Saturday, December 31, 2005

A look back, a look ahead


2005's Top Ten Favorite Books:

Pinkerton's Sister by Peter Rushforth
Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal
The Accidental by Ali Smith
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I completed 77 books this year: 47 novels, 13 works of nonfiction, eight collections of short stories, six plays and three books of poetry (I counted The Odyssey in with the novels. Sue me). I read 12 works that I consider classics, and I reread Peter Shaffer's Equus; William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying; E.C. Spykman's four children's novels; Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz; Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail; Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays; Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I'd reread at least eight of those previously and am apt to do so again.

I left several works of nonfiction unfinished and would like to return to them at some point next year. I intended to read 365 stories this year, but reached only 200. I did not read Ulysses, which I'd told myself for years that I would read when I was 45, but I did read Don Quixote instead and so therefore totally absolve myself of all the prior years of lying. Maybe I'll read it in 2006—since I'm losing neural connections at an alarming clip, it really is one I need to get around to before it's too late.

I've enjoyed reading everyone's reading plans for next year: Gibbon, Dickens, Shakespeare and sensibly all over the map. Ella has already daringly resolved what her first ten books of the year will be and Sherry's listed an extensive number to draw from. Danielle added her stats and resolutions this afternoon. But since I cannot even stick with the little monthly resolves that I make, let alone one that should guide me for an entire year, I'll stick with Randall Jarrell and Mental Multivitamin and promise to "Read at whim! Read at whim!" in the coming year.

(That said, I have put together a list of 21 books at Library Thing-- under the name pagesaregonnaturn-- that I ought to read in 2006, fully realizing I probably won't.)

Happy New Year and happy reading!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

More references

Eve was a member of a very nice book group in Islington, six or seven women and one rather beleaguered man, who met in each other's houses—one of the pleasures of it was seeing the insides of a whole range of other people's houses. Over the last six months the book group had enjoyed two doorstop historical novels—both Victorian, mostly about sex—by contemporary novelists, last year's Booker winner about the man in the boat with the animals, a Forster novel, the big multicultural bestseller which most people in the group got only halfway through, and a very nice novel about Southwold. Michael disapproved of the book group. He thought it bourgeois beyond belief. But Eve was a minor celebrity at the book group, being an author herself. It gave her a definite authoritative edge, which half of the group nodded to and most of them secretly resented, she sensed.

--Ali Smith, The Accidental

What's the very nice novel about Southwold?

Power is not a means

"Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?"

--George Orwell, 1984

When's the last time the clocks struck thirteen in your world?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Conceived in 1968 in the town's only cinema. . .

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She'd slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun. I said I didn't like the way he got things done. I had sex in the back of the old closing cinema. I used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dancefloor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you're sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp. It was soft as an easy chair. It happened so fast. I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn't just me, on the Orient Express.

--Ali Smith, The Accidental

Butter in Paris? What's that a reference to?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Between marathon viewings of Arrested Development yesterday and Christmas evening with the family, I finished Beyond Black (very good, very dark) and started The Winter's Tale and Ali Smith's The Accidental.

Today—our 24th anniversary—is gearing up to be spent carpet cleaning. Reading will resume tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas aftermath


Ellie uses the gift certificate tiger as a pillow.

Next week's Carnival of the Cats will be hosted by Elms in the Yard.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Merry Christmas, everyone.
Despite the interspecies battle that took place in our bed last night and its exceedingly prolonged aftermath (Nicholson and Ginger's grudge match goes back a good ten years), I was out the door to finish the shopping and back home again before the morning was half-spent. I may regularly wait until the last minute after this year--the roads were nearly empty, there were plenty of parking spaces, and those fellow shoppers I encountered did not appear to be either harried or hostile.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Last week when our oldest nephew's Ken Follett request had worked its way through the communication chain to me, I wound up ordering Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks for our youngest niece so that I could get free shipping. S. and I both read the first chapter and agreed it would make a good present for her—two years from now. Her mother has admitted she doesn't do reading, and while L.'s mother has assured me that she herself will read this book to M., I'm inclined to buy her something else today on our family marathon do-or-die shopping-at-the- last-minute excursion to the mall.

Maybe I'll read The Penderwicks—it did win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature—after finishing Beyond Black.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Winter break

And I'm home for the holidays. . . . I put in a full day at the library yesterday then went out for fish tacos with co-worker buddies current and old, and will not be returning to work until next year.

I brought home—because they were available and I can't possibly have enough already at hand—a few books from the new book cart and a few videos and dvds freshly released from course reserves and the av collection:

The Pagoda in the Garden by Wendy Lesser

The invitation sat propped between the silver triangles of the toast rack. One of the charms of this small, well-run hotel—one of the charms of London, she always reminded herself—was that one could get breakfast and the day's first post at the same time. Not that the invitation had arrived precisely in the toast rack: that degree of levity would have struck the management as unseemly. No, she had set it there herself, after reading it once; and now, as she thoughtfully eyed it from a distance, over her second cup of morning coffee (a French habit that had becomeimpossible to break), she seemed to ask of it a degree of communication that went beyond the mere explicitness of black scrawl on cream pasteboard.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.


Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

When I was young, my mother read me a story about a wicked little girl. She read it to me and my two sisters. We sat curled against her on the couch and she read from the book on her lap. The lamp shone on us and there was a blanket over us. The girl in the story was beautiful and cruel. Because her mother was poor, she sent her daughter to work for rich people, who spoiled and petted her. The rich people told her she had to visit her mother. But the girl felt she was too good and went merely to show herself. One day, the rich people sent her home with a loaf of bread for her mother. But when the little girl came to a muddy bog, rather than ruin her shoes, she threw down the bread and stepped on it. It sank into the bog and she sank with it. She sank into a world of demons and deformed creatures. Because she was beautiful, the demon queen made her into a statue as a gift for her great-grandson. The girl was covered in snakes and slime and surrounded by the hate of every creature trapped like she was. She was starving but couldn't eat the bread still welded to her feet. She could hear what people were saying about her; a boy passing by saw what had happened to her and told everyone, and they all said she deserved it. Even her mother said she deserved it. The girl couldn't move, but if she could have, she would've twisted with rage. "It isn't fair!" cried my mother, and her voice mocked the wicked girl.

Schlepping Through the Alps by Sam Apple

If you're traveling the Alps with a Yiddish folksinger who also happens to be the last wandering shepherd in Austria and he assigns you the task of walking behind his flock of 625 sheep, you'll discover that the little lambs sometimes tire out and plop down for naps. Since your job is to make sure no sheep is left behind, you'll approach the sleeping lambs, your shepherd's stick firm in your right fist, and shout, "Hop! Hop!" You'll have learned to make this noise, which rhymes with "nope," from observing the shepherd and his sons. On occasion, when a lamb is in a deep sleep and not responding, you'll look around quickly to see whether the coast is clear. If the shepherd is far ahead or busy singing Yiddish ditties to himself, you'll kneel down next to the sleeping lamb and say, "Come on, little cutie. Time to move on." Then you'll attempt to give the lamb a quick pat on the head. Usually the lamb will wake up before you touch it and scurry ahead in search of its mother. When this happens, you'll let out several angry hop hops, as though you're completely in charge.


To watch we have In Search of Shakespeare, which comes highly recommended by C.; the Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh versions of Hamlet (S. has seen only parts of Gibson's and none of Branagh's, because these are usually on reserve); the three-part BBC version of Winter's Tale; and Birth of a Language, from the Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

Sure beats Nancy Grace.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Scandalous Women

(Today is the day for the Slaves of Golconda to post about their reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Jeff provides an excellent summary of Chronicle for those who haven't yet read the book; Syvia's been providing background on GGM for the past several days and she and Stefanie and Danielle have already posted their thoughts as well. Check the Metaxu Cafe for further Slave postings; we're all supposed to cross post at the Cafe.)


My son says I'm shoehorning, and no doubt I am, but because I read The Scarlet Letter and Chronicle of a Death Foretold back to back, I'm inclined to look for similarites between the two, to highlight the chatter between the books, as Sandra recently called it. (There was also a lot of dialogue between The Scarlet Letter and Play It As It Lays, as a matter of fact, but that's the subject of another post.)

A woman's venture into sexual misconduct, a stepping outside the moral constructs of her society, has been the impetus for stories dating back at least as far as the Trojan War. Even so, I doubt I would ever have connected these two versions of the story if I hadn't read them in close proximity.

Both Hester Prynne and Angela Vicario violate the sexual dictates of their society and are punished for it when the news gets out. Hester is jailed, put on public display, and made to live the life of an outcast; the scarlet letter, intended to insure that her sin won't be forgotten, undergoes a change in meaning over the decades that follow but still serves to keep Hester from integrating back into the community. Angela is returned in a humiliating manner to her family on her wedding night once Bayardo San Roman discovers she is not a virgin, is beaten by her mother, and, while the community agrees her honor has been restored after her brothers murder the man who supposedly took her virginity, nonetheless leaves town with her family due to fear of retaliation and goes to "an Indian death village" where her mother does her best "to bury her alive."

While Hester steadfastly refuses to name the father of her baby, Angela, when pressed by her brothers after she is returned five hours after leaving the wedding party to tell who has dishonored her, "only took the time necessary to say the name. She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly with no will whose sentence has always been written."

Outside her family, however, no one believes the man they kill is the correct man; everyone believes she's merely named a man her brothers would not dare to kill to protect someone else. In fact, although it is common knowledge that the Vicario brothers say they intend to kill their friend Santiago Nasar, no one either takes their threats seriously enough to warn him until it's much too late or else they feel their involvement couldn't possibly stop what's inevitable. Perhaps her cousin, Chronicle's narrator, is the man she's protecting; perhaps the journalistic pose of the narrator hides a guilty conscience—he does make sure we know the town's main prostitute leaves her door unlocked for him instead of for Santiago and that he seeks Angela out years later "during an uncertain period" when he is "trying to understand something of" himself.

Maybe.

In exile, both women turn to needlecrafts—Hester sews for her livelihood and Angela is skilled with the embroidery machine. While they conform outwardly to the punishments reaped upon them for their transgressions, both women continue to think their own nonconforming thoughts and manage years after the fact to fashion lives for themselves that are to their liking: Hester travels abroad with Pearl before deciding to return to her cottage by the sea and Angela persists in writing letters to her husband until he succumbs to her loyalty and takes her back. (I wouldn't have returned to the Puritans or wanted Bayardo back either one, but there's no accounting for others' preferences sometimes.)

Religious imagry permeates in both of the books and both Hawthorne and Garcia Marquez use names that are freighted with meaning. Lots of irony in both works—Dimmesdale is a minister and Angela's honor is restored by her twin brothers, one of whom is suffering mightily from veneral disease; both are filled with hypocrites who are as guilty of misconduct as Hester and Angela, but who've managed not to get caught.

Hawthorne can't manage black humor very well; Dimmesdale's self-inflicted horrors are unpleasant to read and his near-breakdown after his meeting in the woods with Hester is painful as well, but, oh, Garcia Marquez can do no wrong in that department: in the first chapter, Santiago is horrified when the cook "pulled out the insides of a rabbit by the roots and threw the steaming guts to the dogs.

"Don't be a savage," he told her. "Make believe it was a human being."

Those dogs will be after Santiago's own intestines just a few hours later. We'll be told that the priest who performed his autopsy "had pulled out the sliced-up intestines by the roots, but in the end he didn't know what to do with them, and he gave them an angry blessing and threw them into the garbage pail."

Nice.

A shiver, a shock

We shall have to resign ourselves to this: that literature offers no signs, has never offered any signs, by which it can immediately be identified. The best, if not the only, test that we can apply is that suggested by Housman: check if a sequence of words, silently pronounced as the razor glides across our skin of a morning, sets the hairs of the beard on end, while a "shiver" goes "down the spine." . . . . As for Baudelaire, he was proud that Hugo had sensed, on reading his verses, a "new shiver." How else could we recognize peotry--and its departure from what came before? Something happens, something Coomaraswamy defined as "the aesthetic shock." Whether prompted by the apparition of a god or a sequence of words, the nature of that shock doesn't change. And this is what poetry does: it makes us see what otherwise we wouldn't have seen, through a sound that was never heard before."

--Robert Calasso, "Absolute Literature," in Literature and the Gods

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Last night, near the end of a rather odd dream the details of which I've already forgotten, I realized I was dreaming what was supposed to be Ali Smith's The Accidental.

I cannot wait to read this book.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Inductive? Deductive?


Ellie ponders why any kitten should be expected to learn how to think logically.

Pets are loading up on The Ark; Carnival of the Cats will be at Music and Cats Sunday evening.

I Want to Buy a Vowel (revisited)

Otherwise well-read John confessed in comments that he'd never heard of local boy John Welter, so here's a review I'd published in Creative Loafing several years back about his third novel---


John Welter, the Carrboro former shoe salesman
whose earlier scathingly funny satires have lambasted the
press and the secret service, turns the spotlight on both
religious fundamentalists and U.S. immigration policy in his
latest, I Want To Buy a Vowel. As in the earlier novels,
hilarity, insanity and canned luncheon meats run amok.

Alfredo Santayana, a 17-year-old Guatemalan, finds
himself in Waxahachie, Texas, with a green card chipping
paint to reveal the words "Western Auto" underneath and a
smattering of English phrases that he doesn't understand but
learned from watching TV: Beam me up, Scotty; Have you
driven a Ford lately; I'm not going to pay a lot for this
muffler.
He's working in a Chinese restaurant, camping out
in a deserted house believed by the area children to be
haunted. He's also dreaming of buying a vowel, which "The
Wheel of Fortune" has assured him is one of the most
precious things on earth.

If life isn't hard enough already on Alfredo, enter
Kenlow Schindler, minister's son, "just an ordinary boy who
couldn't play football or do anything that might make him
seem valuable or desirable to anyone at all." Kenlow intends
to become "a recreational satanist," one who employs
"affordable" rituals that don't "require actually killing
anything or becoming friends with Satan."

Kenlow couples Vienna sausages, pork brains and
chicken giblets with pentagrams drawn in the dirt and the
town, media and fundamentalists go nuts. Nevermind that
there's no mutilated lifestock, no true evidence of any
sinister crime in the town, nevermind that sarcastic police
chief James McLemore tells a reporter that "based on all the
geometric evidence so far accumulated, it wasn't Satan they
should be looking for. It was Euclid." Once little girls Eva
and Ava Galt unearth a human bone during their dinosaur dig
near Alfredo's hiding place (later identified as that of a
possible 1929 cult victim), it's only a matter of time
before Alfredo is jailed, subjected to a whole-jail
exorcism, and threatened with deportation if a job too
demeaning for any real American to want cannot be found for
him.

To further complicate matters, Kenlow's father,
whose sermon notes include "Why Satan might make his
presence known through pork brains" and "Satan and the
apocalypse, as manifested in giblets," must contend with
"pornographic" scenes from the Bible being painted on the
ceiling of the local grocery. Chief McLemore is sidelined by
the FBI when a stamp machine with a believed likeness of the
Virgin Mary is stolen from the post office. Eva's parents
are only going through the motions of their marriage and Eva
prays to Ted Williams rather than God (this daughter of an
Episcopalian priest can't pray to a faceless entity) to make
them happy once again, all the while trying desperately to
help Alfredo and stand up to Kenlow's threats of brown-
bagged gall bladders and unsigned letters.

For me, the book's most poignant, serious-in-
intent moment comes when Eva's father tries to explain to
his daughter that no matter how much anyone knows about
religion, no one can say for sure why God leaves it up to
people to try to solve the problems of the world. His
explanation becomes an outloud musing into how the Bible was
put together: ". . . we have four Gospels. Sometimes it
makes me think that when the Bible was being written, there
was a short story contest, and the top four entries were
chosen for the collection. Actually, there were several
other gospels, but I think the editors sent out rejection
letters saying 'We already have four gospels. That's
enough.'"

Welter's third person narration, a departure from
the first person used in his earlier novels, capably juggles
its many characters, plot threads and funny lines. While
Eva is shown to be depressed and frightened at times, she
never comes across as a whine as did Welter's first person
narrators in Begin to Exit Here and Night of the Avenging
Blowfish.
Unfortunately, the skipping about from character to
character keeps all but Eva from becoming unforgettable
people; the reader only knows enough to regard them as
deserving of ridicule or pity, rather than experiencing them
as fully rounded.

That's a minor complaint in a satirical work,
though. Welter addresses religious freedom, the treatment of
illegal aliens and sheer lunacy in a guaranteed laugh-out-
loud style. If social issues can be regarded as his
characters, Welter has exposed them in all their multi-sided
vulnerability.

Links on an icy morning

"Maybe we shouldn't be talking about literature at all," I say.

"Ha, ha," he says. "Now you're talking! I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two."

Martin Krasnik's interview with Philip Roth

Most of you, if not all of you, like me, feel inadequately educated. That is an ordinary feeling for a member of our species. One of the most brilliant human beings of all times, George Bernard Shaw said on his 75th birthday or so that at last he knew enough to become a mediocre office boy. He died in 1950, by the way, when I was 28. He is the one who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I turned 83 a couple weeks ago, and I must say I agree.

Shaw, if he were alive today, would envy us the solid information that we have or can get about the nature of the universe, about time and space and matter, about our own bodies and brains, about the resources and vulnerabilities of our planet, about how all sorts of human beings actually talk and feel and live.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Your Guess is as Good as Mine"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A useful pot for putting things in. . .

or, I try to exhibit the proper ho ho ho


I dunno, it's just hard this year. I thought maybe by answering some of the questions and concerns that have brought strangers to the blog the last few days that I could get a bit more into the proper frame of mind for this time of year.

How many pages are in the book Sugar Snow, the short one

32.

What is the purpose of the letters written in the last crossing by guy vanderhaeghe?

Communication. Remember, this is before the days of cell phones and text messaging.

What was the thesis of Love and Hate in Jamestown.

Life is tough and then you die.

Why gym is stupid.

Nancy Grace. Under no circumstances should you go to the gym and attempt to walk on the treadmill while Nancy Grace is on the verge of spontaneous combustion over some local crime story that she's elevating to a national crisis. If your audio player is malfunctioning and all you have to distract yourself from Her Awfulness is the last page of The Year of Magical Thinking when you're a good half-book away from the last page anyway expect to have a horrible time. As long as you can manage to avoid going to the gym while Nancy Grace is on the television seeking vengeance gym won't be near as stupid as you thought it'd be.

hannibal heyes kid curry gay

Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar from Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" are gay, but Heyes and Curry are not.

The determination of a subset of fans to put a homosexual spin on Heyes and Curry's friendship always reminds me of the time I worked for a company that scored student writing proficiency tests. One of the other team leaders had a woman on her team who told her the first day that because she was a minister's wife she would be unable to score any tests that were written by gay students. No one thought this would be an issue; no one could even remember having previously seen a paper indicating that a student was gay. But several times a day the woman would bring back a paper to her team leader that she just knew was written by a homosexual and the rest of us would pass around a totally generic standard-issue essay on how the school cafeteria would be much improved if the workers wore hair nets or if they could have pizza brought in by an outside vendor and wonder what in the world she'd read into the essay to trip her gay wire.

Munro runaway goat

Forget the little—if any—that you know about scapegoats or sacrificial goats. Ignore any info you might have on Judas goats while you're at it. Concentrate on the fact that not only is the story entitled "Runaway" but so's the entire collection! Clearly this is significant. Skip ahead to "Soon," the third story in the collection. Read the description of the white heifer. Isn't it obvious? The goat's run away and is now serving as a model for Chagall! Sometimes Chagall paints the goat as a goat but sometimes he transforms him into other creatures. The goat doesn't mind what he's immortalized as—he's just relieved to be out of that first story which he found a tad dangerous.

important passages Don Quixote

You'll impress your teacher with your thorough knowledge of the book by quoting this final passage:

However, as it is rare to cure insanity, people say that when he left the Court he went back to his mania, bought another and better horse, and returned to Old Castile. Stupendous and unheard-of-adventures happened to him there, for he took as his squire a "working girl" he found by the Tower of Lodones. She was dressed like a man and was fleeing from her master because in his house she became, or they made her become pregnant unwittingly, although not because she didn't give plenty of cause for it. She was roaming around in fear, and the good knight took her without knowing she was a woman until she gave birth in the middle of the road and in his presence, leaving him highly astonished at the birth and imagining the wildest fancies about it.

Nah. I'm still too cranky for Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Booked by Three

I'm participating in Shelley's December Booked by Three poll:

1. Books/Magazines as gifts.

Do you give them?
Have I ever not given them to my kids? S. exclaimed after learning the truth about the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy: "Oh, so that's why they always brought me books!"

Other than the kids, I usually only give books regularly to my mother-in-law, who appreciates them. And I used to give Larry McMurtrys to my dad, who only bought paperback westerns for himself. I try to give the nieces and nephews something they've specifically requested; they know if they don't speak up they'll probably get books.

Do you get them?
From the kids, yes, and usually my mother-in-law gives me a gift certificate to use for buying books. This year, though, I'm getting Something Else.

If you've gotten any as gifts, do you have a favorite?
Probably Black Beauty back in second grade.

2. End of Year Stats

Most books read in a year?
I read 112 in 2000. I probably read many more than that in a year when I was a child, but unless I can unearth my old diaries from my parents' basement I can't prove it.

Least number of books read in a year?
I made it through eight in 1986. My daughter did not permit me to read while she nursed. I watched a lot of Sesame Street that year.

Average number of books read in a year?
Since '93 I've ranged between 44 and 112 books, with an average of 80.

3. Any reading material on your wish list this year?
I know exactly what I'm getting. . .

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Portrait of a Pretty Elusive Puss


It's been nearly impossible to get a decent picture of Claudius the last few months. He's over his fear of the kitten-he eats with her and has taught her to drink water from the tap-but he's remained in high vigilance mode since his lengthy stay under the couch, and between his preference for dark corners and the camera's neurosis, it's just been easier to snap shots of Ellie, who is always convenient and agreeable to posing.

This morning, though, I caught Claudie in a former haunt of his, and he didn't mind having the flash go off in his eyes.

The Carnival of the Cats is being hosted by Quite Early One Morning this week.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The biggest advantage to cataloging all the books in your house and having these books show up in random combinations in the sidebar of your blog is that it dampens the urge to acquire still more: look at all these books you haven't gotten around to reading yet. Listing all the hardback purchases you've yet to read, and starring the ones you actually paid new-book prices on dribbles on your flame to purchase as well: oh, the shame. Aren't most of those purchases out in paperback now? Or languishing on library shelves? And attempting to house many more of the books brought into the study for cataloging purposes in said study via stacking and double-shelving so that the books won't have to be moved yet again next summer when the kids' long-overdue room exchange takes place means taking a clear-eyed appraisal of what you're actually likely to read over the next several months so that you can keep them handy: any new purchases will bump the old into obscurity and then you'll never find anything.

Also, any book not purchased makes a trip back to Utah that much more affordable.

Still, three books being published next year seem destined for purchase: Emma Richler's Feed My Dear Dogs; Peter Rushforth's A Dead Language; and Anne Tyler's Digging to America.

The flame's been dampened, but not put out.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Thoughts visited her

Much of the marble coldness of Hester's impression was to be attributed to the circumstance that her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling to thought. Standing alone in the world—alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected—alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable—she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings. Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged—not actually, but within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode—the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of ancient principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage by the seashore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.

--Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
I listened to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking on audio until Sunday when my player broke. By broke I mean the audio stops in mid-sentence somewhere in chapter 19, I think, won't advance, won't shut off, won't do anything until I disconnect the device from the battery. When I reconnect, it plays the same couple of minutes of audio that I've heard most recently, stops again in mid-sentence, won't advance, won't shut off, won't do anything until I disconnect the battery.

Arrg.

Barbara Caruso is the reader, and I totally accepted her as Joan Didion herself, to the point that I knew I couldn't listen to the NPR interview until after I'd finished the book to avoid having my belief in the voice shattered. Then, in a discussion of how Didion came to write a scene in Play It As It Lays, Caruso mispronounces the main character's name and I lost all conviction in her anyway. Mar-eye-ah, she should say, not Ma-ree-ah. Shouldn't someone have pointed this out to Caruso? Didn't anyone remember?

At any rate, since a library copy of The Year of Magical Thinking is still evidently some weeks off, I picked up my well-worn copy of Play It As It Lays. Vivian Gornick has called it an enduring novel, and it continues to hold up for me. Some Amazon reviewers, on the other hand, clearly think it's of its time.

I've never read anything about its critical reception before, indeed, have been totally oblivious to the fact that it was nominated for the National Book Award back in '71. This time I'm reading all the reviews I can find. I've still a couple more yet to go and I need to reread the first one I read, which infuriated me Tuesday night, with its mix of obtuseness and insight, to the point that I couldn't sleep. It's certainly a novel that people hold widely divergent views on.

More to come.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


For those who have a copy of The Upper Room's daily devotional guide, today's "thought for today" is written by my mom-in-law. She mentions beavers in her essay, which is reason enough for me to post a picture of beaver damage taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway last month. Yeah, she's much more inspirational than I am, but we both like beavers.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Books for December

First paragraphs from the books I want to read this month:

"A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes."

--Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

This one's currently underway and even gloomier than I'd remembered.

"It was a Thursday afternoon in London, September 22, 1796. Well-dressed men clattered through the cobbled streets, chatting with one another over the knotty cases of law they were tackling. They seemed to stand straighter and taller than those they passed: the woman hawking eggs on the corner, the street brats throwing old onions at one another. These men had grander things on their minds. They came out of cloistered quarters, the ancient Inns of Court, into the rabble of London. They noticed the autumnal change of seasons, more distinct this day than even a week before: the sun sinking nearer the Thames to the south, the clouds gathering thicker and lower, a gray chill in the air."

--Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Mad Mary Lamb

Also underway. Today is Mary Lamb's birthday, by the way.

"When I ws very young I made up stories—the refuge of an isolated and frequently bored child. These were fables that I told to myself—long satisfying narratives that passed the time and spiced up otherwise uneventful days. For this was how life seemed to me, growing up in Egypt in the early 1940s—the Libyan campaign ebbing and flowing across the desert, the Middle East seething with its nascent conflicts. With the wisdoms of today, I see that I was living in interesting times, but a seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old has strictly personal horizons, and my idea of a spot of drama came from my reading—from Greek mythology, from The Arabian Nights. My internal narratives featured gods and goddesses, heroes, mythical figures, magicians and princesses. And, of course, myself—out there in the thick of it, with a starring role. And now, at the other end of life, storytelling is an ingrained habit; I wouldn't know what else to do. But the mythology that is intriguing today is that of imagined alternatives. Somehow, choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climatic moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome."

--Penelope Lively, Making It Up

Just collected from the library. It's already tempting me to drop what's underway and attend to it.

"Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would like to believe he is still asleep."

--Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

Has the longest check-out period of all this month's offerings, so will probably go to the bottom of the stack even though it's recommended by Kate Atkinson.

"Last time you see someone and you don't know it will be the last time. And all that you know now, if only you'd known then. But you didn't know, and now it's too late. And you tell yourself How could I have known, I could not have known."

--Joyce Carol Oates, Missing Mom

Maybe this is the one I'll read next.

"Traveling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin's scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o-clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potter's Bar. There are nights when you don't want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don't want them and you can't send them back. The dead won't be coaxed and they won't be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results."

--Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Started a few months back, but will have to restart from the beginning. Recommended by both A.S. Byatt and Philip Pullman.

"On the day they were going to kill him Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit."

--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

To be read by December 18 if I'm going to be a Slave of Golconda. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Sad stuff

I experienced a moment of pure transcendent bliss during last spring's MerleFest: the voice, the lyric, the instrumentation, the melody, every element each and of itself was so sublimely gorgeous that I wished I'd caught the name of the song so that I could find the album that contained it and listen to it non-stop for weeks on end.The fact that I couldn't, unless I systematically bought every album by the group, which I couldn't afford to do, refined and intensified the moment that much more.

Then my friend turned to me and said, "This is the kind of song that makes me want to slit. my. wrists." She made me listen to a Barry Manilow – Bette Midler album as antidote when we went back to her house.

Same thing happens when it comes to literature. Someone will find a work depressing while I'm quietly exulting in how the author managed to look dead on at despair and take its measure. Take that, darkness! Whether the work itself ends happily is largely irrelevant to me, but seems to be the utmost importance for those who are wired differently.

Or are they? My friend and I come from families oh so similar—suicides and depressives and eccentrics we can't quite explain. Does it all boil down to what we were exposed to growing up, she in town listening to musicals and show tunes, me out in the county listening to bluegrass hour on the radio and Johnny Cash prison albums? Is it just a matter of taste? But we both read Trixie Belden. We both played the same instrument in high school band and liked the same strange boy and grew up to have kids the same age. We both like Edith Wharton.

Once I belonged to a book club that really aspired to be nothing more than a coffee klatch. After one terribly exasperating session, in which it was revealed that no one liked the novel I'd chosen, it was just too depressing for words, I was tapped on the shoulder as we were leaving by the retired professor of the group, who told me I was much tougher than the other members and could withstand what they could not. But my mother always told me I was much too sensitive! I wasn't tough at all! And all we were reading was Anne Tyler, anyway.

MFS linked to an article last weekend that questioned whether literature always had to have an unhappy ending. The article mentioned a compilation of literary fiction deemed Positive. I was gratified to find the book that will top my list of revealing books (yeah, I'm still working on it), Clyde Edgerton's Raney, on that list. Whew. I'm obviously not all doom and gloom then.

Which means I'm not going to worry about what I cannot explain: I like things that others do not. I'm going to go to the Robbie Fulks concert tonight and when he sings "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)," I'm going to belt it out along with him.

Lyrics excluded, it's such a happy song.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Ellie takes a brief break from causing mischief. . . to plot more mischief.

As always, you can see the best and latest pet pictures on Fridays at the Ark. Carnival of the Cats will be at When Cats Attack this Sunday.