Sunday, April 29, 2007



May I just say how excited I am to report that the above stack cost me only one dollar? Gotta love gifts and gift cards. . .

Voltaire's Candide (Thank you, Jenclair)

Raymond Queneau's Zazie in the Metro

W. Somerset Maugham's Mrs. Craddock

George Orwell's A Collection of Essays

Ron Rash's Chemistry and Other Stories

Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room

Lewis Nordan's Boy With Loaded Gun

Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses

Lee Smith's On Agate Hill

Friday, April 27, 2007

There is no conversation

There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all. We speak; we spread round us with sounds, with words, an emanation from ourselves. Sometimes they overlap the circles that others are spreading round themselves. Then they are affected by these other circles, to be sure, but not because of any real communication that has taken place, merely as a scarf of blue chiffon lying on a woman's dressing-table will change colour if she casts down on it a scarf of red chiffon. I am talking now of times when life is being lived, not when it is being talked about, not when the intellect is holding the field. Then, of course, ideas can be formulated, can be passed from one mind to another. It is not easy, but it can be done with care, like handing round a pearl of which you wish an opinion to a circle of experts. You cup the palm to hold it, you keep the hand very steady. No such caution is possible when one is really living. Then there is no conversation.

--Rebecca West, The Harsh Voice

Thursday, April 26, 2007

More favorite short stories

Because my recall has been compromised by my age and I felt guilty for not thinking of these stories immediately:

The Thrill is Gone. Julie Hecht
The Ugliest Pilgrim. Doris Betts
Playing. David Huddle
Lawns. Mona Simpson
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Hairball. Margaret Atwood
Lila the Werewolf. Peter Beagle
The Red Pony. John Steinbeck
Charles. Shirley Jackson
Inventing the Abbotts. Sue Miller
Goodbye, Columbus. Philip Roth
Pigeon Feathers. John Updike

I'll shut up now.

Investigating the media

In case you missed Bill Moyers' documentary "Buying the War" last night, you can watch it online or read its transcript. I personally can't think of a better use of your time.

Watching it prompted me to add the McClatchy Washington Bureau to my "non literary links" in the sidebar instead of keeping it safely bookmarked and hidden away in my computer. I've noticed that while our local newpaper belongs to the McClatchy group (formerly Knight Ridder), it often ignores the most hardhitting McClatchy pieces for softer AP or New York Times stories, generally diluting them still further. Priorities. Gotta make room for those front page NASCAR/Panthers articles and heaven forbid if their fans' sensibilities are offended.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ten favorite short stories

The Literate Kitten listed her ten favorite short stories a few days ago and issued a Short Story Challenge: read one of her favorites and tell her one of yours. Today LK listed all the stories recommended to her and chose one of them to read.

I'd read most of LK's favorites already, and was happy to see the first story in William Faulkner's Collected Stories, a recent purchase, among the ones I had not. I read "Barn Burning" last night, and then again this morning while waiting for the results of my parrot's bloodwork: it's absolutely brilliant.

Here's a sample:

That night they camped, in a grove of oaks and beeches where a spring ran. The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, of a rail lifted from a nearby fence and cut into lengths--a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father's habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of night passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father's being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.

Here's my own list of favorites, in no particular order. These are the first stories that came to mind, minus any that were also on LK's list, so I guess I should really call them the most memorable stories I've read:

Brokeback Mountain. Annie Proulx
Wild Horses. Rick Bass
Ward No. 6. Anton Chekhov
A Father's Story. Andre Dubus
People Like That Are the Only People Here. Lorrie Moore
Werewolves in Their Youth. Michael Chabon
Bullet in the Brain. Tobias Wolff
Apocalypse. T.E. Holt
Snows of Kilamanjaro. Ernest Hemingway
Why I Live at the P.O. Eudora Welty

Apocalypse can be found in Necessary Fictions: Selected Stories from the Georgia Review. There are copies available at abe.com for a dollar.

I intend to read a lot of short stories over the summer. It'll be interesting to see if my top ten has a different look come September.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A heroine whom nobody but myself will much like

I read Gail Godwin's The Queen of the Underworld over the weekend. Godwin says in an afterword that she named her protagonist after Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, about whom Austen said, "I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like." I found that interesting both because I'd finished a reread of Emma a little over a week before and had the Kate Beckinsale miniseries of Emma on hand to watch from Netflix, and because I'd found Miss Woodhouse a most likeable character in spite of her obvious flaws. I had much more difficulty liking Godwin's Emma Gant.

Isn't it strange how some characters will appeal to us no matter the extent of their wicked, wicked ways? Voice, tone, subtle (or not) authorial hints as to how we're really supposed to feel about such a person, there are numerous ways of making an awful person engaging, or his story compelling, on the page. And some characters, no matter how generally decent and kind, will infuriate us with their relatively minor shortcomings. For example, (spoiler alert for those still reading David Copperfield) a couple months back my son found it impossible to forgive David for not warning Agnes of Uriah Heep's designs on her. He was still fuming at the end when David and Agnes marry; he didn't care if Agnes loved and wanted him; she deserved better. That one sin of omission--watch out for Uriah Heep-- undermined all the concern and appreciation he'd had for the David of the first half of the book. Ah, well, as he matures and goes through his own failure-to-act moments, his opinion toward David may soften. On the other hand, he was unfazed by Emma's meddling ways and snobbishness; she generally meant well, didn't she? But so did David. . .

Just a few not-well -thought-out musings while still on my first cup of decaf this morning to preface that were it not for the fact that I wanted to read The Queen of the Underworld because it takes place the year I was born and is about a young woman from the mountains of North Carolina who majors in journalism at Chapel Hill that I would have cast the book aside after the second chapter when her true character was revealed: Emma Gant is more Lady Susan than Emma Woodhouse.

No perspective on Emma Gant is provided in the book save her own. Godwin says in the afterward (which I found and read after finishing chapter two; it's what kept me going) that she decided against having an older Emma look back on her youthful self or in writing the story with authorial detachment or irony--pure, unadulterated Emma-ness is all that the reader gets in this novel about a young writer's discovering where her stories are to come from and how she'll manage to write them (there's a great list of kunstlerromans in the afterword).

Still, I would have appreciated a well-placed flash forward, or a line or two of insight and perspective from an older, wiser Emma Gant, one who'd realized usurping others before they can usurp you isn't quite the best way to go through life.

Friday, April 20, 2007

April is the cruellest month



We'll be celebrating the acquistion of our millionth volume at the library this afternoon. As you may guess, the millionth volume is a copy of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland--a donated first edition, however, instead of a trade paper like my own.

Until then, we'll be at the Doctor Faustus colloquium elsewhere on campus.

Hope everyone else has a day just as good!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Busted

Three cats. Three silly, silly cats. Do they deserve to be humiliated over the tubes of the internets?

Yes.



This is hardly the sleep of the righteous. Ellie tried to attack a squirrel through the sliding glass door just this morning. And then she jumped up on the counter and tried to lick the butter.




If Nicholson doesn't want a stupid bow tied around her neck (which Ellie will later attack), she really shouldn't block a person's access to the Sunday morning papers.



It isn't polite to stick your tongue out at the camera, Claudius. Just be glad I didn't post the shot of you sniffing Ellie's tail-less you-know-what.

Bookish content should return to this blog tomorrow. We're going to see Doctor Faustus tonight--let's see if my opinion of the play improves after seeing it performed.

Don't forget to visit the Ark on Friday; The Pets Garden on Saturday for Weekend Cat Blogging and The Scratching Post on Sunday for the Carnival of the Cats.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Are there no competent proofreaders left?

Sometimes they passed others from the village there on the tote road and his father would rein in the horses and inquire politely about the errand on which the traveler was bent and the luck with which his various enterprises were being greeted, and then he would tip his hat, cluck and lift the reigns up, and then down, and they were off again.

--The Translation of Dr Apelles

Whoever proofread Special Topics in Calamity Physics didn't know the difference between rein and reign either.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The sky for stories

He touches the parchment. Because of the latex gloves and the plastic cover, it feels distant. He strokes the surface of the document. How rare, and how sad. What has existed has existed, and what has been destroyed has been destroyed. What can he do to undo all of that? He is only a middle-aged bachelor. A mere translator (not even a professional translator) of languages that have ceased to matter to most people. He cannot create anything. God creates. God is the utterance and he is merely the air of language that can transmit the sound. Sad, too, to think that the page, in and of itself, has no meaning without him. He is the only one who can make sense of the thing, or who can give it sense, give it life. Maybe he is a god after all--one who rules the smallest of worlds.

All he might be able to do is breathe onto the page as onto a stunned bird he once held as a child. It had flown into a window and he picked it up. It was lifeless, still. His father, unconcerned, said "Blow on it. Like you're warming your hands." He did, cupping the finch and blowing, slowly, with all his hope and hot breath. The finch revived, sat in the nest of his hands for a second, and suddenly flew into the trees. For the document, though, there is no sky into which it can climb. Because, for stories, the sky is made of the endless dome of readers and freckled with constellations of the kindly and curious.


--David Treuer, The Translation of Dr Apelles

Friday, April 13, 2007


Yes, yes. I did say a month ago that there would not be any new book purchases until late May.

Did you really believe me?

I did try, but is very hard not to stockpile when I have both a gift card and time to kill at a mall.

The newbies are:

William Faulkner's Collected Stories

Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses

and

W. Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday and A Painted Veil

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oh, no. Vonnegut's dead.

So it goes. Damn it.
Booking Through Thursday:

Have you ever missed an important appointment because you have become so engrossed in a book you forgot the time or were up so late reading that you didn't wake up in time? Been late to work because you couldn't resist the temptation and left the house too late?

Yes, although the first thing that sprang to mind when I read this question was this:

I missed watching the Preakness Stakes last May because I was reading David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. I looked up from the book to check the clock a half hour before it started, thought Good. I haven't missed it and went right back to the book. When I looked up again, an hour or more later, the Preakness was over and I had been spared seeing Barbaro break his leg.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

One more excerpt from a book that simply has to go back to the library:

What the Vostok record shows is that the planet is already nearly as warm as it has been at any point in the last 420,000 years. A possible consequence of even a four- or five-degree temperature rise--on the low end of projections for the end of this century--is that the world will enter a completely new climate regime, one with which modern humans have no prior experience. When it comes to carbon dioxide, meanwhile, the evidence is even more striking. The Vostok record demonstrates that, at 378 parts per million, current CO2 levels are unprecedented in recent geological history. (The previous high, of 299 parts per million, was reached around 325,000 years ago). It is believed that the last time carbon dioxide levels were comparable to today's was three and a half million years ago, during what is known as the mid-Pliocene warm period, and it is likely that they have not been much higher since the Eocene, some fifty million years ago. In the Eocene, crocodiles roamed the Colorado and sea levels were nearly three hundred feet higher than they are today. A scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put it to me--only half-jokingly--this way: "It's true that we've had higher CO2 levels before. But, then, of course, we also had dinosaurs."

--Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Monday, April 09, 2007

More or less by instinct or smell

Two excerpts from the same 12 Oct 55 letter:

I do like the articles back though I don't have any file. I live in a rat's nest of old papers, clippings, torn manuscripts, ancient quarterlies, etc. etc. etc. I can tell more or less by instinct or smell at what level in the impedimenta some article is. I tunnel about in this mess like a mole making his way underground.

I am like the little boy who just liked to feel candy; I like to read booklists.

--Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being

Maggie is sponsoring a Southern Reading Challenge that will take place over the summer and I'm psyched about it. Of course, I'm already reading Flannery O'Connor, but I've got a huge stack of Southern fiction by my desk right now to choose from, so I won't be holding off on O'Connor in the meantime.

I drastically curtailed my intake of Southern lit after a writing workshop instructor urged us not to binge on the familiar. But after 20 years of living surrounded by transient transplants, I think a Southern-style feast is definitely long overdue.

And, if you're not suffering from post-Easter Peeps burnout, check out W.'s Bunny Suicides page. They're based on an Andy Riley book, he tells me.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Heyday



I've been battling a bad case of the crud for the last several days, but the upside of not feeling well enough to do much of anything meant that I had plenty of time to read.

I'd thought it might take me weeks to get through Kurt Andersen's Heyday, but once started, I didn't want to stop. Andersen provides a detailed yet panoramic view of the year 1848. Revolutions are being staged in Europe, and after Englishman Ben Knowles finds himself an unwitting participant in the February 23 insurrection in Paris (he uses a taxidermied penguin as a makeshift weapon), he quits the family firm and books a passage to America, where he expects to find enough vulgarity and democracy to satisfy his young soul (before he leaves, he meets his father's neighbor, Charles Darwin, and promises to send barnacle samples back to him).

In New York, he becomes d’Artagnan to established threesome Timothy Skaggs, journalist, daguerreotypist and budding astronomer; Polly Lucking, freethinker, actress, and part-time prostitute (her customers know her by the names of Jane Austen heroines); and Polly's well-meaning but mentally-disturbed brother Duff, a Mexican War deserter who knows more than he should about explosives.

Polly quarrels with Ben the evening before an out-of-town acting gig, then finds her role recast when her other line of work is abruptly revealed. She heads west with her young protege Priscilla Christmas to live in one of many uptopian societies that have sprung up. Before long, the males follow, and their sights become fixed on the California gold rush.

Great sprawly fun. Kind of a cross between Ragtime and Lonesome Dove.