suffering from passing such a terribly large egg: a pinched nerve and possibly the beginnings of an infection caused from poopage backlog. A week of antibiotics and vinegar in the waterdish. She's fine this morning, easily standing on one leg to eat Nutriberries and drinking her soured water. And she didn't bite me when I gave her the antibiotics.

Random factoid learned: Greyhounds are universal blood donors.

Monday, December 13, 2004

It's an egg!

Not only did my beautiful little parrot Ezra lay an egg less than 90 minutes ago, but I saw the egg breeching in time to call S. down to watch, and was able to put my hand under her to catch it--last year's egg passed during the night and cracked when it hit the grill at the bottom of the cage.

The egg is safely nested in the Peter Rabbit baby's cup where we'll continue to ooh and aah over it, and, after eagerly eating banana a few minutes after the grand event, Ezra is now perching peacefully in her cage.

Michael Crichton

Okay, I'm being really shallow here, but does Michael Crichton have some kind of Dorian Gray deal going on? Look at the photo. He's 62.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Demeter readings

Read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ovid's Ceres and Proserpina myth, and the pertaining page of Apollodorus. Chased it all down with a reread of Kate Atkinson's "Temporal Anomaly":

" 'Have you got a good recipe for lemon meringue pie?' Marianne asked but then she never caught her mother's answer because a darkness, like a great pair of black wings, covered her car and she could no longer hear her mother or the car engine or the rain or Forth FM on the radio, only the deafening sound of Hades' chariot wheels as he overtook her on the inside lane, so close that she could smell the rank sweat on the flanks of his horses and the stench of his breath like rotten mushrooms. And then Hades leaned out of his chariot and punched a hole in the windscreen of her Audi and Marianne thought, 'This is really going to hurt.' "

I'm assuming Edith Hamilton must have relied on the Homeric version because I'd heard the story of the baby boy in the fire before, the mortal boy to whom Demeter serves as a nurse and intends to make immortal. Ovid's version has the goddess changing a boy, for his rudeness, into a starry newt.

Hades seizes Persephone with Zeus' prior approval in the hymn; Ovid has Jupiter not knowing of his daughter's rape and disappearance until Ceres tells him, at which time he declares the abduction an act of love and brother Pluto a son-in-law of whom they can be proud.

It must have been pure hell being a woman in ancient times.

The Year's Finest Books

The San Francisco Chronicle list. Extensive, with books I'd not heard of before.

Books about Wal-Mart

"While its workforce has one of the best productivity records of any US corporation, it has kept the compensation of its rank-and-file workers at or barely above the poverty line. As of last spring, the average pay of a sales clerk at Wal-Mart was $8.50 an hour, or about $14,000 a year, $1,000 below the government's definition of the poverty level for a family of three.[4] Despite the implied claims of Wal-Mart's current TV advertising campaign, fewer than half— between 41 and 46 percent—of Wal-Mart employees can afford even the least-expensive health care benefits offered by the company. To keep the growth of productivity and real wages far apart, Wal-Mart has reached back beyond the New Deal to the harsh, abrasive capitalism of the 1920s."

Simon Head reviews books about Wal-Mart in the Dec. 16 issue of The New York Review of Books.

This part blows my mind:

"One of the most telling of all the criticisms of Wal-Mart is to be found in a February 2004 report by the Democratic Staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee. In analyzing Wal-Mart's success in holding employee compensation at low levels, the report assesses the costs to US taxpayers of employees who are so badly paid that they qualify for government assistance even under the less than generous rules of the federal welfare system. For a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store, the government is spending $108,000 a year for children's health care; $125,000 a year in tax credits and deductions for low-income families; and $42,000 a year in housing assistance. The report estimates that a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs federal taxpayers $420,000 a year, or about $2,103 per Wal-Mart employee. That translates into a total annual welfare bill of $2.5 billion for Wal-Mart's 1.2 million US employees.

"Wal-Mart is also a burden on state governments. According to a study by the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2003 California taxpayers subsidized $20.5 million worth of medical care for Wal-Mart employees. In Georgia ten thousand children of Wal-Mart employees were enrolled in the state's program for needy children in 2003, with one in four Wal-Mart employees having a child in the program.[9] "

He was doomed to become an eavesdropping pickpocket of a novelist anyway

Nice four-page review of Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, in today's Sunday Book Review, a book I ordered from Amazon a week or two back after hearing Oz interviewed on NPR. I'll wait till after I've read the memoir to read the review.

Prosperity had been building for decades now, and so had Amsterdam. The city had more than doubled in size since Henry Hudson's time, and it was now thirty years since its merchant rulers--with impressive confidence in the city's future growth--had conceived of a staggering urban development project, now nearing completion: a series of concentric canal rings. The canals of Amsterdam are so iconic that many people assume they have always been there, but they were dug, by hand, hundreds of tons of earth moved out and sand brought in, forests' worth of pilings driven into the banks, a truly massive feat of engineering and city planning. The result was the creation of some of the first suburbs, for the idea was to encircle the core of the city--with its dens of commerce, sex, and drink--with neighborhoods of elegant housing for the army of newly rich, each home backed by ample gardens and provided with access, right out the front door, onto the state-of-the-art in urban transit systems.

--Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World Posted by Hello

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Ten Best Books of 2004

As chosen by the New York Times.

Fiction:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Master by Colm Toibin
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Runaway by Alice Munro
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
War Trash by Ha Jin

Nonfiction:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

Science Saturday

A genetic predisposition to depression? (New York Times)

"Dr. Marc Caron and Dr. Xiaodong Zhang, biologists at Duke University Medical Center, led a team of researchers who identified a mutation of a single gene that greatly reduced the amount of serotonin produced by brain cells. Serotonin is a chemical messenger active between neurons, and it has a powerful effect on mood."

And

Robert Sapolsky, Stanford neurology professor and author of the super fabulous drop-everything-else-and-read-it The Primate's Memoir, maintains "we should not give an inch in fighting to make sure our children are not taught nonsense."

He answers questions about evolution and speculates that those who most push for the teaching of intelligent design come from areas downtrodden and marginalized both economically and educationally.

These folk "dislike evolution, because of a side branch of evolutionary thinking that has metastasized ever since Darwin, which has a sordid record of doing bad things to folks like these. This is Social Darwinism, the pseudoscience that evolution is about 'should be' rather than 'is,' that folks on the lower rungs of society are peopled with individuals who are evolutionarily meant to be there, and that all is biologically just in this stratified world. Add in the potentially incorrect belief that accepting evolution is incompatible with one of the more common sources of solace in that corner of the country, namely fundamentalist religion, and you've got some unhappy campers. " (San Francisco Chronicle)


Friday, December 10, 2004

Patrick O'Brian, Margaret Drabble

"Patrick O'Brian is one of the pantheon, the nearest thing to an idol as yet produced by the decidedly unstarry genre that is historical sea-fiction" and that is why his unfinished first draft--if it can even be elevated to the level of first draft--and stepson Nikolai Tolstoy's biography, Patrick O'Brian: The Making of a Novelist, matter to his fans. (The Guardian) His 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels sell at least 1000 copies each in the United States each month.

I used to sneer when I saw the shelf of O'Brians at the public library. Little did I know just what treasures were hidden inside until I actually opened Master and Commander back in July.

Long time favorite Margaret Drabble ventures into postmodernism, more often the domain of older sister A.S. Byatt, in her latest novel The Red Queen, which was inspired by the memoirs of an 18th century Korean crown princess.

"I was completely gripped," says the author, recalling the impact of the crown princess' dark tale of an oppressive court racked by murderous conflict between her mentally ill husband and his tyrannical father, the king. "Everybody in Korea knows this story, but nobody in the West does. I thought: Right, this needs to be retold. I'd discovered this very powerful narrative that was asking me to do something with it, but I didn't know what." (Newsday)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

And like a phoenix once again

Oxford American rises from the ashes! Woo hoo!

Finished Gilead last night and "Works and Days" the night before. Both are concerned with prodigals-the return of a son in the Robinson and the return of a brother in the Hesiod, and both, to some extent, deal with man's relationship to the divine, at least until the Hesiod devolves into being primarily a farmer's planting almanac, but I'm looking for similarities here.

Cloud Atlas segued nicely into Gilead since both contained an abolitionist character. John Ames, the preacher protagonist of Gilead, recounts, via a letter to his young son while pondering his fast-approaching demise, his grandfather's involvement with John Brown prior to the Civil War and how he joined with the Unionist army despite his age and subsequently lost an eye in battle. His own father, in seeming rebellion against his father's bloody shirted radicalism, joins with the Quakers and becomes a pacificist. Ames himself, while no Quaker, is just as intent on avoiding conflicts and ill thoughts. He refuses to condemn his brother, who comes home from Germany an atheist, and relays how his father believes his own refusal to attend his father's church was much worse than his own son's eventual disbelief. The only person he can manage to think poorly of is his namesake, the son of his lifelong best friend (also a minister), who he acknowledges has always had a mean streak and has caused much harm to others. When his namesake returns to Gilead after many unaccounted years elsewhere, Ames is forced to examine his relationship to this prodigal and rethink much he'd regarded as settled fact.

Digressive, meandering, quiet and profound, there's much to ponder in this. I think all those eager readers of Revelations fanfic aka The Left Behind series ought to read this as well, but its absence of pyrotechnics, its refusal to denounce certainly isn't the brand of Christianity currently hogging the headlines. John Ames manages to be a good, gentle man of God without ever stooping to self-righteousness or sanctimony.

"Works and Days," I believe, contains the earliest written version of the Prometheus and Pandora myths and the metallic ages of man. Hesiod recounts these myths in an effort to keep his greedy brother, who wants to get his hands on some of Hesiod's property, in check. And, oh, the lengths to which Hesiod goes to advise brother Perses-wear a proper hat so your ears don't get wet; don't pee in the road or in the river; don't cut your fingernails at feasts with the gods! Entertaining stuff.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Godless Hollywood

God will not be a character in the movie version of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; in fact, this parallel universe version of the trilogy won't even mention the church.

Wasn't it just last month Pullman took the time to spell out the inherent dangers in allowing "theocracies" (secular or no) to control our lives?

I'd make some comment about how selling out is the American way but he's British.

Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides with me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man. And of course that is exactly what he is. "For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?" In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable--which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

Maybe I should have said we are like planets. But then I would have lost some of the point of saying that we are like civilizations. The planets may all have been sloughed from the same star, but still the historical dimension is missing from that simile, and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us. I am old enough to remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center, and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression, and people were hungry, and we did what we could. I am not finding fault. . . . There were people eating groundhogs. The children would go to school with nothing in their lunch buckets but a boiled potato or a scrap of bread with lard smeared on it. In those days the windows of the church used to get so pelted with dust that I'd get up on a ladder and sweep them down with a broom so there would be light enough inside for people to read their hymnals.

The times were dreadful, but it was just how it was, and we got very used to it. That was our civilization. The valley of the shadow. And it might as well be Ur of the Chaldees for all people know about it now. For which I thank God, of course, though, since it had to happen, I don't regret having been here for it. It gives you another look at things. I have heard people say it taught them there is more to life than security and the material comforts, but I know a lot of older people around here who can hardly bear to part with a nickel, remembering those hard times. I can't blame them for it, though it has meant that the church is just now beginning to come out of its own Depression. "There is that scattereth, and increaseth yet more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth only to want." Much in this very town proves the truth of that proverb. Well, the church is shabby for the same reason it's still standing at all. So I shouldn't really complain. It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.

--Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


. Posted by Hello

"Instead of assuming the organic, musical form of real life, they feel like self-conscious, overworked tales, relying on awkwardly withheld secrets and O'Henryesque twists to create narrative suspense."

Why am I not surprised? After Jonathan Franzen's glowing review of Alice Munro's Runaway in the New York Times it was of course just a matter of time before Michiko Kakutani came along to pronounce the entire collection a failure.


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Put your John Hancock here

A guide to rare and collectible author signatures.
Laura Miller lists the Best Books of 2004 in Salon.

A brief run down here, since following the link means sitting through an ad for access:

Fiction:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Hurray! Will be on my year’s best list, too)

“An exploration of the loss, grief, and misplaced guilt that torment three clients who hire Jackson Brodie, an irresistibly grumpy divorced father working as a private investigator in Cambridge, England.”

And

“If Lorrie Moore decided to write a genre-busting detective novel it might resemble Case Histories, a book in which people take precedence over puzzles and there’s no greater mystery than the resurrection of hope."

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Not on my best list, but mighty fine nonetheless)

Clarke’s “capacious, digressive, amply footnoted and very original Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a classic historical novel—only the history it’s based on just happens to be entirely fantastic.”

And

“As for her wondrous, image-rich depictions of her heroes’ spells (ships made of rain, a twilight land accessible only through mirror), that’s nothing less than pure sorcery.”

Happy Baby by Stephen Elliot

Petty criminals, Chicago group homes, chapters that jump backward in time, “a wincing, dogged search for the truth,” and published by McSweeney’s/MacAdam Cage.

I’d never even heard of this one. The above makes it sound interesting, but I’m not providing the elements of the book that make me disinclined to read it because listing them might make this blog show up in searches for Things Unsavory.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

C. snagged this one off the new book cart yesterday (I snatched The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates and The Know-It-All by A. C. Jacobs), so I’ll have to wait a bit to get to this one.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Another one from my year’s best list)

“What’s it like for a disillusioned, secular idealist to witness his nation losing faith in the future and sliding back into the rigidity of religious fundamentalism?”

There’s a discussion of this at Readerville in, I believe, February, but I’ve gotten the idea somehow along the way that I ought to read Dostoevsky’s Demons before rereading it, so I might not be quite on track. Also, a yahoo group I’m on is reading Pamuk’s My Name is Red in January, and I’m tempted to reread that one, too. I just don’t know. I have at least three other books about Turkey here on the shelves, including another Pamuk.

Best Non-Fiction (I’d heard of none of these)

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

A sensational trial and Clarence Darrow, to boot. African-American Ossian Sweet moved into “a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, and found himself fighting for his life and property against a mob of locals.”

Sounds interesting, but I hate reading trial stories, so nah.

Nightingale: the Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill

A bio that presents FL as one in “a long line of English radicals, freethinkers and even bohemians” while providing “a mercilessly skeptical eye to the pettiness and absurdities of the English class system.”

Hmmm.

American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman

A “meticulous history with propulsive narrative power, a fresh take on one of the most examined events in American history”

And

A "Booth who was far more cunning, manipulative and talented than conventional wisdom would have us believe.”

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King

“Gruesome fun”—a Connecticut-based merchant ship crew enslaved by nomads in the Sahara Desert in 1815.

The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler

“An old fashioned commitment to telling the whole story—in this case the reality that millions of Americans who work hard, full-time if not more, can’t keep their heads above water.”


Monday, December 06, 2004

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

(Stefanie, your comments showed up--in triplicate!--in my email, but I never saw them here on the site. Weird.)

Gilead quote

Once when Boughton and I had spent an evening going through our texts together and we were done talking them over, I walked him out to the porch, and there were more fireflies out there than I had ever seen in my life, thousands of them everywhere, just drifting up out of the grass, extinguishing themselves in midair. We sat on the steps a good while in the dark and the silence, watching them. Finally Boughton said, "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." And really, it was that night as if the earth were smoldering. Well, it was, and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly. I don't know whether the verse put a blessing on the fireflies or the fireflies put a blessing on the verse, or if both of them together put a blessing on trouble, but I have loved them both a good deal ever since.

--Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has a new novel, Saturday, coming out in March 2005. Speaking at a private high school in Oxford, he talked about the new novel, being detained from entering the U.S. due to Homeland Security measures, and how 9/11 knocked him off course as a writer.

He also gave "a lengthy explanation of his belief in factual accuracy to underpin and nourish the novelist's imagination. Indeed, he said, as a schoolboy of 13 he had discovered that a description of a Punch magazine cover in L. P. Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-Between was in fact completely accurate. 'If there was a moment when I decided to become a writer, that was it,' he said."

Add The Go-Between to the list of novels I want to read in 2005.


Sunday, December 05, 2004

Reading priorities

I've been enjoying forum discussions on what people intend to read next year even more than the ubiquitous lists of best books of 2004.

It's always embarrassing for me to look back on a previous year's reading intentions and realize how quickly I deviated from them. My main goal for next year is to read books I already own, and, failing that (no doubt before the first week of January ends), get the books from the library, and, failing that, get them used. We'll see how well I do.

Other than that, my reading priorities are to read more nonfiction and more short stories--I've been stockpiling both for a few years now, and it's past time to stop saving for a rainy day. In particular, books pertaining to some aspect of American history and collections by Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Graham Greene, Alberto Alvaro Rios, Tobias Wolff and Andre Dubus are going to spend time off the shelves.

I also want to read Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus, Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, Elio Vittorini's Conversations in Sicily, Dostoevsky's Demons, either Lempriere's Dictionary or The Pope's Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk, both of the Bohumil Hrabal novels I brought back from Prague, and Amos Oz's memoir. I want to read Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier because I feel guilty for never having read it and Huston Curtiss' Sins of the 7th Sister because it looks like Southern Gothic fun.

Anyone else have any reading plans to share?



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Saturday, December 04, 2004

David Mitchell interviews

Apocalypse, maybe: "In spite of its title, Cloud Atlas is Mitchell's tightest, most focused book, as well as his funniest: the Russian doll structure allows him to return to the same themes - which are, broadly speaking, the struggle between savagery and civilisation, between biology and ethics. 'It's a book about predacity and predation,' he says, 'individuals preying on groups, groups preying on individuals.'

"It is also strikingly political, much more so than anything else he has written: Mitchell's vision of the future is like Naomi Klein's No Logo taken to its ultimate conclusion: a consumer society in the process of consuming itself. The narrator of this section, Somni 451, is a clone genomed to smile and stand for 19 hours on end in an underground fast-food restaurant, genuflecting to the dollar, worshipping the company logo, a sort of Ronald McDonald hologram that performs endless somersaults in the air. At night the fabricants have 'nitemares of angry diners, food tube blockages, lost collars and shameful destarrings'. Language itself is branded: instead of shoes, films, petrol, traffic jams, Somni 451 sees nikes, disneys, exxon and fordjams. For the pure-blood consumers who live overground, spending is compulsory - 'Hoarding is an anti-corpocratic crime.' Perhaps the most terrifying thing is that Mitchell exaggerates the present only slightly. "

Fantastic voyage: "What went through Mitchell's mind when plotting the book? 'I didn't think about it at all,' he says. 'When I'm writing, I know what I want to have next - this scene, that snatch of dialogue, this passage. The theme of predation, the tendency of a society to eat itself, and the Russian-doll structure, evolved organically as I was writing. My books start with four or five stem cells - a mention of the Moriori tribe in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and the revelation that humanity can regress just as easily as it can go forward. And I'd been reading Eric Fenby's autobiography, My Life With Delius, which was such an intriguing relationship. Another starting-point was Italo Calvino's book, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, which is full of interrupted stories. I wondered how it would be if you went and actually finished off all those interrupted stories...'

"But why not (the cry goes up from readers and rivals alike) write a straight single narrative rather than these serpentining, Gordian knots of plot? He shrugs. The Irish sunlight, pouring through the glass door of his shed behind him, lights up his large ears like twin porch-lights. "It's a structural challenge," he says shortly.

"But why give yourself these challenges? You don't have to...

" 'I do,' says Mitchell firmly. 'It's a kind of escapology, inside which is originality. The tighter the straitjacket, the more ingenious the act of escapology has to be.' "


Friday, December 03, 2004

Cloud Atlas quotes

"As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent."

And

"Souls cross the skies o' time. . . like clouds crossin' skies o' the world."

And

"Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds."

And

". . . I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far back b'fore the Fall, yay, glimpsed from a gallopin' horse in a hurrycane, but I cudn't describe 'em 'cos there ain't the words no more but well I mem'ry that dark Kolekole girl with her tribe's tattoo, yay, she was a saplin' bendin' an' I was that hurrycane, I blowed her she bent, I blowed harder she bent harder an' closer, then I was Crow's wings beatin' an' she was the flames lickin' an' when the Kolekole saplin' wrapped her willowy fingers around my neck, her eyes was quartzin' and she murmed in my ear, Yay, I will, again, an' yay, we will, again."

I've gone forward in time and now I'll be going back. Translation: less than 200 pages to go and a strong inclination to listen to The Highwaymen: "I'll be back again and again and again and again."

Times are you say a person's b'liefs ain't true, they think you're sayin' their lifes ain't true an' their truth ain't true.

--David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Cloud Atlas and Hesiod's Theogony

I am loving David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I am supposedly reading it with a friend, who became too involved with it to stop at the end of the second section, our agreed upon first discussion point, and I am enjoying it too much to speed through it to catch up with her. We didn't do too well reading War and Peace together either.

Mitchell's overarching structure reminds me of Calvino, and each section (there are six separate storylines and incidentally--hah!-- a character named Sixsmith) is a a different voice, a different location and time, most delightful pastiche. I'll be taking a look at Mitchell's earlier works once I'm done with Cloud Atlas.

And speaking of earlier works, I read Hesiod's "Theogony" at work Monday night. Why depend upon Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton when you can read the earliest written versions of myths just as easily for yourself? In translation, of course. I have much more insight into the birth of Aphrodite, for example, after reading this. S. will be reading this next, while I move on to Apollodorus.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it's the answer to everything. It's the steaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it's only a cactus.
--Enid Bagnold

But what if it's written by a homosexual, Mr. Allen?

MONTGOMERY - An Alabama lawmaker who sought to ban gay marriages now wants to ban novels with gay characters from public libraries, including university
libraries. A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote
homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda."

Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed.

"I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them," he said.