Friday, September 29, 2006

Forbidden Reading

Alberto Manguel devotes a chapter to "Forbidden Reading" in A History of Reading and he begins the chapter by telling us that Charles II of England decreed in 1660 that natives, servants and slaves of the British colonies should be instructed in Christian precepts and that Charles believed that each individual's salvation depended on his ability to read the Bible for himself.

Slave owners did not cotton to a decree that would educate their property. Laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves to read were passed in the South:

For centuries Afro-American slaves learned to read against extraordinary odds, risking their lives in a process that, because of the difficulties set in their way, sometimes took several years. The accounts of their learning are many and heroic. Ninety-year-old Belle Myers Carothers--interviewed by the Federal Writers' Project, a commission set up in the 1930s to record, among other things, the personal narratives of former slaves--recalled that she had learned her letters while looking after the plantation owner's baby, who was playing with alphabet blocks. The owner, seeing what she was doing, kicked her with his boots. Myers persisted, secretly studying the child's letters as well as a few words in a speller she had found. One day, she said, "I found a hymn book. . . and spelled out 'When I Can Read My Title Clear.' I was so happy when I saw that I could really read, that I ran around telling all the other slaves." Leonard Black's master once found him with a book and whipped him so severely "that he overcame my thirst for knowledge, and I relinquished its pursuit until after I absconded." Doc Daniel Dowdy recalled that "the first time you was caught trying to read or write you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first joint off your forefinger." Throughout the South, it was common for plantation owners to hang any slave who tried to teach the others how to spell.

Dictators have long known to limit literacy. "Censorship," Manguel writes, "in some form or another, is the corollary of all power, and the history of reading is lit by a seemingly endless line of censors' bonfires, from the earliest papyrus scrolls to the books of our times." The works of Protagoras were burned in Athens in 411 B.C.; Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti burned all the books in his realm in 213 B.C.; Goethe likened the burning of a book in Frankfurt to an execution; Goebbels burned more than 20 thousand books in Berlin on May 10, 1933, in front of a cheering crowd. "Obscenities of the past," Goebbels called them, burning works that night by H.G. Wells, Proust, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Marx, Zola and Einstein.

Manguel gives three pages worth of attention to Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York and namesake of the Constock Laws, who bragged two years before his death, "In the forty-one years I have been here, I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers each and the sixty-first almost full. I have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature." Authors Comstock censored included Boccaccio, Walt Whitman, Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw. His "fervour," Manguel claims, was responsible for at least 15 suicides.

He touches upon the Index of Forbidden Books, the 1981 banning of Don Quixote in Chile, and the centuries-long fear of fiction (especially fantasy), before explaining how "censors can also work in different ways, without need of fire or courts of law. They can reinterpret books to render them serviceable only to themselves, for the sake of justifying their autocratic rights."

Manguel tells us of the military coup that took place in 1976, while he was a high school student in Argentina:

What followed was a wave of human-rights abuses such as the country had never seen before. The army's excuse was that it was fighting a war against terrorists; as General Videla defined it, "a terrorist is not just someone with a gun or bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization." Among the thousands kidnapped and tortured was a priest, Father Orlando Virgilio Yorio. One day, Father Yorio's interrogator told him that his reading of the Gospel was false. "You interpreted Christ's doctrine in too literal a way," said the man. "Christ spoke of the poor, but when he spoke of the poor he spoke of the poor in spirit and you interpreted this in a literal way and went to live, literally, with poor people. In Argentina those who are poor in spirit are the rich and in the future you must spend your time helping the rich, who are those who really need spiritual help."

Manguel reminds us that readers can also lie, "wilfully declaring the text subservient to a doctrine, to an arbitarary law, to a private advantage, to the rights of slave-owners or the authority of tyrants."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Italian monk

Among his associates no one loved him, many disliked him, and more feared him. His figure was striking, but not so from grace; it was tall, and, though extremely thin, his limbs were large and uncouth, and as he stalked along, wrapt in the black garments of his order, there was something terrible in its air, something almost superhuman. His cowl, too, as it threw a shade over the livid paleness of his face, increased its severe character, and gave an effect to his large melancholy eye, which approached to horror. His was not the melancholy of a sensible and wounded heart, but apparently that of a gloomy and ferocious disposition. There was something in his physiognomy extremely singular, and that cannot easily be defined. It bore the traces of many passions, which seemed to have fixed the features they no longer animated. An habitual gloom and severity prevailed over the deep lines of his countenance; and his eyes were so piercing that they seemed to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts; few persons could support their scrutiny, or even endure to meet them twice. Yet, notwithstanding all this gloom and austerity, some rare occasions of interest had called forth a character upon his countenance entirely different; and he could adapt himself to the tempers and passions of persons, whom he wished to conciliate, with astonishing facility, and generally with complete triumph.

--Ann Radcliffe

Saturday, September 23, 2006

I bought a book today! During my trip to the bookstore last weekend, I spotted Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, a book I added to my wishlist when Dorothy touted the merits of 18th century lit several weeks ago.

But when I revisited The Italian on my wishlist after I got home, I discovered--gasp!-- that it was out of stock, and I presumed, out of print. Ought I pick it up on my next trip to the mall in spite of my decision not to stockpile?

Which is exactly what I did this afternoon when I had to venture out to buy golf balls. Fortunately, I didn't wind up having to put any developing virtues to the test. The Italian is a perfect book for the R.I.P. Challenge, as it's a Gothic romance. I intend to settle in for an atmospheric evening of "supernatural and nightmarish horrors" with assassins seeking sanctary and demonic monks inflicting torture very shortly. Maybe I'll take a slight detour into the Glass Slipper saloon of Warlock at some point in the evening since a gunfight appears nigh.

But, before I do, what is it they say about karma?

The Italian is, of course, now showing as being in stock at Amazon.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

No more stockpiling?

I've been trying a new mental strategy on myself this week. I've told myself that I can buy any book I want, but the catch is, I can't buy it until I'm prepared to read it. No more stockpiling, no more bumping library books to the front of the queue since an owned book means a book I can ignore until I run out of material with due dates. No, if I buy a book now I should intend to read it immediately.

(I'm still a bit foggy on whether books I obtain with coupons need apply to this rule. Used books don't, obviously, since I can't control when I might stumble across an interesting title at a price I want to pay, but I'm probably in the used book store about ten times a year and I'm on Amazon probably that many times each day. I've never gone longer than 24 hours before using a coupon, either; perhaps I should leave a small window open for impulse shopping.)

Right now I think this is a brilliant piece of reverse psychology. I truly want to read more classics, more books I already own, over the next several months, but how can I get to them if I'm always placing holds for new books I've only just heard of. Telling myself I can buy a book when I'm ready for it instead of the library telling me when I can have it and when I have to have it back for the next person on the list--well, it feels kind of liberating. I think I'll save money in the long run, too. If I decide on my own schedule that it's time to read a book, and there's no waiting list for it at that point, I may well check it out instead of buying it since I know I'll be able to renew it.

Has anyone ever tried this strategy? Does it work? I'm really curious as to how long I can go without feeling that urge to stockpile. I pre-ordered the new Atkinson a few week back, but I expect I'll get to it as soon as I finish the R.I.P. and Slaves of Golconda books. I'm going to try to resist the urge to place any more holds at the library--I don't have the willpower to cancel the outstanding ones, but maybe I can be consistently reading more books that I own by December.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Country

WD told me this evening that this is his favorite Billy Collins poem.

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time -

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Daisy, Daisy

Feeling rather guilty that I'd let another weekend go by without starting In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, I made myself sit down with it last night after work. Before I knew it I'd torn through 59 pages--more than a week's quota of Proust, generally achieved at a 10-pages-or-so every-day-or-so pace. I don't know if it was the caffeinated beverage I had about 8 or the new translator or if I've finally found myself in accord with Proust's rhythm, but it was a most pleasurable experience and I'm hoping for a repeat when I come home tonight.

I finished Little Big Man Friday night and read Mark Haddon's Spot of Bother from start to finish on Saturday. I read the Robert Stone intro to Warlock and its first chapter Sunday afternoon; perhaps Oakley Hall's sentence structure ("Canning, too, must have known that some day he would be thrown up against one of that San Pablo crew, incur, prudent as he was, the enmity, or merely displeasure, of Curley Burne or Billy Gannon, of Jack Cade or Calhoun or Pony Benner, of one of the Haggin brothers, or even of Abe McQuown himself.") is the real reason that the Proust seemed such a quick read just a few hours later.

CLB and I went shopping for our Utah trip Friday afternoon and capped it off with a visit to Borders at the new mall. Since I knew I'd have Special Topics in Calamity Physics waiting for me when I got home, I made do with a green tea latte and placed holds on Hideous Kinky and the newly published Giraffe later that evening instead of buying them; both should be waiting for me at the library in a day or so. Giraffe looks to be as bleak as Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone which I adored a few years back. I might be able to interest R. in it since it's set in Czechoslovakia.

In non-book-related news, L.'s car has been in the shop since Thursday. This is the third time its been in the shop in the past month, but we think they're actually going to get it fixed this time. The first time they tested everything and decided L. had merely bought a tank of bad gas. The second time they decided the car needed a new distributor. Friday we were told the car needed a new igniter ("sounds more like something a rocket ship would need than a car," I said), but then someone who knew something called us back to say it was the car's computer that was messed up; the computer had been lying to everyone for the past month. ("Like HAL," I said.)

And if a new computer fixes the car, we can rent a U-Haul, transport all the stuff in the garage to my sister's basement, and L. will then have the room necessary out there to get at his tools and the pile of boards so that we can put hardwoods down in the bedroom. And once that is done I can buy a new bookcase to put in the bedroom and I will be very, very happy.

An Ellie Extravaganza

A year ago tonight, a little kitten came running down the sidewalk on campus, crying her heart out. When she let me pick her up without offering to scratch me, I knew I'd be taking her home with me.

It was easy to figure out what had happened: whoever dumped her out had obviously felt enough guilt for abandoning her that he'd made sure to leave her at the feeding spot for feral cats (conveniently located near the parking lot). The ferals cats wouldn't want to share, and they definitely wouldn't appreciate her fine manners either; hence the running down the sidewalk looking for someone who would.

How did Ellie celebrate her first anniversary weekend?


She watched squirrels.


She hid from the camera.


She sat in the dryer (the other cats prefer it when it isn't empty).


And she looked pretty.

She also barfed a lot on Sunday, but I didn't take pictures of that.

Happy anniversary, Ellie! We're glad you're with us and not those feral kitties.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Spot of Bother

One night after finishing the last 20 pages of Sharpe's Enemy, George Hall, who has recently found a spot of eczema on his thigh and concluded that it is cancer, opts to watch a medical documentary about a man dying of cancer:

"Obviously it would be nice to go quietly in one's sleep. But going quietly in one's sleep was an idea cooked up by parents to make the deaths of grandparents and hamsters less traumatic. And doubtless some people did go quietly in their sleep but most did so only after many wounding rounds with the Grim Reaper.

"His own preferred exits were rapid and decisive. Others might want time to bury the hatchet with estranged children and tell their wives where the stopcock was. Personally, he wanted the lights to go out with no warning and the minimum attendant mess. Dying was bad enough without having to make it easier for everyone else.

"He popped to the kitchen during the ad break and returned with a cup of coffee to find the chap entering his last couple of weeks, marooned almost permanently on his sofa and weeping a little in the small hours. And if George had turned the television off at this point the evening might have continued in a pleasantly uneventful manner.

"But he did not turn the television off, and when the man's cat climbed onto the tartan rug in his lap to be stroked someone unscrewed a panel in the side of George's head, reached in and tore out a handful of very important wiring.

"He felt violently ill. Sweat was pouring from beneath his hair and from the back of his hands.

"He was going to die.

"Maybe not this month. Maybe not this year. But somehow, at some time, in a manner and at a speed very much not of his choosing.

"The floor seemed to have vanished to reveal a vast open shaft beneath the living room.

"With blinding clarity he realized that everyone was frolicking in a summer meadow surrounded by a dark and impenetrable forest, waiting for that grim day on which they were dragged into the dark beyond the trees and individually butchered.

"How in God's name had he not noticed this before? And how did others not notice? Why did one not find them curled on the pavement howling? How did they saunter through their days unaware of this indigestible fact? And how, once the truth dawned, was it possible to forget?

"Unaccountably he was now on all fours between the armchair and the television, rocking back and forth, attempting to comfort himself by making the sound of a cow."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I'm prone to obsessively plotting out my reading and composing lists of books I want to get to within the next week/month/season/year. On occasion I actually manage to stick with a short-term list long enough to complete a few of its titles before I go on yet another freefall with whatever title I've chosen on the breath of the moment: I do believe that "Read at Whim!" ought to be a moral mandate. Listing is just a neurotic habit, a quick way of filling the white space on an empty page or the back of a handy envelope.

I'm plotting like mad this month. Between the dropping temperatures, which never fail to inspire a bout of new school-year resolutions, an ever-changing schedule and a bit of horrifying news my daughter shared with me this week about a classmate (and the stomach-churning that accompanies the conviction that the girl's parents simply must be told), I'm spending more time fretting over future reads than I am with the books I already have in progress.

Two more acts to go in The Taming of the Shrew. A re-read of Joyce's "The Dead" is complete, but while it's a brilliant story, I have no burning desire to blog about it. I'm almost to the mid-way point of Little Big Man ( instead of almost to the end as I should be) and while I'm no longer entertaining thoughts of returning it to the library unread, I don't find it as engaging as I'd hoped. I have not started In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. I can't discover how Harriet Hume will ruin Arnold Condorex (and deservedly so) if I don't continue on to chapter two in my current Rebecca West. Mark Haddon's Spot of Bother came in for me at the library and if it weren't for the fact that the library's computerized calling system was in harassment mode over the weekend, the book would still be waiting for me there.

New books gathering around me while I wait for my mood to improve:

Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore. It looks wonderful and I'd not heard one word about it until MFS sent me her extra copy.

Indiana by George Sand. The Slaves of Golconda selection for late October.

The Strange Necessity: Essays and Reviews by Rebecca West. How is it possible that none of the libraries here own this one? James Joyce and Marcel Proust are discussed within, as well as her "literary uncle" H.G. Wells.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. The Birds Fall Down and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon are the West titles included in Prose's "Books to be Read Immediately" list at the back.

Ordered from Amazon and expected by the weekend:

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt by Nick Hornby. A kindred soul in the can't-stick-to-the-list department.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Learning that much of this one is set in North Carolina tipped me over into Must Buy Immediately Before I Cancel Free Amazon Prime territory instead of waiting for my next free books voucher. I've convinced myself that this is the book I want on the flight out to Utah early next month.

And what are the books I'm listing for future attention?

Lots and lots of classics, especially French classics. It's embarrassing how many I own and have never read.

Monday, September 11, 2006

"One time at the University of Colorado, at a faculty dinner, this professor said to me, 'Well, my goodness, a boy from Appa-LAY-chee-a with a Ph.D.!' The dinner was in her house. And I said, 'My grandparents didn't have indoor plumbing, but they had more books in their house than you do'."

An interview with Charles Frazier here. Thirteen Moons excerpt here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Books read in '93



Last week Dorothy blogged about the pros and cons of keeping track of the books she'd read. Could list-keeping cause a person to become so obsessed with counting books that the number finished would become more important than the experience itself, she wondered. Several people weighed in with the reasons why they thought keeping track was worthwhile.

When I was a kid I often kept lists of the books I'd read in the back of my diaries (and oh, how I wish I could unearth them from the bowels of my parents' basement) but I'd quit the practice by high school and then gave up diaries completely once I started college. I managed to jot down the books I read for a couple years in the mid-Eighties (the year R. was born and the year after when I also managed to keep a daily diary for her, 28 books total), but it wasn't a practice I revived for good until 1993, when I once again began keeping track.

At some point in '94 or '95 I bought a "Book-Woman" blank book and started keeping an official list of my reading, starting off with 44 books completed in '94 (first book listed: Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses). My misplaced '93 list wasn't discovered in the sideboard until after I'd recorded the reading for '95, but if you excuse that out-of-joint year I have a chronological listing of every book I've completed (1,095) since writing down Good Hearts. Reynolds Price in January of '93.

One of the unexpected perks of keeping a reading list has been that it creates a diary of sorts, one that's safe to leave out for others to see because they're unlikely to crack the code. I could certainly be judged for what I read--look, she read John Grisham and James Robert Waller!--but when I read over the list I see relationships and remember specific incidents and occasions.

For example: Robin Hemley's The Last Studebaker. I'd been thwarted in an earlier attempt to take Hemley's writing class at the university here--post-bacs need special permission and he'd turned me down flat instead of agreeing to squeeze me in the way that I'd expected since I'd asked ever so politely. No way would I ever read any of his books if he was going to be that way! Seeing his novel crop up in early January reminds me that I'd done more than fume unproductively--I'd signed up for a puny one-day workshop at the main library with Hemley and Ruth Moose back in October. He told me twice that day that he liked the writing samples I submitted and asked if I'd consider taking the semester-long class with him at the university (Already tried, I snarled, no longer needing to be polite). So there I was at the last minute before the spring semester started, finishing up my Hemley reading (I read his story collection first, before the kids knocked it into the toilet. It dried all right, though, so I was able to keep it), about to start the best semester of class with the best classmates I'd ever have.

Or Anagrams. Hemley had compared one of my stories to Lorrie Moore at the October workshop and I'd been quick to lay my hands on Self-Help and Anagrams afterwards to determine how much of a compliment I'd been given. I fell so deeply in love with Anagrams that when it was my turn to select a title and host book club the following year, the Moore seemed the perfect choice. Suffice it to say, it was not a hit with the women-who-lunch crowd who attended this particular book club, but what I remember most about that session is that when S., then a mere pre-schooler, abruptly threw up on me, and into my cupped hands as I sat there attempting to lead a discussion, no one offered to get me as much as a paper towel from the kitchen until I asked for assistance. I'd stick it out for a few more months (there were actually better books chosen that year than the preceeding, although only the Ishiguro garnered more than five minutes worth of discussion), but I'd drop out of the club before the year was over.

Or Ishmael. I read Daniel Quinn because during Whoopi Goldberg's interview with Dwight Yoakam on her short-lived show, she'd recommended it to him. Dwight sang a couple verses from "Lonesome Roads" on the show just prior to the release of This Time and dear Lord, did the hair ever stand up on the back of my neck. L. and my friend K., who was always up for a country show, and I would go to our first Dwight concert later that spring, and we would all have a fantastic time, but "Lonesome Roads" has never affected me the way it did the night Whoopi Goldberg recommended Ishmael. (the ideas in Ishmael didn't strike me as profound since I was already reading Joseph Campbell.)

Or Streets of Laredo. I attempted to read Larry McMurtry during R.'s raucous birthday party/sleep-over in August. I remember walking around using a large wooden spoon as a bookmark, hoping such a bookmark would appear intimidating and threatening enough to tone everyone down. But it didn't. I don't think Woodrow Call himself could tone down a pack of eight-year-old girls determined to whoop it up all night long.

The Bridges of Madison County reminds me of baby-sitting co-op and the mom--a college instructor, no less!-- who handed it to me after a meeting saying "You will love this." I loved mocking it, that's for sure. I wound up reading most of it sitting on the bathroom floor late at night, chortling wildly, after L. decided he couldn't take having the dialogue read aloud while he was trying to sleep.

The Firm and Taller Women in close proximity remind me of my writing buddy who attended readings with me, including Lawrence Naumoff's. When I mentioned a particularly bad dream I'd had, one that involved me and a suitcase full of chopped up human body parts, he made me both feel better and handed me the perfect beginning to a story I'd fretted over for way too long by saying it sounded as if I were dreaming about one of my characters. I'd have the story accepted for publication a year later.

There's a lot of '93 that isn't encompassed in the reading list, from how R. sat on her bed screaming at the top of her lungs while she read Roald Dahl's The Witches to S.'s insistence that he was so too big enough and brave enough to go see Jurassic Park (he was right, too--he only became upset at the very end when the velociraptors turned on his hero, the T-rex), and I can't determine from the list if it was this April or the next that K. and I took the four kids to Merlefest and sat in the dark during Mary-Chapin Carpenter's set trying to locate a just-lost baby tooth by feel among all the spilled pop corn kernels on our quilt. But without a book list as a prompt I doubt I'd be as likely to remember as much.

What about the woman who loaned me the Jon Hassler novels? She moved away shortly thereafter and our Christmas cards exchange has long ceased. Would I remember that she grew up playing happily among the twisted limbs of an apple orchard, during a not particularly happy childhood, without the book list to bring it to mind?

I'm so used to using the lists as a mental crutch by now that I just don't know.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Little sinister in Harriet Hume

Yet surely his dream was phrensy. When he came down to Blennerhassett House that afternoon with a stack of roses from a truly magnificent florist (he had begun to spend his money with the recklessness of one about to make a great fortune or to die) he found Harriet very pretty, and a trifle silly, and as comfortable a companion as one could wish.


Prattling not too intelligently about India and elephants and Nabobs' jewels, she fiddled about her garden cutting lavender-flowers till the basket she had slung on her forearm was full, and then fluttered indoors to put them on her windowsills to dry; and then she sat behind her silver equipage and gave him very good home-made scones and country butter, and giggled a great deal. Looking on the suavity of her face and the meek pliancy of her form and manners, which were such that if one found her in one's way one might surely pick her up and loop her round a hook on the door without encountering physical or mental resistance, he said to himself, "It must be that the other night my intellects were disordered. Certainly there is as little sinister in my Harriet here as there is in drinking sugared tea out of a pretty cup. She could not read my thoughts. I doubt if she could read her primer." But something tender in him, that same part which had before the mirror designed to buy her a little ring for her little hand, rebuked him. "Whatever happened last night, whether it was magic or the dropping of an ill-considered word, you betrayed to her that no woman is as much to you as the prospect of rising in the world, and you betrayed it in an ugly hour, and in a roughish shape. Decidedly you have brought no good fortune to the girl. For only yesterday she was as kind to you as may be, and to-day you tell her you must immediately sail for the Indies. You cannot say that you have treated her handsomely." At that he could not help but fall a-moping.

Just then Harriet, smiling like a doll, raised her hand to her head and withdrew the sole pin that held in place her Grecian knot; and the sleek serpents of her hair slipped down over her shoulders and covered her bosom, their curled heads lying in her lap. In but one neat, fluent movement she again compressed its fineness and impaled it; but not before he had called himself a fool for thinking that the loss of a lover could mean much to any creature so rich in all the most seductive attributes of her sex. With an easy conscience, therefore, he rose to his feet and bade her good-bye; and remained in a state of cheerfulness until, when he was re-entering his flat in the Temple, his hand left the latch-key sticking in the lock while his chin sank on his breast and he stood staring very stupidly at the door. It had occurred to him that if she had read his compunction for leaving her so soon and so abruptly she could not have devised a prettier and kinder way of relieving his mind. Yet of that action, though it drearily assumed in his mind an air of complete probability, he thought not as one usually thinks of pretty and kind things. When, once across his threshold, he vehemently slammed the door, the vehemence was because he imagined himself slamming it on the prodigiousness of Harriet Hume.

--Rebecca West

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lydia Davis' The End of the Story was, for me, an outlier.

I can remember how I got it: my mother-in-law gave our daughter a gift certificate to the bookstore in the mall. By '95 R. already preferred the large chain bookstores for both purchases and ideas for books to get from the library and found slim pickings at the mall. By '95 we had internet access to the library and typically had four library cards maxed out with holds. You might say we were roiling in books.

I swapped cash for my daughter's gift certificate and bought The End of the Story for myself. I didn't know a thing about Davis but it looked good.

It still looks good and it can still trigger a pang or two, but I've mostly forgiven myself for its continued status as a tbr. It's all the other as-yet-unread hardbacks, the ones I've managed to accumulate seemingly en masse over the past few years, that trigger a case of guilt. I love owning books, I can't imagine why I would ever want to stop buying them, but I do wish I could limit my urge to obtain the just-published ones to those I will read immediately. Books I would prefer to own in hardback even after the slimmer more shelf-friendly copies are out in paperback can be picked up for a fraction of the cost if I'd just wait awhile. Why can't I wait awhile to purchase when I'll be waiting awhile to read them once they're on my shelves? That is the question.

My book greed is two-pronged. It wasn't until I found book forums and email lists and blogs that I knew much more about what was being published than what showed up on the weekly book page in the local paper. And it wasn't until we'd paid off the mortage that I began buying more than a few books for myself each year. I'd felt circumscribed for most of my life, why not stockpile now while I have the chance?

So far this year I've bought about 25 more books than I've read and about half of what I've read has come from the library. My tbr's keep increasing and I'm having to resort to doubleshelving and stacking. It took me two days to locate Dubliners. It actually was on the shelf where it was supposed to be, but with the stacks turned sideways, it was easy to overlook.

Sometimes I think I need to return all the library items I have checked out, cancel my holds, and read all my favorite book bloggers with my hands over my eyes. I should concentrate on getting through what I already own instead of agonizing over which books I should get next.

Because, yes, I'm ordering books tonight. Hardbacks.

I have a coupon.


These are the books that should keep me occupied for the rest of the month. I started four of them yesterday.

Because I waited too long to order, I wasn't able to snare tickets for Romeo and Juliet at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival (S. shed no tears over the matter). Seating was still available for The Taming of the Shrew, however, so we'll be going to a performance of that later in the month. I read the induction yesterday.

I read David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin over the weekend and loved Quammen's writing style. I've had The Song of the Dodo and Monster of God on the shelf for some time (I bought The Song of the Dodo after Jim Crace claimed it as his favorite book during a visit to Readerville), but I decided I'd go with a collection of essays before tackling either of these. The Flight of the Iguana is perfect treadmill reading: "Thinking About Earthworms," for example, mentions Dostoevsky in its first paragraph, moves into a discussion of Darwin and his devotion and study of earthworms, segues into Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and unanimity of thought, delivers a mini-rant against television, and in its conclusion offers a few other choice facts about earthworms for those who wish to mentally wander off on their own and think about things no one is concerned with. That'll keep me walking.

I read the first chapter in Little Big Man last night at the library and half a chapter of Rebecca West's third novel while attempting to stay awake for Dwight Yoakam's appearance on the Tonight Show. I can already tell Harriet Hume is an excellent choice for the R.I.P. challenge.

I hope to start In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by the weekend, and I'll dip into Robinson Crusoe once I've finished Little Big Man, which has a looming due date.

I'll also be squeezing in James Joyce's "The Dead," the next selection for A Curious Singularity, if and when I can determine where my copy of Dubliners has wandered off to and Steven Millhauser's "Eisenheim the Illusionist," the story the just-released The Illusionist is based on, although I doubt I'll have a chance to see the movie until it shows up at Netflix.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006




The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay
Samarin said: 'Supposing a man, the cannibal, knew that the fate of the world rested on whether he escaped from prison or not. Suppose this. He's a man so dedicated to the happiness of the future world that he sets himself to destroy all the corrupt and cruel functionaries he can, and break the offices they fester in, till he's destroyed himself. Suppose he's realised that politics, even revolution, is too gentle, it only shuffles people and offices a little. It isn't that he sees the whole ugly torturing tribe of bureaucrats and aristocrats and money-grubbers who make the people suffer. It's that they fall to him and his kind like a town falls to a mudslide. He's not a destroyer, he is destruction, leaving those good people who remain to build a better world on the ruins. To say he's the embodiment of the will of the people is feeble, a joke, as if they elected him. He is the will of the people. He's the hundred thousand curses they utter every day against their enslavement. To hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary men would be strange, like putting wolves on trial for killing elk, or trying to shoot the wind. You can pity the innocent man he butchers, if he is innocent. But the fact the food comes in the form of a man is accidental damage. It's without malice. What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people's act of love to its future self. Even to call him a cannibal is mistaken. He's the storm the people summoned, against which not all good people find shelter in time.'

--James Meek, The People's Act of Love

Sunday, September 03, 2006

There were matters of science at issue, and there were matters of life, common decency, mercy. "As the wretched beetle was still feebly alive," he told Crick, "I have put it in a bottle with chopped laurel leaves, that it may die an easy and quicker death." Any naturalist of his day knew that laurel leaves, when chopped, release prussic acid, containing hydrogen cyanide. Darwin didn't want his last beetle to suffer. He was a gentle man, quite aware that he'd already caused discomfort enough.

--David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Brag alert

We just got the letter saying our daughter's been elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Naturally, she's got her phone turned off.
When I was in my late twenties I performed the unusual feat of getting pneumonia in my left ear, and my hearing altered. I used to hear the notes of a scale as going up or coming down. A note was high or not so high or lower or low, with the same meaning as when those terms refer to material objects--to the steps of a staircase, or to points on a slope. Since I had this affiction of the ear it has all been different. I cannot quite define what I hear. A piece of music is now for me something like a film representation of an island over which a sea is washing, leaving parts of it exposed, but submerging others. All is under strong light, and the exposed parts glimmer. The island is of shifting dark rich colours, the sea of shifting richer and lighter colours. But that some notes are high and that some are low never now occurs to me. I know that when the island glitters the notes are high, because of what I can see as the Queen of Night's solo from The Magic Flute. I now see: that isn't accurate. For what I am describing is not really sight. It is analogous to sight, but not the same. I live with mystery.

--Rebecca West, "My Relations With Music," in Family Memories

Friday, September 01, 2006

R.I.P., Summer Reading Challenge

It's time to admit that I didn't fare too well with the Summer Reading Challenge. While I read 21 books--the number on my summer challenge, as well as the number on my year-long reading priority list--only a third were from the official list. I was sidetracked by my Rebecca West project, the Proust project (which raised the total from my year's priority list to five), and several other items that nudged themselves to the head of the line.

So I thought about resisting Carl V.'s Autumn Challenge--why set myself up for failure once again? About five minutes later I realized that I could manage the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge with ease:

Pick out any 5 books that you want to read. . . that you think meet the very open, broad criteria of being scary, eerie, moody, dripping with atmosphere, gothic, unsettling, etc. and vow to read them. You may have even read one recently and want to count it. That’s it!

Granted, I don't read a lot of books that immediately spring to mind when you think about such criteria, but there are some that I'd already hoped to read this fall that will definitely fit:

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The People's Act of Love--cannibalism, religious wackoism-inspired castration, a remote Siberian village. Peril aplenty right there and it's what I'm reading next.

Harriet Hume--a mysterious fantasy involving mind-reading.

The Turn of the Screw--ghosts.

Macbeth--witches.

And for the fifth, I could count the already finished Island of Doctor Moreau, or Wells' Star Begotten, or possibly even Warlock, which is described as having a "diabolical, ethically neutral world view" that brings Cormac McCarthy to mind. Atmosphere for sure.

This is a challenge I can meet.